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How Whiskey Helped Control the Slaves

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Slaveowners must be credited with being cunning. In the 14th century, “cunning” meant knowing how to sneakly:

(1) manipulate someone to one’s benefit; (2) cause the victim to lose something; and (3) make the evil deed look good to outsiders.

Although the slaves ensured that their captors would never know who they were as individuals and as a group, the slaveowners were insightful in knowing what it took to prevent the slaves from rioting. This was based upon their awareness of the horrible things they were doing to the slaves and how they would have reacted if they were in the slaves’ situation. Thus, they were extremely alert to the slightest hint of a possible change in the slaves mental state of being submissive and would take immediate corrective actions.

Prophylactically, the captors created safety valves to release the explosive outrage and frustration tensions constantly building in the slaves’ minds.

One valve was to provide “holidays” between Christmas and New Years as well as the Fourth of July to either occupy the minds of slaves with social events (e.g. fiddling, dancing, and “jubilee beating”) or wipe out their minds with alcohol. These “holidays” gave slaves something to look forward to and, following the holidays, something the slaves could look back on with pleasurable memories. Fredrick Douglass said a favorite cunning trick was to get the slaves deplorably drunk. Slaveowners would make bets on a slave being able to drink more whiskey than any other in order to induce a rivalry among them. Resultant scenes, he said, were often scandalous and loathsome in the extreme.

In some cases this was confined to slaves on one plantation. In other cases, drunken slaves of one plantation were pitted in fights with drunken slaves from a neighboring plantation. In all cases, whole multitudes might be found stretched out in brutal drunkenness -- exhausted, helpless, and disgusting. Then this scene was advertised to the world to show how “kind” the slaveowners were in keeping their slaves “happy.”

Douglass continued by saying that”when the holidays were over, we all staggered up from our filth and wallowing, took a long breath, and went away to our various fields or work; feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go from that which our masters artfully deceived us into the belief was freedom, back again into the arms of slavery. It was not what we had taken it to be, nor what it might have been, had it not been abused by us. It was about as well to be a slave to master, as to be a slave to rum and whiskey.”

The masters made a big deal of letting the slaves know that to not be drunk during the holidays was disgraceful -- implying that the slave was too lazy and too wasteful with any pennies they had earned from extra work to be able to afford to get drunk.

By being drunk, it was to the master’s advantage when one slave would release his aggression onto his fellow slaves -- the advantage being that this helped create bitterness between the involved slaves (and their friends). The more bitterness that existed, the less likely slaves were to get together against the master.

Another advantage in encouraging slaves to get drunk was to make White liquor store owners rich. In certain small towns certain slaves were allowed to get into towns on Saturday afternoon or Sunday throughout the year and intermingle with free Negroes in a spirit of camaraderie.

A kind of “underground” existed where liquor was sold for three cents. At these times the pockets of the Black males would be emptied in order to get drunk. Pause for a moment to consider how these amoral and immoral principles designed by Whites are still applied to naive Blacks in a wide variety of areas.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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