Slaves hid African charms in plantation greenhouse

Wye House Farm orangeryUniversity of Maryland archaeologists excavating the orangery — a greenhouse dedicated to growing delicate warm weather fruits like oranges — of Colonial-era plantation Wye House Farm have found West African talismans embedded into the construction materials of the building. The charms indicate that slaves actually lived in the greenhouse as well as worked in it, and that they continued to practice African religious traditions while publicly professing Christianity.

“This building has always been known to be a greenhouse and anybody could guess that slaves probably ran the heating system, but nobody could tell if slaves lived in the building or what they did beyond stoking the fire and being the laborers for the enormous surrounding garden,” Leone said. “That was how we started.”

Pointed and metal objects at the doorway warded off evil spiritsAs they dug below a north-facing back room, the researchers found dishes, teacups, cutlery, buttons and other objects. Those objects identified the area as a slave quarter that was occupied between about 1785 and 1820.

About two inches beneath the doorstep outside the quarter’s threshold, they also discovered two projectile points and a coin — signature objects used in African religious traditions to control the coming and going of spirits.

Prehistoric pestle cemented with bricks at back of furnaceInside, they found another religious symbol: A stone pestle mortared into the framework of the furnace by the slaves who built it.

In addition to the religious and everyday objects, the researchers were able to document an extensive series of agricultural trials conducted by the slaves who lived there.

They were able to document the agricultural history of the greenhouse by analyzing fossilized grains of pollen. This is the firm time pollen analysis has been used on a historic US greenhouse. The technique identifies which families of plants were grown in the orangery, but can’t pinpoint the specific species.

So we know, for instance, that the Wye House slaves began experimenting with medicinal plants — like ginger and Seneca snakeroot — food plants — broccoli, bananas and greens — and flowering plants. Within 30 years they were growing exotic plants like the eponymous orange trees, plus roses, irises, various members of the nightshade family.

Greenhouses were rare, elite structures back then, and they didn’t come with manuals. The lessons its enslaved staff learned would have been valuable information handed down from generation to generation.

The property was first settled in the mid-17th century by Welshman Edward Lloyd, but the main buildings, including the big house and the orangery, were built between 1780 and 1790. The Wye House orangery is the only 18th century greenhouse still standing in the United States.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879At its peak, Wye House Farm fielded over 1,000 slaves, including at one point Frederick Douglass who lived there for 2 years as a child. The property is still owned by a direct descendant of Edward Lloyd, and its longevity and long, wide history of slaves living on the property makes it an invaluable source for archaeologists exploring the material remains of slaves. Mark Leone’s team has been excavating the site for 6 years.

Douglass spoke of encountering his first experience of slave master brutality at Wye House Farm in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

This occurrence took place very soon after I went to live with my old master, and under the following circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night,– where or for what I do not know,–and happened to be absent when my master desired her presence. He had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned her that she must never let him catch her in company with a young man, who was paying attention to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man’s name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd’s Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.

Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in going out, but had been found in company with Lloyd’s Ned; which circumstance, I found, from what he said while whipping her, was the chief offence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself, he might have been thought interested in protecting the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—-d b—h [damned bitch]. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, “Now, you d—-d b—h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.

15 thoughts on “Slaves hid African charms in plantation greenhouse

  1. I recently blogged an excerpt from the dairy of William Byrd, a Virginia plantation owner in the early 18th century. It wasn’t that he was brutal to his slaves that suppressed me, it was his matter of fact attitude towards it.

    “February 8

    I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene [two house slaves] were whipped.

    September 3

    My wife was indisposed again but not to much purpose. In the afternoon I beat Jenny [a house slave] for throwing water on the couch”.

    He had the same attitude to girls of the lower classes too,

    “October 6

    I rose at 6 o’clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and when she came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive me”.


    1. Ugh. All that high religiosity and all that matter-of-fact brutality. What a despicable whited sepulcher.

      I like your site, btw. I’m going to add it to my blogroll. :hattip:

    1. The Ottoman Empire, however, had a very long history of slavery and slave trading in sub-Saharan Africa. There was still a thriving contraband up until the First World War.

      Turkey as a nation, though, has never had slavery, this is true. But that’s attributable to the fact that it’s a very young country.

      1. ─░t is an unreal concept and result from strong prejudices. There is no systematic slave trade, never at the Ottoman Empire age. But, some times, some traders adherence to traffic at the country which is very large national borders. The people was free and balance by Allah, in the Ottoman Empire country.

        There is no argument your writing this subject.

  2. Ummm… to put it as kindly as I can,
    your in complete denial of reality, Serdar.

    The Ottomans were merciless against the Balkan Europeans, and invented the Janissary corps,
    which were Europeans taken as tribute from their Balkan or slav parents and turned into slave shock troops..

    Many times during the early jannisary period, these boys were turned into Eunichs having their testicles cut off.
    Many Balkan, greek, slav, and other euro women and girls were kidnappedd and carried off to be enslaved as forced sex slaves in the ottoman harems and brothels.

    The Ottoman naval force beaten by the European fleet at the battle of Lepanto was almost 100% powered by enslaved Christian rowers who died at their rowing stations, and had to defecate there.
    These men were thrown overboard by the Ottoman turks to the sharks once they either died or could not be beaten to row any further.

    All European african slavery originated with the Iberians (portugese/spanish) who copied the long practice that originated from their Muslim Conquerors at the time.

    Islamic african slavery was not stopped until 14 centuries after it started, and it was ended by European intervention after the Ottoman empire fell to the Europeans,
    while Christian Euro slavery lasted less than THREE centuries, and was stopped internally by the Christians themsleves.

    Turkey has laws against ‘insulting’ Turkish history, which means its illegal to tell the truth about any atrocity, and you people are thus ingnorant or reality, sadly.

  3. You have junior judgments to Turks. No good talking about it. Your idea is fixed. There are no laws against ÔÇśinsultingÔÇÖ Turkish history in Turkey. Everbody says everything, anybody don’t to be punished. You have it only from hearsay. In direct contradiction, Turkish peoples apprehend from today. They say freely about the past.
    Only powerless country have incriminate of the past, key financial nation is exempt.

  4. Article 301 is a controversial article of the Turkish Penal Code making it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions. It took effect on June 1, 2005, and was introduced as part of a package of penal-law reform in the process preceding the opening of negotiations for Turkish membership of the European Union (EU), in order to bring Turkey up to the Union standards.[1][2] The original version of the article made it a crime to “insult Turkishness”; on April 30, 2008, the article was amended to change “Turkishness” into “the Turkish nation”.

    A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.
    A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.
    In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.

    I have no issue with a modern turkish person, or dislike for them, but the truth is they do prosecute anyone who tells the truth about historical wrongdoings, and that is in itself a crime.

    no nation of common sense needs any such laws.. only a nation with a lot to hide.

    while the blame does not fall to modern turks, the horrendous treatment I outlined in my above post is all true, and its a tiny fraction of the violence and abuse the ottomans and earlier steppe turkic populations routinely unflicted- to deny this is absurd.

    Wrongdoing and abuse/maltreatment also falls to western and euro nations as well, but we dont have laws punishing those who concede the fact that such abuses were once common practice- Turkey DOES

  5. Do we speak yesterday or today?

    I said; There is no systematic slave trade, never at the Ottoman Empire age. You say article 301 to me. I am not defend article 301. But it is problem on today. ─░t is not problem in old time. Also, this problem is mine. We are – Turkish people who want to more democratic applications – contesting it in my country. ─░t is a much debated question in here. But this subject is careless from slavery on Ottoman Empire.

    Today, laws are bad in Turkey, then Ottoman Empire is slaver state. It is logical error,in my opinion.

    500 years ago, 150 000 Sephardic Jews which escape to Spain tie to Ottoman Sultan. They lived free in Turkey and living today, too. Since Ottoman Empire is slaver state, why Sultan make slave them?

  6. I know it is an old conversation, but I would like to say a few words:

    Nobody….not one single culture, past or present, is innocent of any wrongdoing. Turkey, today, does not experience a great level of freedom of the press. And indeed, it does restrict what a Turkish citizen can say against their own government and society.

    The Turkish people have, in the past, participated in their own atrocities just like all other nations in existence today. To deny this, is to either outright lie, or show your complete ignorance and naivete of human history.

  7. Slavery did, in fact exist for centuries in Turkey.

    Please read about the Ottoman Empires long history of slavery, which includes the Barbary slave raids, Zanj slaves, Slaves in the Imperial Harem & Sexual slaves.

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