A Planter and His Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica
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The British West Indian sugar colonies of the eighteenth century were marked by the institution of slavery to a degree which has never been matched elsewhere. The sugar plantations established a virtual monoculture and they worked most profitably on a large scale, with hundreds of black slaves supervised by a handful of white men. So in all of these islands by the middle of the century the white colonists were a minority, often a very small minority, among their slaves. They accounted for about a quarter of the population in Barbados, and about a tenth in the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. How then did they maintain their authority? What measures did they take and what effects did they have? We must answer such questions if we are to understand these societies, but reliable information that might allow us to do so is scarce. There are many surviving collections of plantation papers, but these are concerned mainly with business matters — so much sugar made and sold, so many supplies bought — and they have little to say about the relations of the masters with their slaves. Most contemporary descriptions of West Indian society are those of travellers or casual visitors to the islands, and even if they observed and wrote dispassionately they were outsiders, likely to record what was striking or curious, but uncertain guides to the daily routine. In any case, most visitors were not dispassionate: by the later eighteenth century the ethics of slavery had become controversial and most reporters came with strong preconceptions, sometimes in favour of the slave-owners, but usually against them. On the other hand, what little was written by the white West Indians themselves is open to suspicion as self-exculpation and special pleading.
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