GLOSSARY: slave auctions

“Gentlemen, here is a likely boy; how much? He is sold for no fault; the owner wants money. His age is forty. Three hundred dollars is all that I am offered for him. Please to examine him; he is warranted sound. Boy, pull off your shirt – roll up your pants – for we want to see if you have been whipped.”

an excerpt from Narrative of Henry Watson, Fugitive Slave,” 1848



Slaves were treated very much like animals during the auction process: potential buyers would open their mouths to look at their teeth, inspect their limbs to see if they were strong, and ask them to strip naked so they could see if they had any marks or injuries. The seller would often cover his slaves with grease or oil to make their skin look healthier – they would also put grease around the slaves’ mouths, to make it appear as if they have just been eating a hearty meal, though they were kept in pens prior to the auction and were seldom fed.

Slaves were sometimes given pet-names, like Cupid or Little Joe, and were often sold along with livestock and dry goods (coffee, tea, ribbon, etc.).


Advertisement for Slave Sale, Georgia, 1860_jpg


The following is an excerpt from a New York Tribune article from 1859 (the year Boucicault’s The Octoroon premiered). The article, commissioned by the paper’s abolitionist editor-in-chief Horace Greenley, reports on a slave auction in Savannah, Georgia, at which over four hundred slaves were put on the auction block.

“‘Elisha,’ chattel No. 5 in the catalogue, had taken a fancy to a benevolent looking middle-aged gentleman, who was inspecting the stock, and thus used his powers of persuasion to induce the benevolent man to purchase him, with his wife, boy and girl, Molly, Israel and Sevanda, chattels Nos. 6, 7 and 8. The earnestness with which the poor fellow pressed his suit, knowing, as he did, that perhaps the happiness of his whole life depended on his success, was interesting, and the arguments he used were most pathetic. He made no appeal to the feelings of the buyer; he rested no hope on his charity and kindness, but only strove to show how well worth his dollars were the bone and blood he was entreating him to buy.

‘Look at me, Mas’r; am prime rice planter; sho’ you won’t find a better man den me; no better on de whole plantation; not a bit old yet; do mo’ work den ever; do carpenter work, too, little; better buy me, Mas’r; I’se be good sarvant, Mas’r. Molly, too, my wife, Sa, fus rate rice hand; mos as good as me. Stan’ out yer, Molly, and let the gen’lm’n see.’

His wife Molly advances, with her hands crossed on her bosom, and makes a quick short curtsy, and stands mute, looking appealingly in the benevolent man’s face. But Elisha talks all the faster.

‘Show mas’r yer arm Molly – good arm dat mas’r – she do a heap of work mo’ with dat arm yet. Let good mas’r see yer teeth Molly – see dat mas’r, teeth all reg’lar, all good – she’m young gal yet. Come out yer Israel, walk aroun’ an’ let the gen’lm’n see how spry you be.’

Then, pointing to the three-year-old girl who stood with her chubby hand to her mouth, holding on to her mother’s dress, and uncertain what to make of the strange scene. ‘Little Vardy’s on’y a chile yet; make prime gal by-and-by. Better buy us mas’r, we’m fus’ rate bargain” – and so on. But the benevolent gentleman found where he could drive a closer bargain, and so bought somebody else…”

Click here to read first-hand accounts of 19th century slave auctions.

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