In Quentin Tarantino’s recent movie, Django Unchained the treatment of slaves is depicted vividly. Django is set in the southern states of America, where the slave industry was at its most widespread. The protagonists travel across the south through Texas and Florida through plantations and slave camps across the Mississippi basin and it reveals a striking insight into the world of slavery in the Deep South. This map shows the concentration of slave populations across southern North America in 1858 – the populations are concentrated on the most fertile areas of America such as the Mississippi river basin. This is because the slaves’ only purpose in life was to work the land and serve their owners. This was mainly in the production of cotton and other crops which could be sold. As a result the owners wouldn’t benefit in treating the slaves too badly as they would then not be able to work. However, despite Adam Smith expecting slavery to come to a rapid end after 1776 as there was no incentive for them to work, punishment was used as a method of coercion.
The severe punishments for seemingly insignificant infractions and the harshness of their work and living conditions has raised questions as to whether this was truly the lot of the slaves in southern American plantations in the 19th century or whether it was merely depicted thus to shock and excite the film’s audience.
Among the punishments depicted in the film are whipping, branding and days spent in the ‘hot box’, which were more often than not used as punishment for running away. We have found evidence for whipping in numerous sources throughout the period. Whipping was used as a punishment for a range of misdemeanours such as refusing to work, ‘sassing’ slave masters or fighting with fellow slaves. The punishment was used amongst free men as well, it was a punishment doled out in court for such crimes as theft. Therefore, for slaves whipping was not unique but rather easier to incur amongst slaves and for less severe crimes. This picture shows the scars one such slave received from whipping.
Another punishment depicted in Django Unchained were metal devices fitted to the neck and limbs which made it impossible to lie down and sleep. These were used as punishment for a myriad of breaches of conduct and were an effective way to torture and punish slaves without actually diminishing their usefulness, as punishments like whipping risked infections and death of the slaves.
Slaves were also subjected to harsh treatment during their transportation. In the opening sequence of the film the slaves are forced to march, chained through the wilderness while their masters ride horses. We found evidence for the poor conditions slaves travelled in by looking at the plans for the slave ships which transported them across the Atlantic. These ships provided very limited space for the slaves whilst in transit and were far more reminiscent of a cargo ship than of a public method of transportation. However it must be taken into account that slaves were a valuable commodity and therefore they would have to be in a suitable condition to be able to work at the end.
The sale of slaves was often a heartless and degrading process in which their wellbeing was not brought into consideration. The slaves which were in better health would have been sold for a higher price and would have been in a higher demand. Slave traders would have gone to auction in order to sell and buy slaves for their plantation and were traded like possessions rather than treated like people.
This topic pertains to today’s society as it allows us to grasp a great understanding of the plights and struggles of slaves and how from this the African American culture and pride has developed. Films such as Django and series’ such as Roots depict certain elements of life in slavery, giving present day viewers an entertaining way to learn about historical events and the significance that this topic holds in present day society.
By Eilis, Catherine, Gemma, Peter, Marcel and Chloe.