slavery and turpentine production -- 2/26/20

Today's selection -- from American Lucifers by Jeremy Zallen. Boxing was the process whereby raw gum or resin was channeled out of pine trees and collected to make turpentine. In the mid-1800s this work was done by slaves, and only done in winter, to prevent the slaves from running away:

" 'If we enter, in the winter,' Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of his journey through the southern states, 'a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a "turpentine orchard," we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring.'

"Boxing surgically modified living pines, forcing the trees to collect their own vital energies in easily accessible gouges. ... Winter was the time to make men into boxers and pines into solar tools, forced to give up the products of their biological work for the rest of their spring and summer lives.

"Boxing required strength, precision, and time. But most of all, it re­quired enslaved men and training. ... The new woodsmen were kept at the low grounds for supervision and education, to make use of their labor in the still, and, as Olmsted emphasized, to keep them away from the valuable pines. If the lucifers-in-training were going to botch a box, it was better that they ruined an oak (which was more valuable dead, anyhow) than cut short the life of a longleaf pine. While alive and properly modified, such a pine could act as a spigot of liquid light for up to ten years. ... The boxes, each of which would hold about a quart, were cut into the trunk a half-foot or so above the roots and were 'shaped like a distended waistcoat-pocket.' The point was to steal life and not, as in the timber indus­try, to kill, and so the 'less the ax approaches towards the centre of the tree, to obtain the proper capacity in the box, the better, as the vitality of the tree is less endangered.'

Gathering crude turpentine -- North Carolina c 1903.

"Boxing, like most turpentine work, was solitary task labor, and each man labored to create a 100-acre, sunlight-channeling engine of resin and en­slavement powered by himself and several thousand trees. ... Experience meant precision as well as speed, and an 'expert hand will make a box in less than ten minutes; and seventy-five to a hundred -- according to the size and proximity of the trees -- is considered a day's work.' But this was never just about most efficiently coercing trees to give up their resin. It was always also about preserving and reproducing slaveholders' power over their human property, keeping the enslaved from congregating by carving an individualized task system into the landscape itself.

"In the camps, as elsewhere in the geography of slavery, there was no distinguishing between work and politics. Enslavers' need to maintain the camps' system of isolated exploitation continually generated and shaped struggles between enslavers and enslaved, struggles that introduced con­siderable contradictions into the labor process. Little illustrated this tension better than the problem of oversight. Overseers like Benjamin Grist only ever knew a small portion of what was going on in the camps, as the enslaved men responsible for boxing, chipping, and dipping the resin out of crops extending over thousands of acres could never be monitored all at once. ... At one operation, enslaved men designated as 'drivers' were responsible for organizing and monitoring the daily labor of about ten other men, each of whom was tasked with cutting fifty to sixty boxes a day. Overseers managed and monitored this labor through weekly quotas and with daily measurements. Every day, drivers or 'tallymen' rode through the forest making note as each enslaved woodsman sang out a word upon com­pleting a box.

"The change of seasons produced other tensions. Boxing took place in winter, when running away had to be weighed against freezing or starving to death. Producers realized that the advantage they held during winter could rapidly evaporate with spring thaws, and so they pushed hard to com­plete boxing new crops before the weather warmed and a new geography of slavery opened. Given the seasonal terrain of violence, labor, and life, camp overseers believed whipping enslaved boxers for cutting boxes either too slowly or too poorly was an incentive to work harder and better. Writing in September 1850 to the owners of two enslaved men who had been whipped for running away, James R. Grist claimed they were 'the only two that has been thrashed since we quit cutting boxes' months earlier. In other words, whipping for poor work, at least during the winter, was something James R. Grist preached and practiced."



Jeremy Zallen


American Lucifers


The University of North Carolina Press


Copyright 2019 Jeremy Zallen


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