Osnaburg Fabric: Garment for the Enslaved

It was the osnaburg nightshirt that failed to keep Moses Grandy’s enslaved brother warm when he died of exposure while trying to find a yoke of steers that had wandered into woods of the Great Dismal Swamp during the winter of 1795. That coarse, yet thin fabric had not been enough to keep the enslaved child warm- the elements of winter’s cold air and his steadily weakening body from the previous floggings committed on him by slaver Mr. Kemp assured that death would soon remove the lad from slavery’s grip.[1]

Osnaburg fabric was part of the imposed uniform for the enslaved. It was cheap, relatively durable, and unremarkable enough to fit the status of unfreedom deployed onto enslaved people. As each day dragged on usually working fourteen hours per day in warmer months, enslaved people donned the drab fabric, however on Sunday- an enslaved person’s one day of rest, they would transform the fabric into a Sabbath Day ensemble that they could be proud of. Enslaved people combined their talents at improvisation with precious little into an aesthetic of what middling classes and planter elites would find objectionable.

The forced migration of enslaved captives placed them in alien locales across the Americas where they had to conform to European garb from the very beginning. The articles of enslaved dress are often outlined in the descriptions of runaway slave ads in order to increase the livelihood that the enslaved person could be identified by their clothing- “a strong Oznabrig shirt” or “linsey-woolsey” dress were often worn as enslaved people attempted their flight to freedom.[2]

Osnaburg is part of a family of poor quality textiles- made from coarse inexpensive linen with the main object being durability; a sturdiness appropriate for the unending toil comprised from the forced agricultural, pastoral, and manual labor performed by enslaved people. While working enslaved women wore osnaburg dresses “reefed up” with a cord drawn tightly around the body, along the hips in order that their work would get done unencumbered from long dress hems. Booker T. Washington, a former enslaved person himself, recalled his experience wearing the fabric, describing osnaburg as feeling like “a hundred pin points in contact with the flesh” His older brother eased Booker’s discomfort by “breaking in” the shirt for some days before transferring the garment to him.[3]

 Because enslaved people were responsible for making their own clothing, they knew which root, tree bark, leaf and berry that made red, blue, green and other colors. It was this knowledge that allowed enslaved women to use the dyed cloth to enhance the drab appearance of osnaburg in order to have something nice to wear on Sundays to church.[4]

Travelers and commentators of the nineteenth century complained about the propensity of enslaved people to dress “above themselves” to engage in elaborate finery clearly inappropriate to their lowly station in life. Nevertheless osnaburg fabric exists still today as a cultural remnant and reminder of the fabric relegated to the class of people also known as chattel.



Grandy, Moses, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, “Late a Slave in the United States of America” .London: Gilpin, 1843


White, Shane and Graham, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148. Oxford, 1995

[1] Moses Grandy, Narrative in the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America (London: C. Gilpin, 1843), 9

[2] Shane and Graham White, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148 (August 1995), 154.

[3] Ibid, 174

[4] It should be mentioned that church attendance was mandatory on many plantations during the antebellum era for enslaved people. Pastors were often Euroamerican and sermons were carefully constructed to dissuade enslaved people from insurgent activity-church was a method of control for enslaved people. In many locales enslaved people had a separate clandestine church meeting for themselves in the outlying woods of the plantation. In these gatherings enslaved people practiced their faith in a manner of their choosing.

Notes on David Blackbourn’s “Conquest of Nature”

“The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany,” by David Blackbourn tells the story of how Germans transformed their landscape over the course  of 250 years.[1] The modification of the landscape included reclaiming marshes, draining wetlands, stream restoration, and dam construction. These hydrological projects, Blackbourn informs, changed the face of the land and embodied the ushering in of the modern Germany to come.

Blackbourn in writing about how landscape shaped modern Germany details a metanarrative of how Germany developed as a nation state.  He describes two views of  Germany’s modernity story in terms of internal improvements. Blackbourn writes:

“Call them the optimistic and pessimistic approaches, one an account cast in the heroic mode, the other a modern morality tale of just deserts. The first tells a straightforward story of progress. Growing human control over the natural world meant new land for colonization and more food to support a growing population…”[2]

Here Blackbourn introduces readers to the ways that Germany’s landscape modification efforts were interpreted through history. The pessimistic version is outlined in greater detail here:

The “conquest of water led to a decline in biodiversity and brought damaging invasive species…Hydrological projects also wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge: carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.[3]

The author notes that neither framing is sufficient for showing the complexity of the German conquest of nature…

Ultimately Blackbourn is concerned with “the long-term consequences and manipulating and mechanizing Germany water sources” and in so doing provides a more complete historical account of past.




[1] David Blackbourn, The conquest of nature water, landscape and the making of modern Germany(London: Pimlico, 2007). 2

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 11

Notes on Thomas Rogers’ Deepest Wounds

Thomas Rogers’ “The Deepest Wounds: Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil” expands our knowledge in understanding the rupture, continuity and change in the zona da mata region of Brazil. Rogers’ foremost concern in the book is assessing the damage that monoculture did to landscape and society in the region as well as the degree of exploitation within agricultural and labor systems from the colonial to the present day.

Through narratives of labor and agro-environmental history “The Deepest Wounds” examines a wealth of facets within the relations between workers and planters.  Additionally Rogers’ intent is to “reinterpret the episodes of mobilization that reverberated around the country offering broader lessons about how a history of labor overlaps with the agricultural environment’s history.”[1]

Rogers utilizes a diverse set of source materials for this examination including colonial as well as imperial period chroniclers’ and travelers’ accounts, geographic studies, environmental histories, and intellectual reflections of the Permambucan elite class. Rogers gets closer to sugarcane worker’s lives through the slithers of biographical accounts, oral histories, folklore and visitor stories. Rogers admits that sources used to illuminate worker’s lives are thin by comparison with the Permambucan elite, yet the evidence he was able to glean still manages to provide a contextual aspect in the historical genealogy of their day to day lives.

Rogers brings the patrician and plebian together in his discussion on the emergence of modernization within sugarcane cultivation. Rogers explains that by examining the impact of modernization on workers as well as elites a greater contextualization emerges in trying to understand the role of political institutions in modern re-organization of labor.[2]

Thomas Rogers treatment of the zona de mata helps to “make sense of a history characterized as an infliction of wounds.”[3] More than just an environmental determinism wrought by monoculture, Rogers provides the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of landscape exploitation in the zona de mata.



[1] Thomas D. Rogers, The Deepest Wounds a Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).4

[2] Ibid, 16

[3] Ibid, 16

Currently Reading…

The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History synthesizes developments and resources in the field. This volume presents a survey of environmental history including an overview of significant topics and themes as well as a compendium of historical actors and policy…

Also reading Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South by the late Jack Temple Kirby. I stumbled upon this exciting work while mining the archive for information on Camp Manufacturing(a paper products corporation that extracted trees from the Great Dismal Swamp and other forested areas). Kirby’s intent is to “foster an understanding of the poetics, politics, and portions of the sciences within the human relationship to nature in the American south.”

I will post some notes on both texts within a week.

Notes on The Great Acceleration, by JR McNeil and Peter Engelke

“One can find reasons, as this book does, to prefer a more recent date for the beginning of the Anthropocene. Those reasons, in brief, are, first, that since the mid-twentieth century human action (unintentionally) has become the most important factor governing crucial biogeochemical cycles, to wit, the carbon cycle, the sulfur cycle, and the nitrogen cycle. Those cycles form a large part of what is now called the “Earth system, “a set of interlocking global-scale processes.” The second reason is that since the mid-twentieth century the human impact on the Earth and the biosphere, measured and judged in several different ways (some of which we will detail) has escalated.”[1]

  The quote above is taken from “The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945,” written by John Robert McNeil and Peter Engelke and provides meaning for their conception of when to date the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene can be defined as our present age, one when humans hold a powerful influence over the ecology of the globe. Dating the Anthropocene to 1945 suggests that the rampant energy use, population growth, and increased greenhouse gas emissions spurred on this cataclysmic geological event.[2]

Because there is not yet a consensus on the beginning of the Anthropocene, McNeil and Engelke chart the emergence of its arrival citing numerous devastating environmental disasters and the human toll that followed, with an overwhelming number of calamities taking place post 1945. Others scholars have noted that the Anthropocene began at the onset of the first “land use revolution” 21,000 years ago while others say the it began alongside the Bronze Age, and still others 1610. The reasons for these alternative dates of the beginning of the Anthropocene range from the spread of agriculture, variation within atmospheric carbon dioxide relating to the death toll of Indigenous people, and other geocultural factors.[3] The dating of the Anthropocene is important as it identifies the moment when human action collectively began the process of degrading the ecosystem through exploits related to technological “progress.” As McNeil and Engelke inform, the manifest drawbacks of environmental damages urge us to develop ways into finding alternatives to continue living on the Earth without continuing to harm it.

“But still, we can also unfortunately imagine a convergence in the future: climatological excess-relentlessly produced through the logic of the same proto-industrial world that grew out of the triangle trade- might indeed eventually change the earth’s material history. As the seas rise, those paths might shift, themselves re-mapped by the human.”[4]

[1] John Robert McNeill and Peter Engelke, The great acceleration: an environmental history of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)3-5

[2] Sadie Bergen, “Getting Warmer:Historians on Climate Change and the Anthropocene, ”Perspectives on History, February 2017  https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2017/getting-warmer-historians-on-climate-change-and-the-anthropocene# (accessed April 27, 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marisa Parham, “Black Haunts in the Anthropocene”, Notebook January 26, 2014.

mp285.com/nb/black-anthropocene/  (accessed April 27, 2017).