Plantation owners’ management of their estate is based on an analysis of costs and benefits, meant to protect their self-interest over the well-being of their slaves. In order to govern over large groups of slaves, many masters resort to various kinds of punishment, aimed at discouraging rebellion or escape. Seemingly alone in believing in slaves’ humanity, Mr. Whitechapel argues for demonstrating kindness and respect to slaves in order to establish relationships of trust. However, Mr. Whitechapel’s views prove deeply hypocritical, as the novel underscores that slavery is the antithesis of kindness or humaneness. Focusing on a master’s occasionally respectful actions ignores the fact that slavery takes away slaves’ right to be seen as full human beings. Even without the use of outwardly violent punishment, the institution of slavery remains inherently cruel, aimed at oppressing and dominating a vulnerable minority.
Mr. Whitechapel’s philosophy is to show respect to slaves and, unlike other plantation owners’ brutal methods, avoid violent punishment on the plantation. However, this attitude is hypocritical, as it disregards the dehumanizing effect of slavery itself. Initially, Mr. Whitechapel seems committed to treating his slaves fairly. When the overseer, Sanders Senior, rapes Cook, who is the future wife of a well-respected slave named Whitechapel, Mr. Whitechapel fines the overseer and threatens to fire him if he does not find himself a wife. Later, Mr. Whitechapel also agrees to negotiate the young Chapel’s punishment with his father so that the boy’s life might be spared, at least temporarily. His ability to interact and negotiate with a trusted slave such as Whitechapel shows that he does respect slaves’ well-being to a certain extent.
However, even as Mr. Whitechapel insists that he believes in slaves’ humanity, he is also convinced that their so-called inherent inferiority justifies their economic and social subjection. “Africans may be our inferiors,” he says, “but they exhibit the same qualities we possess, even if they are merely imitating us. Their management is best exemplified by an approach that treats them first and foremost as subjects of God, though blessed with lesser faculties, and therefore suited to the trade of slavery.” Mr. Whitechapel thus accepts Africans only insofar as they represent a subhuman class that must be ruled by whites. This denies slaves even the most basic right of self-determination. Therefore, even without direct physical punishment, slavery constitutes a form of violence: the removal of what makes people fully human.
Mr. Whitechapel prefers to ignore his own participation in such a violent system. When he rebukes Sanders Junior for killing Chapel, he argues that “the lot of the slave is miserable enough without being compounded by unnecessary hardships and cruelties.” While he criticizes instilling terror on the plantation (“unnecessary hardships”), he also recognizes the inherently “miserable” nature of slaves’ lives—a misery in which he participates directly as a plantation owner, but for which he does not seem to consider himself responsible. Whatever actions Mr. Whitechapel might take to maintain peace and cooperation on the plantation, his support of the system of slavery makes him just as oppressive and cruel as his more outwardly violent counterparts. His occasional acts of kindness or respect are unable to compensate for the cruelty of a system of oppression.
Like other slave owners, Mr. Whitechapel ultimately proves less committed to his slaves’ well-being than to his economic self-interest. An article in the local newspaper, The Virginian, summarizes slave owners’ general attitude toward slaves. The editor argues that it is fine to separate slave families, since slaves should be seen as economic assets rather than full human beings. “It is wise not to confuse [their] displays of attachment and habit with love,” the editor writes. “At the auction block, get the best price for your investment even if it means breaking up the capital into smaller holdings and selling each holding separately.” Slave owners, the article argues, should learn to prioritize financial considerations only, not their slaves’ emotional health.
Although Mr. Whitechapel does not necessarily treat slaves as inanimate possessions, he does give preference to his own interests over his slaves’ well-being. In doing so, he reveals that fairness is impossible in a system where one section of the population is considered inferior. When Whitechapel’s wife, Cook, is dying, for example, Mr. Whitechapel refuses to pay for a physician for her, arguing instead—without any medical evidence to support his views—that this is her time to die. His refusal to pay for a physician reveals that he does not want to spend money on a slave’s life. On other occasions, his harsh words of rebuke toward Whitechapel—when the slave is trying to negotiate for Chapel’s life, or after Chapel’s death—reveal that Mr. Whitechapel only respects his slave so long as he remains subservient. Mr. Whitechapel’s relationship with his slaves is always colored by his awareness of his status and of slaves’ inferiority. As such, his pretensions to respect and fairness can only exist within the limits of economic gain. More than anything, he wants to maintain his position as all-powerful master on the plantation.
By the end of the novel, the very concept of fairness and fair punishment on the plantation prove illusory, as punishment against slaves always involves a form of brutality. “Your policy of a judicious whip failed to save him. There is only one whip, it eats flesh,” Mr. Whitechapel tells himself after Chapel’s death. This serves as a reminder—to the reader, but also to the master himself—that Mr. Whitechapel is not handling inanimate economic assets, but real lives. Even though he defends the practical purpose of public punishment (which keeps slaves from running way and thus ensures the stability of the plantation’s economic system), he realizes that social utility does not necessarily make an action morally valid. Instead, calling a violent form of punishment “judicious” only imbues an inherently cruel—and, therefore, condemnable—act with moral worth.
Even though Mr. Whitechapel might occasionally strive to be kind, his participation in an inherently violent system thus makes him just as guilty as his uncaring colleagues. It is only in rejecting slavery altogether that Mr. Whitechapel might show himself to be truly fair and to protect the dignity of the people he claims to respect.
Punishment and Cruelty ThemeTracker
Punishment and Cruelty Quotes in The Longest Memory
“My hand is not the whip son,” I said or imagined saying to him. He nodded to everything, then nothing. I had to have no name to match this look and the remainder of this life.
There are two types of slave: the slave who must experience everything for himself before coming to an understanding of anything and he who learns through observation. The slave in the first category behaves as if he is the only slave in the world and is visited by the worst luck on earth. That type of slave is agitated, brings much trouble on his head and he makes the lot of every slave ten times worse. It is generally accepted that the slave in the second category is brighter, lives longer, causes everyone around him a minimum of worries and earns the small kindness of the overseer and the master.
“This inhuman display parading as discipline is a regular occurrence on these so-called ‘tightly run’ operations. I tell you all the evidence supports my belief that as a long-term measure it is a disaster. Contrary to their arguments, such rough handling provides rougher responses. The human spirit is passive in some but nature shows us that it is rebellious in most.”
“Whitechapel, you even got a mention in The Virginian.”
“The death of one slave does not make me one of you.”
“True, Whitechapel, true, it does not; it makes you a fool.”
“And, after all you’ve said, a hypocrite too. ‘The slaves have rights as humans; they are not just tools.’”
“What about this? ‘Show them respect and they’ll work hard.’”
“‘They may be inferior but they’re people like us.’ Lost your tongue, Whitechapel?”
Your policy of a judicious whip failed to save him. There is only one whip, it eats flesh.
“Our line of work is slaves, we can’t change the fact. We do it the way we think best serves our investment.”
“It’s not a charity.”
“We are Christians but Christianity does not equal weakness.”
“We treat our slaves with a firm hand, we’re severe in the hope that other slaves will behave well out of fear.”
“How could your Whitechapel watch and not intervene?”
“He lost a son in deference to authority.”
“Name your price. That slave of yours is a slaver’s dream.”
“He’s still not for sale.”
“He deserves your family name.”
“Well said indeed.”
“If he were white he’d still be rare.”
“Let’s drink a toast. To Whitechapel and to his slave.”
“I couldn’t strike you. You showed me how to run things. My father spoke highly of you. You were a better overseer than I. There I was, thinking I was the first one to rise in the morning, setting an example for everyone, and you were out here even before me. Always first and last in everything. I am sorry about your son. Not my brother. I knew him only as the son of a slave. He was trouble from the day he talked. He not only asked questions but when you gave him an answer he was never satisfied. He always asked why: Why this? Why that?”