It was in the planters’ financial interests to look after their slaves, but nonetheless many inflicted high levels of violence on their workers. Slaves were routinely beaten for minor faults, such as failing to dig enough cane holes or collect enough grass. Slaves who left the plantation without permission, even just to visit family members elsewhere, were confined in stocks, shackled or weighted down with iron. Those who repeatedly broke plantation rules or challenged the slave owner’s authority were flogged mercilessly with a long cart whip that tore the skin from their back and buttocks. These punishments were inflicted on both men and women, including pregnant women. There are many accounts of enslaved women miscarrying after being beaten.
Generally slave owners did not wish to kill their slaves and the punishments were usually meant to stop short of inflicting death. Deaths did happen, however, as many slaves were too weak from overwork and poor nutrition to recover from severe beatings.
The most serious punishment was execution, usually by hanging. This was restricted to slaves who killed Europeans or who rose up in rebellion. After they were dead, it was a common practice to cut off their heads and display them publicly as a warning to other slaves to obey their masters.
Many visitors to the Caribbean were shocked at the violence. But the slave owners justified it by claiming that Africans did not feel pain like Europeans or that they only understood orders inflicted with a whip. In reality, the violence was driven by fear. Slave owners were far outnumbered by their slaves and they lived in daily fear of rebellions and uprisings. The violence was an attempt to terrify their workers into submission.
For anti-slavery campaigners the violence was one of the worst aspects of slavery. It was proof, they argued, that owning slaves turned men into monsters.