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How many hours of sleep did slaves get?

The amount of sleep that enslaved people were able to get varied greatly depending on the time period, location, and their specific circumstances. Enslaved people were considered property, so slave owners determined when and how long they slept. In general, most enslaved people were only allowed between 5-6 hours of sleep per night on average. However, some unlucky slaves got even less rest than that. Understanding the sleep patterns of enslaved people provides insight into their daily lives and the brutal conditions they endured.

Average Nightly Sleep for Slaves

Most slaves were allowed between 5-6 hours of sleep per night. Their sleep was often interrupted and generally of poor quality due to rough sleeping conditions. Here is an overview of the typical nightly sleep slaves got:

5-6 hours
Interrupted and light sleep
Occured between 10 pm – 4 am
Happened on rough surfaces like dirt floors or thin cots

Enslaved people were forced to follow the slave owner’s schedule, not their own natural circadian rhythms. They were not free to get the healthy amount of 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. This sleep deprivation took a heavy toll on their mental and physical health.

Reasons for Limited Rest

There were several reasons why slaves got such little and poor quality sleep:

Long work days

Slaves typically worked from sunrise to sunset, sometimes even longer. Field slaves would rise before dawn to start work and house slaves stayed up late to serve the plantation owner’s family after supper. The long work days left little time for sleep.

Night duties

Some slaves like nursing mothers were required to wake several times a night to care for children. Others had tasks like feeding animals or preparing food that had to happen before sunrise. This regularly disrupted their sleep.

Poor sleeping quarters

Most slaves slept in small cabins or common barrack-style quarters with multiple people. They had little privacy and slept on dirt floors, thin cots, or piles of straw. The noisy, cramped conditions made quality rest impossible.

Deliberate deprivation

Some cruel slave owners intentionally deprived slaves of sleep as a form of torture or punishment. They would make slaves work late, wake them early, or randomly disrupt their sleep to exhausted and disorient them. This showed their complete control over the slaves.

Regional Variations in Sleep Patterns

The amount of sleep slaves got varied across geography and time periods in the Americas based on the type of labor performed. Here are some regional differences:

United States South

Field slaves on southern cotton, tobacco and rice plantations slept the least, getting only 4-6 broken hours each night. Their slave owners maximized the profitability of their forced labor.

Caribbean Islands

In places like Haiti, Jamaica and Barbados, slaves on sugar cane plantations slept more than their counterparts in the US South due to intense heat. They got about 6-7 hours of restless sleep.

Urban House Slaves

Domestic slaves working in city homes sometimes got slightly more sleep if their owners were more lenient. But the quality was still compromised by long days and poor conditions.

Brazil and other South American countries

Mining industry slaves in South America faced some of the most extreme deprivation, with some getting only 3-4 hours on average. The work was dangerous and never-ending, leaving hardly any time for rest.

Quality of Sleep for Enslaved People

Beyond quantity, the quality of sleep slaves got was very poor. Their sleep was light, intermittent, and not restful. Here are factors that contributed to the inadequate rest:

Disruption and interruption

From nursing babies to punishing field duties, slaves’ sleep was constantly disrupted at random times. Unpredictability made it hard for the body to fully relax and sleep soundly.

Stress and anxiety

The threats of punishment, family separation, and violence created chronic stress. This made it challenging for slaves to mentally calm down enough to get rejuvenating sleep.

Hunger and exhaustion

Malnourishment and overwork left slaves physically weakened. Debilitating hunger pangs, aches, and fatigue affected their ability to sleep well.

Trauma and pain

Beatings, torture, and hard labor left many slaves with injuries. Their wounds caused persistent pain that made finding comfortable rest impossible.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Slaves

The severe lack of sleep had many detrimental effects on the minds and bodies of slaves:

Physical effects:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of illness
  • Reduced coordination and increased accidents
  • Exhaustion, low stamina, and reduced productivity

Mental and emotional effects:

  • Inability to concentrate, cloudy thinking
  • Increased errors in judgment
  • Shortened tempers, irritability
  • Decreased motivation
  • Depression, hopelessness

Lack of sleep made slaves’ waking lives even more miserable. It left them more vulnerable to their oppressors’ demands and weakened their ability to survive their bondage.

Individual Accounts of Slave Sleep Patterns

Looking at firsthand accounts from former slaves provides insights into their nightly sleep routines:

Charles Ball

Charles Ball was an enslaved man in South Carolina and Maryland in the early 1800s. In his memoirs, he reported getting only 4-5 hours of interrupted sleep each night. He described sleeping on corn husks on a dirt floor and having to wake up to carry his master home from drinking late at night.

Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson escaped slavery and became a noted abolitionist leader in Canada. He wrote that as a field slave, he only got 2-3 hours of restless sleep between midnight and 2 am each night in a crowded, noisy cabin with no bed.

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative described sleeping in a tiny crawl space in her grandmother’s attic for 7 years in order to escape her master’s sexual abuse. She suffered from lack of sleep, movement, fresh air and sunlight during this prolonged hiding period.

These accounts demonstrate the toll of sleep deprivation on individual slaves under different circumstances across regions and time periods. Their experiences were the norm, not the exception.

Sleep for House Slaves vs Field Slaves

The type of labor a slave performed largely determined how much sleep they got:

House slaves Field slaves
6-7 broken hours of sleep at night 4-5 broken hours of sleep at night
Woken frequently to serve masters overnight Woken before dawn for long days in fields
Slept in hallways, storage rooms or with family Slept in crude communal cabins
Some concessions made for children & pregnant women Pregnant/nursing moms woke to feed babies

Though house slaves enjoyed slightly better sleeping conditions than field slaves, their sleep was still limited and disrupted by the needs of their masters.

Children’s Sleep

From a very young age, slave children were expected to work and contribute to their owner’s profits. As property, enslaved children had no privileges allowing them extra sleep. Their sleep patterns mirrored overworked adults:

Hours of sleep:

  • Infants: Woken frequently to nurse
  • Early childhood (1-5 years): 4-6 broken hours
  • Childhood (6-12 years): 5-6 interrupted hours

Sleeping conditions:

  • Often slept on dirt floors or piles of rags
  • Shared small spaces with multiple family members
  • Frequently disrupted by noise, pests, weather

This childhood sleep deprivation stunted their growth, health, and development. It also conditioned them to accept insufficient rest as the norm.

Evolution of Sleep Patterns After Slavery Ended

After slavery ended in 1865 in the United States, freed slaves began to gain control over their sleep:

Later bedtimes

Freedmen and women stayed up later socializing, cooking, and spending time with family. Many celebrated their newfound freedom.

More flexibility

Rising time became more variable based on obligations instead of forced early wake times. Mothers could tend children on their own schedule.

Longer sleep duration

With fewer demands on their time and labor, most freed slaves extended their sleep to 6-8 hours per night. But ingrained insomnia still affected sleep quality.

Improved conditions

Better housing, beds, and nutrition after slavery led to more comfortable sleeping conditions. But poverty still limited these improvements for decades.

Residual disruption

Lifelong trauma, upheaval, and vigilance continued disrupting sleep patterns even after emancipation. Complete recovery from generations of sleep deprivation was gradual.

But the ability to direct their own sleep and rest marked an important turning point that allowed freed slaves to start healing.


Between brutal working conditions, inadequate housing, and intentional deprivation, most enslaved people in the Americas got strikingly limited, disrupted sleep. House slaves fared marginally better than field slaves, but all suffered profound physical, mental, and emotional damage from this lack of rest. Understanding these difficult sleeping conditions provides critical insight into slaves’ daily struggles and mistreatment. The story of slave sleep reveals the heartbreaking hardships they endured and further exposes the horrors of slavery. Even after emancipation, the impact of generations of mistreatment continued to mark the lives and health of millions of freed slaves and their descendants.