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Lynching was employed as a means of social control in the South of the United States.  Approximately 3,500 blacks and 1,300 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968, most of them  from 1882 to 1920.  [University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law].

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Slavery Redux

After those Northern spoilsports made slavery illegal some ingenious good ol’ boys came up with a way of enslaving black people that was entirely legal. The system was called convict leasing. It began in 1865 and lasted until 1928.

The idea was simple. Convicts were leased out to plantations etc. to replace the slaves that had been emancipated. If normal criminality did not provide sufficient recruits then people could be arrested on trumped up charges.  Plantation owners could hire rather than buy and their capital outlays were less than when they had to buy their slaves. Also, since they did not own their labour force they had no particular incentive to look after their leased convicts.

Convicts did not only work on plantations. Alabama kept the system from 1875 to 1928 and most of the state’s convicts worked in the coal mines around Birmingham.

Often just convicted of minor offences, the leased convicts  served long periods of hard labor. They lived in  filth, were poorly fed, suffered torture and cruel punishments, and had no protection whatsoever from the labor contractors who hired them. Mine owners often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer. A blind eye was turned to whippings and other forms of  abuse. Mines had high death rates.  Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.

Convicts were whipped, a man standing at the head and another at the feet, while a third applied the lash with both hands. Men who failed to perform their task of mining from two to four tons of coal per day were fastened to planks by the feet, then bent over a barrel and fastened by the hands on the other side, stripped and beaten with a strap. Out of the fifty convicts worked in the mines from one to eight were whipped per day in this manner. There was scarcely a day, according to the testimony of the witness, James Frazier, in which one or more were not flogged in this manner.  In many cases convicts were forced to work in water six inches deep for weeks at a time getting out coal with one-fourth of the air necessary for a healthy man to live in, forced to drink water from stagnant pools  and the reports of the prison officials showing large numbers killed in ‘attempting to escape’.”

States made a lot of money from convicts leasing. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. No doubt corrupt officials also made a lot of money.

Whilst everybody knows about the practice of lynching in the South I doubt if many people are familiar with convict leasing, yet it probably claimed more lives and was equally a method of social control. Any black person who became ‘uppity’ could easily be arrested on a false charge and sent off to the convict leasing system for ten or twenty years.

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A nice cup of tea

Imagine that there is an island with two groups of people.  The minority group exploits the much larger majority.  The majority are the slaves of the minority.  If any of the majority objects to their exploitation they will probably be burnt alive.  Lesser offenders, minor rebels, may merely be hung or castrated.  The minority may do what they wish to the majority.  There are no legal constraints.  A housemaid may be tortured to death for breaking some china.  Many of the minority become incredibly rich.  The majority are treated like animals. They are there to work on plantations.

The island is Bermuda, a British colony in the Caribbean. It is the first of the British sugar islands.  The time is any time between the mid 17th century and the mid 19th century. The majority, the slaves, had been brought from Africa to grow sugar. The minority, the white British, have gone to Bermuda to get rich.

In the early days the plantations were worked by indentured servants. A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean. Some were sent because they were criminals or rebels, but the majority went voluntarily. They hoped to make their fortunes. In return for four to seven years labour their passage and keep would be provided by the plantation owners. Then they would be free. Some were mistreated but there were constraints on what could be done. Indentured servants could complain to a local magistrate about mistreatment. However, between a third and a half of indentured servants died before they were freed and the islands became known as death traps.

So much money was made by the Bermuda sugar planters that other islands, including Jamaica, were planted with sugar and slaves were brought from Africa.

Died like flies

People died like flies.  The death rate on the islands was incredibly high.  In Kingston, Jamaica, in some years in the 1740s and 1750s, 20 per cent of the population died each year.  The death rate was equal to London’s during the Black Death, but it went on year after year. When Thomas Thistlewood arrived in Jamaica in 1750 he was told that only 14 out of 136 who had arrived on a ship 16 months earlier were still alive.

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