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Stabroek News

Jamaica and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Part II)
published: Sunday | March 26, 2006


Arnold Bertram

THE FIRST African slaves to be brought to Jamaica came in 1534 when Pedro Mazuelo, one of the early Spanish colonists, brought thirty Africans from the Canary Islands. By the time the Spanish conducted the first census in 1611, the number of African slaves had grown to 558. There were also 107 free blacks. However, only 74 of the 60,000 indigenous Indians found by Columbus in 1494 remained. The rest had been decimated by disease, as well as by the severity of the labour regime imposed by the Spanish.

The planter/historian, Edward Long, estimates that three years after the British captured the island from the Spanish in 1655, "there were about 4,500 whites and 1,400 negroes." The white population included the white indentured servants described by Josiah Child in his New Discourse of Trade as "loose, vagrant people, vicious and destitute of means to live at home ... or had so misbehaved themselves by whoring, thieving or other debauchery ­ which merchants and masters of ships gathered up about the streets of London and other places, and transported to be employed upon plantations."

It was to replace this indentured labour force, which proved totally unfit for the labour required on the plantations, that African slaves were imported. In 1664, the arrival of Sir Thomas Modyford from Barbados with 700 planters and their slaves, signalled the rise of the plantation economy in Jamaica, which dramatically increased the demand for African slave labour. By 1703 the number of slaves had increased to 45,000.

A LABORATORY FOR RACISM

While racism was not a primary consideration at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, it quickly became an endemic feature of plantation slavery. The sustained exploitation of Africans as slaves quickly acquired a racial character and over time required an ideology based on racism which made the terms 'negro' and 'slave' interchangeable. As Norman Girvan points out, the primary objective of this ideology was to depreciate the cultural and physical attributes of the enslaved race.

"African speech, religion, mannerisms and indeed all institutional forms were systematically denigrated as constituting marks of savagery and cultural inferiority ... and extended to the physical, genetic and biological attributes of black people. The very colour of the African skin was held to be the first and lasting badge of his inferiority; as were the characteristics of his mouth, nose and hair texture. The desired consequence of extending the ideology of racism from cultural to physical attributes was to ensure that the African ... was permanently imprisoned in his status as a slave in as much as he was permanently imprisoned in his black skin."

The effect of this campaign on the self-confidence of Africans and people of African descent continue to this day. Three centuries later, we seize upon every opportunity to disguise the physical features which define us as African.

DIVIDE AND RULE

The tribal and other divisions in Africa which were exploited by Europeans to enslave the Africans were again used by the white planters on the Jamaican plantation. Don Robotham, in a very insightful essay ­ 'The Development of a Black Ethnicity in Jamaica' ­ makes the observation that "Whatever the historical roots of these hostilities, the fact of being sold into slavery sometimes by members of the self same group now confronted in Jamaica as fellow slaves could only have intensified the ill-will, which had already existed. Recrimination and individualism, rather than solidarity and cooperation, was thus what characterised the initial phase of enslavement."

For reasons of personal security, the European minority deliberately exploited the antagonisms among the African majority to the fullest. A planter from Barbados, Charles Leslie, who visited Jamaica in 1739, immediately identified the judicious placement of the slaves on the estates as integral to the security of the planters. "The slaves are brought from several parts in Guinea ­ and they hate one another so mortally that some of them would rather die by the hands of the English than join with other Africans ­ to shake off their yoke."

Over time the 'driver' emerged as the dominant African personality on the plantation. These were the men and women who led the labour gangs of which the 'number one' gang was the most prestigious. In the driver of the 'number one' gang was concentrated leadership, authority, the capacity to coerce as well as the power to dispense favours. As Robotham points out, a young man or woman as the repository of leadership signalled the erosion of "the most revered and authoritative of African statuses ­ that of the elder or the chief." The capacity to coerce rather than the ability to give wise counsel determined success and the aspirations of the people and their sense of themselves was transformed accordingly.

The emergence of the 'don' in the urban communities, which became political garrisons, is the closest parallel to the driver of the number one gang. The divisions which were a feature of slavery have become so institutionalised, that 168 years after the abolition of slavery African-Jamaicans still find it difficult to unite in any project for national development.

A LABOUR TO DEATH

The Atlantic slave trade was initially conducted on the premise that the African supply of slave labour was inexhaustible. The economic theory based on this assumption led to an extremely cynical and cruel abuse of the African on the plantation. For once it was assumed that the slave could be readily replaced "the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts ­ the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion." (Karl Marx).

This was the thinking which led to the

labour regime on the sugar plantation, which began at 4 in the morning, and except for a one hour break at noon continued until night, when the slaves on their way to their miserable huts "picked up a little brush wood or cow dung to prepare some simple mess for supper ... before midnight."

Over 700,000 Africans were brought to Jamaica as slaves in the 153 years between the capture of the island by the British in 1655 and the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807. Such was the toll in human lives exacted by plantation slavery in Jamaica that there were only 323,827 slaves and 9,000 free blacks alive when the slave trade was abolished in 1807. The only word to describe this absolute reduction in the slave population is 'genocide'. In contrast, after the first 150 years of freedom the African-Jamaican population increased some 700 per cent to over two million.

COLOURED AND BLACK SLAVE OWNERS

It is estimated that the time of Emancipation, free coloureds and blacks owned approximately 70,000 slaves. What is alarming is that some of them had earned the reputation of treating their slaves worse than their white counterparts. The white planters had deliberately promoted differences between coloureds and blacks by recognising four shades of colour between white and black ­ mulatto, sambo, quadroon and mustee.

C.L.R. James, writing about Caribbean society in 1963, 125 years after slavery, observed that "the surest sign of a man having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself?the people most affected by this are people of the middle class who, lacking the hard contact with realities of the masses and unable to attain to the freedom of a leisured class, are more than all types of people given to trivial divisions and subdivisions of social rank and precedence."

There are many who will argue that these divisions are not only still with us but also still regarded with some importance.

This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its impact on Jamaica. However, to the extent that there are important lessons to be learnt from a serious analysis of that part of our history, I would suggest to the members of the St. Elizabeth Parish Council that they think again. The activities to mark the bicentury of the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade need not only "remind us of our shame". It could be a turning point for the entire society as to how we understand our history and profit by that understanding.

Arnold Bertram, historian and former parliamentarian, is current chairman of Research and Product Development Ltd. E-mail redev@cwjamaica.com.

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