The Technological Innovation of the Antebellum South: The Whipping Machine

I rarely recommend books on the blog, but a must-read is the The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist, which is an economics-oriented social history of American slavery. For me, the key observation in the book is the consistent and massive increase in cotton picking efficiency, which increased more than four-fold from 1790 to 1860. This massive increase didn’t result form technological improvements, as the mechanical cotton picker wouldn’t be invented until 1930–this is simply a reflection of how much more cotton people (enslaved people) could pick in a given amount of time. Moreover, this increase was not significantly influenced by new crop types: starting around 1820, a new cultivar of cotton, which was easier to pick, came into widespread use, but there were significant increases before and long after the introduction of this new cotton variety.

So what was the innovation that allowed these increased cotton yields? To use Baptist’s phrase, the whipping machine: slave owners became ever more ruthless in compelling their slaves to increase yields. To put this another way, slave holders became increasingly successful at utilizing the twin tools of terror and torture–that is, beatings, brutal whippings*, and rape–to ‘convince’ slaves to work harder and more efficiently. Another key managerial innovation was that work targets (how much a given slave was expected to pick in a given day) became individualized. Rather than expecting the same amount of cotton per slave, overseers assigned each slave a personal target. As slaves met this target, the targets were increased. Failure to meet targets resulted in punishment, often one lash per pound of cotton shortfall.

Baptist summarizes the whipping machine (pp. 130-1, 141-142; boldface mine):

What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectation, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than system of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom. And slave labor surely was wasteful and unproductive. Its captives knew it wasted the days and years and centuries extorted from them. They would never get those days back. Yet those who actually endured those days knew the secret that, over time, drove cotton-picking to continually higher levels of efficiency….

We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture, one component of “S,” or supply). But here is something that may help reveal how crucial systematized torture was to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world. It’s a metaphor offered b a man named Henry Clay, after the architect of the “American System.” Born into slavery in the Carolinas, moved west as a boy, Clay recalled after slavery ended that his Louisiana owner had once possessed a machine which by his account made cotton cultivation and harvesting mechanical, rapid, and efficient. This contraption was “a big wooden wheel with a treadle to it, and when you tromp the treadle the big wheel go round. On that wheel was four or five leather straps with holes cut in them to make blisters, and you lay the negro down on his face on a bench and tie him to it.” When the operator pumped the treadle to turn the wheel, the straps thrashed the back of the man or woman tied to the bench into blistered, bloody jelly. According to Clay, the mere threat of this whipping-machine was enough to speed his own hands.

…Clay was using a metaphorical argument to say that every cotton labor camp carved out of the southwestern woods used torture as its central technology. Every single day, calibrated pain, regular as a turning gear, challenged enslaved people to exceed the previous day’s gains in production. Planters and entrepreneurs rarely talked about how other human beings actually picked cotton, but they didn’t need to. They had only to deploy and tune the technology of the whip, steelyard, and slate in order to force people to focus their minds on inventing new ways to perform repetitive and mind-numbing labor at nearly impossible speed.

To put this in more modern terms, if you were African-American, the entire antebellum South was a concentration camp.

Baptist’s perspective on this is critical. It puts the lie to the myth of the ‘kind’ slaveholder: the entire utility of the slaveholding system was rooted in the application of torture to other human beings. The only ‘kind’ slaveholder was one who had so successfully brutalized his workers that he no longer needed to do so. Without torture, slavery, especially in the cotton belt, would have been an impossible system to maintain. And torture didn’t have to be constant, especially when applied publicly. It was one part torture, one part terrorism.

Baptist also challenges the modern myth that workers and owners always have aligned interests. Myths notwithstanding, slavery, until the advent of the mechanical cotton picker, was an incredibly efficient way of harvesting cotton, even if it was an inhumane one. As Baptist describes, there are economic systems where increasing the oppression of the worker increases, not decreases, output.

The Half That Has Never Been Told is an incredible read.

*There was a technological innovation in whipping: the South routinely used a much more vicious whip than the cat-of-nine-tails used in the tidewater plantations. The beatings were so brutal that after a few strokes even strong men often would collapse, undergo involuntary spasms and vomiting. If they blacked out, when they awoke, the remaining lashes would be administered. This is not ‘discipline’, this is torture.

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1 Response to The Technological Innovation of the Antebellum South: The Whipping Machine

  1. starskeptic
    starskeptic says:

    The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin is also very good.

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