Jamaica’s Plantocracy – Part II

Roehamton Plantation and Slave Village Jamaica 1825-James Hakewill

In the following paragraphs, we’ll look at the overall environment of the plantocracy. Later, we’ll take a closer look at the day-to-day activities of slave life on the estates and plantations. I have tried to strike a balance between giving an accurate description of the times and not seeming to apologize for, or to excuse or otherwise condone the behaviour of my slave-owning ancestors. Consequently, I hope I have placed my exploration of the institution of slavery as it was practiced in Jamaica in its proper historical and social contexts.

Jamaican slaves worked under appalling circumstances and under constant dread of the whip. I have no doubt the slaves of Jamaica suffered unspeakable cruelty, more than I can express or even imagine. Theirs was no pastoral existence, for they were routinely treated harshly and worked long terribly-hard hours. Harsh corporal punishment was—even for trivial acts—a part of estate life, and slaves sometimes died from wounds inflicted during such beatings. And, of course, there was sexual abuse of all types, with the rape of slaves being part of everyday life on some estates. Not even in death could slaves fully evade this cruel system, for when slave women brought children into the world, the newborn inherited their mothers’ wretched existence and suffered long after their mothers’ had died. So untenable were their circumstances, the birth rate among slaves remained low from the 17th century through to 1834.

Master and slave seemed caught in a vicious cycle: Planters feared their slaves, who outnumbered them, and used harsh discipline to break their spirits and bend them to their will; harsh treatment engendered hatred and stiffened the resolve to rebel and take revenge. And so the cycle was repeated: harsher treatment was meted out, and in reaction, more hatred and greater resolve to avenge the injustice.

Despite the widespread cruelty and injustice of the slave-system, there remained an unexpected reservoir of goodwill among some slaves towards their masters. Acts of kindness, personal loyalties and bonds of friendship were not unknown. “Massa” was not always the devil incarnate, at least, as far as some slaves were concerned. And, for some slaves, their emotional attachment to their slave village could not have been stronger had they been free to live wherever they wanted.

I came across this touching story when reading about life in Jamaican in about 1820: An old salve woman on a plantation in Trelawny Parish gave the plantation attorney a sum of money that she requested be sent to the plantation owner (her owner) in England as a gift. The gift was £150, a considerable sum in the 1800s. As the story goes, she had heard that the plantation was up for sale and thought a share of her savings would be useful to her owner since—she had assumed—her owner must have fallen on hard times if he was being forced to sell his home. One supposes the old woman must have been treated well enough to have made such a show of kindness.

This brief tale begs two questions: How would a slave accumulate such a substantial sum? And, Why would she not have used some of her savings to buy her freedom? I have no direct answers, but we’ll see how slaves might have accumulated cash and why they might choose the status quo rather than the uncertainty of freedom and life away from the plantation. In wading through reams of pages depicting the inhumane treatment of slaves, it is easy to overlook the symbiotic relationship that had developed between slave and master.

Here is an example of unexpected (perhaps misplaced) loyalty: During the early stage of Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760, a slave named Tacky and his followers revolted and, after taking over the Frontier and Trinity plantations, killed their masters. They planned next to do the same to plantations at Heywood Hall and Esher. But a slave from Esher, who knew the details of the planned attack, sounded the alarm. His alerting of the authorities led to the eventual failure of the rebellion and Tacky’s death—not to mention the many White lives that were saved in the process.

 And here’s an interaction that was witnessed in about 1820: A slave was put up for public sale at a market at Kingston where a White man of means approached him just as he was about to be auctioned. After a few preliminary questions, the gentleman asked the slave if he would be willing to live with him under circumstances he described, including the nature of the work he offered, the situation at the coffee plantation he owned, and any other inducements that came to mind. The slave, recalling he had known the gentleman in the past, consented to live on the coffee plantation, and the gentleman purchased him. Given the circumstances, a rather civil exchange with a mutually beneficial outcome, don’t you agree?

We cannot forget, moreover, that those were harsh and often cruel times. It was not only African slaves who lived miserable marginal lives, at least, compared to modern standards. The treatment handed out to indentured Irish and Scottish servants—many forced into bondage by the English after being captured in wartime—was similarly inhumane in many respects. And many a free seaman of the time felt as many lashes of the whip as any Jamaican slave. Just being an Englishman in the West Indies was, in those days, a capital crime under the laws of Spain. Furthermore, I doubt the English countryside peasants were much more likely to escape the boundaries of their class than the slaves of Jamaica were of obtaining freedom. 

Rember too, that for many Africans who were shipped to the West Indies, the institution of slavery was not new. Some had known a type of slavery in West Africa either as slaves or as owners of slaves—it had been commonly practiced there for centuries. And, after the Atlantic slave trade began, West African slave systems supplied that market. Accordingly, some of the slaves captured in Africa and sold eventually to Jamaican planters had already been in slavery before arriving on the island. True, in most African societies, slaves were not treated as chattel but had rights similar in some respects to indentured servants in England. However, they were deprived of their freedom and were at the mercy of their African masters. Most African slaves also would have occupied very modest housing and been poorly clothed and fed by any standard.

We’ll close by noting that Jamaican slave owners were not exclusively White. Some Blacks and many people of colour, who had been fortunate or clever enough to beat the odds and secure their freedom, owned one or more slaves. I mention this not to spread blame between the races but to show the evolution of the plantocracy and to demonstrate how the evil represented by the institution of slavery seemed to permeate Jamaican society as a whole.

In time and with increasing pressure from Christian groups, laws were enacted to provide the slaves with some protection. These did have a limited effect in moderating the most extreme acts of brutality, at least, on the more civilized estates.

We’ll pause here, and when we continue with our next instalment, we’ll look more closely at the daily routine on the sugar estates.