Marks of Oppression: The Scarred Identity of African-American Slaves Through Human Branding

By: Joseph Subido

African American Slaves were subject to the hot iron of oppression during the transatlantic slave trade. The slave traders would brand the shoulder, breast or forehead depending on the context of the specific brand. The brand was usually placed on the most visible part of the slaves body. After the iron had singed the slave’s black skin, an oil of some sort (palm in most cases) was rubbed on the wound. The brand  was said to be healed after 4 or 5 days.

I selected to write about the process of human branding in slavery because I myself have a brand. Since my introduction to slave branding in lecture, I have been interested in following up the process, background information and purpose of human branding at that time. Through further research, I discovered,”the branding of African American slaves was widespread and was performed either for identification purposes or as a punishment.” (1) The area on the body in which the slave was branded varied. Popular body parts to brand included the back, shoulder, or abdomen, with the face being a favorite site for punishment.

Frederick Douglass, a well-known abolitionist who escaped slavery, explained how slaves were branded during the slave trade. He is quoted in a speech saying “the process of branding was this —A person was tied to a post, and his back, or such other part as was to be branded, laid bare; the iron was then delivered red hot (sensation), and applied to the quivering flesh, imprinting upon it the name of the monster who claimed the slave.” (3)

Slave branding started before the transatlantic slave trade; similar to slavery itself.”The Portuguese began the practice, in Arguin in the l440s, of the carimbo, the branding of a slave with a hot iron, leaving a mark in red on the shoulder, the breast, or the upper arm, so that it was evident that he or she was the property of the king of Portugal, or some other master, and that a proper duty had been paid.” (4) The important aspect of slave branding is that the continuation of branding on slaves lasted for centuries after its initial utilization by the pioneers of the transatlantic slave trade.

The act of getting branded as a slave was very painful and degrading. White/European slave traders would forcibly place the mark on the slaves by heating the iron and pressing it to the skin of the slaves. This was usually done in front of a group of other slaves, waiting in line to be branded themselves. According to the article, Branding Iron, “brands were used to mark African captives as belonging to a particular owner. Branding irons were sometimes used to mark all captives routinely during the trade, but more often were used to single out runaways to ensure their return if they should escape again.” (1)


Slave branding was used as a punishment to slaves who had runaway, or committed a ‘crime’ that slave owners deemed as deserving of a brand. Slaves were also branded with some type notation, representing boat that brought them over.

From its origin, slave branding has been used as a form of punishment and sort identification tag. In either case, the brands were the painful result of an extremely degrading slavery system.

Thankfully, the exploitation of African-American slave work has been made illegal. However, there are still those who continue to practice the act of human branding such as university fraternities, artsy body modifiers, etc.





  1. “Branding Iron.” Branding Iron. Hull Museums, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
  2. “Slave+brands – Google Search.” Slave+brands – Google Search. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
  3. Hoenig, Leonard J. “The Branding of African American Slaves.” The Jama Network. N.p., Feb. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
  4. Thomas, Hugh. “The Branding (and Baptism) of Slaves.” (1997): n. pag. Simon & Schuster. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.


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