Jamaica’s Plantocracy – Part III

Spring Garden Estate, St. George’s | James Hakewill

When they arrived on their first Jamaican sugar estate, slaves received “seasoning,” whereby they accustomed themselves to Jamaican diseases, plantation routine and learned how to use the necessary tools. During this time, they moved into the estate’s “Negro village” in which they received (or were made to build) huts in which to live. They also learned how to grow their own food—yams, potatoes, plantains and other foodstuffs—in adjacent provision grounds. Tragically, as much as 33 percent of new arrivals to the island are said to have died during this seasoning process—some taking their own lives.

Once “seasoned,” estate routine set in and kept slaves—both women and men—busy with a variety of tasks depending on which of four classes they had been assigned: field (also called praedial), domestic, skilled or managerial. The overseer or delegate sub-divided field slaves into three gangs for planting and harvesting: 

  1. a first gang of able-bodied women and men who did the most and hardest work; 
  2. elderly, weak and children 12–18 years old who carried water and such for the first gang; and 
  3. small children who did weeding and the like. 

Field slaves were the most numerous group and might include more women than men. Estates used first gangs primarily for planting and harvesting sugarcane. They did the most demanding work, toiled for the most extended hours and received the harshest punishments. I have read that, in Jamaica, first gangs worked from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and might work 4,000 hours a year. Consider that in Barbados first gangs were estimated to work “only” 3,200 hours annually. (A relatively full work-year in Canada today would not be more than about 2,000 hours.)

Domestics did more of the light work and considered themselves better than those who worked in the fields. They dressed better, had more leisure time and ate better. Some believe masters were more likely to free them, but I’m not sure if available evidence supports this.

John Raphael Smith: Slave Trade
John Raphael Smith: Slave Trade
Slave Trade, print on paper by John Raphael Smith after George Morland, 1762–1812

Slaves captured in Africa came from different walks of life, and some arrived on the island with valuable skills. Others acquired such skills from estate tradesmen such as carpenters, coopers, masons, sugar boilers and rum distillers. The estate placed a high value on these skills, which contributed substantially to the estate’s financial wellbeing. The skill level of the master sugar boiler, for example, could very well make or break the economic success of an estate.

Managerial slaves were the “drivers” who headed up each gang. They could be men or women and enjoyed special status, including better rations and, sometimes, upgraded accommodations. Planters delegated authority to use the whip to drivers who too often responded by using it gratuitously and with some apparent relish. Drivers were the principal link between the masters and the other slaves.

Individual trusted slaves acted as middle-men between estates and townspeople. Many were female slaves called “higglers” who took produce from provision grounds to sell in towns and villages. Some had other specific skills, such as being fishermen. Planters allowed such slaves to travel away from home base and more leeway over managing their own time.

Not all slaves were attached to a specific property, for many were members of “jobbing gangs.” Jobbing gangs served the specific purpose of being hired out as temporarily help to supplement an estate’s workforce. They might also work on public projects and the like. Jobbing gangs were used frequently to augment the first gangs during the most arduous portion of the planting-harvesting cycle. Slaves in jobbing gangs had the added hardship of working away from home-base in unfortunate circumstances regarding shelter, access to medical attention, etc.

holeing a cane field
First Gangs at Work

Overseers and plantation attorneys sometimes owned their own jobbing gangs while also managing other people’s property. Some see this as a conflict of interest because an unscrupulous overseer or attorney could easily find a reason to hire his own jobbing gang at inflated fees to work on estates he supervised.

Cultivating sugarcane and processing it into sugar, molasses and rum required enormous amounts of labour. In Jamaica, rather than using labour-saving ploughs, first gangs had to plant sugar cane manually. They used long-handled hoes to dig cane holes (holeing) into which they planted sections of seed cane. During the following year to eighteen months it took for the cane to grow—depending on whether it was a new planting or a second growth—the fields needed to be weeded by hand and sometimes irrigated. First gangs also harvested and bundled the cut canes by hand. When harvesting, the area was first set on fire, which burned dry leaves and chased away or killed venomous snakes and other undesirables without harming the stalks and roots. Slaves then cut the cane just above ground-level using machetes. Time is of crucial importance at this stage, and an entire harvest could be ruined if inefficiently handled, for sugarcane, once cut, begins losing its sugar content. For that reason, planters processed sugar near where they cultivated the sugarcane.

Once the canes had been harvested, slaves carted them to a nearby mill. There the canes were crushed, and the juice drained off and taken to a boiling house. The head sugar boiler and his helpers would then boil and skim the brown juice to clear it of impurities. Next, they reduced it by boiling it in a series of cauldrons or coppers of decreasing size until it became taffy-like as they ladled it from one vessel to the next smaller one. At a certain critical point as determined by the head boiler, helpers removed the thick brown syrup from the heat and allowed it to cool in nearby tanks until it crystallized.

Next, slaves moved the brown crystals of sugar to a curing house where they packed it into hogsheads that they then loaded onto racks. Over weeks, molasses slowly seeped out through small holes in the cask's bottoms and collected in a storage vat. After the raw brown sugar had cured for a few weeks and was deemed dry enough, slaves moved it to a warehouse, where it stayed until the planter shipped it to refineries in London or Glasgow as “muscovado,” a type of unrefined brown sugar. There the muscovado could be further refined and sold in the form of white sugar loaves.

Back on the Jamaican estate, molasses produced as a by-product of making sugar could be sold separately or was—along with the skimming and dregs from the sugar boiling—distilled and made into rum. There’s a lot more to the sugar/rum industry, of course, but this is about as deep as I’m prepared to delve at this time.

Once a week—I’ve also read it was once a fortnight—and on holidays and Christian festivals, planters gave their slaves a day off. They also gave Friday afternoon off for slaves to work on their provision grounds. In addition to slave allotments, planters sometimes allowed slaves to use other uncultivated land and raise livestock, such as chickens. Slaves worked these provision grounds on their own account and could sell surpluses and keep the proceeds. Despite not being given much time to work their plots, many slaves could produce more than enough for their subsistence. They had surpluses to sell, creating both an island-wide marketing network and a local peasantry sub-structure. And, as far as I can tell, planters respected the “property rights” of their slaves—for the most part, at least.

Some slaves were fishermen and kept the estate supplied with fresh fish and other seafood. It was common practice for those slaves to sell the less desirable portions of their catch on their own account. Understandably, only the most trusted slaves were accorded such privileges.

CARIBBEAN BWI JAMAICA Going home from Market pre1919 PPC local pub Duperly  - $15.54 | PicClick
Going to Market

Slaves used Sundays as market days to buy, sell or trade livestock, vegetables, yams and other foodstuffs along with fruits, preserves and homemade mats, baskets and ropes. Here’s how James Hakewill described Sunday markets, which he saw on his tour of Jamaica in the early 1800s:

“With regard to their comforts it is to be remarked, that nearly the whole of the markets of Jamaica are supplied with every species of vegetable and fruit by the overplus [sic] of the negro’s produce, by which traffic they acquire considerable riches. On Holland estate, in St. Thomas in the East, the negroes [slaves] keep a boat, which trades regularly between that place and Kingston, and these grumble as much at the low price of yams and plantains as an English farmer at the fall of corn.”

Sunday markets offered slaves a chance to earn money they might use eventually to buy their own freedom and take advantage of what little upward mobility Jamaican society provided. They also gave occasions for slaves to socialize and chat with others from nearby plantations.


On some estates, proprietors considered slaves “tenants for life attached to the soil” rather than mere chattel. Even so, sales (often called “transfers”) did occur, and slaves moved from one estate to another. Of this, Hakewill wrote:

… no man would venture to buy a slave that had not previously agreed to live with him. If he did, the slave would inevitably run away; for while the purchaser requires a good character with the negro, the latter is equally alive to obtaining a knowledge of the habits and disposition of his future master. …Mr. Thomas, had ten negroes, of whom, as he intended to leave Jamaica, he was desirous of disposing. He desired them to find themselves a master, proposing only to negociate [sic] the sale with a person with whom they could place themselves to their satisfaction. After some time they came to him with information that they were willing to serve Dr. Pierce, of Belle Vue, who was desirous of engaging them, and with him Mr. Thomas afterwards concluded the bargain. The negroes  [slaves] had previously arranged with Dr. Pierce, their provision grounds, clothing, days of rest, and all the particulars of their allowances.

There was more slave interaction—sanctioned or otherwise—between the estates than I would have thought. However, this was not always an innocent thing, for rebellions were planned along with harmless day-to-day communication.

Plantation village in Jamaica, 1843
Plantation slave village in Jamaica, 1843

Slaves typically lived in a “village” of huts on the estate. Planters set these aside for slave use, and some slaves developed strong attachments to their homes. Hakewill tells us that on George Watson Taylor’s Holland Estate, in St. Thomas in the East, some six hundred “negroes” lived in a village located in what was considered an unhealthy location. So attached were the slaves to their settlement, however, that when the proprietor erected a new village at great expense to the estate, “no persuasion could induce them to abandon” the old location. Only after a flood forced them to move “temporarily” to the new village, did they become accustomed to their upgraded residences and agree to abandon the old location and move into their new homes permanently.

Just as slaves became attached to their homes—modest as they were—so too did some planters become attached to their slaves. Take the case of John Blagrove, who owned Cardiff Hall Estate in St. Ann’s parish, who wrote in his will:

And lastly, to my loving people, denominated and recognized by law as, and being in fact my slaves in Jamaica, but more estimated and considered by me and my family as tenants for life attached to the soil, I bequeath a dollar for every man, woman, and child, as a small token of my regard for their faithful and affectionate service and willing labours to myself and family, being reciprocally bound in one general tie of master and servant in the prosperity of the land, from which we draw our mutual comforts and subsistence in our several relations (a tie and interest not practised on by the hired labourer of the day in the United Kingdom), the contrary of which doctrine is held only by the visionists [sic] of the puritanical order against the common feeling of mankind.

Obviously, Blagrove’s was not the majority’s view—perhaps not even a large minority—for slave resistance became an integral part of plantation life, and understandably so. Suicides and slave revolts, which we covered earlier in our story, were frequent occurrences in Jamaica. Slaves also resisted in myriad other less extreme ways woven into their everyday lives, and we’ll cover them in our next instalment.