The Horrors of Slavery as Revealed by Frederick Douglass, Written by Mary Sheikh

The institution of slavery hindered the ability for many African-Americans to live a life of independence, without being viewed as an asset. Slaves were first brought to British colonies in 1619 to replace costly indentured servants. The Southern economy was fueled through the exploitation of human labor and the profits made by rich plantation owners can be evaluated based on the bloodshed of slaves. The desire for cheap labor caused many to be easily beguiled by the unethical opportunity of owning other human beings and using them as cheap means of production. Many slaves were mortified by the life they were forced to live under a master, even after they successfully escaped. Slaves took the opportunity to define their existence as a slave in America by putting a pen to paper and uncovering the grim reality. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass covers the suffering Douglass experienced during the time he was enslaved. Therefore, slave narratives like the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, express the various horrors of slavery through vivid portrayals of both the psychological and physical abuse slaves endured in everyday life.

The Psychological Degradation of a Slave

Primarily, slave narratives convey the heinous side of slavery through descriptions of what it was like to be psychologically tormented. Douglass explored his mental state throughout his narrative and the methods of manipulation his masters used. Douglass was separated from his mother early in his life and the connection he had with her managed to fade.

“Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Douglass 49).

This quote exemplifies how the attachment between Douglass and his mother became blurry due to the distance that was difficult to overcome. Most importantly, Douglass was stripped of all emotional connection with his mother since he failed to naturally experience sorrow at her death. Preserving familial relationships was not common when masters purchased slaves, as children were taken away from their main caregiver. Ultimately, enslaved children were left to fend for themselves and mature rapidly to survive the grotesque conditions they would be living under. Clearly, slaves were viewed as mere property that was meant to be sold and their sentiments in regards to their family were of no value to their masters. This explains why slaves had no choice but to form alternative family structures on plantations and why adults claimed children they had no relation to, while children accepted their elders as parents. Slaves were forced to create artificial connections to cope with emotional abuse and take their minds off of their harsh reality. Families who were yet to be separated lived with the constant, intense fear that they would one day no longer be with their loved ones. Clearly, the experience was mentally draining and caused slaves to deal with everlasting psychological pressure. Similarly, Douglass described the process of being valued as property after his master, Captain Anthony, died:

“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine… horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being…” (Douglass 90).

This quote illuminates how slaves were sold like regular cargo and objects. Slave auctioneers and those who purchased slaves had no regard for human life when it came down to one’s race. Slaves were completely degraded and reduced to lesser subhumans. It was humiliating as a slave to be treated like cattle and handled as an asset. This made an impact on the mental state of a slave since they eventually developed the mindset that they were worthless and their sole purpose on this Earth was to work for the benefit of the white man. As a result, slave owners were given more control and were able to take advantage of the shaken dignity of any slave. Slaves had difficulty overcoming the inherent fear that developed internally after being enslaved. Some managed to develop a sense of loyalty to their master and defended their honor when others asked. The exploitation of human labor not only leads to complete domination of the human body but also power over the soul. Douglass offered a first-hand account of how he was under constant strain and unable to find who he truly was and lost his individuality due to his enslavement. Slaves were crafted into submissive individuals by the hands of their masters who lusted over more power and control. The dehumanization of slaves is what kept slave masters in control and it can be suggested that mental restraints have more influence than physical torment. Thus, slaves experienced an inexplicable level of psychological abuse and were formed into compliant individuals.

The insufferable Physical Torment of Slavery

Furthermore, slave narratives demonstrate what it meant to bear physical abuse every waking moment. Early in the narrative, Douglass expressed how he was initially shocked by the brute force used by slave masters when he saw his first master Captain Anthony whip his aunt:

“The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped… I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition… It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness…” (Douglass 51).

This quote demonstrates how Douglass was exposed to the raw malice of slave masters and their pure hostility early in his life. Clearly, this was a defining moment for Douglass during his enslavement since he offered a clear, disturbing description. It can be deduced that African Americans who were forced into slavery were traumatized from the very beginning by viewing the bloodshed of others and fearing for their own well-being as a result. The narrative captures the sensations Douglass experienced when he first encountered the bitter truth of what it meant for him to be a slave on a white man’s plantation. Douglass saw that there was no justice in spite of evil actions being committed and innocence did not necessarily mean safety. Undoubtedly, the physical torture slaves endured was meant to mold them into meek and submissive individuals who would flinch at the movement of a finger. This explains why Douglass felt there was no place to seek refuge since a beating could come without a warning or reason. The life of a slave was a life of perpetual anxiety and fear. Correspondingly, Douglass revealed what he experienced during his time with Mr. Covey, a man who borrowed slaves from other owners and in return quelled the disobedient slaves:

“...a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body... and intellect languished, the disposition to read departed...a man transformed into a brute!” (Douglass 119).

This quote displays how Douglass was abused to an extent he had never experienced before. Douglass was demolished internally and externally and his value as a human suddenly became irrelevant to him. Being a slave meant being overpowered and the narrative captures how the bodies of slaves were exploited and violated to a point of no return. The pain that Covey caused completely exhausted Douglass and it is likely that Douglass was on the edge of giving in and accepting his fate. Clearly, being enslaved was mortifying and pulverized the dignity of a slave. Covey’s savagery wore Douglass out not only physically, but mentally and caused him to transform into someone he was not. The dehumanization of slaves was nothing short of atrocious and served as complete disrespect to the bodies of the slaves. Thus, slave narratives address the aspect of physical abuse as a slave.


Slave narratives like the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, express the numerous horrors of slavery through striking descriptions of both the mental and physical abuse slaves encountered. Slave narratives provide a first-hand, uncensored account of what it was like to be violated through the mind and body. The impact that enslavement had upon former slaves could not be disguised and the narratives expose the truth of the sinful institution. In the end, slavery was the horrid exploitation of human beings and was one of the most prevalent evils in society. This era of history is often glossed over and many are not aware of the impact of slavery still simmers in today’s world as well. It is imperative that society as a whole is educated on the wretched truth and learns how to grow beyond the grim past.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications, 1995 Print.

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