|Date(s):||January 1, 1840 to December 31, 1840|
|Location(s):||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Tag(s):||Violence, New Orleans, slave pen, Slave Trade, Slavery|
|Course:||“Human Trafficking: Yesterday and Today,” University of Richmond|
|Rating:||5 (2 votes)|
On a typical day in a New Orleans slave pen, John Brown got called up to the flogging room—a room dedicated to punishment for slaves who misbehaved on the auction block. Here, slaves were beaten repeatedly with a long leather paddle, known as a “flog”. The “flog” delivered punishment equivalent to the whip, but did not leave wounds that could jeopardize the price of a slave. When his name was called, Brown knew that he was not wanted for punishment, but for assistance. As the men, women, and children were stripped naked and laid flat on the floor, Brown was forced to hold down their feet until the brutal torture was over.
Brown spent much of his time between sales in New Orleans hotels, banks, and stores that had been converted into slave pens. These pens were almost always full, each holding close to 500 enslaved people and always being replenished with new slaves. Inside the barred windows and concrete walls of these pens, Brown witnessed the same horrors and disgraces on a daily basis.
As each slave arrived in various conditions, they went through intense processes of grooming, which Brown described as no light business. Hairs were plucked and dyed and deformities were hidden. Slaves were stuffed with food in order to give them a healthy look. They were forced to dance to a fiddle for exercise, or dance to the whip if they refused. After these daily processes, men, women, and children were separated and “sized out” (or put in groups based on their size) once again to be prepared for the second sale of the day—the afternoon sale.
Brown described the slave pens as a brothel for young mulatto women whose fates were in the hands of buyers only wanting them to satisfy their sexual desires. Because they were forced to lie about their age to make themselves more appealing to buyers, slaves often never knew their true age They faced consequences if they did not say the age the trader chose them to be. Slaves were sent to the flogging room for what Brown considers the “unpardonable” offense of not speaking up and looking bright on the auction block. A well-made, flawless looking slave was devalued by their lack of interest or vacant stare. Brown said that the uncivilized manner in which slaves were handled and inspected epitomized the horrors on the auction block. As husbands and wives, and mothers and children watched their loved one be sold in front of them, they dare not bid a goodbye or give one last embrace, or they would be faced with severe punishment.
John Brown believed that only those who experienced slavery could tell and truly understand the horrors that happened beyond the auction rooms where the dealer is left alone with their “chattel” offered to him to buy. But he refrained from telling the most horrifying scenes he witnessed in his narrative. So, why would a freed slave, who is aspiring to educate abolitionists on the true horrors of slavery, choose to leave out the most gruesome details that defined the slave market? Historian Karen Halttunen argues that witnessing such intense cruelty puts reformers like John Brown in a difficult position. Brown omits the most painful material from his narrative in order to highlight the slave industry’s obscene nature. In Brown’s case, saying less actually says more. By stating that he is excluding the most painful details, readers are forced to think about and imagine what could possibly be worse than the horrors Brown did include. Brown introduced the very kind of painful material about the slave market that he intentionally set aside.