The Man In The Middle

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Ambiguities of the driver’s relationship with the master and the slaves are best illustrated in the one area he could not readily conceal from the overseer or the master—work. All masters demanded frequent performance reports from their drivers. Masters knew the slaves’ minimal capacities, and they could corroborate the driver’s testimony with private inspections of the field and with their own crop tallies after harvest. Aware of these facts, slaves conceded the driver’s need to keep them moving, and forgave occasional excesses of zeal.

In assigning tasks or setting the work pace, the driver could push the slaves relentlessly to impress the master, apply the slaves’ time to his private purposes, or manipulate the system to reward favorites and punish enemies. Those members of the driver’s family who toiled in the fields usually drew light chores; as a rule they also escaped the lash. So did lovers. A slave woman who spurned a driver’s advances, however, might find herself isolated in a remote section of the field, and thus vulnerable to the driver’s amorous assaults, or assigned impossible tasks so that the vengeful driver could punish her under the guise of sound labor management.

In the face of driver abuses, however, no slave was wholly defenseless. If the driver unduly imposed on him, he might run to the master or overseer for relief. Enlightened planters advised against punishing a slave beyond the limits of reasonable service, because hard treatment brought forth scant improvement and much dissatisfaction. Drivers usually marked out tasks for each slave according to ability, and remained on the ground until everyone finished. Even the cruel driver had little personal interest in overmeasuring tasks, since unfinished work kept him in the fields. Moreover, unrealistic work demands might prompt a general flight to the swamps, sabotage, or worse.

As the lead man in the gang labor system, a thoughtful driver would set a steady pace—singing, shouting, cracking his whip, or working at the head of the gang. In this way the slaves could do their work in a manner that would both satisfy the master and reduce the driver’s need to whip or embarrass the weaker, slower slaves. Slave accounts tell of men like Moses Bell, a driver on a wheat farm in Virginia, who helped one woman “cause she wasn’t very strong”; or like the driver who countermanded his master’s orders and sent a nursing mother back to her cabin because she was “too sick to work.” Like any champion of the weak, the driver acquired stature in the eyes of the oppressed. Young slaves appreciated drivers like July Gist, who eased their transition to fieldwork and taught them how to avoid punishment. Gist stressed careful husbandry and never rushed the young slaves as they adapted to the rigors of plowing, hoeing, and picking from sunup to sundown.

Unwritten rules governed the driver’s conduct. He must not whip with malice or without cause, for example. The driver who exceeded his authority and surpassed whites in viciousness produced bitterness and recalcitrance. Jane Johnson of South Carolina considered the driver “de devil settin’ cross-legged for de rest of us on de plantation,” and she could not believe that her master intended “for dat nigger to treat us like he did. He took ‘vantage of his [the master] bein’ ‘way and talk soft when he come again.” Slaves reserved special enmity for such drivers. After witnessing a driver lash his mother and aunt, Henry Cheatem swore “to kill dat nigger iffen it was de las’ thing I eber done.” Mary Reynolds despised Solomon for his savage whippings, and even more because he disrupted the slaves’ “frolickin’ ” and religious meetings in the quarters. In her old age she consoled herself with the assurance that the driver was “burnin’ in hell today, and it pleasures me to know it.”

If masters or informal community pressures did not check abusive drivers, the slaves resorted to more direct remedies. For example, a host of Florida slaves plotted a mass escape from the driver Prince’s blows. When discovered, several of the conspirators preferred incarceration to further subservience to Prince. Some slaves refused to be whipped or to have their families mistreated in any manner, and a driver who challenged them risked violent resistance. According to an Alabama driver who tried to correct an alleged shirker, the slave “flong down his cradle and made a oath and said that he had as live [lief] die as to live and he then tried to take the whip out of my hand.” The slaves could return cruelty with cruelty. One group of Louisiana slaves murdered a driver by placing crushed glass in his food, and another killed their driver and cut him into small pieces to conceal the crime.