Prisons in New England Called Cotton Mills
The African slaves of the antebellum South were busy producing cotton for the profitable mills of England and New England, an industry turbocharged by the invention of Yankee-tinkerer Eli Whitney. While still profiting from the transatlantic slave trade and the infamous Rum Triangle, New England’s slave-dependent cotton mills prolonged a vile institution of labor which should have died a slow death after the American Revolution; and avoided a war which would destroy the Constitution.
The League of the South Summer Institute in Burlington, NC on 22 August, “New England’s Burden: The Slave Trade & Wage Slavery,” will explore in detail the dark side of this region’s past and responsibility for the perpetuation of African slavery in the Western Hemisphere. For more details, see www.northcarolina.chapterlos.org.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Wilmington, North Carolina
An Address to the Working-Men of New England, Seth Luther, 1833:
We would respectfully advise the honorable Senator to travel incognito when he visits cotton mills. If he wishes to come at the truth, he must not be known. Let him put on a short jacket and trousers, and join the "lower orders" for a short time. . . . In that case we could show him, in some of the prisons in New England called cotton mills, instead of rosy cheeks, the pale, sickly, haggard countenance of the ragged child–haggard from the worse than slavish confinement in the cotton mill. He might see that child driven up to the "clockwork" by the cowskin [whip], in some cases. He might see, in some instances, the child taken from his bed at four in the morning, and plunged into cold water to drive away his slumbers and prepare him for the labors of the mill. After all this he might see that child robbed, yes, robbed of a part of his time allowed for meals by moving the hands of the clock backwards, or forwards, as would best accomplish that purpose. . . . He might see in some, and not infrequent, instances, the child, and the female child too, driven up to the "clockwork" with the cowhide, or well-seasoned strap of American manufacture.
We could show him many females who have had corporeal punishment inflicted upon them; one girl eleven years of age who had her leg broken with a billet of wood; another who had a board split over her head by a heartless monster in the shape of an overseer of a cotton mill "paradise." We shall for want of time….omit entering more largely into detail for the present respecting the cruelties practiced in some of the American mills. Our wish is to show that education is neglected,….because if thirteen hours’ actual labor is required each day, it is impossible to attend to education among children, or to improvement among adults.”
[Luther also noted the one-sided nature of labor contracts in the 1830s, the following from Cocheco Manufacturing Company (a textile firm operating in Dover, New Hampshire]
We, the subscribers [the undersigned], do hereby agree to enter the service of the Cocheco Manufacturing Company, and conform, in all respects, to the regulations which are now, or may hereafter be adopted, for the good government of the institution.
We further agree to work for such wages per week, and prices by the job, as the Company may see fit to pay, and be subject to the fines as well as entitled to the premiums paid by the Company.
We further agree to allow two cents each week to be deducted from our wages for the benefit of the sick fund.
We also agree not to leave the service of the Company without giving two weeks’ notice of our intention, without permission of an agent. And if we do, we agree to forfeit to the use of the Company two weeks’ pay.
We also agree not to be engaged in any combination [union] whereby the work may be impeded or the Company’s interest in any work injured. If we do, we agree to forfeit to the use of the Company the amount of wages that may be due to us at the time.
We also agree that in case we are discharged from the service of the Company for any fault, we will not consider ourselves entitled to be settled with in less than two weeks from the time of such discharge.”
(Seth Luther, An Address to the Working-Men of New-England, Seth Luther, 1833, Boston, pp. 17-21, 36)