Jamaica’s Plantocracy –Part IV

Rose Hall Great House | Montego Bay, Jamaica

This is the last in my series of essays about Jamaica’s plantocracy. This episode covers some of the customs and practices that perpetuated the system that supported it and some of its worst excesses.

Whites were always a minority in Jamaica, but White settlers, and especially White planters, ruled a society organized around slave labour. This ensured Jamaican colonists would develop a distinctively Creole worldview characterized by the defence of slavery and a culture of White solidarity. Jamaican planters, far beyond all other West India planters, were persistently hostile in their attitude towards the emerging anti-slavery movement, their misrepresentations and selfishness on full display.

Violence, brutality and sexual assaults were at the very heart of Jamaican slavery. Whites saw the instilling of terror as the surest way to maintain their dominance over the enslaved majority. When it came to the treatment of slaves, planters could act in any way that pleased them and do so with impunity. Here’s a quote I took from historian Trevor Burnard’s 2004 book, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World:

White Jamaicans believed in force because they were frightened. Jamaica was a society at war. Slaves had to be kept cowed through arbitrary, tyrannical, and brutal actions, supported at all times by the full weight of state authority. White Jamaicans developed a legal system and a social structure in which any brutality exercised by Whites toward Blacks could be excused by the fundamental necessity of keeping Blacks subdued. Only in this way could White fears be assuaged. Such assumptions, of course, were a license for sadism and tyranny among all Whites, not just those inclined to psychopathic behaviour. Whites knew that they had the full support of the state and White public opinion for whatever they did toward slaves.

Thomas Thistlewood described one especially nasty punishment in his diary of 1750–1786. Thistlewood was a landowner and overseer of the Egypt sugar estate near Savanna-la-Mar in Westmoreland Parish. He called this punishment “Derby’s dose.” I’ll not elaborate here, but readers can Google the meaning of this disgusting form of punishment if they are so inclined. White juries excused all White crimes against Blacks except, perhaps, serial murder. In his 37-year journal, Thistlewood mentioned only one White man who was punished for his ill-treatment of slaves. That was John Wright, who had killed four partners. Wright’s conviction came only after he murdered a mistress who was mulatto, and perhaps if he had only killed Blacks, he would never have been convicted. Even then, authorities allowed him to escape from jail on the condition that he leave the island. Incidentally, Wright escaped hanging but died at sea when he shot himself.

Sugar estate in Jamaica, 1837 (Magasin7) | Le Magasin Pittoresque (1837)

Had a slave in 1820 been given the choice of living in Hell or on a Jamaican sugar estate, I predict he would have chosen to live in Hell. Slaves were not passive victims of the institution of slavery, however. They resisted in a myriad of ways woven into everyday life. Aside from those who rebelled and destroyed property and/or ran away to the woods, slaves routinely malingered, played the idiot and pretended to be lazy. They ran away for a day or so—a practice sometimes called Petit Marronage—and returned even though they faced harsh punishment. They were forever losing and breaking their tools. They poisoned animals and induced sickness in themselves by eating dirt. 

Some women resisted the sexual advances of their masters even though they knew they would be punished severely for doing so. They also withheld their labour to show their dissatisfaction with their masters’ working rules and living conditions. A particularly sad form of resistance occurred when slave women aborted babies to deny “Massa” ownership of their children.

Resistance also manifested itself in songs, dances and drumming, which some planters restricted to special occasions and during Christmas and Easter holidays. And, because planters spent little or no time trying to understand slave culture or language, slaves carried on this form of resistance under the very noses of their masters—with some Whites even applauding the songs and dances without understanding their meaning.

As estates became more prosperous, the children of their owners were sent “home” to England to be educated, and many stayed there. By the 1830s, absentees are estimated to have owned two-thirds or more of the plantations, and the proportion was higher among sugar estates. Returning “home” became the final measure of success for a Jamaican planter, even though that planter might be seeing England or Scotland for the first time in his life.

Absenteeism—as it came to be known—in the period between 1750 and 1850 inevitably led to owners being increasingly represented on the island by agents who had power of attorney, giving rise to the influence and power of those known as “planting attorneys” or simply “attorneys.” These men increasingly were the ones who occupied the great houses.

A typical attorney was an educated European or White creole in his forties or fifties. He would have lived in Jamaica for a decade or more and had made his way up the managerial ladder after taking employment in a supervisory role on one or more estates. To start with, he would be responsible for just one property and answer to one proprietor. However, in time, and if seen to be successful, he often took on managing several estates and grew rich from fees of five or six percent of the crop’s sale price, paid whether or not the crop was sold profitably.

One would expect owners to take care of their properties and help to ensure future profitability by rotating fields regularly, using adequate amounts of manure, keeping buildings and fences in good repair and, above all, maintaining a strong and healthy workforce. Owners, one expects, would be in for the long term. Not so for planting attorneys, however. Theirs—at least too many of them—was a short-term approach. Better to maximize the profits of today, even if that meant forgoing the profits of a later day. And overseers were apparently only too pleased to do their bidding.

Overseers put every available worker to the tasks of planting, harvesting and producing crops, especially sugar and rum. They kept a minimum number of animals and gave them minimum care, so there was never enough manure for the fields. Furthermore, they never allowed fields to lie fallow to restore their fertility as part of a long-term crop rotation program. Of course, all this was done to the detriment of the general upkeep of the properties under their care.

Unfortunately, the human cost was incalculable. Healthy or sick, strong or weak, slaves were driven and whipped for long hours to maximize production. They, along with the fields, livestock and production facilities, became worn out and broken down. Profits dwindled, and absentee owners were advised to sell. Sometimes it was the attorney or overseer who then bought the property—usually for well below market value.

Although long-term prospects of the absentee owner might be imperilled, large crop yields enriched attorneys and overseers. Not only did they pocket more money in the short term, but their reputations as good managers who could maximize crop sizes were enhanced, and they received more properties to manage for other absentees.

The opportunities for fraud also were too tempting for many attornies or overseers to resist. They bought on behalf of the estate and charged the owners who lived overseas much more than they had paid. Attorneys or overseers used pasture land for their own livestock and used estate slaves to perform work not related to the estate but from which these unscrupulous men could profit. Moreover, they used up the estate labour pool at an alarming rate—even forcing slaves out of hospitals to join gangs in the field. Too often, workers were punished so harshly they died from their injuries and were lost to the estate.

Many of the excesses of the plantocracy about which we so often read today can be laid at the doorstep of absenteeism. Throughout the island, the attrition rate among the slaves was appalling. Between 1702 and 1807, over 400,000 slaves had been imported for use in Jamaica, yet the slave population in 1807 was only 319,351, which included slaves born on the island.

Trinity Estate, St. Mary’s | James Hakewill

As readers can probably tell, I have a jaundiced view of absenteeism and attorney management. I agree with those critics of absenteeism who see attorneys as a class too often peopled with self-interested and dishonest managers and blame the attorney system for much of Jamaica’s slowness in developing its full social, political and cultural potential. As we know all too well, however, there is another side to everything.

Attorneys have also been portrayed as men who worked hard to maximize productivity and profit on behalf of their employers without sacrificing efficiency. In Plantation Jamaica, 1750-1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy, B.W. Higman wrote:

… they [attorneys] took a positive approach to the making of profits and the exploitation of the resources and technologies available to them. They proved themselves assiduous in visiting the estates regularly and provided detailed accounts to their employers. They understood the details of sugar production and trade, recruited and dismissed supervisory personnel and did what was in their power to increase the work force.

Like historians Douglas Hall and Richard Sheridan, others have argued that attorney management was not necessarily inferior to that provided by a resident proprietor. And Higman pointed out that it was not in the attorneys’ interest to defraud their employers. He wrote:

As social predators, the proprietors and the attorneys had entered into a pact that rewarded them for being honourable and loyal to each other for the sake of robbing other people (the enslaved and the exploited free), who were not parties to the [their] ethical contract.

A somewhat cynical view perhaps, but one that does have merit. Clearly, these gentlemen are eminently more qualified than I in this regard, and, frankly, I hope they are right for several of my family members made their living as overseers and attorneys. It is a relief to hear they were not the ogres described by some. Of one thing we may be certain, however: though an attorney and his employer might differ in their management style and strategies, they concurred that the surest route to achieving maximum productivity and profitability was to use slave labour.


Even as public pressure against the institution of slavery mounted in England, the practice continued unabated in Jamaica. Jamaicans saw it as the only way of keeping large numbers of people working on the estates when all about them was plenty of fertile, unoccupied land.

Here’s how a pro-slavery argument might typically have unfolded in 1800: If slaves were freed, what motive would they have for working? There were 2,724,265 acres in Jamaica in total, 1,914,809 acres of which had been surveyed as uncultivated. These consisted chiefly of unclaimed mountain land open to occupation by the first person to claim it. So a freed slave who, the argument goes, wants little in the way of clothing or other possessions would need to work only a few hours a day to supply himself with provisions for many months. Why then would he choose long hours of brutally hard labour for minimum wages on a plantation? Unlike the peasant in Europe, who, if he does not work, would starve, a Jamaican slave has only to take to the woods where he could live with ease on his own plot of land. This assumes the law did not hunt him down—something the law had not been able to do to hundreds of former runaways.

Ultimately, public pressure in England led to the abolishment of the British slave trade in 1807. Still, even though slaves could no longer be imported from Africa, slave labour persisted in Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies. However, the end of the slave trade marked the beginning of the end of the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire.

From 01 Aug 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 came into effect, and throughout the British Empire, all children under six years of age were deemed to be free. All other slaves were deemed to be apprentices and forced to work three-quarters of each week (40 hours) in exchange for lodging, food, clothing, medical service and provision grounds they could work on their own account during the remaining quarter of the week. They could also work for wages during that remaining quarter. The Apprenticeship Period lasted from 1834 to 1838, after which the institution of slavery was abolished.

Once the British parliament put an end to slavery in 1838, Jamaica’s economy went into freefall. However, emancipation was not solely responsible for the decline. The deterioration had progressed slowly over several decades. The exportation of sugar had gradually decreased from 150,000 hogsheads in 1805 to 86,000 hogsheads in 1833. Moreover, between the years 1814 and 1832, the coffee crop was reduced by one-half, and during the fifty years preceding emancipation, it is estimated that proprietors abandoned 200 sugar estates.

According to planters, the fear of impending abolition had induced them to withdraw capital from their estates. But abolition was not even dreamt of when the decline of Jamaica’s prosperity set in. Furthermore, while the Slave-trade was still in place, over 100 properties had been abandoned. And they abandoned their estates for the same reason they had for deserting them in later years: debt and lack of capital.

Here’s an excerpt from The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843 by Kathleen Mary Butler:

Yet from the very beginning the sugar colonies carried the seeds of their own destruction. The entire economic structure operated on credit: credit to meet expenses at home and abroad, credit to buy land and plantation supplies, and credit to replenish the slave labor force. Until the early eighteenth century, planters who faced unexpected operating expenses simply borrowed from friends and family, but as credit patterns changed in the 1740s, planters became heavily dependent on British credit and services. When sugar prices began their long-term decline in the 1790s, they found it increasingly difficult to meet the liabilities secured against their once-profitable plantations. By 1820 few West India planters owned unencumbered estates. The majority struggled in a complicated web of debts and multiple mortgages as they attempted to continue production.
As British merchants became more deeply involved in the colonial credit structure, their economic power and prestige replaced the social power and prestige of the planters. With less possibility of recouping their original investments, British merchants began withdrawing from the West India trade .

In conclusion, I believe the bottom line is slavery was and is morally wrong and indefensible under any code of civilized behaviour. In the end, it was abolished because it was evil and had become intolerable to the British public.

To all that has been written here and elsewhere about the cruel and inhumane treatment of the slaves in Jamaica, I have nothing more to add. For readers who want more, a quick search at Google.com will provide many days’ reading on that subject.

For those who want to pursue the subject of slavery, here’s a partial reading list:
  • Curtin, Philip D., Two Jamaicas, The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony 1830–1865. New York: Atheneum, 1975;
  • Hakewill, James. A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica. London: Hurst and Robinson, etc., 1825;
  • Cundall, Frank, Historic Jamaica. London: The Institute of Jamaica, 1915;
  • M’Mahon, Benjamin, Jamaica Plantership: Eighteen Years Employed [etc.]. London: Effingham Wilson, 1839;
  • Higman, Barry (B.W.), Slave Populations of the British Caribbean. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
  • Phillippo, James M., Jamaica: Its Past and Present State. London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1843
  • Hall, Douglas G., In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2005.
  • Burnard, Trevor, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves [etc.]. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004