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What was the general health status of slaves?

Because of the living and working conditions of slaves, they needed constant medical care. They lived in poor housing, under unsanitary conditions, and had an inadequate diet. Their living quarters were wooden huts with leaky roofs, and their broken-down cabins consisted of a single room of about twenty feet square where entire families—sometimes several families—lived. Their cabins had little or no ventilation nor a privy for their most private needs. Diets were meager, consisting of hominy and bacon. Clothing was of poor quality, with trousers, jackets, and dresses made of coarse wool and cotton. Masters spent as little as possible on food and housing of their slaves. Thus, the overall living conditions of slaves had an adverse effect on the health of plantation hands, who had started their work as early as age eight or nine and reached their maximum efficiency by the time they were in their early youth. They worked from sunrise to sunset. Such conditions, however, at times prompted slaves to fake illnesses, engage in work slow-downs, break tools, engage in self-mutilation, or engage in other tactics in their struggle against slavery and the conditions imposed on them. Slaves did suffer from genuine illnesses, such as smallpox, measles, pleurisy, cholera, whooping cough, and other diseases that were of such virulence as to cause many to miss a number of work days. The overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, a bare subsistence diet, inadequate health care, and long and arduous work resulted in a shorter life expectancy for slaves than for their white masters and their families. Even so, records of slave deaths were unreliable and often unreported, far more so than those of whites. Some say that “the disparity between slave and white death rates was greater and not less than recorded in the census returns.”


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