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Enslavement in the Caribbean

Narratives from the Collection on Enslavement in the Caribbean
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"To people in Britain it must seem strange, that there should be a necessity for a law to punish [by] mutilating and dismembering their servants…I know two men, whose neighbours say positively that each of them have murdered scores of their own negroes…the wonder was not that they had buried so many, that they had any above ground. "

Anonymous Jamaican planter


Enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas with no family members and no kinship system, unable to reconnect or communicate with those they knew. Their lives now consisted of terror, violence and endless labour. Africans survived for 7-9 years under enslavement. 60 percent of enslaved workers in Jamaica, Britain’s largest colony were found on sugar plantations, where they worked for 18 hours a day, and during the harvest months they worked longer hours and had no rest day. Children were sent to work as soon as they were able, doing tasks such as cleaning, carrying water and collecting grass for livestock. The most skilled jobs went to men, such as the head boiler and mechanic. Women worked alongside men in the fields, undertaking the same physical tasks, as well as the duties of servants, nurses and seamstresses. Enslaved workers also produced other crops including coffee, cocoa, cotton and indigo, and cut and transported mahogany.

Slave Market
Africans sold as chattel, “they are to be seen almost daily exposed for sale…like oxen or sheep”, from Bickells West Indies as They Are 1825 p.19.
© The British Library

Keeping the enslaved under control was foremost in the mind of the plantation owners, and they invested a great deal of time and resources in this endeavour, this on top of having to ensure their businesses remained economically profitable. The laws created to control enslaved populations were indicative of the tensions that existed between the slavers and the enslaved.

Cane Cutting
Slaves cutting the sugar cane, in Antigua, William Clark, 1823
© The British Library

Any enslaved person was put to death if found guilty of committing serious offences or even suspected of doing so. Beatings and whippings were used as punishment for insubordination, which covered a range of offences including not working fast enough – in fact, any offence deemed by the authorities to be "insubordinate".

"The wharfs of Kingston are crowded every Monday morning with poor slaves…", wrote Thomas Clarkson in his Essay on the comparative efficiency of Regulation of Abolition, "…who are brought here to be whipped for the offences of the preceding week. They are generally tied up by the wrists and stretched out. In that manner they receive their punishment".

The Torture
A slave being punished by a variety of means including flogging, 1826. Whipping or flogging was the most frequent form of punishment and varied in severity. It was possible to die as a result of flogging, for which the perpetrator would often receive nothing more severe than a fine.
© The British Library

Narratives from the Collection

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Notes on the two reports from the Committee of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, by a Jamaica Planter
"...the habitual exercise of that arbitrary dominion..."
"...To people in Britain it must appear strange…that there should be a necessity for a law to punish matters for mutilating and dismembering their servants..."
"A man at enmity with his neighbour, sees that a particular negro is of the utmost consequence to his master..."
"I have already hinted at men now living, which have not only dismembered, but murdered scores of Negroes..."

An essay on the comparative efficiency of Regulation or Abolition, as applied to the slave trade
"The wharfs of Kingston are crowded every Monday morning with poor slaves, who are brought there to be whipped "
"...receive thirty nine lashes..."
"Slaves who are marked for punishment are flogged in different ways…"

Letters on slavery, by William Dickson, formerly private secretary to the late Hon. Edward Hay, Governor of Barbados
" the year 1774, an overseer on a cotton place was murdered by the negroes, who were said to have been driven to that act of violence..."

Negro slavery; or a view of some of the more prominent features of that state of society as it exists in the United States of America and in the colonies of the West Indies, especially Jamaica
"The gangs always work before the whip, which is a very weighty and powerful instrument..."
"If the mother be three degrees removed from the black, her child by a white men is free..."

Account of a shooting excursion on the mountains near Dromilly Estate in the parish of Trelawny, and island of Jamaica in the month of October 1824
"...the party entered the town belonging to the runaways, where they were fired upon by them..."

Facts Illustrative of the condition of the Negro Slaves in Jamaica
"Task work is very uncommon in Jamaica. It is held to be dangerous to allow the slave much spare time."
"...the unwillingness of the slaves to work is proverbial; and how can anyone expect them to be industrious?"
"...Domestic enjoyment [for the enslaved married couple] is impossible…"

Horrors of West India Slavery
"...A man of the name of Nowell…was in the habit of behaving brutally towards his wife..."

The West Indies as they are; or, a real picture of slavery
"...if a newly arrived young man happens to have brought a few moral or religious ideas with him from Great Britain..."

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4•Choose the description of enslavement in the Caribbean that is written by a Jamaican planter.

"My negroes have increased and are happy. They kill me with their constant visits and attentions. It gives pleasure, though I am fatigued to death before the day is half gone for I must talk and shake hands with every one of them.”

“A man of the name of Nowell…was in the habit of behaving brutally towards his wife, and one day went so far as to lock her in her room and confine her in chains. A Negro woman belonging to this man, touched with compassion for her unfortunate mistress, undertook privately to release her. Nowell found it out and in order to punish her, obliged her to put her tongue through a hole in a board, to which he fastened it on the other side with a fork, and left her in that situation for some time. He afterwards cut out her tongue nearly by the root, of which she almost instantly died.”

“[My mistress] caused me to know the exact difference between the smart of the rope, the cart whip and the cow skin, when applied to my naked body by her own cruel hand. And there was scarcely any punishment more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and head from her hard heavy fist.”

“Domestic enjoyment [for the enslaved married couple] is impossible… [the wife] cannot obey the wishes of her husband…her body, strength and time are the possession of another...the husband has to witness the woman whom he loves urged on to her tasks by the cart whip. She may be thrown to the ground, her person exposed, and her flesh lacerated before his eyes, and he dares not even attempt to defend her… they have as much authority over their children as a cow has over her calf.”