|Edward S. Philbrick
Letter in Response to Question about Wages for Laborers
April 16th, 1864
2nd Annual Report New England Freemen's Relief
Boston, April 16th., 1864.
To Dear Sir. — In answer to your inquiry about the rates of wages paid in the Sea Islands, I would say, that in
comparing these rates with those of other laborers in other places, it should be remembered that the work in the Sea Is
lands was done by the least able part of the population, viz., the old men, women, and children, the able-bodied men
having been conscripted into the United States service. It should also be remembered that, owing partly to the long
use of the " task system " of compulsory labor, and partly to the climate and the inferior physical condition of the
hitherto poorly fed negroes of these islands, a very small amount of work is done in a day by them, as compared with
the amount done in a day by the more robust negro of Louisiana, or the free laborer of the Northern States.
Considering these facts, and also that these negroes now have the free use of nearly two acres of land per capita, on
which they spend about half their time, cultivating or marketing their private crops, while this same private corn was
ploughed at our expense by mules costing from $175 to $200, each, and by ploughmen detailed and paid by us for the
purpose ; considering also that after the last harvest these people had a whole year's provision gathered from these
private fields, and locked up in each man's private crib, with a considerable portion, in some cases the whole, of their
earnings in our service laid up, it would appear to any candid observer that their labor has been as well paid for, if not
better paid, than rude labor in our Northern climes.
This statement in regard to the small amount of labor required by the old " task system " in the Sea Islands, as
compared with the amount usually performed by laborers elsewhere, needs no further proof than can be found in this
fact, that just as soon as the negro finds that he is to be paid in proportion to his exertions, he does not limit himself to
his old task but often doubles it. Thus, While the average of old men, women, and children earn over half a dollar per
day at piece work, the capable ones actually double this amount without working over ten hours per day. In fact, the old
day's work could often be done by a capable hand in four or five hours, and is done in that time now, when the
will of the laborer is interested.
The moderate tasks of the Sea Island planters are often referred to by advocates of slavery in proof of the humanity of
the masters. The fact proves rather more than is wanted by such writers, viz., the wastefulness of the whole system.
For, the same task being allotted to all, whether strong or weak, it was of necessity trimmed to the capacity of the weak,
or at best of the average hand, of each class, from whom, under the compulsory system, no more work could be got by
any ordinary threats. So that the powers of the strong and ambitious remained latent and undeveloped, and therefore
of no use to themselves or the community.
The amount of money acquired by these negroes now, upon their private patches, and from selling their fish, poultry,
&c, is difficult to estimate, but probably reached a point not far from ten thousand dollars for every thousand of the
population, including men, women, and children, during the last year. They sell large quantities of eggs, chickens, pigs,
water-melons, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, fish, &c, and so long as the camps are near them they have a ready
market at enormous prices. One man, to whom I had paid over three hundred dollars for his family's work in the cotton
field last year, told me that he had laid by all this money, having clothed himself and family, and provided what
variety of food he could not raise, from these other resources. Another family, two parents and three growing children,
earned and received over four hundred dollars from us during the season, having besides the exclusive pro-
ceeds of ten acres of improved land for their private use ; but being less communicative in their nature than the first
man, I was unable to learn their financial status.
Of course the increased prices of all merchandize call for increased rates of pay. With the view to meet this question,
we pay this season, 1864, 40 cents for the master's " task," in planting and hoeing, for which the government paid
25 cents last year, and we paid 35 ; besides the premium often cents per pound on the ginned staple when picked, and
five cents more for the ginning and preparing for market. A capable woman often accomplishes one and a half or
even two " tasks " in a day, earning sixty to eighty cents, cash down, besides the premium at harvest, and a capable
man, if we had him, could and would accomplish still more.
The whole system now in use studiously avoids the expression " day's work," but adjusts the pay as nearly as possible
to the amount of work actually done, this being thought the readiest and best way to encourage industry and discour-
age shirking, a practice for which the past history of the negro has peculiarly qualified him.
On referring to our pay-rolls for the first nine months after taking possession of the land, it appears that on the largest
plantation, (which is a tolerable sample of the whole, though having a number of children above the average,) there
was paid for labor the sum of 35,140.12. This labor was performed by 38 families, who therefore received an average
of $135.27 each. Some families consisted of two parents and two or three children at work, the father being too
old for the United States service, while very many consisted of a woman alone, with young children to look after, her
husband being absent in camp. The working hands in these 38 families may be classified as follows: —
Old men, 20
Children, 12 to 18 years, 22
Divide the whole amount of wages paid, by this number, and we have an average of $59.77 paid to each old man,
woman, and child, for such labor as they performed on the cotton crop during the nine months, or about $80 per
annum, making, in a family of two parents and two children of 12 and 15 years, $320 per annum. As nearly as we can
get at the truth, by observation, they spend about one half of their time in our service, and the other half in cultivat-
ing their private patches, fishing, marketing their produce in camp, in domestic duties, or roving about. This would give
them but 117 days spent in our service, for which they received, children and all, 51 cents per day. Other plan-
tations, having fewer children, averaged a higher rate, and some individuals averaged a dollar per day, while at work
for us. Moreover, their houses were kept in repair as well as circumstances would admit, many wooden chimneys
replaced by brick ones, and a free school kept on the plantation, all at the expense of the proprietors.
To sum up, then, the condition of the negro faniily, suppose the case of a man and his wife with two children 12 and 15
years old, and two or three younger ones. He would receive in a year, at the average rate we pay, ....... $320.00
'Also, free rent of house, for which the Northern laborer would have
to pay per annum at least ........ 20.00
Free fuel for the year, for cooking and heating, for which the
Northern laborers would have to pay, even if in a similar climate,
at least . 10.00
Free rent of eight acres of improved land, with permission to raise
pigs and chickens ad libitum, letting the same roam at large over
the fallow lands or pasture, from all of which the negro sells an
average of spare provisions, after feeding his family through the
year, of at least 30.00
Making a total of $380.00
Now the negro has this amount of money, or its equivalent, for his year's labor, in addition to his food for the whole
family. Can the average Northern laborer do better ?
For mechanical labor various prices are paid according to the capacity of the man. I never saw a plantation mechanic
who could compare favorably with a journeyman in the North, either for the quality or quantity of his work. They
have never had proper instruction in the use of tools, and are therefore rather slow and clumsy. It is the opinion of the
writer that, in mechanical as well as agricultural labor, the amount of work really performed is as well paid for on
our plantations as in Northern communities, but the work is of the roughest, coarsest kind, and is valued accordingly.
Many of the best negro mechanics found on this island are in the employ of the quartermaster's department, where
they have the benefit of good instructions in the example of white mechanics, but the writer knows nothing about the
rates of wages they are paid. The expenses of the thirteen plantations worked in 1863, from May to the
following February, may be classified as follows. The previous three months' labor before taking possession had been
in preparation for planting, and was paid for by the government.
Paid for planting cotton, 8788.04
" " hoeing and ploughing cotton, 4,557.10
" " carting and boating, .... . . 430.28
" " gathering and curing fodder 626.73
" " splitting fence rails, 174.47
" " gathering and composting manure, .... 1,943.25
" " picking cotton, and premium, (10 eta. per lb. ginned,) . 7,231.21
" " ginning, sorting, and packing, ..... 3,054.49
Care of property and jobbing, 2,222.35
Total of labor rolls, $21,027.92
Expenses of schools for nine months, 1,522.00
Depreciation of outfit, and repairs, 3,350.00
United States taxes on supplies at Hilton Head, . 950.00
United States taxes on cotton at Hilton Head, . . . 2,843.60
Interest account, nine months, 650.00
Total expenditure charged to cotton crop, being about 37 cts. per
pound, exclusive of taxes, upon 72,312 lbs. long staple cotton,
The question has already been attracting notice, whether the negro should be allowed to become a landholder. It is
now generally admitted that any system of proprietorship by which a large portion of land should be necessarily
thrown into the hands of a few wealthy men, is not only inconsistent with our national institutions, but sorely oppressive
to the lower classes, preventing the healthy development of ambition, and entailing upon the soil the evils of
absentee ownership, too long a curse to some of the West India Islands, as well as,some parts of the Southern States.
In fact, the joint-stock company which the writer now represents, cannot continue to hold their present estate without
becoming an incubus to the soil, after society shall have become sufficiently reorganized by the establishment of civil
law to give small proprietors equal facilities with large ones, and after the laborers acquire sufficient confidence in
each other and in the future course of the government, with sufficient intelligence and capital to enable them to manage
their small farms to advantage.
Cotton culture is eminently adapted to the condition of a small farmer, and does not, like sugar culture, require the
combination of a manufacturing process involving a large amount of capital. The question of proprietorship then, if
properly managed, is only one of time, and is to be provided for as soon as the conditions of society allow it. When we
consider that the two years had only half passed by which were required for the complete forfeiture of these estates
by the provisions of the law under which they were sold, when we consider the incomplete state of the surveys, and the
absence of all the machinery of civil law by means of which real estate titles are ordinarily guarded, the action of
the government in the order issued December 30th, 1863, authorizing squatters to enter pre-emption claims, seems
hasty and premature, aside from reasons explained in my former letter; but the government having once committed
itself by promises in this case can hardly retire from its position in good faith.
For reasons before given to the public, it did not seem to be the best thing for the welfare of the negro that he should
become the beneficiary of the government, lest he might in his present condition become to a certain extent de-
moralized thereby. It seems to the writer more for the negro's own advantage that he should acquire the title to the soil
by means of his own industry, as a reward for self-imposed exertion, which might serve as a stimulus for future
exertion and development.
On these considerations, it seems that the day may not be very distant when the estates now under the control of this
company of capitalists may become a thrifty colony of small farmers, both black and white, but any such fundamental
changes in the social status of an industrial community must, in order to succeed, be made with a due regard to a
healthy, natural development of the industry of the laboring classes, as well as to the accumulation of a sufficient
amount of capital and intelligence to enable the new landholder to improve his possessions.
In order to become a successful and useful member of the community as a proprietor, the negro has several things to
learn as well as some white men, viz.: to respect the property and rights of his neighbor, and to live at
peace with him; to trust in the promises of a man who has proved himself worthy of trust, (hoping he may find such,) to
meet his own engagements, and to provide by this month's hard labor for a reward that will not come sooner
than twelve or thirteen months hence. In all these things the negro is sadly deficient, but by no means incapable of
improving with time. The question is, how to elevate him with the least loss of time. The bolstering process may
appear the quickest to the hasty, but it may not be so lasting a benefit as to allow him to work his own way up the
ladder, guarding his rights by civil law justly administered.
The competition for labor that will arise throughout the Southern States just as soon as civil law is so far restored as to
render life and property tolerably secure after this war, will be enormous, for the world never saw such an oppor-
tunity as will then be given for the profitable employment of capital. This competition will do much towards securing to
the negro his dues, for if he is wronged by one employer, he will always find another ready to do better by
him, for the sake of getting his labor. This has already begun to work at Port Royal. Several plantations were
abandoned last season by the negroes who had lived upon them, for no other reason than because they found better
pay elsewhere. They enjoy perfect freedom of locomotion, and are only restrained from change of residence by strong
local attachments. Even these, however, do not prevent them from going about from one employer to another,
whenever they find they can essentially better their condition. This is a perfectly healthy process of raising wages, and
will always keep them at a more just rate for all concerned than legislation or arbitrary interference.
So long as there is as good a demand for labor as there is likely to be in the South for some time to come, there is but
little prospect of the negro's suffering, when there is protection for his industry and for the property ot his
employer. He should, however, be carefully protected by law against imposition, and he has been thus far so protected
in Port Royal by the zeal of General Saxton,— as far as in his power to do so — under the most difficult circumstances.
The recent unfortunate contradiction of orders from Washington in regard to the sale of the lands has endangered the
crops of this year by destroying confidence in the tenure of the land. It may be surmised that the profits of the past
cotton crop upon these thirteen plantations have gone" to swell the pockets of the already wealthy
capitalists who embarked in the enterprise. The truth is, that after paying all liabilities incurred, and paying to the
gentlemen in charge of the plantations their share of the profits, the whole remaining portion of the gross proceeds of
the last crop will be devoted to meet the current wants of the colony during this year. It is all needed, either in paying
wages, or in stocking the land, or in providing school-houses and dwelling houses for the blacks, stocking stores
which provide for their wants at a minimum price, and paying for the education of their children. Not one cent can be
paid back to the capitalist this year in the shape of dividend, without embarrassing the welfare of the popula-
tion, and it will not be done. The money will be again staked upon the Sea Islands. This fact may be of interest, to show
how much capital is required to carry on such an enterprise to good advantage and on liberal principles, and
to show that considerable risk is still incurred by placing so large an amount of property in a district still surrounded by
rebels in arms, and with a land-title still imperfect. Several of these plantations are in sight of the ground held by
the rebels on the other side of the river, with none of our outposts within eight miles. The object to be gained is to prove
to the world that negro labor, though hitherto despised and reviled, is still capable of being organized in an
economical and truly philanthropic manner, to the manifest advantage of both employer and employed, and we trust we
may be enabled to prove this, though acting under no small disadvantages.
Most truly yours, Edward S. Philbrick.