Scars of the Caribbean Past
Although abolished for what appears to be a long time, slavery is still very much an issue in the collective cultural conscience of today; whatever culture this may be. The sheer inhuman treatment and often violent reaction to such treatment during slavery still elicit considerable emotion in many hearts today. However, brutality is not the only issue that slavery brought about. Indeed, there are many complex economic, cultural, gender, and other issues that resulted from the oppressive forces as opposed to the oppressed. These complex forces — and the various forms of power exerted both by slave owners and their slaves — will be the focus of my study.
Specifically, this paper will explore the historiography of slavery in the Caribbean from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century (1624-1853). I will consider the economic basis of motivation for slavery, often taking precedence over simple humanity. I will show that economic gain was at the basis of the often cruel treatment of the slaves by Europeans. They also considered their power to lie in their economic prowess and propensity for development. Issues such as color, the medical and scientific approach, slave gender roles, slave resistance to white power, as well as social factors often informed the power relationship. For slaves, for example, power tended to exist in their cultural knowledge and their ability to live in an often hostile natural world. It was therefore a clash of two different forms of power: economic progress as opposed to native ways of living and knowing.
It is also interesting to note that the European drive towards economic growth resulted in oppression by means of slavery not only for Africans, but also for immigrants as well as natives throughout the world. It is for example an interesting but little-known fact that the Chinese played a significant role as slaves in the economy of the British West Indies. In addition, the oppression suffered by slaves also took the form of sexual oppression, where white slave owners often sired mixed-race children with their female slaves.
During the centuries in question, European imperialism ushered in a new era of economic growth that could only be achieved through the use slaves. Largely at the basis of this economy were the large sugar plantations and the ever-growing slave trade in the Atlantic. What Europeans at the time perhaps did not take account of is the fact that the masses will not submit to oppression indefinitely. In addition to their cultural and native propensity for survival, the slaves had an additional factor in favor of their power relative to the European economy: their numbers.
Although slavery in the early twentieth century was a subject that historians tended to steer clear of, this attitude has largely changed, and recent work has brought to light a significant body of knowledge for the enlightenment of today’s scholar. Slavery in the French, Danish and British West Indies, as well as the Caribbean as a whole, will be addressed in my study. It will be seen that the governments of these countries tended to “sell their souls” as it were for economic reward, largely ignoring their own morality and sense of human decency in favor of spreading the borders of their vast empires; the slave suffered the consequences of this unabated greed and quest for power. It is however also significant that, while Europeans were cruel and greedy in their interactions with those who were their slaves, the slaves also exerted a significant amount of both influence and power on their white owners. While white slave owners exerted economic power, the power of slaves resided in the combination of their cultural values and their knowledge of their native environment and its potential dangers, along with their ability to survive.
The paper will follow an outline to address the four basic areas of study in exploring this relationship of power between slaves ant heir owners: A) Slavery in the British West Indies; B) Slavery in the Danish West Indies; and C) Slavery in the French West Indies; D) Slavery in the Caribbean.
A) Slavery in the British West Indies
In Reaper’s Garden: death and power in the world of Atlantic slavery, Vincent Brown structures his arguments around the main concepts of death and power, as well as how these affect the culture of Atlantic Slavery during the 18th century. Although popularly-held concepts of slavery allocate the paradigm of power to the generally European colonist and death to the generally black or other type of ethnic slave, Brown points out that death was equally a reality for European colonists. At the same time, power was not an unknown paradigm to the once-free slave, or indeed to black slave owners. As such, the uncomfortable relationship between Jamaican slaves and their British owners is addressed in terms of the relationship between death and power, which is equally uncomfortable. Vincent Brown’s thesis is then that there is an intrinsic relationship between death and power at the time, which can be addressed on the grounds of the cultures involved. It is the result of this death/power dichotomy that, although Jamaica was a fertile land filled with rich potential, what wealth it did yield came at a terrible price.
Brown also notes that the sheer numbers of slaves in Jamaica as opposed to the number of European colonists were a cause for concern. He shows that, like death, power was a movable concept, relevant to both Europeans and their African counterparts. The slaves were powerful because of their numbers, while the Europeans relied on their ranks and wealth to wield power over their slaves. Hence the sense of unease in the relationship between the British and the Jamaicans.
The concept of death also dictates the use of sources for Brown’s book. Whereas it was a generally accepted fact at the time that mostly the elderly and very young children die from disease and immunity problems, Jamaica took the lives of the young, strong adults as well. Hence the preoccupation with death, and hence the author’s use of an illustrated book from the late 18th century, Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica, as a primary source and illustration of his points.
Vincent Brown structures his arguments around the main concepts of death and power, as well as how these affect the culture of Atlantic Slavery during the 18th century. Although popularly-held concepts of slavery allocate the paradigm of power to the generally European colonist and death to the generally black or other type of ethnic slave, Brown points out that death was equally a reality for European colonists. At the same time, power was not an unknown paradigm to the once-free slave, or indeed to black slave owners. The book provides a platform to examine how death and power relate to each other and how they were often used in conjunction by both slaves and their owners.
Trevor Burnard’s subject of discussion is equally brutal, and indeed somewhat more graphic than that of Brown. Also concerned with power, Burnard provides the reader with an understanding of brutality and tyranny, as well as how these were used as weapons to bend and indeed break the will of their slaves. As primary source, Burnard uses the often brutal accounts in the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a slave owner during the early 1750s.
The brutality, as Burnard notes, is only however part of the story surrounding paradigms of power on the platform of slavery. Burnard addresses three basic premises of the relationship between black and white in Thistlewood’s account. In addition to white brutality as instrument of oppression, and black resentment as countermeasure, there was also a relatively more amicable interaction between black and white. Burnard for example notes that Thistlewood, having lived within a predominantly black culture, gained much knowledge of the native food, medicine, and customs of the time.
These interactions however did little to temper the brooding violence as a result of slavery. According to the author, white slave owners were decidedly nervous around the obvious power that the black slaves had in their numbers and the solidarity of their suffering. Nicolas Lejeune’s defense of his own brutality to his slaves demonstrates the general paradigm among slave owners, that slaves are unhappy and volatile, to be controlled only by a fear that is greater than their growing unhappiness.
According to Burnard, history demonstrates the validity of white concern in Jamaica — there were many revolts and indeed near-revolts in Jamaica, of which Tackey’s revolt was so well organized that it nearly ended European rule in Jamaica. Such was the power of black resentment towards their white oppressors. The power of the slave then lay in emotion, whereas the oppressive power of the European was generally economic or indeed based upon what was perceived at the time as the superiority of skin color.
It is interesting to note that the European power and economy were used not only to oppress African slaves, but also other cultures, such as the Chinese and the Indians, which Lisa Yun
collectively refers to as “Coolies.” Yun’s work focuses most of the attention upon Chinese workers in Cuba. She bases her writing on the primary source of testimonies, petitions and depositions by Chinese workers in Cuba, highlighting many aspects of this group’s suffering that have been either ignored or unknown to date.
One aspect of Chinese and Indian slavery is for example the internal diversity within the Coolie culture, mainly, according to the author, as a result of the diversity of situations to which these slaves were subjected
. Yun also speaks about the power relations between Chinese slaves and their owners. This takes a particularly distinctive form for the Chinese, who were removed from their families and their homes with little hope of returning. This lack of hope was the basis of power for the Chinese Coolie slaves. They had little respect for their individual lives, but worked collectively when revolting against their masters. Form the slave owner point-of-view, the result of such revolts was part of the “cost of production”
In return, slave owners maintained control by dividing the revolting workforce by various means; either by physically removing the revolting few to different work stations, by execution, or subordinating them by punishment. According to Yun, the replacement of Chinese slaves was relatively easy and cheap enough to make it a viable as opposed to other means of control. The power of slaves as incurred by an individual lack of respect for their own lives was therefore effectively countermeasured by a similar lack of respect for human life by slave owners themselves. The power of the latter lay in their economic prowess and the ability to replace slaves whenever this was necessary.
B). Slavery in the Danish West Indies
Gunvor Simsonsen’s writing in Skin Colour as a Tool of Regulation and Power explores the central role of skin color in the Danish West Indies. According to the article, the social status of a person was directly related to the color of his or her skin. In addition, living conditions and opportunities were also directly affected in this way. Being seen as inferior, black people were then either slaves or indentured servants. Simsonsen however emphasizes that the relationships informed by skin color should not be seen in simplistic terms. While racism is definitely an aspect of this relationship, there are also various subtle social and psychological factors that should not be overlooked when examining the relationship among the free and those living in bondage.
emphasizes that skin color in the Danish West Indies went far beyond biology in terms of perception and socialization. Indeed, the biological phenomenon became a social construct according to the perception of its importance and according to the manifestation of slavery. Indeed, slavery was the instigator of social perception as related to skin color. Hence, the author notes that skin color came to be related to status in the social construct of slavery — black for example meant slave, while coloreds denoted freed slaves and whites denoted slave masters.
This social perception of skin color also informed the political arena in the Danish West Indies. According to Simsonsen, colonial authorities took measures assign town space according to skin color. In other words, they attempted to limit the presence of both slaves and freed slaves in the general public space
. In addition to perpetuating the oppression of slaves and freed slaves, it also limited the contact of slaves with slave masters to the context of their relationship as master and slave. This further served to maintain the acceptance of the slavery paradigm, and was another means of colonialist control. Public perception was therefore manipulated in such a way as to limit resistance against slavery, which was perceived to be the proper social construct. In short, the colonial authorities ensured, or at least attempted to insure, that slavery remained a generally accepted phenomenon in general society through regulation. The rule of law in this case was therefore a means of power for white slave owners.
C) Slavery in the French West Indies
In his article,
Savage addresses the issue of poisoning in 19th century Martinique. Here, according to historians in general, poisoning was used as a form of resistance. Savage however brings to light two additional factors to consider in terms of poisoning. The first is the fact that poisoning was often not so much an act of resistance as a derivation from boredom. Often, slaves who were treated well admitted to poisoning their masters’ livestock and even children. The reason most of them cited was a lack of occupation. A further factor was that, what seemed to be poisoning at the time was in fact the manifestation of environmental factors that caused disease and death. In this way, poisoning and its suspicion was a tool of power to both slaves and their masters. Slaves who did engage in poisoning used it in resistance to slavery. White owners however were quick to suspect poisoning where other factors were in fact the culprit, and hence innocent slaves were often punished for the crime.
In order to substantiate his claims, Savage makes use of primary sources such as court records and accounts by witnesses during the time, such as Dr. Rufz de Lavison. He carefully considers the validity of these in terms of secondary sources of more recent research.
considers the little-researched but important issue of female slaves in the French Antilles from 1635 to 1848. These slaves were extremely important, not least for the various types of oppression they had to overcome. They were not only oppressed as slaves, but also as women and as black people. Their oppression was therefore both political, social, and personal. Even so, these women showed remarkable strength in working to keep their families together. As such, they were the silent pillars, as far as they were able, of their communities.
Moitt bases his work on both archival primary and secondary sources written by French and Caribbean historians. He uses these works to fill a void in the French Caribbean historiography by addressing the issue of black women who were enslaved. This work therefore forms an important connection to other works surrounding the era.
In specific terms, Moitt notes that enslaved women in the French Caribbean, although oppressed on various levels, including the level of their own sociological world, often resisted slavery along with their men, while also using their gender to distinctively battle the phenomenon
. Women for example participated in armed revolt as well as poison, work avoidance and withdrawal.
In terms of the power relationship, slave women used both their physical strength and their gender to enhance the power of slaves to resist European oppression.
D) The Caribbean – Keith Sandiford
Keith Sandiford takes a more idealized position towards the concept of power among slaves and their owners. My means of the writings of six colonial West Indian authors, he explores the metaphor of sugar in terms of West Indian cultural desires. In this way, the author uses the economy of commodity to help the reader understand the intellectual history that underlay the brutality of slavery from the European viewpoint.
Each author that Sandiford explores uses the commodity of sugar as the focal point of his or her writing, and each uses sugar as a basis for negotiation. Each form of negotiation is interesting because it is informed by each respective author’s cultural, historical, and personal background. Ligon for example writes from the viewpoint of disinherited British explorer, while Janet Shaw writes from the Scottish viewpoint as informed by the female cultural paradigm. In each case, depending upon the historical background as well as the specific area of focus, informs the reader of a particular form of negotiation that would ultimately both validate and justify slavery in the Caribbean. For these European writers, power in terms of slavery resided in the ability to negotiate ownership of the commodity sugar.
When investigating the slavery phenomenon, it is challenging not to become embroiled in issues of injustice and the emotions related to it. When considering the phenomenon from an objective viewpoint, it is interesting to note that slaves did not simply accept their circumstances or themselves as victims of their masters. Instead, investigating the ways in which power manifested itself on the part of both slaves and their owners reveals important information about not only the status of all the role players as slaves or owners, but also the inherent humanity in both sectors.
Slavery was often a struggle for power on both the part of slaves and owners. It is important and relevant for society today that the various forms that power took during the colonialist period in the Caribbean be investigated.
Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: death and power in the world of Atlantic slavery. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Burnard, Trevor G. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Moitt, Bernard. Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Blacks in the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Sandiford, Keith Albert. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Savage, John. “Black Magic and White Terror: Slave Poisoning and Colonial Society in Early 19th Century Martinique.” Journal of Social History 40, no.3 (Spring 2007): 635-662.
Simsonsen, Gunvor. “Skin Color As a Tool of Regulation and Power in the Danish West Indies in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of Caribbean History. 37 (2003): 256-276.
Yun, Lisa. The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. Asian-American history and culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. By Vincent Brown, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Johnny Newcome was a 21-scene caricature, who became a folk icon for white people in the country. Johnny came to Jamaica and nearly immediately fell ill, with the piece demonstrating the various ills that befall him. It was written by Lieutenant Abraham James.
Burnard, Trevor G. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. p. 3
Trevor G. Burnard p. 137
Yun, Lisa. The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. Asian-American history and culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.
Lisa Yun p. 8
Lisa Yun p. 137
Simsonsen, Gunvor. “Skin Color As a Tool of Regulation and Power in the Danish West Indies in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of Caribbean History. 37 (2003): p 257
Simsonsen p 258
“Black Magic and White Terror: Slave Poisoning and Colonial Society in Early 19th Century Martinique.” Journal of Social History 40, no.3 (Spring 2007): 635-662.
Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Blacks in the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Moitt, Bernard. Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Blacks in the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. p 125
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