Time, slavery and plantation capitalism in the ante-bellum American south

Time, slavery and plantation capitalism in the ante-bellum American south

Mark M. Smith


In so far as they have considered the matter at all, historians of the American slave South have usually characterized southerners’ attitudes towards time as premodern. By most accounts, antebellum southerners, black and white, considered nature’s rhythms, not the clock, the legitimate arbiters of work and social organization. In his seminal study Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene Genovese explained why:

The planters’ problem came to this: . . . How could they instill factorylike discipline into a working population engaged in a rural system that, for all its tendencies toward modern discipline, remained bound to the rhythms of nature and to traditional ideas of work, time, and leisure? . . . The slaves could and did work hard, as their African ancestors had before them . . . But they resisted that regularity and routine which became the sine qua non for industrial society and which the planters, despite their own rejection of so much of the bourgeois work ethic, tried to impose upon them.

Yet if slave-holders did attempt to instil a “factorylike” time-discipline in their bondpeople, and if slaves did manage to resist clock-time regularity and routine, Genovese and those who have accepted his interpretation have declined to document how and why. (1)

Partly in answer to Genovese’s question, and partly in rebuttal of his interpretation, this article documents the emergence of a clock-dependent time-consciousness in the slave South during and after the 1830s. It contends that the application of clocks and watches to plantation slave labour reveals the stirring of a capitalistic impulse among ante-bellum southern masters. Contrary to the widely held assumption that the slave mode of production and its dependence on agricultural seasons necessarily fostered a predominantly natural (and hence precapitalist) time-awareness among southern masters, the following analysis of planters’ application of the mechanical timepiece to plantation labour not only shows that slave-holders managed to introduce the clock and watch to the field, but suggests that the strategies such an introduction demanded made them think and act like clock-conscious capitalists. In rendering their slaves extremely sensitive to (and obedient of) clock-time, ante-bellum southern masters succeeded in regulating slave work-times and work-rates by the clock, and in effect produced a time-based form of plantation capitalism that has remained overlooked by historians of the old South. This argument also has implications for the historical study of time and time-awareness generally, for by examining the emergence of a modern time-sensibility among both masters and slaves, the notion that the application of the watch to labour can occur only within the context of modern industrial capitalism is shown to be misleading, and indeed partly to blame for the enduring idea that the slave South was somehow marginal to the emergence of capitalism in the nineteenth century.


One reason behind southern historians’ continued emphasis on the ante-bellum South’s putative natural time-awareness may be found in their unquestioning faith in E. P. Thompson’s influential essay, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”. This reliance has led them to apply a model of the emergence of a modern time-sensibility and its relationship to capitalism that simply does not fit the slave South very well.(2) Thompson, after all, detailed the battle between nineteenth-century English factory workers’ preindustrial, natural time-consciousness and a modern, factory-owner-inspired time-discipline. Because factory workers came to own watches, and because they were co-opted by managers’ insistence on the relationship between time and wage, Thompson argued that workers slowly relinquished their natural time-sensibility, replacing it with a modern, internalized respect for time which gave them time-discipline or an “inward notation of time”.(3) Put simply, Thompson’s pioneering but brittle task-orientation/time-discipline model cannot apply to a slave society where there were no Puritan-inspired managers, where work was largely seasonal and diurnal, and where the workers themselves had no access to mechanical timepieces – which, according to both Thompson and Genovese, is a prerequisite for internalizing a time-discipline.(4)

Instead of the task-orientation/time-discipline distinction, the following analysis of the emergence of a modern, clock-dependent time-sensibility among ante-bellum planters, and how this in turn affected slaves’ perceptions of time, relies on a model which takes account of the continued and enduring presence of a natural time-understanding that was articulated, not to a time-discipline, but to something which may be termed time-obedience. Used here, time-obedience refers to a respect for mechanical time among workers that, unlike time-discipline, was not internalized, but was rather enforced by time-conscious planters, either with the threat or the use of violence or with the constant repetition of mechanically defined time through sound, as with the chiming of clock-regulated bells. Just as medieval European church-clocks had “regulated the movements of the town with militant imperiousness”, so ante-bellum southern slave-owners came to apply an essentially preindustrial association of time with sound to their plantations for the capitalist purpose of promoting plantation order and efficiency in slave labour.(5)

And yet, as C. Vann Woodward has pointed out, southern history is riddled with no few and no small ironies.(6) In the process of importing the clock and watch to the plantation field, and into their society generally, masters made a self-defeating bid for modernity. Although unable to inculcate an internal respect for time among their slaves, masters’ coveted ownership of clocks and watches altered their own attitudes towards and appreciation of clock-time. In short, in their effort to time slaves’ work-rates and define slaves’ working hours by the clock, masters themselves internalized their commitment to a time they had hoped would control their chattels. While they failed to create a wholly time-disciplined proletariat, in the sense that E. P. Thompson defines it, slave-holders, because and in spite of themselves, moulded themselves into time-conscious planter capitalists. The price to pay for regulating slaves’ work by the clock was masters’ temporal enslavement to clock-time itself.


Given the symbolic, ambivalent nature of the timepiece, the limited evidence available for ascertaining the incidence of clock and watch ownership in ante-bellum America is necessarily ambiguous.(7) Neither qualitative evidence nor statistics tell us much about Americans’ attitudes towards the use of time. All that is known about clock ownership in the ante-bellum North, for example, is that with the revolution in northern clock manufacturing after the 1820s the number of people owning clocks was not insignificant.(8)

About levels and rates of increase of clock and watch ownership among colonial and ante-bellum white southerners we know a little more. In general terms, by the end of the Civil War nearly 70 per cent of white southern heads of household owned either a clock or a watch or both. In the rural plantation district of Laurens County, South Carolina, for example, the proportion of slave-holders owning clocks and watches increased from about 5 per cent in the late 1780s to over 75 per cent by 1865; the corresponding figures for non-slaveholding whites in this area are respectively 7 and roughly 70 per cent. Slave-owner or no, rural southerners generally tended to purchase the more affordable clock (rather than a watch), especially during the 1830s, when mass-produced clocks from Europe and the North entered the southern market in considerable numbers. Levels and rates of increase of timepiece ownership for the few urban regions of the South were comparable with those in rural areas.(9)

The 1830s was also the decade when, in the slave South, natural time began to give way to and become juxtaposed with mechanically derived time. During and after the 1830s southerners generally demonstrated an increasing concern with punctuality, mainly prompted by the arrival of the railroad and the expansion of the postal service. By 1834, for example, South Carolina’s 136-mile Charleston and Hamburg railroad had in part achieved its promise to attain “the greatest possible regularity in the time of running Passenger Engines” by the strategic placing of clocks at six of its most important depots and by requiring station agents to send a daily log of arrival and departure times to the railroad’s head office in Charleston. By 1845 the railroad was efficient enough to persuade the United States postal service, long considered the paragon of punctuality, that it could deliver the mail on time.(10)

The most potent force pushing the South’s planter class towards the adoption of clock-time in the fields, however, was the rise of scientific agriculture in the decades after 1830 and the attendant desire to embrace progress. Although certainly influenced by developments outside the South, the arguments for a more scientific plantation agriculture grew from within the ranks of the planter class and drew strength from their intense desire to be considered modern, a label that appeared increasingly incongruous with the international rise of the abolition movement in the same period.(11) This point is well developed by Eugene Genovese. As he has recently and convincingly demonstrated, the pro-slavery arguments of the major thinkers of the ante-bellum South were esssentially an articulation of a peculiarity southern dilemma – that faced by a slave-holding society desperate to embrace modernity in a world where progress was increasingly defined by the principles of free wage labour. In the end, according to Genovese, this contradiction proved irreconcilable and helped propel secession.(12)

While Genovese is certainly astute to identify this dilemma, he is perhaps less sensitive to some of the methods slave-holders used to try to resolve it. The application of mechanical time to plantation labour, it seems, provided planters with one possible, though temporary, solution. By appropriating basic tenets of capitalism, such as the timing of work, but simultaneously repudiating “the cult of progress” epitomized in northern free wage labour, southerners discovered, in Genovese’s words, “an alternate route to modernity”: a way to garb the South in modern dress without jeopardizing the integrity of its non-wage-based society. In some important respects, in fact, the use of the clock to regulate work was potentially of greater benefit to southern masters than it was to northern or British capitalists. Not only would the appeal to clock-based time give southerners a partial claim to progress, not only would the timing of slave labour yield economic benefits, but if the imposition of a respect for the clock among slaves proved successful, then, ideally, the discipline provided by the lash would be rendered of secondary importance to a discipline governed by the clock. “Order”, as planters were fond of putting it, after Pope, “is Heaven’s first law”.(13)

Consequently, during the three decades leading up to the Civil War southern planters increasingly tried to ape time-thrifty northern managers. Public pronouncements to this effect littered the South’s agricultural and literary journals, which routinely reprinted northern articles concerning the relationship between “Time and Money”. Aphorisms from Benjamin Franklin’s colonial Poor Richard’s Almanac were most popular. “If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality”, Franklin was quoted as saying in Virginia’s Farmers’ Register in 1838. For good measure, the editor added “lost time is never found again”. Other southern agricultural journals habitually advised planters to “[agree] with Dr. Franklin, that ‘time is money'”, and in order to save it slave-holders were counselled to avoid “procrastination” by addressing the “Business of To-Morrow” today. Unlike southern planters, argued a writer in De Bow’s Review in 1854, the capitalist Yankee “has no time for shooting for a beef at the cross-roads or the grocery. With him life is too short to lose a moment; every hour has its business”. It was therefore recommended, “[l]et us imitate them in all their good and valuable qualities”. Such suggestions in turn inspired southern planters to compose articles on, among other things, “Punctuality”, the “Value of Time” and “How to Save Time”.(14)

Similar sentiments appeared in slave-owners’ private correspondence, suggesting that homilies on time-thrift and progress were not simply hollow rhetoric or of merely symbolic importance. Some planters evidently acted on published advice. During a trip north in 1828, for example, planter William Elliott told his wife: “I have looked attentively at the machinery of the Great Waltham factory – and think I have secured some hints which may be useful in the preparation of our cotton for market”.(15) In 1836 he took a closer look: “I am busily engaged inspecting some of their labour saving machines – with a view to adopt some of the least costly”. He was impressed, and not a little intimidated: “I have been to Lowell only to wonder at the unsurpassed manufacturing power . . . such is the complication of the machinery, I can hardly hope to understand it to any profit”.(16) Elliott was too modest. Not only did he have the wherewithal to understand that “[t]he painstaking of an operative manufacture must be added to the duties of the agriculturalist – or he will reap nothing but disappointment and vexation”, but he actively took steps to remedy the fact that “we waste time . . . in the way we cultivate” by introducing threshing equipment to his plantation.(17)

Born of trends within the South during the 1830s and of envious glances northwards, the application of mechanically defined time to slave labour seemed a logical and necessary step. Naturally, slave-holders were aware that timing slaves’ labour was different from the use of the clock under wage labour. As a contributor to the Southern Agriculturalist rightly observed in 1833:

If I employ a labourer to perform a certain quantum of work per day, and I agree to pay him a certain amount for the performance of said work, when he has accomplished it, I of course, have no further claim on him for his time or services. But how different it is with a slave!

Yet this did not necessarily mean that the clock or watch should not or could not be applied to plantation labour. Because the ideal for planters was heralded as “the proper application of their [slaves’] time”, and because the “plantation might be considered as a piece of machinery” whose successful operation required that “all of its parts should be uniform and exact, and the impelling force regular and steady”, clock-time had obvious benefits, not only for improving efficiency and regulating rates of work, but for the simple purpose of maintaining plantation order and discipline.(18)

Nor did importing clocks and watches to the field conflict with planters’ reliance on nature as the engine of plantation routine. Slave-holders were often contemptuous of farmers who attempted to dominate natural forces. As James Hamilton Couper of Georgia, long considered one of the South’s leading scientific planters, argued in 1833, “[t]he great error of this system has been, that man, instead of following the golden maxim of Lord Bacon, of conquering nature by obeying her laws, has endeavoured, in opposition to those laws, to force her into a subservience to his own views”.(19) Conservatives that they were, planters were loath wholly to revolutionize their mode of production. Instead, the application of clock-time to plantation operations could be profitably insinuated within the existing diurnal and seasonal round established by nature, and thus be used to reconcile southerners’ traditional concern for preserving social order with their growing desire to modernize.


There is a striking unanimity of evidence that planters of all kinds applied clock-time to plantation agriculture in some fashion. Many planters imported clock-time into diurnal rhythms simply for the purpose of regulating labour and establishing plantation order. Public statements to this effect were commonplace. One Alabama slave-holder, for example, informed readers of De Bow’s Review at some length in 1852 that he required his slaves to:

rise in time to be at their labour by light. Their breakfast hour is eight o’clock . . . which requires fifteen minutes . . . In the winter they have one hour, and summer three to rest, in the heat of the day . . . I require them to retire at nine o’clock precisely. The foreman calls the roll at that hour, and two or three times during the night, to see that all are at their places.

“By pursuing this plan with my servants”, he concluded, “they become attached to me, and have respect for my orders”.(20)

Yet planters who owned only a clock (not a watch), but who nevertheless wanted to introduce mechanical time to the field, obviously encountered the problem of how to communicate time. Housebound as the plantation clock was, some planters looked to the old, urban tradition of communicating time through sound. Appealing to a past with which they were familiar to guarantee an unknown, modern future provided them no little solace.(21)

By verifying the time by the housebound plantation clock, some slave-holders translated house-time into field-time by ringing bells and blowing horns, and thereby attempted to regulate at least work-times, if not work-rates, on their plantations. One Virginia planter of the 1850s explained in detail his use of the clock-regulated plantation horn in scheduling plantation affairs. The first point in his list of instructions to his overseer read:

It is strictly required of the manager that he rise at the dawn of day every morning; that he blow a horn for the assembling of the hands; require all hands to repair to a certain and fixed place in ten minutes after the blowing of the horn, and there himself see that all are present, or notice absentees . . .

The sixth point explained: “There will be stated hours for the negroes to breakfast and dine, and those hours must be regularly observed. Breakfast will be at eight o’clock, and dinner at one o’clock”. And point thirteen: “A horn will be sounded every night at nine o’clock, after every negro will be required to be at his quarters . . .”.(22) To co-ordinate labour with the sound of clock-time, another planter had advice for small and large slaveholders alike:

A large-sized cow bell that could be heard two miles, and would not cost more than three or four dollars, would serve not only as a signal for bed time, but also for getting up of a morning, for ceasing work at noon and resuming it after dinner. Where the distance to be heard is not great, a common bar of cast steel, hung up by passing a wire through one end, may be struck with a hammer, and will answer in place of a bell.(23)

For planters yet to embrace clock-regulated plantation time, advice was sought from editors of southern agricultural periodicals. In July 1855, for example, “S. H. C.” wrote to the editors of Georgia’s Southern Cultivator:

Permit me, through the medium of your valuable paper, to inquire whether or not, there is such a thing as a plantation Clock? . . . It often happens on a plantation, that the overseer or driver, is not at his post just at the proper time in the morning to start all hands promptly, thereby causing confusion and disorder, rarely restored during the day . . . Now, what I want, is, an alarm clock, of sufficient size and capacity to ring, or put in motion, a 50 or 60 pound bell, so arranged as to alarm at any hour desired. If there is such a thing in use, where can it be had? If there is nothing of the sort known, who will make one, or suggest the best plan . . .?

The editor’s answer was brief, matter-of-fact, and to the point:

If your overseer sleeps at home, a common alarm clock ought to be sufficient to awake him, at any hour desired. If you wish a clock large enough to wake up every person on the plantation, you can have it made at a cost, probably, of $30 or $40, by addressing C. Jerome, Clock Manufacturer, New Haven, Conn.(24)

Clock-regulated plantation time was clearly as much a practical concern as symbolic.

Testimony by former slaves interviewed during the 1930s verifies that the practice of communicating housebound clock-time to the fields through sound was common. In the plantation house, former Mississippi slave Laura Montgomery told her interviewer, “[d]e clock sot on top of de mantle an’ Marse Bill had to stan’ up in a cheer to win’ dat clock”. When it was time for her to go to the field, “Marse would blow [his horn] dat hour every mornin’ an’ we had to git out right now and start dat work”. Ex-slave Prince Johnson echoed this account: “Every morning about four o’clock we could hear that horn blow for us to get up and go to the field”. So too with Anderson Williams and Sam Anderson: “At 3:00 O’clock in de mornin’ de bell was rung . . . an’ at 4:00 o’clock every nigger must be ready to go to de fiel'”, and “[d]e overseer had a darky to ring bell or blow horn at four o’clock to get up by mornings”.(25)

Those planters most devoted to the cause of progress mimicked northern factory-owning moderns to the extreme. Such progressive planters could employ the task or gang system; to them, it was the timing of work-rates that mattered. These were planters who did not want merely to order the times of work, but who aimed, like northern factory-owners, to regulate the productivity and rate of labour as well. The saving and manipulation of labour-time was of great importance to such masters; whatever the plantation activity, time could always be saved, their bond-people’s labour abstracted and then translated into clock-time:

To make one negro cook for all is a saving of time. If there be but ten hands, and these are allowed two hours at noon, one of which is employed in cooking their dinner, for all purposes of rest, that hour had as well be spent in ploughing or hoeing, and would be equal to ten hours work of one hand; whereas the fourth of that time would be sufficient for one to cook for all.(26)

Such tortured mental gymnastics could only have been born of a mind concerned with saving labour-time.

These abstractions were often realized in that most corporeal of settings, the plantation field. As “labourlords” first and landlords second, ante-bellum southern planters, always interested in practical ways to increase output per hand, embraced the idea of regulating the rate of their slaves’ labour by the watch. For instance, James Thomas of Hancock County, Georgia, found ways to apply the watch to his bondpeople’s labour and thereby maximize its output. After some experimenting, Thomas “found that his Negroes would do 15 per cent more work in very hot weather if given a five-minute rest period after each period of labor”. Similar ideas informed the planting practices of a South Carolina slave-holder in 1843. At the back of his plantation journal, under entries headed “Work timed by watch” for August, he recorded:

Summer House field. It takes exactly 5 minutes to run a furrow from one end of the cotton rows to the other that is to say from the S. H. thicket [d] own to the Bay. From S. House thicket down to Jackson Branch, next [to] Charleston road = 15 minutes. Planted the Alligator [field] in Corn 6 by 4, 1 hand to drop & 2 hoes to cover – in 3 days – commencing on the 1st day about 8 o’clock. Alligator. Time taken to run round a row with shovel 14 minutes this allows for stopping, turning. &c.(27)

Nor was this application of watch-time to slaves’ work limited to the gang system. While the task system, used primarily in the rice-growing regions of the South, has been subject to much enquiry, historians have yet to ascertain exactly how a task was defined by planters. On the surface, it would appear that the task system, with its built-in incentives for slaves to finish their work or predetermined day’s task and then claim the rest of the day as their own, would obviate the need for the timing of work by watch. In one sense, this is true. Slaves established an almost inviolable (if sometimes exaggerated) right to work at their task at their own pace; those who worked quickly, finished early.(28) But what remains unclear is how planters defined what constituted a day’s work or task in the first place. Former slave John Brown of Georgia shed light on this in his ante-bellum autobiography. Brown’s master was a firm believer in the watch as the best measure of what constituted a task. Brown explained:

My old master . . . would pick out two or more of the strongest [hands], and excite them to race at hoeing or picking . . . He would stand with his watch in his hand, observing their movements, whilst they hoed or picked . . . Whatever [the winner] did, within a given time, would be multiplied by a certain rule, for the day’s work, and every man’s task would be staked out accordingly.(29)

Task-oriented Brown’s labour may have been, but beyond the domain of the watch it was not.

The commitment to plantation clock-time was, however, a double-edged sword for masters, because it forced them to internalize a time-discipline that the timing of their bondpeople required. Sometimes this manifested itself in masters’ nostalgic appeals to an idealized past. “Oh for a Snug little farm where I could indulge my fondness for the Country & for Agriculture”, mused James Henry Hammond in 1846. In maudlin and romantic terms he wished he could abandon a society which “depends on having every screw tight & the whole machinery moving on clock work principles”. It was not only the time consumed by finding a new overseer and buying his slaves’ clothes, but the very concept of time ownership itself and the inroads made by clock-regulated slavery on to his own time, that planter William Elliott loathed. As he told his mother in December 1857: “I regret that I cannot fix a time for visiting you. I am the slave of circumstances, some of them not free from vexation, which does not allow me to call my time my own”.(30)

For others it was the heightened sense of punctuality instilled in plantation households by time-obedience that proved too much. “‘Order is Heaven’s first law’ and a good thing in any family”, agreed one planter’s guest in 1859. But the clockwork punctuality demanded by the plantation-owners was, in his opinion, excessive, and threatened his very freedom:

Then the terrible punctuality which made slaves of all of us, and kept me always looking at my watch, and always afraid of being late for something, as, indeed, I was once for dinner, in spite of all my precaution – four minutes and a half exactly. Shall I ever forget it?

Allies against the tyrant time and its enforcer, the plantation mistress, were, however, found in the children, “they conveying to me private warnings as to how soon the prayer bell would ring in the morning, and furnishing me with much valuable secret intelligence as to the enemy’s weak points . . .”.(31) Once they had created time the tyrant, slave-owners could not depose it. And to a people with a heightened sense of mastery, their own temporal enslavement must have been a bitter pill to swallow, even if it did keep bondpeople in check.


Because few if any clocks or watches were present in pre-twentieth-century West Africa, slaves newly arrived in the American South harboured a task-oriented, natural and essentially preindustrial time-sensibility. What little work has been done on African time-sensibilities, and the recorded impressions of eigteenth- and nineteenth-century European travellers in West Africa, reaffirm the belief that mechanically regulated time was alien to these societies.(32)

As long as southern slave-holders themselves were committed to natural time, then recently arrived African slaves were unlikely to find their time-sensibilities attacked. Certainly, evidence from the eighteenth-century South suggests that slaves kept their commitment to naturally defined time intact.(33) According to their white captors, Virginia runaways from the 1760s, for example, “say they have been ten Moons from home”; so too with a South Carolina slave from the mid-eighteenth century, who claimed “that he has made two crops for his master, and has been absent from his service two moons”. When urged to provide more specific estimates of time, slaves from the colonial period turned to the sun. “Sun about one or two hours high”, recalled George Nichols, a slave implicated in a 1748 South Carolina conspiracy.(34) For the colonial slave, at least, African definitions of time, especially concerning its source, remained largely unaltered, partly due to the strength of the collective African-American memory but, perhaps more importantly, because such definitions had yet to come under attack from slave-holders.

It would be misleading to say that an African, preindustrial time-consciousness, broadly construed, crumbled as soon as slaveholders introduced clock-time to the plantation. After all, masters were naturally reluctant to make timepieces available to slaves, so many had to turn to the sun or the moon if they were to estimate time at all. Indeed, masters seem to have guarded both the secret of time-telling and the instruments themselves, reserving the use of a clock or watch for slaves whose plantation duties necessitated reading and understanding mechanically defined time. House servants, cooks especially, needed to know the time in order to serve meals punctually and so were one of the few groups privy to the secret of the clock. As former Georgia slave James Bolton revealed: “Mistess done larned the cook to count the clock, but none of the rest of our niggers could count the clock”. Cooks could, however, recruit the sun if occasion demanded. Former slave Sina Banks explained:

My sister done all the cooking and as they were short handed in the field she had to help in the field, too. She would put the meat for the vegetables on to boil and she would mark on the floor to show me where the sun would be when it was ten o’clock and I would put the vegetables in to boil with the meat . . . It was a lonesome job just sitting there waiting for the sun to tell me it was ten o’clock.

Tob Davis of Texas spoke for the majority of slaves, however: “Dey don’t have de watches dem deys fo’ de nigger so dey can’t tell de time”.(35)

Without access to a timepiece, slaves drew on their African heritage to determine and define time by their own standards, and so, in part at least, kept alive a cultural tradition. Missouri ex-slave Jane Simpson described just such a process. “We didn’t own no clocks dem days”, she recalled, “[w]e just told de time by de sun in de day and de stars at night. If it was clouded we didn’t know what time it was”. As to why this was the case, she was explicit: “De white folks didn’t want to let de slaves have no time for der self. . .”. Marginalized from mechanical sources of time, slaves like this one used traditional West African methods to determine time. Sometimes such efforts were successful: “[D]e old folks used to let us chillun run and play at night, while de white folks sleep and dey watch de stars to tell what time to call us in and put us to bed, ‘fore de white folks know we was out”.(36)

The attitudes of the masters towards the relationship between clock-time and nature was also responsible for the slaves’ continued appeal to natural time. Because slave-owners themselves were unable to avoid natural rhythms completely, even if they had wanted to, plantation agriculture was necessarily dependent to no small degree on nature’s temporal limits. Rather than engage in a fruitless combat with nature, planters instead worked within her seasonal and daily parameters, insinuating mechanically defined time where appropriate. The result was a plantation routine that looked to natural rhythms and cues as well as to artificial or mechanical ones; a routine that relied as much on the rising of the sun as it did on the ticking of the clock.

This juxtaposition of natural and mechanical time was especially apparent in planters’ efforts to communicate household clock-time to the fields, as former Texas slaves Lee McGillery and Jack Harrison remembered. Harrison recalled of his former master: “He gets up every morning about 3:30 o’clock [and] we always out in the field waiting for it to get light so we could see how to work. We worked every day just as long as we could see”. The practice of pre-empting sunrise with the clock, thus enabling masters to get their slaves to the field before dawn, was described by McGillery too: “Master always wake the slaves his self about four o’clock every morning, so’s we would be in the field waiting for daylight to come then”.(37) It was this meshing of mechanical and natural time and the room for manoeuvre that it provided that explains slaves’ continuing ability to appeal to and retain a preindustrial, African time-sensibility. But as with all forms of slave resistance, broadly defined, there were identifiable, sometimes impenetrable, limits.


Although slave-holders were unwilling and unable to instil a classic time-discipline into their workforce, this did not mean that slaves escaped altogether the rigours of clock-regulated labour. If watchless slaves could hardly be expected to develop an internalized respect for time, they could be forced to obey the master’s watch directly or, indirectly, the sound of time. And if the regularity of the watch or the sound of scheduled times failed to inspire time-obedience, then the lash would.

Slaves who were timed in the field by their master’s watch certainly felt the pressure of time hurrying them in their labour. Mose Smith, a former Louisiana bondman, attested: “When I growed up they give me so many rows of cotton to hoe or pick. I work my own rows and they timed me so I had to hurry to get the work done, and when they send me off the farm to do a chore they time me on that”. So too with Calvin Moye: “When dey all goes to work dey would work till 11:30 and den takes off and eats dinner and go back to work at 1 o’clock by Maser Ingram’s watch . . .”.(38) Pushing slaves against the watch directly not only allowed planters to control their rate of work; it also made slaves more punctual, and sensitive to the idea and the regulatory power of clock-time. “One mornin'”, remembered a former Alabama slave, “I had started to the ‘field an’ on the way, I los’ my piece o’ bread”. Having found it, he felt compelled to “hurry to make up for los’ time”. And the point that certain tasks were defined by the clock was noted by the former Texas slave Ed Domino: “Us go down d’ row [in] ’bout t’ree minutes”.(39)

Even if their work-rates were not timed in the field by the planter’s watch, slaves were, perhaps inevitably, doomed to succumb to the punctuality required by mechanical time. Sometimes, this occurred simply because slaves too lived in an increasingly punctual society and so came to share their masters’ concerns about temporal precision. “Oh! Lord yes”, recalled ex-North Carolina slave Sarah Louise Augustus, “I remember the stage coach. As many times as I run to carry the mail to them when they come by! They blew a horn before they got there and you had to be on time ’cause they could not wait”. Neither were urban slaves immune from the regulatory power of the town clock, which masters appear to have recruited in their efforts to order behaviour even during slaves’ supposed “off-times”: “[I]n Augusta [Georgia] you had to have a pass to go from house to house. You couldn’t go out at night in Augusta after 9 o’clock. They had a bell at the old market down yonder, and it would strike every hour and half hour”, remembered Aunt Adeline.(40)

The sound of clock-regulated plantation time was just as potent as the physical presence of the master, watch in hand. The memory of this obedience to aural time stuck in the minds of many ex-slaves, sometimes keenly. “Bells and horns! Bells for this and horns for that! All we knowed was go and come by the bells and horns”, smarted Charley Williams. Dave Walker, a former Mississippi slave, elaborated: “We wuz trained to live by signals of a ole cow horn. Us knowed whut each blow meant. All through de day de ole horn wuz blowed, to git up in de mo’nings, to go to de big kitchen out in Mars’ back yard ter eat, to go to de fields, an’ to come in an’ on lak dat all day”.(41)

Other former slaves testified to the freneticism that the sound of time engendered. “Wuk started on place in mawnins ’bout fo’ ‘clock”, noted Robert Young. “Overseer would ring a bell an’ I member hearin’ feets hit de flo’ one right atter ‘nother when de bell would ring. All de darkies got out to field as fast as they could”. “The hands was woke up in the morning with a big bell”, remembered ex-slave Susan Merrit; “[w]hen Master pulled that bell rope the Negroes fell out of them bunks like rain falling”.(42) Time-obedience was the partner of such harried behaviour. “There was a big dinner bell in the yard”, recalled an erstwhile Oklahoma slave, explaining: “When meal-time come, someone ring that bell, and all the slaves know it’s time to eat and stop their work . . . We had our time to go to bed and our time to get up in the morning”. “We was woke by a bell and called to eat by a bell and put to bed by that bell”, said another ex-slave, adding: “[A]nd if that bell ring outta time you’d see the niggers jumpin’ rail fences and cotton rows like deers or something, gettin’ to that house, ’cause that mean something bad wrong at massa’s house”. So intrusive, so commanding was the sound of plantation time that “[a]t twelve o’clock de cooks would blow a horn [and e]ven de hosses an’ de mules knowed dat horn an’ dey wouldn’t go a step further”.(43)

Slaves’ compulsion to obey aural plantation time was a result, not simply of the actual sound of the bell, but also of the ways masters ensured obedience to their sounding of the times. With their monopoly over both the tools of time and the tools of violence, planters were none too shy in compelling bondpeople’s obedience to aural time with the whip. According to former slave William Byrd:

Master, he had great iron piece hanging just out side his door and he hit that every morning at 3:30. The negroes they come tumbling out of their beds. If they didn’t master he come round in about thirty minutes with that cat-o-nine tails and begins to let negro have that and when he got through they knew what that bell was the next morning.

Other slaves got a second chance. Abram Sells’s Texas overseer “might not whip him fo’ bein’ late de fus’ time but dat nigger better not fo’git de secon’ time ‘n’ be late”. More often, however, demands for punctuality and violence went hand in hand: “The overseer giv’ them fifteen minutes to eat dinner. He didn’t tell us when the time to go back to work, but when he started cuffing some of them over the head we knowed it was time to go back to work”.(44) But if slaves’ harried, prompt, at times feverish responses to the clock-defined plantation bell is reminiscent of time-discipline, it should be remembered that their “respect” for the clock was born of fear, not of an internalized Protestant work ethic. Had the whip been taken away, most slaves would undoubtedly have resisted more stridently and more successfully.

This is not to say that attempts to resist did not occur; they did, depending largely on the occupation of the slave. House servants, those most likely to be trained in mechanical time-telling, seemingly feigned ignorance of clock-time with plantation visitors who knew no better. Harriet Martineau encountered what may have been subtle attempts at resistance by house servants in 1838. “The waking in the morning is accomplished by two or three black women staring at you from the bedposts”, she noted, complaining:

Then it is five minutes’ work to get them out of the room. Perhaps, before you are half dressed, you are summoned to breakfast. You look at your watch, and listen whether it has stopped, for it seems not to be seven o’clock yet . . . The young people drop in when the meal is half done, and then it is discovered that breakfast has been served an hour too early, because the clock stopped, and the cook has ordered affairs to her own conjectures.

Similarly, meal-times were at the discretion of the servants at the Milbank plantation, Virginia. According to one British visitor in 1862: “Dinner . . . is dependent entirely on the arrangements, or rather accidents of the negroes . . . The Milbank servants were very irregular. We never knew until the dinner-bell rang, whether it would be before twelve, or after three, or any intermediate hour . . .”. Given what we know about the subtle dynamics of planter paternalism and slave resistance, what these observers interpreted as typical black indifference to clock-time may well have been a clever ploy by southern house servants to manipulate white time-definitions by feigning ignorance and causing, for want of a better phrase, temporal inconveniences.(45)

Resistance in the field was possible, though more hazardous. Historians have, for example, provided ample documentation demonstrating that slaves were sometimes able to control and define the pace of their labour and thus, in a very practical sense, to regulate the rate of their work. But such efforts were not without their dangers. For “killing time” in this way, recalled a former slave, “you got 25 licks”. Starvation was another punishment, “because the overseer thought he hadn’t done enough work in a given time”. Black slave-drivers were especially able to detect “slackers” in the field, presumably because they themselves had experience of what could be done in a certain time. For this reason some planters made favoured slaves temporary custodians of their time. This sometimes meant buying them watches. South Carolina planter Edward Thomas Heriot, for example, “paid . . . E. H. Shackelford for repairs to two watches for Driver” in 1854. Other slaves regulated starting and finishing times for their master. Asked what her father did on the plantation, for example, Mary Jane of Georgia testified to the presence of such time-custodians when she answered, “My father was timekeeper”. And as George Skipworth, a slave entrusted to run his absentee master’s Alabama plantation, wrote to his owner in 1847: “when I come to them [the field hands] at twelve o clocke, they had cut me nineteen rows, and it would not take them more than ten minits to cut one roe . . .”. Skipworth meted out punishment accordingly. But the plantation timekeeper too could be punished for perceived slovenliness, and make trouble for everyone into the bargain. “Since the illness of Master”, recalled former slave Mattie Griffiths, “things had not gone on with the same precision as before. There was a few minutes difference in the blowing of the horn; and for offenses like these, Master had sworn deeply that ‘every nigger’s hide’ should be striped, as soon as he was able to preside at the ‘post'”.(46) Meaningful resistance to clock-time was a risky business for all concerned.


The use of the clock and watch in the field by southern masters, while in some ways necessarily distinct from the use of the clock in northern factories, was none the less a weapon – and an effective one – in regulating the timing and rate of economic productivity as well as the behaviour of southern bondpeople. Although the nature of agricultural labour made it difficult (though not impossible) for masters to use the clock to time rates and times of work in the field, the application of the mechanical timepiece to plantation labour gave ante-bellum slave-holders the appearance – and the reality – of being modern in a world that placed a high premium on progress.

The ability of slave-holders in the decades following 1830 to inspire an obedience to time among their workforce without either wholly jettisoning a commitment to natural time or embracing full-blown time-discipline suggests that not only is a re-evaluation of the usefulness of the task-orientation/time-discipline dichotomy in order, but that we also need to consider what the presence of time-obedience means for our understanding of the slave mode of production in the ante-bellum South. If time-obedience does in fact represent a mid-point in the continuum of precapitalist task-orientation to capitalist time-discipline, then it is misleading to label the South, at least after 1830, as either conventionally precapitalist or typically capitalist. Time-obedience, with the frenetically punctual behaviour it engendered among slaves and the strategies it demanded of planters, shares too many of the characteristics of both precapitalist and capitalist time-sensibilities described by Thompson for it to be considered truly representative of either. Slave-holders’ introduction of clock-time and time-obedience to plantation agriculture, then, may be the best illustration that we have to highlight the highly mixed and articulated nature of capitalism in the late ante-bellum South.

Time-obedience, I would suggest, points not to the presence of a bourgeois work ethic among slaves or masters, but rather to a conservative capitalistic impulse which linked slave-holders’ traditionalism with modernity, their concern being to preserve orderly, organic social relations while aping bourgeois economic ones. It was this admixture, and the resolution of premodern and modern impulses, that constituted the essence of plantation capitalism in the South. Marx, perhaps intuitively, called southern capitalism a sporadic phenomenon and described it as grafting itself on to the slave society.(47) Engrafted and sporadic it certainly was, because in the process of importing northern definitions of time-discipline to the South, important elements of this idea were either filtered out or forced to adapt to local circumstances, so producing time-obedience. It was not resistance by slaves and the stifling web of paternalism described by Genovese that stopped planters from duplicating time-discipline, but rather masters’ own monopoly of time and their grave reservations about taking the conventional route to modernity.

But the effect of this form of plantation capitalism on slaves and masters was, from the perspective of time-awareness, very similar to the impact the introduction of clock-time had on northern and European factory workers and their capitalist managers. The southern version of time-discipline proved just as potent to beleaguered, time-obedient southern bondpeople as it was to Thompson’s time-disciplined British proletariat. Nor were workers the only victims of the clock. Having recruited it both to further their mastery of slaves and to enter the august hall of modernity, planters themselves came to internalize a time-discipline. Slave-holders, in their quest for mastery and modernity, ultimately played an active if unwitting hand in undermining their own independence and inviting time the tyrant into their society.(48)

Civilization, then, need not be in the advanced stages of industrial capitalism for a natural time-sensibility to be polluted or mutated. Whether through subjective, insidious inculcation or uncompromising, objective force, and whether managed by slave-owning plantation capitalists or by mature factory-owning moderns, clock-time has the ability to make both workers and its instigators obey its relentless orders. If, as Thompson assumed, the only way to escape the tyranny of the clock is to “re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution”, the question remains, to which age should we turn for instruction?(49) Romantics would do well to look outside the old South for their answers.

1 Quotation from Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, 2nd edn (New York, 1976), pp. 286, 309. He quotes two pieces of slave testimony and very little supporting evidence to justify this rather sweeping conclusion: ibid., p. 730 n. 17. Of course, any summary of Genovese’s rich and complex work risks over-simplification, and one is best off consulting Genovese himself rather than his interpreters. Recommended in this context are E. D. Genovese, “Marxian Interpretations of the Slave South”, in Barton J. Bernstein (ed.), Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (New York, 1968), pp. 90-126; E. D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (Middletown, Conn., 1961); E. D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism (New York, 1983). Among those historians stressing the modern, capitalist nature of the slave South, the position is stated most clearly and convincingly by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 vols. (Boston, 1976), esp. i, pp. 202-9; James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York, 1983). It should be noted that Fogel and Engerman insist that southern slaves developed what amounted to a Protestant work ethic without considering the question of planters’ or slaves’ conceptions of time. The only historians who have examined southern time-sensibilities have done so for the colonial period, where they correctly discern a natural time-awareness among black and white southerners: Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton, 1987), pp. 15-64; Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (New York, 1982), pp. 77-8, 84-5.

2 E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, Past and Present, no. 38 (Dec. 1967), pp. 56-97. On the essay’s enormous influence in American historiography, see Michael O’Malley, “Time, Work and Task Orientation: A Critique of American Historiography”, Time and Society, i (1992), pp. 341-58; Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America (New York, 1966); Jonathan Prude, The Coming of Industrial Order: Towns and Factory Life in Rural Massachusetts, 1810-1860 (Cambridge, 1983). Eugene Genovese’s indebtedness to Thompson’s essay in this context is quite apparent: Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, pp. 289-94, 729 nn. 13, 15. Mechal Sobel too relies on Genovese and Thompson: Sobel, World They Made Together, pp. 250 n. 3, 251 nn. 20, 22, 26. For a thoughtful critique of Thompson’s essay and its limitations when applied to Tokugawa Japan, see Thomas C. Smith, “Peasant Time and Factory Time in Japan”, Past and Present, no. 111 (May 1986), pp. 165-97. An excellent discussion of these issues generally may be found in Barbara Adam, Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time (Cambridge, 1995), esp. ch. 4.

3 Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, p. 57.

4 “However much the slaveholders might have wished to transform their slaves into clock-punchers, they could not, for in a variety of senses both literal and metaphoric, there were no clocks to punch”: Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, pp. 291-2; see also Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”. The most convincing statements about southerners’ lack of a Protestant-inspired work ethic and their aversion to Puritanism are to be found in C. Vann Woodward, “The Southern Ethic in a Puritan World”, in his American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (New York, 1971), pp. 13-46; James L. Peacock, “The Southern Protestant Ethic Disease”, in J. Kenneth Morland (ed.), The Not So Solid South: Anthropological Studies in a Regional Subculture (Athens, Ga, 1971), pp. 108-13. For a different interpretation, see Edmund S. Morgan, “The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution”, William and Mary Quart., 3rd ser., xxiv (1967), pp. 3-43.

5 I am aware of only one historian who makes a distinction between time-discipline and time-obedience. David S. Landes argues that the watch facilitated time-discipline, while the clock could only make individuals obedient to time, for, as he says, “[p]unctuality comes from within, not from without”: D. S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), p. 7. Landes neglects to note, however, that punctuality can be enforced from without through violence, the threat thereof, or the sound of time. On this important but largely unexplored subject, see R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World: Toward a Theory of Soundscape Design (Philadelphia, 1980), pp. 55-7 (quotation in text from p. 56); also useful is Richard Leppert, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 19-23.

6 See, for example, C. Vann Woodward, “The Irony of Southern History”, in his The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge, 1986), pp. 187-212.

7 On this, see Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History, of American Time (New York, 1990), pp. 1-50.

8 O’Malley, “Time, Work and Task Orientation”, pp. 348, 351; David R. Roediger and Philip S. Foner, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York, 1989), p. 282 n. 12. On similarly high levels of clock ownership in eighteenth-century Maryland, see Paul A. Shackel, Personal Discipline and Material Culture: An Archaeology, of Annapolis, Maryland, 1695-1870 (Knoxville, 1993), pp. 97-9.

9 Mark M. Smith, “Counting Clocks, Owning Time: Detailing and Interpreting Clock and Watch Ownership in the American Slave South, 1739-1865”, Time and Society, iii (1994), pp. 321-39. On the presence of public sources of clock-time in colonial South Carolina, for example, see Albert Simons and Simon Lapham, Jr (eds.), The Early Architecture of Charleston, 2nd edn (Columbia, 1970), p. 25; Southern Christian Advocate, 11 Aug. 1904. For examples of how colonial Charleston’s civic, social and economic life was organized around publicly regulated clock-time, see South Carolina Gazette, 14 Feb. 1743, 26 March 1772. For laws governing market-related activity and the regulatory power of public time, see, for example, “An Additional Act to an Act Entituled [sic] an Act for the Better Regulating of Taverns and Punch Houses, 1741”, in The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, ed. Thomas Cooper and David J. McCord, 11 vols. (Charleston and Columbia, 1836-41), iii, p. 585; “An Act for the Establishing of a Market in the Parish of St. Philip, Charleston; and for Preventing Engrossing, Forestalling, Regrating, and Unjust Exactions, in the said Town and Market, 1739”, ibid., ix, p. 693.

10 Quotation from “Report of H. Allen”, in Semi-Annual Report of the Director of the South-Carolina Canal and Rail-Road Company, to the Stockholders, October 31, 1834 (Charleston, 1834), p. 12. On this and on the postal service, see Carlene E. Stephens, “‘The Most Reliable Time’: William Bond, the New England Railroads and Time Awareness in 19th-Century America”, Technology and Culture, xxx (1989), pp. 1-24, esp. pp. 4-5. See also [J. D. B. De Bow], “The Post System”, De Bow’s Rev., xii (1852), pp. 236-55, esp. p. 247.

11 See, generally, Thomas Bender (ed.), The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (Oxford, 1992).

12 Eugene D. Genovese, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 (Columbia, 1992), esp. p. 5. See, too, James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York, 1992); Daniel Kilbride, “Slavery and Utilitarianism: Thomas Cooper and the Mind of the Old South”, Jl Southern Hist., lix (1993), pp. 469-86.

13 Quotations from Genovese, Slaveholders’ Dilemma, p. 13. The quotation from Pope (An Essay on Man, iv:49) was inscribed on the frontispiece of a plantation journal, intended to facilitate “the better Ordering and Management of Plantation and Farm Business”, published by J. W. Randolph of Virginia. An example is Philip St George Cocke’s plantation journal (1861), now in the manuscript collection of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. On southerners’ almost pathological obsession with control and discipline, see Kenneth S. Greenberg, Masters and Statesmen: The Political Culture of American Slavery (Baltimore, 1985); “A Planter”, “On the Management of Negroes”, Farmers’ Reg., iv (1836-7), p. 574.

14 For these and similar references, see John Forsyth, “The North and the South”, De Bow’s Rev., xvii (1854), pp. 361-78, esp. pp. 364-5; “From the Yankee Farmer”, “Time is Money”, Southern Agriculturalist, ix (1836), pp. 433-4; “Richard Saunders”, “Poor Richard’s Almanac”, Farmers’ Reg., vi (1838), pp. 736-7; “Vermont Free Press”, “Procrastination”, Tennessee Farmer, i (1834-5), p. 60; Anon., “Business of To-Morrow”, ibid., p. 61; Anon., “Punctuality”, ibid., ii (1837), p. 104; Anon., “Value of Time”, ibid., p. 176; Anon., “How To Save Time”, ibid., iii (1838), p. 272; Anon., “How To Save Time”, Southern Agriculturalist, xi (1838), p. 165; “Poor Richard”, “Rainy Days”, Tennessee Farmer, i (1834-5), p. 78. On the time-consciousness of northern colonial almanac editors, see O’Malley, Keeping Watch, pp. 13-20.

15 William Elliott, New York, to “My Dear Wife”, Beaufort, S.C., 5 Oct. 1828, pp. 2-3: Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, ed. Kenneth M. Stampp, ser. J, Selections from the Southern Historical Collection, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pt 3, South Carolina, 41 reels (Bethesda, 1990), reel 18, frame 391. A year earlier Elliott had received a letter from a Mr M. Ashe of the Southern Agriculturalist in Charleston complaining about the need to improve the scientific basis of agriculture in the South: letter of 31 July 1827, ibid., frame 535.

16 William Elliott, Boston, to “My Dear Wife”, Beaufort, S.C., 25 Aug. 1836: ibid., frame 868.

17 William Elliott, Oak Lawn plantation, S.C., to “My Dear Mother”, [Beaufort, S.C.], 26 Apr. 1854: ibid., frame 202; William Elliott, Beaufort, S.C., to his son, “Dear Ralph”, [unknown, possibly New York], 12 July 1856: ibid., reel 20, frames 513-14.

18 Anon., “On the Management of Slaves”, Southern Agriculturalist, vi (1833), pp. 281-7, quotations from pp. 283-4, 286.

19 James Hamilton Couper, “Essay on Rotation of Crops”, ibid., p. 58; J. R. Wardsfork, “Follow Nature”, Farmers’ Reg., iii (1835-6), p. 432. Generally, see Walter H. Conser, Jr, God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America (Columbia, 1993), pp. 76-7.

20 “Alabama Planter”, “Management of Slaves”, De Bow’s Rev., xiii (1852), pp. 193-4.

21 On colonial southerners’ familiarity with public, aural clock-time, see Sobel, World They Made Together, pp. 21-3. More generally, see Schafer, Tuning of the World, esp. pp. 55-8. For slave-holders’ selective appeals to the Middle Ages, see Eugene D. Genovese, “The Southern Slaveholders’ Views of the Middle Ages”, in Bernhard Rosenthal and Paul E. Szarmach (eds.), Medievalism in American Culture: Papers of the Eighteenth Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies (Binghamton, 1989), pp. 31-52; and for a contemporary example, Anon., “History of the Middle Ages”, Southern and Western Monthly Mag. and Rev., i (1845), pp. 379-84, esp. pp. 379-80.

22 St Geo. Cocke, “Plantation Management – Police”, De Bow’s Rev., xiv (1853), pp. 177-8, quotation from p. 178.

23 “Agricola”, “Management of Slaves”, ibid., xix (1855), pp. 358-63, esp. pp. 361-2. See also “A Planter”, “Notions on the Management of Negroes, &c.”, Farmers’ Reg., iv (1836-7), pp. 494-5.

24 S. H. C., “An Alarm Clock for Plantations”, Southern Cultivator, xiii (1855), p. 212.

25 The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, ed. George P. Rawick, 1st and 2nd ser., 19 vols. continuously numbered (Westport, Conn., 1972); 1st suppl. ser., 12 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1977); 2nd suppl. ser., 10 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1979), 1st suppl. ser., ix, Mississippi Narratives, pp. 1552, 1550; ibid., x, Mississippi Narratives, pp. 2298-9; ibid., xii, Oklahoma Narratives, p. 9; ibid., viii, Mississippi Narratives, p. 1170. All quotations are verbatim.

26 “Agricola”, “Management of Slaves”, p. 359.

27 On the “labourlord”/landlord distinction, see Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (New York, 1986), esp. pp. i7-I9; G, Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1978), pp. 43-88. Also in this context, see Jacob Metzer, “Rational Management, Modern Business Practices and Economies of Scale in the Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations”, Explorations in Econ. Hist., 2nd ser., xii (1975), pp. 123-50; R. Keith Aufhauser, “Slavery and Scientific Management”, Jl Econ. Hist., xxxiii (1973), pp. 811-24; and the important and suggestive work of John F. Olson, “Clock Time versus Real Time: A Comparison of the Lengths of the Northern and Southern Work Years”, in Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman (eds.), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Technical Papers, 2 vols. (New York, 1992), i, pp. 216-40. The description of James Thomas’s activities is taken from James C. Bonner, A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732-1860 (Athens, Ga, 1964), p. 201. For the South Carolina planter, see the journal of an unidentified plantation in Barnwell District, South Carolina, 1838-44, now in the manuscript collection of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

28 See esp. Philip D. Morgan, “Work and Culture: The Task System and the World of Lowcountry Blacks, 1700 to 1880”, William and Mary Quart., 3rd ser., xxxix (1982), pp. 563-99; and generally, Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (eds.), Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas (Charlottesville, 1993).

29 John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave, ed. F. N. Boney (Savannah, 1972; first pubd London, 1855), pp. 145, 160.

30 James Henry Hammond, Silver Bluff, S.C., to W. B. Hodgson, [probably Savannah, Ga], 1 Jan. 1846, p. 1: Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, ed. Stampp, ser. F, Selections from the Manuscript Department, Duke University Library, pt 2, South Carolina and Georgia, 16 reels (Frederick, 1985), reel 9, frame 519; William Elliott, Oak Lawn plantation, S.C., to “My Dear Mother”, Beaufort, S.C., 10 Dec. 1857, p. 1: ibid., ser. J, pt 3, reel 20, frame 252. On romanticism, melancholy and the sense of a ruined present in southern history, see Michael O’Brien, Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (Baltimore, 1988), esp. pp. 50-1, 83.

31 Anon., “Order Overdone”, Southern Cultivator, xvii (1859), p. 349. A similar account of clock-regulated plantation domestic affairs may be found in Abigail Curlee, “The History of a Texas Slave Plantation, 1831-63”, Southwestern Hist. Quart., xxvi (1922-3), pp. 79-127, esp. p. 113. Northerners, by contrast, seemed quite comfortable with similarly strict regimens: see “A New Englander’s View of Plantation Life: Letters of Edwin Hall to Cyrus Woodman, 1837”, ed. Larry Gara, Jl Southern Hist., xviii (1952), pp. 341-54, esp. p. 346.

32 The main secondary works on this subject which stress the role of natural rhythms in African time-measurement include: Ivor Wilks, “On Mentally Mapping Greater Asante: A Study of Time and Motion”, Jl African Hist., xxxiii (1992), pp. 175-90; T. C. McCaskie, “Time and the Calendar in Nineteenth-Century Asante: An Exploratory Essay”, History in Africa, vii (1980), pp. 179-200; Earl McKenzie, “Time in European and African Philosophy”, Caribbean Quart., xix (1973-4), pp. 77-85; John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London, 1969), pp. 15-28; G. I. Jones, “Time and Oral Tradition with Special Reference to Eastern Nigeria”, Jl African Hist., vi (1965), pp. 153-60; Jan Vansina, The Children of Woot: A History of the Kuba Peoples (Dawson, 1978), pp. 20-2; G. J. Afolabi Ojo, Yoruba Culture: A Geographical Analysis (London, 1966), pp. 201-7; E. L. R. Meyerowitz, The Akan of Ghana: Their Ancient Beliefs (London, 1958), pp. 23-31. According to Mechal Sobel, most West African societies shared this view and understanding of time, thus making it acceptable to speak of a broadly defined West African time-perception: Sobel, World They Made Together, p. 18. For contemporary accounts, see J. W. E. Bowen (ed.), Africa and the American Negro . . .: Addresses and Proceedings of the Congress on Africa Held under the Auspices of the Stewart Missionary Foundation for Africa of Gammon Theological Seminary in connection with the Cotton States and International Exposition, December 13-15, 1895 (Atlanta, 1896; repr. Miami, 1969), p. 33; Hugh Crow, Memoirs of the late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool (London, 1970; first pubd London, 1830), p. 233; John Beecham, Ashantee and the Gold Coast (London, 1841), p. 185; John Duncan, Travels in Western Africa in 1845 and 1846, comprising a Journey from Whydah through the Kingdom of Dahoiney, to Adofoodia, 2 vols. (London, 1847), i, p. 219; Mungo Park, Travels into the Interior of Africa (New York, 1983; first pubd London, 1799), p. 246.

33 Other historians have made similar observations for the colonial South: see Isaac, Transformation of Virginia, pp. 68, 77-8, 307; Sobel, World They Made Together, pp. 1-25.

34 Quotations from white captors: Michael Mullin, Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831 (Urbana, 1992), p. 31; testimony of George Nichols: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina: Executive Department Journals: Province, 1664-1774, “Proceedings of His Majestys Honorable Council of South Carolina from the 20th Day of December 1748 to the Sixteenth Day of December 1749”, comp. James Bullock, p. 90 (testimony given 30 Jan. 1748 [sic: 1748/9 O.S.?]), in Records of the States of the United States of America: A Microfilm Compilation Prepared by the Library, of Congress in Association with the University of North Carolina, ed. William Sumner Jenkins (Washington, D.C., 1949-51), 1,870 reels, E.lp:4. For other examples, see Sobel, World They Made Together, pp. 30-43.

35 American Slave, ed. Rawick, 2nd ser., xii, Georgia Narratives, p. 97; ibid., 1st suppl. ser., xii, Oklahoma Narratives, p. 19; ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., iv, Texas Narratives, p. 1082. As slaves were regarded as chattels, any possessions they might have accumulated were not recorded in probate inventories. The only source which even hints at the extent to which bondpeople may have owned timepieces is the record of claims made by southern freedpeople and whites for property lost to Union troops during the Civil War: Consolidated Index of Claims Reported by the Commissioners of Claims by the House of Representatives from 1871 to 1880, comp. J. B. Holloway and Walter H. French (Washington, D.C., 1892), available in the microfilm collection Records of the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission), 1871-1880, 14 reels (Washington, D.C., 1972), reel 14. Between 1871 and 1880, 22,298 claims were filed, only seventeen of which were for watches lost by freedpeople during the War. Of over two thousand slave narratives recorded in the 1930s, only one mentions clock ownership during slavery: American Slave, ed. Rawick, 1st suppl. ser., i, Alabama Narratives, p. 212. Clearly, a clock- or watch-owning slave was a rarity.

36 For Jane Simpson’s testimony, see American Slave, ed. Rawick, 2nd ser., xi, Arkansas and Missouri Narratives, p. 313; for other testimony, see ibid., xix, God Struck me Dead, p. 104; ibid., 1st suppl. ser., i, Alabama Narratives, p. 172.

37 Ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., v, Texas Narratives, p. 1653; ibid., vii, Texas Narratives, p. 2493.

38 Ibid., 1st suppl. ser., xii, Oklahoma Narratives, p. 277; ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., vii, Texas Narratives, p. 2833.

39 Ibid., 2nd ser., xiv, North Carolina Narratives, pp. 167-8; ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., ix, Texas Narratives, p. 3626; ibid., iv, Texas Narratives, p. 1219.

40 Ibid., 2nd ser., xii, Georgia Narratives, p. 214; ibid., xi, Arkansas and Missouri Narratives, p. 220.

41 “Plantation Ways: Bells and Horns”, in A Treasury of Southern Folklore: Ballads, Traditions and Folkways of the People of the South, ed. B. A. Botkin (New York, 1966), p. 587; American Slave, ed. Rawick, 1st suppl. set., x, Mississippi Narratives, pp. 2148-9.

42 American Slave, ed. Rawick, 1st suppl. ser., x, Mississippi Narratives, p. 2410; ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., vii, Texas Narratives, p. 2640.

43 Ibid., 1st suppl. ser., xii, Oklahoma Narratives, p. 346; ibid., 1st ser., iv, Texas Narratives, p. 194; ibid., xii, Georgia Narratives, p. 323.

44 Ibid., 2nd suppl. ser., iii, Texas Narratives, p. 575; ibid., ix, Texas Narratives, p. 3489; ibid., ii, Texas Narratives, pp. 398-9, 165; ibid., 2nd ser., xii, Georgia Narratives, p. 218; Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, ed. L. Maria Child, re-ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, Mass., 1987; first pubd Boston, 1861), p. 12.

45 Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, 2 vols. (London, 1838), i, p. 214; Catherine Cooper Hopley, Life in the South from the Commencement of the War, being a Social History of those who Took Part in the Battles, from a Personal Acquaintance with them in their own Homes, from the Spring of 1860 to August 1862, 2 vols. (New York, 1971; first pubd London, 1863), i, p. 207. See also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, pp. 363-5.

46 See Berlin and Morgan (eds.), Cultivation and Culture; Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana, 1984), pp. 51-9; Edward Thomas Heriot Estate, 1854-9, James Ritchie Sparkman Books, 1839-78, 30 Dec. 1854, p. 6: Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations, ed. Stampp, ser. J, reel 1, frame 26; quotations from slaves in American Slave, ed. Rawick, 1st suppl. ser., iv, Georgia Narratives, p. 562; ibid., 2nd ser., xvii, Florida Narratives, p. 67; ibid., 1st suppl. ser., iii, Georgia Narratives, p. 184; George Skipworth, Hopewell plantation, Ala, to John Hartwell Cocke, “Master”, Greene County, Ala, 8 July 1847, in Letters of a Slave Family, ed. Randall M. Miller (Ithaca, 1978), p. 157; Martha G. Browne, Autobiography of a Female Slave (New York, 1857), p. 90.

47 See Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value: Volume IV of “Capital”, ed. S. Ryazanskaya and Richard Dixon, trans. Emile Burns, Renate Simpson and Jack Cohen, 3 vols. (Moscow, 1963-72), ii, pp. 302-3; K. Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, 3 vols. (New York, 1976-81), i, p. 1022.

48 Generally, see Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History (New York, 1987), esp. pp. 69-88.

49 Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, p. 95.

Two stints as an Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, and generous financial assistance from the Graduate Council of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, helped in the research, formulation and completion of this article. Without in any way implicating them in the views expressed herein, I should like to thank the following for their kind and critical reading of this essay and of the larger work from which it is drawn: Alexander X. Byrd, Stanley Engerman, Thavolia Glymph, Dean Kinzley, A. G. Miles, John Oldfield, Jennifer Ring, Robert M. Weir and Clyde N. Wilson. Their gracious criticisms and hard questions did much to improve the final version. Special thanks are due to Eugene D. Genovese and Lacy K. Ford, Jr, who have remained steadfastly supportive, if not always persuaded, of this project. Mechal Sobel and Charles Joyner provided helpful comments on aspects of this paper at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Louisville, Kentucky, in November 1994. I should also like to thank Tony Badger for the invitation to present a slightly different version of this essay to the American History Research Seminar at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on 6 February 1995.

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