Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
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The Lesser Antilles islands of Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Martinique and Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia were the first important slave societies of the Caribbean, switching to slavery by the end of the 17th century as their economies converted from tobacco to sugar production. By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue had become the largest and most brutal slave societies of the region, rivaling Brazil as a destination for enslaved Africans.
The death rates for black slaves in these islands were higher than birth rates. The decrease averaged about 3 percent per year in Jamaica and 4 percent a year in the smaller islands. The main causes for this were overwork and malnutrition. Slaves worked from sun up to sun down in harsh conditions. They were supervised under demanding masters, who gave them little medical care. Slaves also had poor living conditions and consequently they contracted many diseases. The diary of slaveowner Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica details the extreme violence against slaves, and constitutes important historical documentation of the conditions for Caribbean slaves.
For centuries slavery made sugarcane production possible. The low level of technology made production difficult and labor intensive. At the same time, the demand for sugar was rising, particularly in Great Britain. The French colony of Saint-Domingue quickly began to out-produce all of the British islands' sugar combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard.
Slavery was first abolished by the French Republic in 1794, this took effect in all French colonies. Slavery in the French West Indies was reinstated in 1802 by Napoleon I as France re-secured its possessions in the Caribbean, however unsuccessfully in St Domingue leading to its final declaration of independence on January 1, 1804. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and the slavery itself in 1833. In France, the slave trade was abolished by Napoleon in 1815, while slavery was re-abolished in 1848.
Effects of the abolition
With the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the new British colony of Trinidad was left with a severe shortage of labour. This shortage became worse after the abolition of slavery in 1833. To deal with this problem, Trinidad imported indentured servants from the 1830s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians. Indentured Indians would prove to be an adequate alternative for the plantations that formerly relied upon slave labour. In addition, numerous former slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad to work.
Whitehall in Britain announced in 1833 that slaves in its territories would be totally freed by 1840. In the meantime, the government told slaves they had to remain on their plantations and would have the status of "apprentices" for the next six years. On 1 August 1834, an unarmed group of mainly elderly Negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new laws, began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprenticeship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was legally granted ahead of schedule on 1 August 1838, making Trinidad the first British colony with slaves to completely abolish slavery.
After Great Britain abolished slavery, it began to pressure other nations to do the same. France, too, abolished slavery. By then Saint-Domingue had already won its independence and formed the independent Republic of Haiti. French-controlled islands were then limited to a few smaller islands in the Lesser Antilles.
The primary reason for the presence of women in the Caribbean during the time of slavery was due to their labour value. In the early days of slavery, plantation owners attempted to produce healthy patterns of reproduction and encourage marriage, but found it was economically illogical to do so. Instead, it was more profitable to purchase new slaves from Africa (until the continued supply of female slaves being delivered from across the Atlantic was threatened by abolitionist pressure in the 18th century).
Girls worked on estates from the early age of four. Occupations for girls between the ages of 12-19 varied from field work, to stock work, to domestic work, to washing (e.g. clothing, dishes, etc.) Other forms of work for mature women included midwife, doctors and housekeeper. European plantation owners generally regarded most slave women as suitable for field work, which consisted of jobs such as digging holes for canes, weeding, and hoeing. In Jamaica, the majority of women between the ages of 19 and 54 were working in the fields.
By the late 18th and early 19th century, there were more women working in the field than men due to their lower mortality rates. Despite the common stereotype whereby men are stronger and more physically capable than women, it can be argued that women were as important, if not more important, to field work during the period of Caribbean slavery. The importance of women in the plantation economy is reflected in the price of female slaves between 1790 and the end of the slave trade. The price for a “new” male slave was approximately £50-£70, while the price for a new female slave was approximately £50-£60. Apart from occupations such as doctors midwife, and housekeeper, which were considered to be higher employment positions for slave women during the time, the slave elite was nearly entirely made up of men. Women were confined to fighting for lower positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy and were always excluded from the more prestigious and skilled jobs (i.e. carpentry)among the limited amount of occupations available to Caribbean slave women, the most prestigious job was found to be nursing.
One way in which women slaves would occasionally amass income and resources for themselves was through prostitution. This was a common way for women slaves to save money for freedom, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries in countries such as Barbados. In Jamaica, the majority of enslaved domestic workers in towns were expected to support themselves through prostitution.
Women and resistance to slavery in the British Caribbean
Struggle against slavery was an ever-present and enduring characteristic of Caribbean slave users, with women being no less prominent in the resistance than men. Resistance to slavery was a significant part of the lives of female slaves and it took many forms, ranging from outright revolt to more subtle and less aggressive behaviour. On the Caribbean plantation complexes, many Europeans declared women slaves to be more troublesome than men and they often proved difficult and awkward to dominate for colonialists. Women slaves did not succumb to apathy and resignation and would deliberately do their work and jobs incorrectly, despite being told repeatedly and instructed on how to do them the correct way. There is evidence from various sources stating women often avoided forced labor, verbally rebelled against overseers, and feigned illness. Some women refused to carry out their tasks completely.
Much of the information gathered about ordinary women field workers and their reactions to servitude are found in plantation journals and punishment lists. Punishments for disobeying colonialists, according to data from records kept on numerous plantations, differed between men and women. When male slaves were punished, they received on average 15 to 20 “stripes” while the common punishment for women included a varied period of time in the stocks or solitary confinement. The punishment for Caribbean slave women was less physically demanding than that of Caribbean slave men. Punishment provided little or no deterrent to defiant slave women in the field.
Domestic servants were also noted to be irritating and particularly difficult. Furthermore, when these domestic slaves carried out their washing duties, they would use more than twice the amount of soap needed to complete each task and “lose” articles of clothing.
Women in the Caribbean also played a large role in religious ceremonies and resistance resulting from religious practices. “Obeye”, the practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one’s own personal use (originated in Africa), was one of the rituals used in the Caribbean islands and it took on many names, such as “Shango” in Trinidad, "Ju-Ju" in the Bahamas, and "Obeah" in Jamaica. Although this practice was generally used by slaves for evil or self-interested instrumental purposes, it was also a source of strength and a form of resistance from their colonial oppressors, specifically in slave rebellions. The practice of Obeah gave slaves the belief they could control and use spirits of supernatural beings to bring harm to the living or prevent them from performing any wrongdoing. The Obeah women involved in these practices played an important role in the resistance to their colonial oppressors and also worked as community leaders and teachers of cultural heritage, preserving their history and culture. Women were often persecuted by colonialists if involved in this practice, as slave owners viewed it as evil witchcraft.
As briefly mentioned above, women were important to the preservation of culture, which was viewed as a form of resistance by slave owners within the system of plantation slavery. Outward expressions of African culture were not permitted. Women would use oral tradition to keep past traditions and histories alive. Dance also became an integral part of culture among slaves. This was a way in which women (along with men) could offer up prayers to their gods as well as release emotion. Slaves would often engage in dancing ceremonies on their free time as it was a way in which they could freely express themselves and their cultural heritage against the orders of their colonial oppressors.
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