"Matters and Things in Virginia," visit to a Slave Auction, 1852

John Hartwell

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#1
In the spring of 1852, a correspondent identified only by the initials “L.S.” sent to the Boston Recorder, his personal observations of his six-week visit to Virginia and the Carolinas, under the title: “Matters and Things in Virginia.”

The writer is a northerner (probably a Bostonian), and of anti-slavery convictions. But, his account lacks the violent rhetoric of shock and outrage of so much Radical Abolitionist propaganda. He speaks calmly, matter-of-factly, describing with apparent honesty just what he sees and hears, making relatively little comment, though leaving no doubt of his feelings.

The first installment of the writer’s account appears in the newspaper’s May 27th issue, and relates his observations of


Matters and Things in Virginia

Richmond. Va., April, 1862

An excursion of six weeks through Virginia and Carolina cannot, of course, furnish a complete knowledge of the institution of slavery, or qualify the traveler to speak authoritatively respecting it. But the impressions of each new observer, may help to form correct views of it.
A SLAVE SALE
I attended seven or eight different sales in different places. A description of one, however, is a description of all. The room was, in every instance, a large, unplastered, dingy apartment. About a dozen slaves, neatly dressed, were seated on a rough bench, near which stood screens of white cloth stretched on frames, which made a partial enclosure in one corner. There were three men, a woman with a babe, two other women, who told me they were mothers, and several girls from eight to eighteen years old.
The room was filled with a motley group, well dressed elderly gentlemen in spectacles, sleek merchants, and coarse, hard-featured slave traders, reading the newspapers, chatting, smoking, and spitting. Every few minutes someone approached the negroes, and questioned or otherwise examined some one of them. At length the sale began.
A black girl of fifteen was led to the block by a negro attendant, who seemed to take great satisfaction in his authority, and gave his orders with great sharpness.. The girl’s sleeves were rolled up, and her skirts lifted as high as the knee, while she stood on the block. She was made to walk, and jump. Bidders opened her mouth as one would a horse’s mouth, and examined her teeth. They felt her joints, neck, and bust, precisely as one would examine a horse. She was sold for $545.
The next set up, was a girl of ten years, light colored, with Caucasian features, straight hair, and slender form. I heard the bidders say, “she is the handsomest gal in the city. She ought to be bought and brought up for a fancy!” She was sold for $625.
Others followed, and I need not particularize. The highest price brought by any one in my presence, was $890; the price of an athletic man of twenty-five years. In all cases, previous to the sale, the men were stripped and examined by all who chose. And when any bidder requested it, the females were taken behind the screen and exposed in the same manner to all who chose to go and look.
The majority of the slaves exhibited no more emotion under all these indecencies, than so many cows of heifers would. And in respect to being sold, most of them exhibited no special concern. A few appeared cheerful, or even gay; most seemed calm, and apathetic; a few wept, especially the white little girl wept when any one began to question or handle her; and when placed on the block, seemed likely to sink under the violence of her emotion.
I mingled with the purchasers, and asked the slaves many questions. I did not find one that could tell his own age. In every instance, wives were sold separate from their husbands, and children separate from their parents. The only exception was that of two infants, each sold with its mother. One of the mothers had that child only; the other left several behind. I noticed also that every boy and man whose examination I took pains to witness, was marked across the back with scars of the lash. And those scenes, which cannot be described without doing violence to common modesty, are occurring almost every morning, not thirty rods from the most frequented streets of Richmond. The negroes, I found, felt a pride in bringing a high price, and when provoked, a common taunt is, “Go ‘long, you half-price n....r.”
Other installments of "Matters and Things in Virginia" to follow.​
 
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John Hartwell

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The account by “L.S.” of “A Slave Sale,” continues his contribution to the May 27, 1852, Boston Recorder, with his impressions of


THE AFRICAN CHURCH
There are two African churches in Richmond, both Baptist. The first is under the care of the President of Richmond College, who says he would not exchange his congregation for any other in the city. With this church, I one afternoon worshiped.
As I approached, a coach with a colored driver stood at the door, and I concluded that some wealthy owner was honoring his servants by visiting their place of worship. But as I came up, I saw in the coach, two colored ladies in silks, with white hats, scarfs, and gloves, and a colored gentleman in the nicest broadcloth, and hat equal to Genin’s best.
The house was already well filled, the males on the East side, and the females on the West, the aged seated in pews together around the pulpit. The house soon became crowded, though it is a very large one.
It happened to be the communion season. And communicants only sat below, filling every pew, and numbers occupying chairs in the aisles in front of the pulpit, while the three crowded galleries seemed like a mass of solid ebony marbled with all shades of white, I was conducted to the front, where two or three pews are reserved for any whites who may come in among them, and as the minister had not yet arrived, my curiosity impelled me to take some little notice of the congregation.
A few were dressed in silks and flounces, or broadcloth, such as their mistresses and masters might wear; but the great mass of the audience wore the plain but decent habiliments of poverty. They were of all colors, from the jet black to pure white; but those of mixed blood equaled in numbers, I should judge exceeded the pure blacks.
My attention was particularly turned to two women who happened to pass near me; I expected of course that they would enter the pews for whites, but, to my surprise, they seated themselves among the slaves, where, as it appeared, they belonged. As they sat near me, I studied their faces, and I could not discern a single mark by which I could have recognized them as belonging to the African race.
There were evidently dignitaries and men of influence and standing among them, as much as in any of our congregations. One man, in particular, entered, of such portly form and majestic tread, that, as he marched up the aisle, I supposed he must be the owner of at least one hundred of them; but as he seated himself in a chair immediately in front of me, I was surprised to see that he was a mulatto, or more probably a quadroon.
The whole congregation exhibited the appearance rather of animated interest than of devotional solemnity. The time was spent singing. A voice would strike up a familiar hymn, others would join, and before the first verse was finished, the whole congregation seemed to join; and so spirited was the singing, and so great the number of pleasant voices, despite the most glaring imperfections, the singing was pleasing and animated in the highest degree. When one hymn ceased, another voice in some other part of the house would strike up another.
At last the minister entered, and commenced by lining out a hymn, which was sung by the congregation. The pastor was absent, and the preacher, on this occasion, talked about Socrates and Philosophy; about the essence of things, and personal identity in a manner that must have been decidedly obfuscating to the staring negroes. I longed for the privilege of partaking of the Lord’s Supper with those poor and despised disciples; but the invitation was given with particularity only to members of Baptist churches, and repeated emphatically. These poor disciples receive not too much sympathy, that their teachers should instruct them to shut out from their fellowship, Christians who would gladly sit down among them as brethren beloved in the Lord.
L. S.

More to come.
 

John Hartwell

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In the June 10th (1852) issue of the Boston Recorder, “L. S.” speaks more generally of “Matters and Things ....”


Richmond, Va., April, 1852
IMPRESSIONS OF SLAVERY
I repeat, that I do not suppose six weeks residence at the South, entitles me to speak of slavery with absolute certainty. I aim only to tell what I saw, and the impression actually made by it on my own mind. I have been told a hundred times, that actual observation of the South, would modify my opposition to slavery; but in fact, it has modified my opinion only to compel me to believe that I had too favorable an opinion of the condition of the slaves.
PERSONAL APPEARANCE
In this respect, I was agreeably disappointed. I had seen engravings of negroes, got up by the abolitionists, picturing them as pleasing and even beautiful; and I had always regarded such as mere fancy pieces, intended to awaken sympathy for the race. But, I have seen numbers of full-blooded negroes, whose whole expression was as pleasing, as the most flattering of those engravings. Besides, judging merely from what I have seen in the streets and other public places, I estimate that very nearly half of the slaves, are of mixed blood; and every week increased my surprise at he number of really pretty faces and forms that I noticed among these.
I was, however, impressed with the number of maimed, crippled, and deformed. I have no information on this point, except from my own observation in the streets; but I am sure I never, in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, to say nothing of smaller cities at the North, have seen so many of these as among the colored people of the South.
TREATMENT OF SLAVES
You will be told continually at the South, that the slaves are well treated; that kindness is the rule, and unkindness is the exception; and all who tell you so, themselves believe it. But before we affirm or deny such an assertion, it is well to know what is the standard of kindness which the speaker has in his mind.
I often have observed in Southerners a most undoubting belief that the slaves are well treated, when they seem to an unsophisticated Northerner to be faring hard. The reason is, that they reckon that to be good treatment for a slave, which they would not think good treatment for a white person’ it is good treatment “for them.”
Now, if Northerners and Southerners would understand one another, it is necessary to know what is the standard of kindness in the mind of each; do they speak of what would be good treatment of white people, or only what is good treatment of slaves? If by kind treatment, you mean such as you would wish for your own wife, or child, or parent, then it is not true that kindness is the rule, and unkindness is the exception. Your blood would boil if they were subjected to treatment such as is received by the great majority of slaves. If by kindness you mean such kindness as a man shows a valued horse or dog, then undoubtedly, kindness is the rule, and unkindness the exception. But, let us go to particulars.
Flogging. I have never seen a slave flogged. Being mostly in towns, at hotels and boarding-houses, I had no opportunity. Yet it is more common than I had supposed; because if slaveholders get a servant with whom they can get along without flogging at all, you hear them speak of it, as a rare and noteworthy case. At the same time, I have no reason to suppose that extreme severity, which disables the slave or endangers his life, is common.
Dress. Masters frequently speak of their slaves as being well-dressed. They often say, “My slaves dress on Sunday better than I do." On the Easter holidays, I saw some dressed very fine, and the most dressed comfortably; yet they are less dressy than I had supposed. I am sure there is a large proportion of genteelly dressed negroes at the North -- miserable as the Southerners represent our Northern free negroes to be. In fact, I think I saw actually a greater number of genteelly dressed negroes in New York, than in any Southern city. During the week, you see many negroes miserably clad, and some were such bundles of rage, as really amazed me. At a wooding-place on Cape Fear River, I saw three girls with cart and oxen, drawing wood. The oxen, like all cattle I saw in Carolina, were lean as Pharaoh’s lean kine. The girls stood laughing on the bank while we wooded our boat; but one of them was so tattered as to be absolutely indecent.
Houses. In Carolina, I saw some negro huts without any floor but the earth, and many in which there was an unclosed interstice of two or three inches between every two logs, so that when lighted with pine knots in the evening, they presented the appearance of houses on fire, with the flames just ready to burst through every crack.
Falling in with a Methodist minister, who had labored for some years as a missionary to the slaves on the Santee River, I asked if these huts were comfortable in winter. He said, “no.” “But,” said I, “I suppose the slaves generally have comfortable houses.” “I am sorry to say,” he replied, “that many planters do not give their slaves comfortable houses; many are worse than these; and the slaves are not only uncomfortable, but get sick and broken down. But others do give their slaves comfortable accommodations.”
Separating Families. The business of the speculator in slaves, is execrated in Virginia; at any time, you may hear any respectable slave-holder speak of it in the strongest terms of abhorrence. And there is a strong and general feeling against separating families. Yet for all this, the business of the speculator continues to go on; public sales occur almost every morning in Richmond, and I myself attended three different rooms on one morning, at each of which the coarse, brutal faces and burly forms of the slave-traders were to be seen. And if I should judge from what I saw, I would say that families were separated at these sales every day. I found it common for children to know nothing of their own fathers, and sometimes nothing of their mothers.
And at the last, the negro can have little of real domestic enjoyment. More frequently than otherwise, the father and mother belong to different masters, and are separated, with the exception of occasional visits; and when the children reach the age of eight or ten, it is hardly regarded as a separation of families to sell them’ so that the parents are like the birds, acquainted with their children only until they are able to work for themselves, and then separated after for life. And the idea of a family growing up together, keeping up acquaintance and intercourse, and the parents in old age comforted by their children, is one rarely realized, so far as I have observed, by the slaves.
Food and Earnings. On these points, I can give no information from my own observation, but cite from The Southern Quarterly, the Statement of an Alabama planter, who is recommending his own unusual liberality as a matter of economy and profit, as well as of humanity. To each individual over ten years old, he gives three and a half pounds of bacon, and one peck of meal a week. He gathers all the little children into one house under the charge of a woman, while their parents are at work, where also the sick are nursed. He allows each hand, one half an acre to cultivate for his own benefit, and to a large family, one and a half acres. The avails of this, he estimates ar from ten to fifty dollars a year. I learned, however, that the planters, to a considerable extent, encourage their slaves to cultivate their own lots on the Sabbath. I could not learn that the tasks imposed on the slaves were excessive; to a New Englander, they appear easy.
Waiters at the hotels and boarding-houses, are usually allowed to appropriate to themselves whatever is given them by guests. One fellow who waited on me, as faithful and obliging as need be, and for eighteen years the property of the landlord, told me, as I left, that he liked Northerners much better than Southerners; because, he said, hey were not so hard to please; and always gave him money. He said Southern families would come there and board a whole season and not give him a cent; while never a Northerner left without giving him something; and sometimes a family would give him five dollars. I was amused at this, because Southerners have the bad habit of talking of their own generosity in contrast with the niggardliness of Northerners. In railroads, steamboats, and all public places you hear this fulsome self-adulation till you are nauseated.
To be concluded .....
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Extremely difficult reading, not sure it's possible to say ' thanks for posting ' because it's so disturbing. Well, hopefully we're all disturbed. Always bothers me to see ' slavery ' discussed as some economic factor, and worse, have it carefully explained all about how, given time this horrendous thing would peter out all by itself. For economic reasons. So why all the fuss. This is what it was. That's why all the fuss.
 

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#9
In the spring of 1852, a correspondent identified only by the initials “L.S.” sent to the Boston Recorder, his personal observations of his six-week visit to Virginia and the Carolinas, under the title: “Matters and Things in Virginia.”


The writer is a northerner (probably a Bostonian), and of anti-slavery convictions. But, his account lacks the violent rhetoric of shock and outrage of so much Radical Abolitionist propaganda. He speaks calmly, matter-of-factly, describing with apparent honesty just what he sees and hears, making relatively little comment, though leaving no doubt of his feelings.


The first installment of the writer’s account appears in the newspaper’s May 27th issue, and relates his observations of


Matters and Things in Virginia

Richmond. Va., April, 1862

An excursion of six weeks through Virginia and Carolina cannot, of course, furnish a complete knowledge of the institution of slavery, or qualify the traveler to speak authoritatively respecting it. But the impressions of each new observer, may help to form correct views of it.
A SLAVE SALE

I attended seven or eight different sales in different places. A description of one, however, is a description of all. The room was, in every instance, a large, unplastered, dingy apartment. About a dozen slaves, neatly dressed, were seated on a rough bench, near which stood screens of white cloth stretched on frames, which made a partial enclosure in one corner. There were three men, a woman with a babe, two other women, who told me they were mothers, and several girls from eight to eighteen years old.
The room was filled with a motley group, well dressed elderly gentlemen in spectacles, sleek merchants, and coarse, hard-featured slave traders, reading the newspapers, chatting, smoking, and spitting. Every few minutes someone approached the negroes, and questioned or otherwise examined some one of them. At length the sale began.
A black girl of fifteen was led to the block by a negro attendant, who seemed to take great satisfaction in his authority, and gave his orders with great sharpness.. The girl’s sleeves were rolled up, and her skirts lifted as high as the knee, while she stood on the block. She was made to walk, and jump. Bidders opened her mouth as one would a horse’s mouth, and examined her teeth. They felt her joints, neck, and bust, precisely as one would examine a horse. She was sold for $545.
The next set up, was a girl of ten years, light colored, with Caucasian features, straight hair, and slender form. I heard the bidders say, “she is the handsomest gal in the city. She ought to be bought and brought up for a fancy!” She was sold for $625.
Others followed, and I need not particularize. The highest price brought by any one in my presence, was $890; the price of an athletic man of twenty-five years. In all cases, previous to the sale, the men were stripped and examined by all who chose. And when any bidder requested it, the females were taken behind the screen and exposed in the same manner to all who chose to go and look.
The majority of the slaves exhibited no more emotion under all these indecencies, than so many cows of heifers would. And in respect to being sold, most of them exhibited no special concern. A few appeared cheerful, or even gay; most seemed calm, and apathetic; a few wept, especially the white little girl wept when any one began to question or handle her; and when placed on the block, seemed likely to sink under the violence of her emotion.
I mingled with the purchasers, and asked the slaves many questions. I did not find one that could tell his own age. In every instance, wives were sold separate from their husbands, and children separate from their parents. The only exception was that of two infants, each sold with its mother. One of the mothers had that child only; the other left several behind. I noticed also that every boy and man whose examination I took pains to witness, was marked across the back with scars of the lash. And those scenes, which cannot be described without doing violence to common modesty, are occurring almost every morning, not thirty rods from the most frequented streets of Richmond. The negroes, I found, felt a pride in bringing a high price, and when provoked, a common taunt is, “Go ‘long, you half-price n....r.”
Other installments of "Matters and Things in Virginia" to follow.​
PLEASE don't attack ME ... I am only repeating what he said back in the 80's-
-Reminds me of when My African-American boss (God rest his soul) at a large Cleveland Hospital who grew up in the South and had an ex-slave live on his street named "Lashabell Whitlow" when he was a boy. He used to always say "it was the overseers, not the owners who beat the slaves. They paid GOOD money for them! That would be like me buying a new BMW and throwing rocks at it! It was the overseers!"
My African-American co-workers just used to shake their heads when he talked like that. Needless to say, they weren't very fond of him.
 
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John Hartwell

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“L. S.” concludes his June 10th dispatch to the Boston Record with more specific observations of slavery, slaves, and masters. In the course of which he makes reference to the influential Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz (lately arrived at Harvard), who developed a “plurality” theory of the origin of the human species, whereby there were multiple “centers of creation.” The different races were created at different times and places, and are therefore endowed with differing, innate physical and mental differences. It was a legitimate scientific theory, made to serve a social doctrine.
GENERAL ESTIMATION
I had never realized how utterly the slave is extinguished -- blotted out of being, so far as all rights are concerned, and all influence and consideration in society. The principal of the law, that the slave is a chattel, is carried out with an awful literalness; it pervades all the usages, the opinions and feelings of society. I was not prepared for this; I find it difficult to realize it, even now that I see it. I could scarcely have deemed it possible, that so many men and women could exist, and be so destitute of all influence; that society could so completely blot them out from all consideration, and roll on just as if their rights, feelings, interests did not exist. They have no more voice, influence, or consideration, than so many cattle. They themselves so regard themselves; and it is painful to see men and women so cringingly void of all sense of their own manhood.
Master’s little son meets a stout negro boy in the door-yard; in mere wantonness, he seizes one ear of the negro in each hand, and stands kicking his shins. The negro dares not resist, but receives it in silence, and when the little tyrant is done, sneaks off. You may talk of the abuse of slavery; it is not possible to abuse it; everything short of tyranny, is short of what its fundamental principle might entitle us to expect. Humanity will not often go to the full length of what that principle allows; to talk of abusing such a power, is to talk absurdly. The great difficulty, is to realize the fearful iniquity of that one principle; and I confess, I never realized to what an extent that principle had silently and unconsciously diffused itself through all the feelings, opinions, usages, and practical operations of Southern Society.
CHARACTER AND CONTENTMENT
Slaveholders tell me -- I have heard the remark often from them -- “The ni***rs are always stealing; they will steal anything they can lay their hands on. They will steal an article worth a dollar, and sell it for nine-pence. They lie, you cannot trust them.” Great numbers of them are in the churches; they are peculiarly susceptible to religious feeling; but the missionary already referred to, who had spent years laboring among them, assured me that little reliance could be placed on the piety of most of them. He said they would lose it as easy as they got it; and in spite of their religion, would lie and steal. He said a few were steadfast, faithful, and reliable, and but a few.
The more closely I view Southern life, the more I see, beneath all the gaiety of the slaves, a wide and deep uneasiness. Two men, one of them a waiter in my boarding-house here, a little while ago, had themselves boxed up and conveyed to the depot, in order to escape. The drayman was too late for the train, and his suspicions being awakened by the unusual weight of the boxes, he examined and discovered them.
The whites fear them; it is useless to attempt to deny it. A company of eighty-six men, called the Public Guard is kept constantly under arms in Richmond. I heard a delegate on re-organizing he militia, in the Virginia House of Delegates, in which it was earnestly insisted, that the State must be defended by a body of well disciplined troops, so long as they retained slavery.
PUBLIC SENTIMENT
Multitudes maintain the abstract sentiment, that slavery is an evil, The Richmond Whig in one of its editorials this week, assert that this is the sentiment of nearly all Virginians. Yet the great sentiment which lies in the Declaration of Independence, and at the foundation of all liberty, that all men have certain equal and inalienable rights, is equally repudiated by many, and silently forsaken by more.
In reading-rooms and elsewhere, I picked up many addresses, pamphlets, &c, called forth by the agitations of the last two years, and I was amazed to find how extensively and unblushingly the great principle was repudiated and ridiculed. The Southern Quarterly, and various newspapers, take the same ground. In this juncture, the theory of Agassiz and Co., of the plurality of the origin of races of men, is a perfect godsend; and it is amusing to see how profoundly scientific the little country newspapers and pamphleteers have all at once become; and in all the South, the cry is, “Great is Agassiz.” With a great deal of unanimity, the defenders of slavery are now occupying this ground; and so far as argument is concerned, this seems to be their last stronghold. Knowing, however, that the doctrine of man’s inalienable rights, the grant of the living God, is the foundation of all true and abiding freedom, it is sad to see that principle abandoned, and Jefferson sneered at, for declaring the wrong of slavery; and it is, perhaps, the most serious evil that slavery is doing us, that it thus poisons the springs of Liberty, and diffuses even through the North, a palsying skepticism respecting the Rights of Man.
I need not say, that the South everywhere shows the blighting influence of this system. In fifteen minutes walk from the Capitol in this city, are lands lying entirely unenclosed, uncultivated, and waste; and considering alike its physical, intellectual, and moral influences, I scarcely know whether most to pity, the masters or the slaves.
L. S.
 

matthew mckeon

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PLEASE don't attack ME ... I am only repeating what he said back in the 80's-
-Reminds me of when My African-American boss (God rest his soul) at a large Cleveland Hospital who grew up in the South and had an ex-slave live on his street named "Lashabell Whitlow" when he was a boy. He used to always say "it was the overseers, not the owners who beat the slaves. They paid GOOD money for them! That would be like me buying a new BMW and throwing rocks at it! It was the overseers!"
My African-American co-workers just used to shake their heads when he talked like that. Needless to say, they weren't very fond of him.
I'm not attacking! But let's think on this a second. Overseers were the employees of owners. Whipping and the threat of whipping were basic business practice.
 

Belle Montgomery

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I'm not attacking! But let's think on this a second. Overseers were the employees of owners. Whipping and the threat of whipping were basic business practice.
Agreed. Just quoting the man. I do wonder if any owner ever set a limit . I'm also sure there were fired overseers for various reason and just wonder if that was ever one.
 

matthew mckeon

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Agreed. Just quoting the man. I do wonder if any owner ever set a limit . I'm also sure there were fired overseers for various reason and just wonder if that was ever one.
I don't think there was a divide between master and overseer. They were on the same team and the same page. The overseer might have been a useful scapegoat.
 

John Hartwell

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I don't think there was a divide between master and overseer. They were on the same team and the same page. The overseer might have been a useful scapegoat.
The overseer was the master's tool for controlling his slaves, and helped him keep his own hands apparently clean.
Back in 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote his overseer at Monticello that he wished his slaves might never be whipped -- but, when you must, do it when I'm not around.
 
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Belle Montgomery

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#20
I don't think there was a divide between master and overseer. They were on the same team and the same page. The overseer might have been a useful scapegoat.
But it was the plantation owners money$...the overseer was the "underling" with really "no skin in the game" (terrible saying for the subject at hand-I apologize) I guess "efficiency" would be defined by the boss/owner...no different than today.
 

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