Slavery

The well-being of the enslaved: accidents, self-injury and suicide

The enslaved laborers’ daily life was characterized by hard and dangerous work, abuse and tremendous frustration. This is evident from the injuries they suffered, either because of work accidents or because their existence became so unbearable that they chose to injure themselves.
The picture shows the mill on the plantation Rust Op Twist, St. Croix.
Many jobs on the plantations could cause work injuries. The windmill was one of the hazardous places. The picture shows the mill on the plantation Rust Op Twist, St. Croix. Drawing by C.J.N. Kierulff, from the middle of the 1800s. The Royal Library (Danish National Library).

Work accidents

Major and minor work accidents were very common among the enslaved laborers, but it was something that seldom led to death, however. Nor when an enslaved got his hand crushed in the sugar mill – as described here by Dr. Feilberg from St. John in his annual medical report from 1836 to the authorities in Copenhagen:

Among unfortunate occurrences come to my attention, I must note a Negro boy, who on the plantation Annaberg was put to throwing sugar cane in among the cylinders of the windmill, which through his carelessness grabbed his fingers and ground off his right hand. I amputated the arm immediately, and he is now, with the exception of the loss of his hand, quite well.

Self-injury

Nor was it unusual that enslaved laborers chose to do injury to themselves. The desperate objective was to do damage to the plantation owner by damaging his property, i.e., the enslaved himself. In the medical report from 1836, Dr. Feilberg gave this example:

Another Negro on the plantation Vaninisberg [St. John] struck himself in desperation with an axe three times on his left arm, one of which penetrated his wrist, and the two others the Radius and the Ulna [bones in the forearm], so that his hand only hung from his arm by the skin. I also amputated his arm […]

Suicide

In the most extreme consequence, frustration and desperation over the lack of control over their own lives could drive the enslaved laborers to suicide. It did not happen daily, but it was not entirely uncommon, either. Drowning was a common method, which is evident from the post-mortem examination certificate of the royal district doctor (Landphysicus) of January 17, 1817, in the form of a message from a plantation overseer on St. Croix:

Sir. I am sorry to inform you a Negro of the name of Johnny who was always a watchman [and a] runaway since Monday last, threw himself into the below well this morning and drowned himself. He is much bruised from the fall. I know no reason for this unfortunate accident. There was [sic] only two fowls missing from the watch house. I have left him here in case it is necessary to call the judge.

Another way to lose one’s life which was in line with self-injury is shown laconically by the district doctor’s accounting ledger for October 28, 1812

Went and examind a Negro at Estate Cane Bay [who] died of stabbing himself. [Price:] 25 Pieces-of-Eight.

Literature

Niklas Thode Jensen, For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, Medicine and Power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2012.

The drawing shows the hospital in Christiansted, St. Croix.
When the enslaved laborers who were owned by the state were injured or became ill, they were admitted to the public hospitals. The drawing shows the hospital in Christiansted, St. Croix, c. 1778. Drawn by Peter Lotharius Oxholm. Danish National Archives, Rentekammeret (“Revenue Office”), archive no. 303, Kort og tegninger (“Maps and drawings”) 1600-1920, map no. 337.316.”