Slave iron bit

Last updated

The iron bit, also referred to as a gag, was used by slave masters and overseers as a form of punishment on slaves in the Southern United States. The bit, sometimes depicted as the scold's bridle, uses similar mechanics to that of the common horse bit. The scolds bridle however, is almost always associated with its use on women in the early 17th century and there are very few accounts of the device as a method of torture against black slaves under that particular name. As opposed to the whip, the iron bit lacks the historic, social, and literary symbolic fame that would make information on the use of the iron bit as accessible. Its use throughout history has warranted some attention though, mostly from literary texts. Even earlier, slave narratives and publications of newspapers and magazines from the 18th century on give evidence of this device being used to torture and punish slaves.

Contents

Description

A website dedicated to documenting the history of slavery in the US quotes from slave trader turned abolitionist Thomas Branagan, who describes the iron bit through a "front and profile view of an African's head, with the mouth-piece and necklace, the hooks round which are placed to prevent an escapee when pursued in the woods, and to hinder them from laying down the head to procure rest." His essay entitled, "The Method of Procuring Slaves on the Coast of Africa; with an account of their sufferings on the voyage, and cruel treatment in the West Indies", describes the iron bit as having "a flat iron which goes into the mouth, and so effectually keeps down the tongue, that nothing can be swallowed, not even the saliva, a passage for which is made through holes in the mouth-plate." [1]

Historical evidence

Escrava Anastacia ("Anastacia the female slave"), a Brazilian folk saint, depicted wearing a punitive iron facemask. Escrava Anastacia.jpg
Escrava Anastacia ("Anastacia the female slave"), a Brazilian folk saint, depicted wearing a punitive iron facemask.

Several articles and newspapers mention what appears to be the iron bit, but the name of the device varies from region to region where it is used. The mask, bit, and gag all refer to this torture device, but may differ in their specific manufacturing and disciplinary purposes. An 1848 article in The North Star states that "dealing in slaves has become a large business: establishments are made in several places in Maryland, at which they are sold like cattle. These places of deposit are strongly built and well supplied with iron thumb-screws and gags, and ornamented with cowskins and whips, often bloody".

A man wrote in an open letter to the editor of the Frederick Douglass Paper about an abolitionist who was demonstrating the actions of slave holders in the American South,

I recollect the horror that thrilled the hearts of the spectators, when Mr. Gurney one evening placed on his head an iron machine of torture, which inflicted great pain upon the slave, and an iron gag penetrated his mouth, confining his tongue and preventing articulation. He exhibited the whips also, and many other implements of cruelty adopted by the planters and their agents.

One newspaper advertisement from 1792 writes of a reward to be given for the capture of a runaway slave. The description of her is given that she is "5 feet three or 4 inches high, had on, when she went away, such clothing as negroes generally wear in the summer, and carried with her a white linen coat and jacket. She is a vile creature, and for her many crimes I punished her with an iron collar, but supposed she soon got that off." [2] Another article on the treatment of slaves by Delphine LaLaurie of Louisiana stated that "seven slaves were reportedly found in various parts of the residence and they were said to be in need of medical attention. Some of them were allegedly chained in uncomfortable positions and instruments of torture were said to have been found … [Specifically] iron collars with spikes or sharp edges." [3]

Literary accounts

Olaudah Equiano writes about the iron bit in his slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano , as "the iron muzzle". He writes that "the iron muzzle, thumb screws, etc. are so well known as not to need a description, and were sometimes applied for the slightest faults" (Equiano 112). [4]

Toni Morrison references the punishment in her novel Beloved .

See also

Related Research Articles

Tack is equipment or accessories equipped on horses and other equines in the course of their use as domesticated animals. Saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits, harnesses, martingales, and breastplates are all forms of horse tack. Equipping a horse is often referred to as tacking up. A room to store such equipment, usually near or in a stable, is a tack room.

Thumbscrew (torture)

The thumbscrew is a torture instrument which was first used in early modern Europe. It is a simple vice, sometimes with protruding studs on the interior surfaces. Victims' thumbs, fingers, or toes were placed in the vice and slowly crushed. The thumbscrew was also applied to crush prisoners' big toes. The crushing bars were sometimes lined with sharp metal points to puncture the thumbs and inflict greater pain in the nail beds. Larger, heavier devices based on the same design principle were applied to crush feet.

Gag Device designed to prevent speech

A gag is usually an item or device designed to prevent speech, often as a restraint device to stop the subject from calling for help and keep its wearer silent. This is usually done by blocking the mouth, partially or completely, or attempting to prevent the tongue, lips, or jaw from moving in the normal patterns of speech. The more "effective" a gag appears to be, the more hazardous that being duct tape which is a fairly effective method of keeping a person's mouth shut but can be hazardous if the subject cannot breathe freely through the nose. For this reason, a gagged person should never be left alone.

Scolds bridle 16th-century instrument of punishment or [[torture]]

A scold's bridle, sometimes called a witch's bridle, a brank's bridle, or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment, as a form of torture and public humiliation. This was overwhelmingly used on women as one of many ways to control and subjugate them, literally taking away their ability to speak or share opinions. It caused extreme pain and also physiological trauma in order to scare and intimidate women into submission. It was often on request of husbands or family members. The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head. A bridle-bit, about 2 in × 1 in in size, was slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, often with a spike on the tongue, as a compress. This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (/əˈlaʊda/), known for most of his life as Gustavus Vassa, was a writer and abolitionist from, according to his memoir, the Eboe region of the Kingdom of Benin. Enslaved as a child in Africa, he was taken to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a Royal Navy officer. He was sold twice more but purchased his freedom in 1766.

Gag (BDSM)

A gag is a device used in sexual bondage and BDSM roleplay. Gags are usually associated with roleplays involving bondage, but that is not necessarily the case. The person who wears the gag is regarded as the submissive partner, while the other is regarded as the dominant one.

Ottobah Cugoano African abolitionist in England

Ottobah Cugoano, also known as John Stuart, was a abolitionist, political activist and natural rights philosopher from West Africa who was active in Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Captured in the Gold Coast and sold into slavery at the age of 13, he was shipped to Grenada in the West Indies. In 1772 he was purchased by a merchant who took him to England, where he learnt to read and write, and was freed. Later working for artists Richard and Maria Cosway, he became acquainted with several British political and cultural figures. He joined the Sons of Africa, a group of African abolitionists in Britain.

Double bridle

A double bridle, also called a full bridle or Weymouth bridle, is a bridle that has two bits and four reins. One bit is the bradoon, is a modified snaffle bit that is smaller in diameter and has smaller bit rings than a traditional snaffle, and it is adjusted so that it sits above and behind the other bit, a curb bit. Another term for this combination of curb and snaffle bit is a "bit and bradoon", where the word "bit" in this particular context refers to the curb.

Delphine LaLaurie American serial killer

Marie Delphine Macarty or MacCarthy, more commonly known as Madame Blanque or, after her third marriage, as Madame LaLaurie, was a New Orleans Creole socialite and serial killer who tortured and murdered slaves in her household.

<i>The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano</i>

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, first published in 1789 in London, is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The narrative is argued to represent a variety of styles, such as a slavery narrative, travel narrative, and spiritual narrative. The book describes Equiano's time spent in enslavement, and documents his attempts at becoming an independent man through his study of the Bible, and his eventual success in gaining his own freedom and in business thereafter.

Bit mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is the part of a horse's bit that goes into the mouth of a horse, resting on the bars of the mouth in the sensitive interdental space where there are no teeth. The mouthpiece is possibly the most important determinant in the severity and action of the bit. Some mouthpieces are not allowed in dressage competition.

Alexander Falconbridge was a British surgeon who took part in four voyages in slave ships between 1780 and 1787. In time he became an abolitionist and in 1788 published An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. In 1791 he was sent by the Anti-Slavery Society to Granville Town, Sierra Leone, a community of freed slaves, where he died a year later in 1792.

Bit (horse) Horse equipment that fits in the mouth and is used to direct the horse

The bit is an important item of a horse's tack. It usually refers to the assembly of components that contacts and controls the horses mouth, and includes the shanks, rings, cheekpads and mullen, all described here below, but it also sometimes simply refers to the mullen, the piece that fits inside the horses mouth. The mullen extends across the horses mouth and rests on the bars, the region between the incisors and molars where there are no teeth. The bit is located on the horse's head by the headstall, and which has itself several components to allow the most comfortable adjustment of bit location and control.

<i>The Scolds Bridle</i>

The Scold's Bridle (1994) is a crime novel by English writer Minette Walters. The book, Walters' third, won a CWA Gold Dagger.

Igbo people in the Atlantic slave trade

The Igbo, whose traditional territory is called the Bight of Biafra, became one of the principal ethnic groups to be enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. An estimated 14.6% of all slaves were taken from the Bight of Biafra between 1650 and 1900. The Bight’s major slave trading ports were located in Bonny and Calabar. The majority of Igbo slaves were kidnapped during village raids. The journey for Igbo slaves often began in the ancient Cave Temple that was located in Arochukwu Kingdom. During this period, the three Igbo Kingdoms followed the same culture and religion, yet tended to operate very differently from each other. The Kingdom of Nri and the Independent Igbo States did not practice slavery, and slaves from neighbouring lands would often flee to these kingdoms in order to be set free. Arochukwu, on the other hand, practiced a system of indentured servitude that was remarkably different to chattel slavery in the Americas. Eventually, with Europeans beginning to encroach on Igbo territory, causing the kingdoms to desire weaponry to defend themselves. In order to obtain European goods and weaponry, Arochukwu began to raid villages of the other Igbo kingdoms - primarily those located in the Igbo hinterlands. People would be captured, regardless of gender, social status, or age. Slaves could have been originally farmers, nobility, or even people who had committed petty crimes. These captured slaves would be taken and sold to the British on the coast. Another way people were enslaved was through the divine oracle who resided in the Cave Temple complex. All Igbos practiced divination called Afa, but the Kingdom of Arochukwu was different because it was headed by a divine oracle who was in charge of making decisions for the king. During this time, if someone committed a crime, was in debt, or did something considered an "abomination", they would be taken to the cave complex to face the oracle for sentencing. The oracle, who was also influenced by the British, would sentence these people to slavery, even for small crimes. The victim would be commanded to walk further into the cave so that the spirits could "devour" them, but, in reality, they were taken to an opening on the other side and loaded directly onto a waiting boat. This boat would take them to a slave ship en route to the Americas.

Pear of anguish

The pear of anguish, or choke pear, is the modern name for a type of instrument displayed in some museums, consisting of a metal body divided into spoon-like segments that could be operated by turning a screw. The museum descriptions and some recent sources assert that the devices were used either as a gag, to prevent people from speaking, or internally as an instrument of torture, although these accounts have been disputed as implausible.

Treatment of the enslaved in the United States

The treatment of enslaved people in the United States varied by time and place, but was generally brutal, especially on plantations. Whipping and rape were routine, but usually not in front of white outsiders, or even the plantation owner's family. An enslaved person could not be a witness against a white; enslaved people were sometimes required to whip other enslaved people, even family members. There were also businesses to which a slave owner could turn over the whipping. Families were often split up by the sale of one or more members, usually never to see or hear of each other again. There were some relatively enlightened slave owners—Nat Turner said his master was kind—but not on large plantations. Only a small minority of enslaved people received anything resembling decent treatment; one contemporary estimate was 10%, not without noting that the ones well treated desired freedom just as much as those poorly treated. Good treatment could vanish upon the death of an owner. As put by William T. Allan, a slaveowner's abolitionist son who could not safely return to Alabama, "cruelty was the rule, and kindness the exception".

Torture Museum, Amsterdam

The Torture Museum, Amsterdam is a small museum located in the heart of Amsterdam, near the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) overlooking the Singel canal. Included in the list of the world's most unusual museums. It is a popular museum for tourists, The torture museum is one of the 50 museums in Amsterdam. A second museum related to the subject of torture in Amsterdam is the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. This second museum has a different layout and is located in Damrak 33, close to the central station. The 2 museums are not connected.

References

  1. "Slave Tortures: The Mask, Scold's Bridle, or Brank". 2011-09-23. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  2. "Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser (Davis), Richmond, January 18, 1792". The Geography of Slavery in Virginia. University of Virginia. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
  3. Darkis, Fred (1982). "Madame LaLaurie of New Orleans". Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. 23 (4): 383–399.
  4. Equiano, Olaudah (2002). "The Life of Olaudah Equiano". In Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed.). The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Signet Classic. pp. 15–248.