How 20,000 Blacks died through starvation and overwork in the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ labour camp in Mississippi

Michael Eli Dokosi November 04, 2019

In America’s chequered history, the South is regarded as the more villainous; on account of their treatment of enslaved blacks and great lengths it went to recapture slaves, who attempted running away to freedom.

But the North proved that on its own account, it was as vile thanks to the fate that befell supposed free Blacks in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1860s.

America, supposed land of the free and great opportunities, had its own concentration camp which some estimate claimed 20,000 Black lives.

With Black males being convinced to fight on the North’s behalf against the South with a promise to gain freedom, there was hope that life will get better after the civil war (1861 to 1865) but any such hope soon floundered.

After the Civil War, Natchez Mississippi experienced an enormous influx of former slaves as new inhabitants trooped in but the unenthused locals constructed an ‘encampment’ forcing all former slaves to live there. The area was then walled off with the former enslaved refused the option to leave.

Former Director of the Natchez City Cemetery Don Estes revealed in a news report: “So they decided to build an encampment for ’em at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off and wouldn’t let ’em out.”

Estes further added: “Disease broke out among ’em, smallpox being the main one. And thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out. ‘Turn me loose and I’ll go home back to the plantation! Anywhere but there’.”

How 20,000 Blacks died through starvation and overwork in the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ labour camp in Mississippi
Devil’s Punchbowl via

It will take some time for the atrocities meted out to these Blacks to be revealed. Regarding how the camp came by its curious name – ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ – it was due to how the area is shaped with the camp located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.

While a propaganda of the North was that the South’s attempt to secede will break up the union and make the U.S vulnerable, another was that the South’s long slave trading of Blacks was inhumane and had to be stopped. It was on the back of abolishing the war and freeing up the enslaved which gingered many Blacks to fight alongside Union soldiers against the Confederates soldiers of the south but soon after victory, the Union troops showed they didn’t care about the well being of blacks rather to contain the economic advantage of the South made possible by the hard work of enslaved blacks.

Union soldiers unhappy with a swell in the population of Natchez from 10,000 to 120,000 by freed Blacks recaptured free males and forced them into the labour camps while the women and children were locked behind the concrete walls of the encampment and starved. Within a year, 20,000 freed slaves were killed in the concentration camp.

But what caused such rapid deaths?

The Union Army forbade the removal of dead bodies, instructing them to “bury their dead where they fell.”

Availability of Food and water is key for human survival but at the encampment alias ‘Devils Punchbowl’ lacked fresh food and water and soon enough disease and starvation will combine to claim loved ones rapidly and in astounding numbers.

For southern plantation workers who endured brutal conditions to be so overwhelmed with their Natchez experience to plead with their white guards to let them return to the plantations, underlined the atrocious living conditions.

Aside thousands of men, women, and children perishing because of exhaustion and starvation, there were also disease outbreaks chiefly smallpox.

Much of the ordeal at the camp was passed down orally, leading skeptics to insinuate accounts at the camp have been exaggerated, however, those in the know warn about consuming the citrus nectar from the wild peach groves around, stressing decomposed human flesh fertilized its bountifulness.

Again, occasional flooding by the Mississippi River exposes skeletal remains with some people reckoning mass graves adorn the former encampment. Yet again, the ‘Devils Punchbowl’ account shows that sometimes an African, melanated, Black or Moor seeking to just live, work and earn a keep, can prove deadly.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: November 4, 2019


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