The Ultimate Slave Resistance
The practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one’s own personal use, known in some parts of Africa as ‘Obeye’ (an entity that lives within witches), has taken on many names in the Caribbean islands, such as Shango (Trinidad), Santeria (Cuba), Vodun or Voodoo (Haiti), Ju-Ju (Bahamas), Obeah (Jamaica),.
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The practice of harnessing supernatural forces and spirits for one's own personal use, known in some parts of Africa as %u2018Obeye' (an entity that lives within witches), has taken on many names in the Caribbean islands, such as Shango (Trinidad), Santeria (Cuba), Vodun or Voodoo (Haiti), Ju-Ju (Bahamas), Obeah (Jamaica),. Although African slaves usually practiced Obeah for "evil" or rather self-interested, instrumental purposes, this faith also aided them as a source of strength and clandestine resistance. The practice of Obeah is the belief that one can use certain spirits or supernatural agents to work harm to the living, or to call them off from such mischief. Generally, the British used the term Obeah to describe all slave acts and practices that were considered supernatural or evil in nature, such as rituals and fetishes.
Modern historians believe that Obeah originated from the Ashanti and Koromantin tribes of Africa on the Gold Coast, and that imported slaves introduced it to the Caribbean as early as the mid 17th century. Regardless of its use, for %u2018evil' or %u2018good', the Obeah men were treated with the utmost respect and fear by all whom met him. The Obeah man and women played a prominent role in the Caribbean slave societies from the beginning of the slave trade. They functioned as community leaders and teachers of the African folk's cultural heritage. Many Africans believed that the Obeah man had within his power the ability to render someone invincible, resuscitate the dead, cure all diseases, protect a man from the consequences of his crimes, and cause great harm to anyone he wished. Yet the Obeah man's most powerful gift was not his ability to steal people's shadows , as the act of obeah or "hexing" was described, but his intricate knowledge of herbs and poisons. The term Obeah also suggested the word "poison" in the Caribbean plantations, this being the preferred and most effective tool that this practitioner of "magic" had at his disposal. Through the use of herbs and medicine, the Obeah man, was able to "miraculously" cure or poison (obeah) a person to death. Considering the development and practices (bloodletting) of "modern" European medicine at the time, an ill person had a much greater chance of survival by seeking out an Obeah man rather than a white physician.
Obeah was not only used as a source of power through its association with the supernatural but with political power as well, specifically slave rebellions and the other forms of resistance in Jamaica. The Obeah man played a role as an inspirational leader who could entice his entourage, which might number in the thousands, to partake in resistance and rebellions. Because of their relation with "evil," Obeah men were blamed for every mishap that fell upon a plantation or individual. So how did they manage to recruit so many followers? The lure of becoming the follower of an Obeah man was that once initiated into his or her group you would become invulnerable to the white man and his weapons. Although you might appear slain, the Obeah man could, at his pleasure, restore the fallen body to life.
Obeah men played a central role in the conception and development of any serious attempt at rebellion. The Obeah man provided an "ideological rallying point" in sanctioning an open rebellion. He afforded a meeting place for leaders and followers so they could plan their revolts under the guise of religious gatherings, and he maintained the link between traditional African culture which opposed colonial rule and the Creole (Caribbean born) slaves. By far the most important contribution that the Obeah man made to the resistance of the slave system was his direct participation in the preparation of the insurrectionists for war. The Obeah man would first administer an oath to African rebels that would bind them to never reveal to anyone the identity of the insurgents or the plans of the rebellion; to do so would bring upon the individual an agonizing death. A white Jamaican planter, Edward Long, best describes the ritual that the Obeah man initiated in order to administer the oaths:
"Their priests, or obeiah-man, are their chief oracles in all weighty affairs, whether of peace, war, or the pursuit of revenge. When assembled for the purposes of conspiracy, the obeiah-man, after various ceremonies, draws a little blood from every one present; this is mixed in a bowl with gunpowder and grave dirt; the fetish or oath is administered by which they solemnly pledge themselves to inviolable secrecy, fidelity to their chiefs, and to wage perpetual war against their enemies; as a ratification of their sincerity, each person takes a cup of the mixture, and this finishes the solemn rite. Few or none of them have ever been known to violate this oath, or to desist from the full execution of it, even although several years may intervene."
The Obeah man also created a powder that supposedly possessed magical properties that would bestow upon the user of it protection from the white man's weapons. Long gives a detailed account of the capture of an Obeah man who was known to have administered many of these rituals in Jamaica:
"In St. Mary's parish a check was fortunately given at one estate, by surprising a famous Obeah-man and priest, much respected among his countrymen. He was an old Coromantin, who, with others of his profession, had been a chief in counseling and instigating the credulous herd, to whom their priests administered a powder, which, being rubbed on their bodies, was to make them invulnerable. They persuaded them into a belief, that their generalissimo [general] in the woods, could not possibly be hurt by the white men, for that he caught all the bullets fired at him in his hand, and hurled them back with destruction to his foes."
Obviously, this type of power in the hands of a slave made many plantation owners uneasy, to say the least.
Joseph Williams describes the plantation owners' view of the Africans from the earliest days of legislation in Jamaica: "a serious source of danger to the peace of the colony was recognized to be ever present in the assemblies of slaves where the old religious tribal dances were openly accompanied by drumming which aroused the fanaticism of Africans to such a degree as to endanger a general uprising." Before long it was discovered that a second cause of danger, this time a personal one to master and slave alike, was to be traced to the secret poisonings that were ever becoming more common. Beginning in 1684, various laws were enacted in Jamaica as a precaution against slave rebellion. Later, planter legislators enacted laws banning nocturnal "gatherings" and religious practices. In 1816, a law was passed recognizing the coupled danger present from revolt and Obeah, "if there shall be found in the possession of any slave any poisonous drugs, pounded glass, parrot's beaks, dog's teeth, alligator's teeth, or other materials notoriously used in the practice of Obeah or witchcraft, such slave upon conviction, shall be liable to suffer transportation from the island [deportation]."
The slaves in Jamaica, according to plantation owners, were primitive and unintelligent savages, yet they managed to resist the planter's efforts to control and exploit them at every opportunity. The laws of Jamaica are themselves testaments to the efficient and meticulous planning of slaves in their attempt to rebel against the "white man's" institutions. It had taken the planters more than 130 years, from the first law that recognized the threat of rebellion (1684), until they implemented a law that recognized the tripartite association between slave rebellion, obeah, and poisonings. As the years passed and plantation owners began to suspect that the increase in deaths by poisoning was attributed to slaves, they enacted harsher legislation that ranged from mandatory searches of the slaves domicile, "Every master or mistress or overseer of a family in this island shall cause all slave houses to be diligently and effectively searched once every fourteen days," to sentencing slaves to the ultimate punishment %u2013 death. One of these particular laws making the death penalty a mandatory punishment was enacted in the late 17th century:
"whereas slaves have of late attempted to destroy several people, as well white as black, by poison%u2026the said slave or slaves, together with their accessories, as well before as after the fact, being slaves, and convicted thereof%u2026shall be adjudged guilty of murder, as if the party or parties that took or shall take the same had died; and shall be condemned to suffer death, by hanging, burning, or such other way or means as to the said Justices and freeholders shall seem most convenient."
Deaths by poison began to take on a form of covert rebellion amongst those slaves who had rancor and access to their plantation owners or overseers. Most of the slaves who wished to poison someone but lacked the knowledge turned to the Obeah man of the region to execute the act. These types of personal services usually required a form of consideration. Obeah men were usually compensated for their services by their followers in the form of "donations": food, shelter or money. However, at times the Obeah man simply asked for the procurer's pledge to carry out a "favor" at a later date. By accumulating a large amount of "favors" throughout a plantation or region the Obeah man gained personal power and was able to execute his wishes with ease. The Obeah man usually did not directly administer the poison to a victim; he simply called in one of his favors under the guise that he was applying a charm, and ordered that individual to administer whatever he asked to the food of the ill-fated slave or overseer.
Clearly, Obeah men were important in the rousing, organization, and execution of slave revolts and slave resistance in general. Whites feared their power to invoke a rebellion and enslaved blacks were petrified at the thought of falling victim to their magic. Even though these men had many enemies, they were usually never betrayed by one of their own because he was recognized as an important figure in the slave society of the time. The Obeah man played various roles simultaneously. He was a healer and an executioner, he was loved and feared, he was father to all and demon to many. These men under the seemingly innocent guise of "medicine men" came to accumulate power and respect that rivaled that of the largest plantation owner. Even today in Jamaica children still tremble at the thought of going to visit the Obeah man.
By Alexander Giraldo
African Women in Resistance
In many African cultures, women were honored and this attitude towards them did not change within the Caribbean. Many of the religious rites and rituals took on an altered form in the Caribbean, but the role of women was constant. The proof is in the legacy that has been left behind. The same customs that enslaved Africans brought with them are still present today. For instance, women have handed down lessons through the art of storytelling, an art which they have maintained. Their stories tell of ancient people in ancient times but the morals are relevant even today, as are told in the Haitian folktale "Ti Malice" or the Jamaican folktales of "Anansi." Another part of life still present today is the art of hair braiding, an ancient African tradition, which has always created a bond between mothers and their children. As with cooking, it had to be taught and cultivated in order for them to have substance, and it often provided the occasion for other kinds of instruction.
Slave women's reactions to and experience within slavery were different than that of the African male slave. Like her Caribbean male slave counterpart, "Quashee," "Quasheba" actively resisted the repressive and dehumanizing stranglehold of slavery. But enslaved women devised ingenious ways of rebelling that were distinctively their own. These forms of resistance were often actions that related to them particularly as women: resistance against sexual assault; resistance through the passing on of traditions to daughters and other young women; resistance through the distinctively female (in the Caribbean) activity of marketing. Within the restrictions imposed upon the slave woman in Caribbean slave plantation society, her actions in resistance are such that they could be considered an active form of resisting.
In other cases, enslaved women broke the bonds of not only slavery, but the stereotypes of black womanhood as well. The enslaved black woman’s slave narrative, such as that written by former slave Mary Prince, is an example of this active form of resistance. Here, in her own words, the enslaved black woman tries to dispel the mythic stereotypes of the scheming, lazy "Quasheba." In Quasheba’s place, she presents herself, industrious, resourceful, and productive. Here, in her very own words, given the domestic, social, and economical restriction inherent in slave plantation society, the slave woman proclaims herself as the sole authority over her status, her life, and what her legacy to future generations will be.
Prince’s narrative could not by itself defeat things like the sexual exploitation of African women in the Caribbean, the misery and theft of labor in the cane fields, or the harsh punishments and tortures dreamed up by white slave owners and overseers. Nor could it by itself alleviate the misery of the countless women who watched malnourished children die before they ever got to listen to a story or have their mothers braid their hair. We could easily conclude that the female slave’s misery was endless. We could conclude that the distinctively female forms of passive and active forms of resistance mentioned here were not very effective, or did not do much to eliminate the real economic and physical constraints of slavery. In thinking of resistance, perhaps religion and dance are not the first examples that would come to mind. But we also have to remind ourselves that cultural imperialism was a significant way in which Europeans tried to strip slaves of their dignity. Therefore, in discussing slave resistance, it is important to recognize one of the things that made slaves feel they could no longer live as slaves, that being tradition. Since women upheld tradition, it is also important to acknowledge their contribution to the struggle. Once you have an understanding of your roots, you have the ability to grow stronger, stand firm in your beliefs and are now capable to help others in their quest for self-empowerment. The ability of the black Caribbean slave woman to withstand punishments, maintain cultural identity, resist the master, and to take on various authoritative roles is the essence of true resistance. And the black Caribbean slave woman passed on her power, beauty and strength to her descendants in the form of a legacy of dignity and struggle, one still much needed in the world today.
Maroons in Resistance
During the 18th century, the powerful Maroons, escaped ex-slaves who settled in the mountains of Jamaica, carved out a significant area of influence. Through the use of slave labor, the production of sugar in this British colony flourished. But the courageous resistance of the Maroons threatened this prosperous industry. These efforts included plantation raids, the killing of white militiamen, and the freeing of slaves. The threat to the system was clear and present; hence, the planters were willing to sign a treaty with the Maroons in 1738. The treaty offers good insight to the relationship between the planters and the Maroons at the time, and deserves further attention.
On March 1, 1738, the articles of pacification with the Maroons of Trelawny Town signaled to Jamaica that a new era was emerging. The English planters had feared the rising power of the Maroons, and therefore tried to subdue them. This proved to be unsuccessful, consequently causing the English to realize that making peace with the Maroons was the only possible solution. This treaty was the first of its kind and it demonstrated that a group of rebellious ex-slaves had forced a powerful class of planters to come to terms. This was an unlikely event during the eighteenth century, given the dominance of the planter class across the Caribbean. Yet the fact remains that the treaty did not solely serve the planters’ interest. For example, article three of the treaty states that the Maroons were given 1500 acres of crown land, a necessity for the Maroons to maintain their independent way of life. In addition, it made a boundary between the Maroons and the planters, which was to avoid future conflicts.
Another example of an unbiased stipulation is article eight of the treaty, which states: "that if any white man shall do any manner of injury to Captain Cudjoe, his successors, or any of his or their people, shall apply to any commanding officer or magistrate in the neighborhood for justice." This showed some equity under the law between the Maroons and the planters. Furthermore, the fifth article of the treaty specifies "that Captain Cudjoe, and all the Captain’s adherents, and people now in subjection to him, shall all live together within the bounds of Trelawny Town, and that they have liberty to hunt where they shall think fit, except within three miles of any settlement, crawl, or pen; provided always, that in case the hunters of Captain Cudjoe and those of other settlements meet, then the hogs to be equally divided between both parties." In other words, the English planters were willing to divide the game equally amongst themselves and the Maroons, but more importantly, they were giving the latter the liberty to hunt freely.
Although the articles of pacification granted the Maroons of Jamaica many privileges, it also attempted to limit their attacks against the system of slavery in general. There were hints of favoritism towards the planters, for example, article thirteen required that the Maroons continue to help clear roads from Trelawny Town to Westmoreland and if possible from St. James to St. Elizabeth. This was biased because, as free men, the Maroons were not entitled to labor for the planters. This showed that the planters viewed the Maroons to be inferior to them. Another bias in the treaty includes article eleven which states that "Captain Cudjoe, and his successors, shall wait on his Excellency, or the Commander in Chief for the time being, every year, if thereunto required." This article reveals an attempt to keep the Maroons subordinate and under control. In addition to article eleven, another article that reveals a biased attitude is article fourteen, which affirms that two white men shall live with the Maroons "in order to maintain a friendly correspondence with the inhabitants of this island." Even though this treaty was to encourage a friendly relationship between the two parties, it also gave white planters first-hand knowledge of the situation in the Maroon camp. Most important of all, the treaty also required the Maroons to act as a sort of police force for the planters, returning future runaways to the plantations, and drafting them to fight against future rebellions.
This treaty contained elements of fairness and favoritism that were evident through its articles. Some of these were beneficial to the Maroons, while others were not; however, the signing of the treaty indicated that the Maroons constituted a substantial threat to the planters. This treaty was not only ground breaking in that it recognized the Maroons and their needs, but also revealed that the English planters were fearful of the Maroons capabilities and ever-rising power.
Violence and Confrontation with the Planters:
During the eighteenth century, the Maroons of Jamaica evolved into formidable opponents for the English planters who occupied the island during that period. The original Maroons were the descendants of a band of run away Spanish slaves who had taken refuge in the mountainous interior of the island. Later, runaways also supplied much of their numbers. In the mountains they together sought freedom, created villages and a new way of life. They divided themselves in two groups, the Windward and Leeward Maroons. The Windward maroons were situated in the eastern section of the island, and the Leeward in the western section of the island. Both locations were far away from the oppressive and tyrannical sugar plantations that the English had established in the island’s coastal regions. However, despite the considerable distance between the maroons and the planters, the two groups came into repeated confrontations, which ultimately resulted in the First and Second Maroon Wars.
In Richard Dunn’s Sugar and Slavery, the author argues that the causes of the Maroon wars were directly related to the numerous insurrections that plagued the island during the years of 1694 to 1704, and the number of slaves that ran away to join the Maroons. Small revolts had broken out on Jamaica’s north coast in 1694,1702, and 1704. Runaways fleeing from the repression that followed these revolts then attempted to hide with other ex-slaves in the mountains. This activity set the stage for the Maroon Wars of 1720 to 1739. (261). Dunn argues that these revolts were the cause of the war. Yet other factors also contributed, especially the unwarranted aggression of the planters towards the Maroons.
Bryan Edwards, a very prominent speaker for the planters during the eighteenth century, and the author of Maroon Negroes, revealed (both wittingly and unwittingly) some of the other factors that led to war between the Planters and the Maroons. Edward argues that the primary cause of the first Maroon war was that the white Planters and the members of the militia were becoming more aggressive towards the Maroons. These altercations became more and more violent: "Scare a week [passed] without their murdering one or more of them; and as soldiers became more confident and careless, the Negroes grew more enterprising and bloody-mined."(1).
But Edwards, himself a planter, also reveals white planters’ outrage at the fact that the Maroons remained free. Slave owners feared that the Maroons represented a symbol of hope for the slaves who were still in captivity. The maroon villages were a place of refuge for the runaway slaves. Edwards says, "From time to time, without the least provocation; and by their barbarities and outrages [the Maroons] intimidated the whites from venturing to any considerable distance from the sea coast"(123). The island was the whites’, and slavery the Africans’ proper state—or so thought the planters. And planters even feared that the Maroons’ independence undermined the property value of their own land. Edwards also makes mention of the fact that the English were offended when the Maroons inadvertently refused the proclamation offered by Lieutenant- Governor. Sir Charles Lyttelton. This resulted in yet still further aggression by the English, who sent a white militia into the interior to subdue the maroons. The Maroons in turn unleashed their vengeance upon the white planters, raiding plantations at night, and killing whites regardless of their age or sex.
Even after the first Maroon War ended in the famous treaty between their leader Cudjoe and the colonial government of Jamaica, conflict between the two warring parties continued. The size of the Maroons grew considerably after 1740, and they soon wanted more land to sustain their growing population. And, according to eighteenth-century author R.C Dallas, by the late 1700s the Maroon men had become increasingly friendly with the slave women and in numerous cases fathered children with slave women. "He who connected himself," Dallas claimed, "with a women whose brother, sister, or other relations, were fugitives, would probably be tempted to remit his pursuit of them, and even favor their concealment."(125) What this meant was that when relatives of these Maroon children ran away from the plantations, the Maroons were more than eager to help these new runaways. This greatly angered the planters, who used the new situation as an excuse to break the terms and conditions of the peace treaty of 1738.
Other tensions increased conflict between the planters and the Maroons in the eighteenth century. In one outstanding incident, a group of Maroons came in dispute with a band of surveyors. According to Dallas, "Some surveyors being employed to mark lines of the adjoining patents, or grants of Crown lands, for the purpose of determining the boundaries of their 1500 acres conceded by treaty to them, they took alarm, supposing an encroachment to be made on their territory, and they threatened the surveyors"(128) This was just a simple misunderstanding between the two parties involved. The result was, however, more complex. The Maroons, thinking that they had been wronged, sought justice through their Superintendent. They resided in a white town until the matter was settled.
By the eighteenth century the Maroons viewed the planters as a clear and present danger to their autonomous way of life. The planters viewed the Maroons as an unruly, rebellious group that threaten their lavish and luxurious way of life that had grown accustom too. The planters formed an elite group who had the power of making laws, and who had much to lose. Their fear of losing power was evident when they signed the 1738 peace treaty with Cudjo. The tension that divided the two parties was also apparent. All that was needed was a misunderstanding to occur to ignite, the outbreak of violence between the Planters and the Maroons. By the end of the eighteenth century, such misunderstandings were not wanting, and the result was the second Maroon War of Jamaica.
Civil Laws Enacted by the Planters to Suppress Slave Resistance
The English colonists who settled in the West Indies developed laws that institutionalized an early warning system against slave revolts. These early Caribbean planters were among the first Europeans in the New World to erect such a comprehensive slave code. This code developed into the basic social and economic law of the islands. In effect, the slave laws legitimized a state of war between blacks and whites; one fought for hundreds of years on multiple continents. The Caribbean slave laws of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands became the stepping stone for the institutionalization of slavery, not only in the Western Hemisphere, but throughout the world. European planters in these islands developed a number of ways to suppress and punish any form of slave misconduct or insurrection.
The influx of enslaved Africans to the New World led to the development of "acts for governing the Negroes." These slave laws enacted by the island legislatures tell us a good deal about the treatment of these enslaved Africans and the institution of slavery in the Caribbean colonies. Of course, these laws set formal standards that were not necessarily followed. The planters practiced an infinite number of inhumane and illegal actions to suppress resistance and "domesticate" the enslaved Africans. But legal backing sanctified many such customs: a majority of the Civil laws and Codes, passed by the planters, called for the physical punishment of slaves.
In Barbados, the planters passed harsh laws that allowed them to beat slaves found guilty of crimes. If, while beating a slave, a slave owner happened to maim or kill the slave, the slave owner would suffer no penalty. For offenses such as stealing or the destruction of goods, the slave, if convicted and found guilty, was to "be publicly and feverely whipped, not exceeding Forty Lafhes." If the slave repeated the said offense they could have "his or their Nofes flit, and be branded in the forehead with a hot Iron, that the mark thereof may remain." If the slave was found guilty a third time "then such Negroe or other slave for that Third Offense, fhall be adjudged and fuffer Death."
Laws passed to protect the planter population from the constant threat of slave revolt, called for planters to keep the slave cabins under close surveillance. The planters strictly prohibited slave possession of arms, guns, or any form of offensive weaponry. And they dealt with mutiny, insurrection, or revolt even more severely:
"preparation of Arms, Powder, Bullets, or Offenfive weapons, or hold any Council or Confpiracy of, or raifing Mutiny or Rebellion againft this Island--Concealers of fuch a Mutiny or Rebellion, and them punifh by Death or other Pains as their crimes fhall deserve".
Slave codes varied from island to island. In 1696, Jamaica passed a comprehensive slave code. Unlike Barbados, Jamaica was always short of slaves in the seventeenth century. Thus, they were reluctant to execute too many enslaved Africans. Nonetheless, the punishments that the laws imposed for certain violent acts were still cruel by any standards, and built a barrier of terror against slave resistance: "--when ever a Negroe gang committed a crime fhort of murder, only one member of the group fhould be executed af an example to the reft."
Laws strictly and severely punished runaway slaves. "-- If a planter had a Negroe who was always running away, he is allowed to fit him with an iron yoke that had three long hooks projecting from it to hinder his future efcapes." Such laws were particularly important on Jamaica, largest of the British West Indies, and an island where the Maroons in the Blue Mountains offered a real alternative to the plantation. The Jamaican planter needed these comprehensive slave codes to instill fear in the minds of the slaves and keep them from running away. Fear was the driving force in the planter's daily agenda.
The slaves of the British Leeward Islands enjoyed slightly greater freedom than their Barbados and Jamaican counterparts, but endured the same cruel punishments. On Antigua and Monserrat slaves were customarily severely whipped rather than killed for stealing or wounding livestock. But here brutality simply took a different form. Planters were expected, by law, to plant an acre of provisions for every eight slaves. However, the food rations were often minuscule and insufficient. Some slaves were forced to hide meat in their cabins. If the planter discovered that the slave was stealing food rations, "he is directed to cut off the culprits ear!"
The planters had a shared view about what ideas, interests, institutions, and freedoms insured their own welfare. Their position on slavery promoted malicious acts against the slaves, and punishment for enslaved Africans who resisted the plantation’s heavy yoke was swift. Brutal and unmerciful consequences fell on slaves who broke the law. These slave laws played an important role in the history of slavery, and have their echoes even today. Areas once dominated by slavery in the New World continue to exact harsher punishments for crimes real or imagined than those once based on free labor. And the descendants of enslaved Africans continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of such punishments, and to serve for many racially obsessed whites as symbols of crime. Founded upon principles of injustice and inequality, the slave codes and laws are a part of the history of slavery not easily forgotten by any society or culture.
Slave Resistance and Planters in Post Slave Trade Jamaica
The veil of slavery fell on the Caribbean for several dreadful centuries; centuries in which both the suffering and exploited slaves as well as their exploiters, the planters, faced a great many pressures. Slaves lived in near hopeless misery while the planters, despite enjoying wealth and freedom, stood in constant fear. As the age of slavery neared its end, the planter class was caught with its back against the wall, facing the sword of rebellion. Newly passed laws created the paradox of limited protection of the rights of slaves while also attempting to allow the planters legal measures for deterrence of resistance. These measures, as expected, still usually held violence as the primary and essential tool.
As a prime example of this late emerging mechanism, we turn to the actual journal of a planter in a former Jamaican slave estate and plantation: the journal of Englishman Matthew Gregory Lewis. M.G. Lewis inherited the estate of Cornwall in the British colony of Jamaica, and took up its management from 1815 though 1817. His journal shows a revealing first hand account of the friction between the slaves and the planters, but more importantly, it shows us how the planters viewed resistance. Within it we learn how British law affected the way planters dealt with their slaves. Ultimately we learn of the main driving factor behind the planters action against their defiant slaves: fear.
In order to understand how the planters responded to slave resistance, one must place their actions in the proper historical context. In the case of Lewis’ narrative, Jamaica had witnessed the abolition of the slave trade just under a decade before his writing of the journal. By then, the British parliament had increasingly been passing laws that, while nonetheless did so in a limited fashion, protected slaves against indiscriminate or overly abusive punishment by their owners. One such law, the Jamaican Consolidated Slave Law of 1795, set clear limits on slave punishment. The fact that abolition limited the inflow of new slaves into the Jamaican colony also meant that planters had a vested interest in preserving the well being of their remaining slaves. As a result of these late legalistic developments, post-slave trade Jamaican planters were more lenient in their punishment of rebellious slaves than during previous time periods. Lewis tells us of runaway slaves that upon return are only slightly reprimanded or, at the worse case scenario of a repeated escapee, the slave is simply sold off without informing the new owner of his or her deviant history. We also hear of a sheep thieving slave that suffers the same fate as his runaway colleagues.
New laws limited the ability of planters to carry out unchecked discretion. While minor offenses were taken lightly, there were less kindly ways to punish and deter rebellion in 19th century Jamaica. One interesting option opened to the planters as described by Lewis, is the use of slave courts. Described by Lewis as fair and devoid of tricks and legalistic traps, these courts sentenced a slave girl -accused of poisoning her master- to her death. Lewis himself dismissed one of his own overseers for striking a disobedient slave with a broom. Furthermore, slaves had the right to complaint of abuses by their owners to magistrates and often approached Lewis to gain him as a supporter in their plea against neighboring planters.
There is, however, a vast difference between what the progressive British laws dictated to the planters and what they actually carried out. Violence was still the main tool of control for the owners, and at its center was the whip. The whip was as common in the fields as the tools used to work the land, and it was in the opinion of many Jamaican planters -if not most- that without it a plantation could not be operated. Lewis tells us of a particularly pious planter that, after abolishing the usage of the whip on his estate as an act of humanist goodwill towards his slaves, decides to return to it or risk being unable to run his plantation. In fact, the planters did not view the usage of the whip as a barbarous practice, and as Lewis points out, many of them justified its use as no different than when it is used on British soldiers and sailors.
M.G. Lewis was, however, no fan of violent means and disapproved of the overseer’s whip being used in his estate. As common sense would dictate, in an oppressive system which forces people to act against their own desires, the way to maintain the will of the oppressing class is through imposition by force. As Lewis abandoned the usage of the whip and other violent means, incidences of slave resistance increased, and he makes a repeated reference to this diminishing obedience. In one example, which Lewis’ blames as the direct result of his policy against the whip, there is a small rebellion by several female slaves refusing to carry out duties and attempting to strangled their driver -a rebellion quenched by the temporary return to the whip. In another case of resistance, after a herd of cattle has wandered into one of the planted fields at night, Lewis as his men are unable to awaken the sleeping slaves to help drive the herd away, resulting in a considerable loss for Lewis. In another almost humorous occasion, 45 of his nearly 300 slaves report to the hospital claiming what his medical staff calls false ailments and pains, in order to avoid the grueling labor. Interestingly enough, the greatest deterrent that Lewis uses to maintain the obedience of his slaves is not through violence but rather by threatening to sell off Cornwall plantation and return to England. His slaves knew well that the chances of another Lewis becoming their master were slim, and that the whip would surely return alongside a new owner.
Lewis’ “indulgent” character also brought to light the fear that planters had of their enslaved masses. When other planters began seeing a trend in Lewis ameliorating methods towards his slaves, he was called upon to witness a session of the country court, a sort of general assembly. There he learns of a planter whose humanist practices towards his slaves is “promoting disorder and confusion”, “calling the peace of the island”, and “...involved in the [slave] disputes in other states”. The planter of whom they spoke is, of course, Mr. Lewis himself. Outnumbered by their slaves and surrounded by news of rebellions all too close to home, the Jamaican planters did not wish to give any dangerous ideas to their captured laborers.
How did planters in Jamaica react to displays of resistance by their slaves? Violence was an option always open but with newly-found legal limitations, this was an increasingly less effective tool. Slave courts worked, but their mere existence was a symbol of the weakened power of the planters. As the San Domingo revolution raged on, fear of a bloodshed of equal proportions crossed the minds of the Jamaican planters, who kept eagerly well-informed of the events at their tumultuos neighbor. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewis never witnessed the extinction of
slavery in Jamaica, as he died on a trip back to England a few short years before the entire system was finally dissolved.
Planters & Slave Resistance~Two original Accounts
by Erin Hodge
In my analysis of two dissimilar accounts of slave resistance in Jamaica during the early 19th century, I hope to construct a broad picture of the types of punishments that plantation owners and their employees used against slaves who chose to resist oppression. The two authors that I discuss describe the relationships between the enslaved Africans and their masters. These accounts show that planters and enslaved blacks each attempted to manipulate their mutual relationship, affecting the magnitude of slave opposition and the repercussions of resistance.
Mathew Gregory Lewis’ account of his initial residence in Jamaica, from 1815-1816, depicts his distinct perspective on slaves and his interactions with them. Immediately upon his arrival, Lewis claimed a paternal role in relation to his slaves, which he, like all white men, saw as inferior beings, incapable of self-sufficiency. This belief became apparent when Lewis wrote about the law of provisions, which permitted the slaves a day to tend their plots of land. This happened regularly every week, supposedly so that they would not gather too much at once and end up trading it for alcohol which, in turn, would send them begging after a short period of time, "for they are so thoughtless and improvident." Lewis’ rationale in this case shows how he belittled the slaves, validating (for himself) his authority over them and justifying their enslavement.
While sharing the paternalism of other planters, Lewis expressed it differently. Throughout his
journal, he described the atypical types of punishments he imposed on the slaves for their insubordinate behaviors. Forbidding the use of the cart-whip on Cornwall estate because he saw it as a deplorable tool of tyranny, he chose to treat the slaves relatively kindly so that he could threaten them with their departure or refuse them privileges when they got out of line. Sometimes, he even rewarded their resistance in order to regain control of the situation. When thirty slaves feigned sicknesses on one day "in order to sit idle, and chat away the time with their friends." Lewis responded to this by distributing gifts to them from England. He then let the slaves take possession of his own dwelling so that they could "amuse themselves." Soon the slaves began to comply once more with their "massa," feeding his already bulging ego.
Conversely, the slaves also used this uncommon relationship to manipulate Lewis. Knowing that he believed himself to be morally righteous, the slaves knew he would not knowingly allow the brutal tortures and punishments so common on Jamaican plantations. As a result, they did not hesitate to resist in any way they could. One of the white agents working on Cornwall was attacked when the slaves seized the mill. Miss Whaunica, one of the revolting slave women "flew at his [the agents] throat, and endeavored to strangle him," for attempting to suppress the rebellion. Lewis’ responded to this riotous episode not by physical violence, but by threatening to sell the most adamant mutineers and sailing back to England, never returning to Jamaica. This again restored civility for a brief interlude and allowed Lewis to maintain his illusions of moral grandeur.
Not only did Lewis’ own slaves take advantage of his lax treatment, but the slaves from neighboring plantations would find ways to benefit from his charitable disposition. Peppered throughout his account are many instances of complaints brought to Lewis by slaves from various other estates. He would always listen to them, sometimes spending many days "for above an hour and a half." In several cases he wrote letters to the governor stating these charges of callous treatment. He would even give such slaves food and other items. He gave a blanket to one woman who complained of being to cold because her owner would not provide adequate "bedclothes." Lewis’ self-righteousness resulted in a distinctly abnormal relationship between him and the slaves of Jamaica.
The mutually manipulative connection between Lewis and his slaves does not seem to have been typical for Jamaica during this time. An alternative source is the memoir of Benjamin M’Mahon, a bookkeeper employed on twenty-four different plantations during his eighteen-year residence from 1819-1837. In contrast to the travel account of Mathew Gregory Lewis, M’Mahon also reported on the general practices of the slave drivers, and the other employees of the plantation. Overall he witnessed relationships quite different from the paternalistic games recorded by Lewis.
The first thing that is important to note is that even though M’Mahon stated, "I abhor slavery in my very soul," and was "anxious to expose the treachery, the torture, and the tyranny, practiced by the overseers and attorneys of Jamaica," he still viewed the enslaved African as an inferior being. He described the overall relationship between the master and slave as a trainer trying to break a wild animal. "The tiger from the jungle may be tamed…it is far more probable, that he will retain his native ferociousness, though confined to his cage…but what cage is sufficiently strong enough to restrain these human tigers…" These written statements contain the all too common stereotype of the African man being a wild and ferocious, jungle dwelling, uncivilized beast who was in desperate need of guidance. Even though their accounts are otherwise quite different, M’Mahon, like Lewis, in his own way embraced plantation Jamaica’s ubiquitous racism.
Aside from this solitary parallel viewpoint shared by the two writers, (as well as most other Europeans at this time), M’Mahon’s perceptions of the planter-slave association were different to those of Lewis. At the age of seventeen, M’Mahon had begun working as a bookeeper on Bloxburgh Estate, which at the time was a coffee plantation in the Port Royal Mountains. His reports of his residence at Bloxburgh provided sufficient details to establish a general overview of the master-slave relationship as was seen through his eyes. Beginning at 4 AM, M’Mahon presented himself at a designated site near the field and called attendance. Any slave absent would be thrown to the ground and flogged by the driver in a way that would humiliate the victim in front of the other slaves. This, M’Mahon stated, "was the general practice through Jamaica." Although the proprietor, T.P. Kellerman, was described by the author as a "good natured man," and the overseer, Henry P. Roberts, was said to have "detested brutal practices," flogging was still an everyday occurrence on the plantation. Here, he portrayed the relationship between the slave and the slave driver like that of a horse trainer breaking a wild stallion.
M’Mahon’s experiences at Bloxburgh Estate also enabled him to describe the ways in which the interactions between various plantation managers influenced the treatment of the resisting slaves. When the proprietor, T.P. Kellerman, formed a relationship with Charles Austin, a neighboring plantation overseer described as "a monster in human shape," Kellerman rapidly became just as merciless. As for the "good natured" overseer, Henry P. Roberts, he was dismissed and replaced by Daniel Wait, described as "crafty and cruel." M’Mahon pointed at the following as the reason for this rapid change in administration: "No man could succeed in the planting line, but one whose heart was hard and adamant; he must have no pity for the Negro…." The problems Lewis encountered due to his desire to cast himself as the star of this moral pageantry supports M’Mahon’s claim that vicious cruelty was an absolute necessity for successful maintenance of planter authority against black resistance.
Matthew Gregory Lewis and Benjamin M’Mahon offer two opposing accounts of the dealings between Jamaican slaves and their owners and overseers during the early 19th century. By interpreting the relationships between these two sets of people, the types of perceptions the planters had towards resistance, punishment, and plantation management become apparent. Both M’Mahon and Lewis despised ruthless punishments against the enslaved Africans. Nevertheless, each continued to support the institution of slavery, helping to enable its unwavering brutality.
At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the colony of St. Domingue, now Haiti, furnished two-thirds of France’s overseas trade, employed one thousand ships and fifteen thousand French sailors. The colony became France’s richest, the envy of every other European nation. This plantation system, which provided such a pivotal role in the French economy, was also the greatest individual market for the African slave trade. Yet, conflict and resentment permeated the society of San Domingo, and slave resistance began to take an organized form in the late 18th century. The French Revolution did inspire many in 1789, but black resistance had existed for years. In August of 1791 an organized slave rebellion broke out, marking the start of a twelve-year resistance to obtain human rights. The Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in history, and resulted in the establishment of Haiti, the first independent black state in the New World.
One must emphasize the struggles that had been occurring for decades prior to the 1791 outbreak of full-scale rebellion. Yet the French Revolution was also crucially important, for the conflicts between whites about what exactly its ideals meant triggered an opportunity for blacks. A historically significant step was the issuance of the Declaration of Rights of Man passed in France on August 26, 1789. It stated, "In the eyes of the law all citizens are equal." While the French government did not want to release this to their colonies, word got out. News of the Declaration of Rights of Man brought new hopes to the black masses. Meanwhile, plantation owners and the French government continued to exploit the slaves for profit.
A series of revolts occurred in 1790, by mulattoes led by Vincent Ogé. Descendents of mixed blood were trying to establish suffrage from a recent National Assembly ruling. However the white Colonial Assembly ignored French efforts. These mulatto-led revolts were the first challenges against French rule and the slaveholding system. In August of 1791, the first organized black rebellion ignited the twelve-year San Domingo Revolution. The northern settlements were hit first, and the flood that overwhelmed them revealed the military strength and organization of the black masses. Plantations were destroyed, and white owners killed to escape the oppression. Some of the rebellion’s leaders include Boukman, Biassou, Toussaint, Jeannot, Francois, Dessalines, and Cristophe. These men would help to guide the Revolution down its torturous, bloody road to complete success, although it would cost over twelve years and hundreds of thousands of lives. Many of those leaders themselves would fall along the way, but the force of unity against slavery, a unity deeply embedded in the creole culture that bound the blacks together, would sustain the revolution.
After the revolutionaries’ initial successes in overwhelming the institution of plantation slavery on the Plaine du Nord, Le Cap fell into the hands of French republican forces. Toussaint and thousands of blacks joined them in April 1793. The agreement was if the blacks fought against the royalists, the French would promise freedom. Thus, on August 29, 1793, Commissioner Légér-Felicité Sonthonax abolished slavery in the colony. Then with self-interest in mind, revolutionary France’s British enemies tried to seize an opportunity to grab the colony, so recently the greatest single source of colonial wealth in the whole world. Furthermore, the British wanted to put down the slave rebellion in order to protect
In June of 1794 British forces landed on the island and worked with Spain to attack the French. Yet, the British forces soon fell victim to yellow fever. With more uncertainties presenting themselves, Toussaint decided to pledge his support to the French, on May 6, 1794. Toussaint was appointed governor in 1796 and he continued to follow his ideas for an autonomous black- led San Domingo. By January 1802, Toussaint was the head of a semi-independent San Domingo. Napoleon saw this as a threat and sent his brother-in-law Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc from France with 20,000 troops to capture Toussaint, and re-establish slavery in the colony. Toussaint was deceived in 1802, captured and shipped to France, where he eventually died in prison.
But the struggle for independence continued and by late 1803 the north and south arenas of the island united and defeated the French under Rochambeau. Dessalines, Toussaint’s former lieutenant proclaimed the independence of the country of Haiti and declared himself Emperor. He was assassinated in 1806, and the country divided between rival successors. Yet, the rebels had shattered the enslaved colony and forged from the ruins the free nation of Haiti.