Read pages 226 to 241 in Mark M. Smith's The Old South and discuss the following: Discuss the variety of techniques used by slave traders to assess the market worth and value of a slave. Why were these techniques considered acceptable, and why there was no objection to these methods?

According to pages 226 to 241 in Mark M. Smith's The Old South, slave traders relied almost exclusively on the outward physical attributes of the slaves to determine their market worth and value, using such criteria as darkness of skin, age, height, and muscular firmness to price slaves. Those criteria were considered acceptable because of the absence of other reliable information. There was no objection to these methods because everyone used them, so they were accepted as normal.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Slave traders and buyers alike assessed the physical attributes of slaves to assess their market value. "Jet black" skin was associated with health and strength, and the darkest individuals were often sought as field hands. Lighter skinned slaves were more often valued as house slaves. Tall slaves were most often priced higher than short slaves.

Male slaves were valued primarily for their strength, with men between 19 and 24 most preferred, while female slaves were valued for their reproductive capacity, with women between 16 and 19 preferred.

Both to evaluate health and strength, traders and buyers touched slaves freely, and expected to "strip" slaves to the waist to examine their skin. Muscles were squeezed to evaluate strength, teeth and gums examined in the search for ill health, and bodies fingers to look for broken bones, hernias, or other signs of disease. Scars on the back were also evaluated in terms of whether they were recent and how severe, used as way for prospective buyers to predict how obedient the slave might be.

These practices, though horrific by our standards, were adopted because traders and especially prospective buyers knew they were unlikely to get reliable histories of these slaves. Evidences of disease, undesirable behavior or unwanted issues were routinely hidden or downplayed. Traders and buyers could only try to "read" to bodies of the slaves to make calculation about which slaves were most "likely" to work out well.

These practices were not objected to because they were so widespread that they seemed normal and natural within the context of slave trading culture. To this cohort, slaves were merchandise and evaluated as such.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on