Bodies of sugar cane workers recently discovered in Texas reveal gruesome details about the convict leasing system.
The blood-drenched history that gave the city of Sugar Land, Tex., its name showed its face earlier this year, when a school construction crew discovered the remains of 95 African-Americans whose unmarked graves date back more than a century. The dead — some of whom may have been born in slavery — are victims of the infamous convict leasing system that arose after Emancipation. Southerners sought to replace slave labor by jailing African-Americans on trumped-up charges and turning them over to, among others, sugar cane plantations in the region once known as the Sugar Bowl of Texas.
A bitter debate has erupted in Sugar Land, a fast-growing suburb southwest of Houston. Sugar Land officials, who want to move the remains to a nearby cemetery, are at odds with members of a city-appointed task force who rightly argue that a historical find of this magnitude should be memorialized on the spot where it was discovered.
Against this backdrop, archaeologists, who are constructing an increasingly detailed portrait of the injuries and illnesses suffered by these inmates, have opened a window onto the murderous nature of sugar cultivation, an industry that earned its reputation as the slaughterhouse of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by killing more people more rapidly than any other kind of agriculture.
Lives of Living Death
The historian David Eltis, a co-editor of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, estimates that at least 70 percent of the 12 million or so captives who left Africa for the Americas on slave ships were destined for sugar colonies. Most sugar was cultivated in the Caribbean and South America, but the Southern colonies of British America and subsequent states like Florida, Texas and Louisiana — the most infamous of the sugar states — entered the brutal cash crop sweepstakes as well.
The most well-known portrait of the Louisiana sugar country comes from Solomon Northup, the free black New Yorker famously kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and rented out by his master for work on plantations. In his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,’’ Northup recounts the hectic and barbaric scene that unfolded during harvest season, when enslaved people were pushed around the clock to gather and process the highly perishable sugar cane before it rotted.
Northup writes: “The hands are not allowed to sit down long enough to eat their dinners. Carts filled with corn cake, cooked at the kitchen, are driven into the field at noon. The cake is distributed by the drivers, and must be eaten with the least possible delay.”
The harvesters worked relentlessly in blistering heat, hacking down 10-foot cane with machete-like knives and transporting it to the plantation mill to be processed, until they passed out from what appeared to be heat stroke. Then, Northup tells us, they were dragged into the shade, doused with buckets of water and ordered back into their places in the cane.
Slaves in the Louisiana sugar cane world lived what the former slave and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass termed a “life of living death.” The average life span of a mill hand was said to be only seven years — a message that circulated widely among enslaved people who feared being sold into bondage in sugar fields.
The former slave and memoirist Jacob Stroyer wrote in the 19th century that enslaved people saw Louisiana as “a place of slaughter.” When a train lurched out of a South Carolina station carrying slaves to Louisiana, Stroyer wrote, “The colored people cried out with one voice as though the heavens and earth were coming together, and it was so pitiful that those hardhearted white men who had been accustomed to driving slaves all their lives shed tears like children.”