Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Shocking reminders of slavery

Published:Sunday | November 22, 2020 | 8:20 AM

Tongue restraint
Tongue restraint
Neck restraint
Neck restraint

We highlight a period of human history when slavery left deep scars not only on the bodies that bore the physical abuse, but on the souls of generations to come. There is not anything ‘human’ about that period of history. Here are some poignant and sobering reminders.

Tongue Restraint

A tongue restraint, also sometimes referred to as ‘iron bit, or ‘gag’, was one of many torture devices used to intimidate and punish enslaved persons. The restraint is a thin strip of metal that was fitted around the head and mouth and then locked at the nape of the neck. This restraint was used for a variety of purposes. The most common was to prevent the wearer from communicating with others. It was also used to starve victims as punishment due to their infraction. When used to starve, nothing could be swallowed, not even saliva.

One particularly gruesome and barbaric use of this implement was to force-feed enslaved excrement. The victim would be restrained and animal or human excrement would be forced into their mouth, and the restraint was then applied to the mouth and locked around the face. This implement of torture was also used in cases of resistance,where slaves attempted by starvation or by ingesting poisonous substances. Enslaved persons would be forced to wear the device then force fed water and bread to keep them alive.

Neck Restraint

Neck restraints are also known as pronged or slave collars. These torture devices were made of iron and were used to discipline and identify enslaved persons who were considered at risk of becoming runaways or who previously had attempted to run away. It was also used to identify persons who may have been caught stealing or who had committed other very serious transgressions. This device stopped them from running away again as the spiked ends prevented the wearer from moving into any areas with trees or bushes because if caught in bushes, the collar caused the wearer’s neck to jerk violently and slowed their ability to escape, thus allowing them to be recaptured easily. Many times, these collars were also outfitted with bells or pieces of iron, which ensured that the wearer could not move stealthily. The two spikes sticking out would have made it almost impossible or painfully uncomfortable for a person wearing it to lie down or to lean up against any surface.

- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, curator, National Museum West.