Edwin Epps is a gruff, heavy-set man who is “fond of the bottle,” and goes on drinking “sprees” that last two weeks at a time. When he is “in his cups,” he is noisy, abrasive, and loves to make games of whipping his slaves. When he is sober, he is stoic and clever and whips his slaves when they don’t work efficiently enough.
When Epps is drunk, he whips his slaves for pure entertainment, whereas when he’s sober, he whips his slaves to make them work harder and faster. Epps’ alcoholism means he has two cruel personalities instead of one, but the common thread is that Epps takes his own violent tendencies out on his slaves no matter what.
Epps’ primary business is growing and harvesting cotton. Solomon explains to the reader the way cotton is grown, noting that it takes two mules, three slaves, a plow, and a harrow to plant a single row of cotton. Over the next few months, the cotton is hoed, and by August, picking season begins. Each slave picks about two hundred pounds of cotton each day, and they are punished if they don’t meet their quota. Epps’ best cotton-picker, Patsey, picks five hundred pounds of cotton per day.
By explaining the mundane details of how cotton is planted and harvested, Solomon underscores the truth of his narrative—that is, that he really was a slave for twelve years in Louisiana and can show his white Northern readership what slavery is truly like in the South.
Solomon explains that the entire cotton-picking process is based on fear. If a slave breaks a cotton branch (which is easy to do and often unavoidable), the slave is severely punished, since “The cotton will not bloom upon a broken branch.” The slaves are given ten minutes during the work day to scarf down their lunch—a small morsel of cold bacon—and then continue working late into the night. At the end of the work day, every slave “approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear.” If the day’s harvest weighs too little, the slave is punished. If the day’s harvest weighs more than usual, the slave must pick that same amount for all the days to come.
Just as the cotton doesn’t bloom when the branches are broken, neither can Epps’ slaves work efficiently when they’re treated inhumanely. With meager food and sleep, the slaves are clearly pushed to their physical limits. Epps also punishes his slaves for everything—including if they pick too little cotton or too much—which feels reminiscent of the way Tibeats was constantly looking for a reason (however flimsy) to punish Solomon.
Epps’ slaves are given one element of choice in their day-to-day lives. Whether they want to grind their weekly portion of cornmeal all at once or a little bit each night is entirely their choice—“A very generous man was Master Epps,” Solomon remarks. The slaves keep their weekly allowance of corn and bacon inside a gourd.
It’s unclear why Epps gives only allows his slaves this one choice—perhaps it’s more degrading to give his slaves one insignificant choice than none at all. Solomon sarcastically praises Epps for being so generous, implying that Epps is anything but.
Solomon also describes the slave accommodations at Epps’ plantation. Each slave sleeps on a plank of wood for a bed, a “stick of wood” for a pillow, and a “coarse blanket.” During the stormy season, rain seeps through the cabin, and the slaves sleep while soaking wet. When the slaves rise in the morning and leave their cabin, “the fears and labors of another day begin.”
Epps seems to intentionally make the slaves’ lives as uncomfortable as possible. The slaves live like farm animals (if not worse), forced to sleep on the wooden floor and be soaked by the rain.
Solomon describes Epps’ cattle that inhabit the swamplands. The cattle are branded, and then herded toward the swamps, “to roam unrestricted within their almost limitless confines.” Epps also has a garden, though its harvest only feeds the Epps family. By Autumn, “The grass withereth and the flower fadeth” in other parts of the country, but flowers bloom year-round at Bayou Boeuf.
Even though slaves are frequently compared to livestock throughout the text, it’s clear that livestock live more peacefully and with more freedom than the slaves. Solomon references part of Isaiah 40:8 to describe the way that seasons affect crops in other parts of the world. The second part of the verse reads, “but the word of our God shall stand forever,” pointing back to the way that Solomon’s Christian faith is a source of strength and hope in the face of his miserable circumstances. At the same time, the ever-blooming garden of Bayou Boeuf is bitterly contrasted with the suffering of the slaves there.