Nutrition in the American Slave System

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The importance of a balanced diet cannot be overstated. A balanced diet provides natural disease prevention, weight control and proper sleep. A balanced diet also enables you to live longer. A balanced diet is also important because it enables you to meet your daily nutritional needs and perform at your full capacity. This level of high performance was of the utmost importance to American slave-owners as it would be economically beneficial to have slaves who could work at full capacity for the average 54 hours a week. Therefore, slave-owners could not spare much when it came to properly feeding their plentiful workers. An incorrect myth about slavery in the United States is that slave-owners starved their slaves. This is an illogical assumption as slaves were not so dispensable or quickly replaced and would not financially benefit slave-owners.


According to Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman in their monumental study, "Time on the Cross", the material standard of living of slaves compared favorably with that of other nineteenth-century agricultural laborers. Slaves usually received a monthly allowance of corn meal and salt-herrings. Frederick Douglass received one bushel of corn meal a month plus eight pounds of pork or fish. Some plantation owners gave their slaves a small piece of land, a truck-patch, where they could grow vegetables.

Economic Incentive[edit]

Slave-owners systematically deprived infants and children of resources because it was profitable to do so. Setting aside moral responsibilities to another human being, it is plausible and makes economic sense for slave-owners to seasonally be scantily disperse resources.

Typical Slave Diet[edit]

Due to diseases related to specific nutritional deficiencies in diet, which were prevalent among the American slave population it is possible that the slave victims were fed diets with adequate micro-nutrients but very few calories.



According to the book "Dictionary of Afro-American slavery" by Randall M. Miller, there was great variation regarding owners' treatment of slaves. It seemed the more north you went the more cordial the relationship was between master and slave. In the deep south, it seemed to be more racist as compared to a northern state like Maryland. Of course exceptions did exist.

Type of Slave[edit]

House slaves usually lived better than field slaves. They usually had better food and were sometimes given the family's cast-off clothing. However, not all slave-owners took this view, Harriet Jacobs reports that her mistress "would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans" to make sure that the slaves did not eat what was left over.

Diseases Caused by Nutritional Deficiencies[edit]

Physical abnormalities related to specific nutritional deficiencies in the diet that appeared within the American slave population:

  • The bowed legs of a victim of rickets.
  • The sallow complexion and “angel wings” associated with pellagra.
  • The loose teeth and purple gums of scurvy.

Diet versus Disease Hypothesis[edit]

Certainly, both diseases and inadequate diets can have adverse health effects that manifest themselves on the human physique and it is difficult to separate the effects of one from the other. Yet there are ways to accomplish this:

  • Deficient diets are reputed to have caused porotic hyperostosis, which can be examined in human skeletal remains.
  • In living populations, blood samples can be examined. In disease-induced anemia the level of serum ferritin is normal. In diet-induced anemia the level of serum ferritin is lower than normal.
  • Examination through bone marrow biopsies.

Effect on Slave Births[edit]

The root cause for excessive infant mortality has been pinned on poor diets for years by scholars. Richard H. Steckel, a leading proponent of anthropometrics, studied the relationship between height-for-age and weight-for-age of twentieth-century populations, specifically within the slave population. Relying on twentieth-century data on U.S. stillbirths and on the relationship between weight and first month death among the poor, Steckel estimates birth-weight for slave children. These calculations indicate extraordinarily short slave children, extremely low slave birth-weights, and very high neonatal and infant mortality rates.1 The reasons for these findings are the work intensity of pregnant slaves, maternal diseases, poor diet of pregnant slaves, specific dietary deficiencies of pregnant slaves, and poor diet of slaves during infancy and childhood. Seasonal deaths of newly born children and pregnant mother are dependent on the timing of nutritional deprivation, nutritional status, and under-nutrition with diet or food intake.


Properly Nourished[edit]

McGuire, for example, takes the position that diets and nutritional intake are not the sole explanation for the stature of American slaves due to his unawareness of evidence indicating the physical deformities were widespread in substantial proportions in slave populations. Instead he believes that the role of diets during infancy and childhood and work intensity during pregnancy have been overemphasized while the role of the disease environment has been underemphasized. McGuire has found evidence on the southern plantation disease environment that explains the existence of two primary debilitating antebellum southern diseases—hookworm and malaria.


Stealing Food

Stealing was relatively common among slaves. Since slave rations were often meager, some slaves took matters in their own hands and pilfered food. Such theft was surprisingly easy because slaves, more often than not, handled much of the food on a plantation. A litany of slave narratives suggests that stealing food was a common practice. Most slaves stole food out of sheer hunger. Some, however, used theft from their masters as a source of pride and a tool for dealing with the harsh reality of slavery. Boredom with the monotonous diet they were familiar with caused many slaves to seek exotic foods like ham, turkey, or sugar from the plantation house or the fields. Some slave masters even encouraged theft from other plantations in an effort to control their own costs and possibly to hurt rival planters. Despite the obvious benefits of stealing food, many slaves were deterred from doing so by the extreme punishment doled out to thieves. Whipping, beating, and even eating of raw animals were all used to punish slaves for stealing.