Fri | Oct 7, 2022

Black slave owners, no big deal

Published:Monday | August 7, 2017 | 12:00 AM


On August 1, The Gleaner published 'Jamaica's black and coloured slave owners', written by Arnold Bertram. The end of the first paragraph reads: "Interestingly, the free coloured and black population included the owners of some 70,000 enslaved Africans (R. Montgomery Martin, 1854). How do we explain this seemingly contradictory development?"

Bertram proceeds to merely document this phenomenon with nothing of consequence by way of explanation. For a black historian, this is very irresponsible, even dangerous, reporting. Certainly, the first order of duty for one in Bertram's position is to ensure that he does not contribute to the creation of false consciousness primarily in his black readers.

Towards this end, I think it most important that he would first explicate that the notion of some blacks owning enslaved Africans at the time of slavery was a "contradictory development". Actually, this fact is not at all remarkable, surprising, or strange. It would be, in fact, outright amazing if this did not occur.

At this time in Jamaica's history (circa mid-19th century), an overwhelming number of the black population were born into slavery, mostly several generations removed, and knew nothing but the values of the plantation. It requires no great leap of imagination or logic to see that some blacks would develop the 'ambition' to own their own 'slaves'. This is known in psychology as 'learned behaviour'.

Of course, this was not the case for those traitorous blacks called Maroons, many of whom, a century earlier, became prime examples of the success of the divide-and-rule strategies of the white oppressors. Many a Maroon, confronted by the overwhelming and unassailable might and 'success' of European power, volunteered to be baptised and submitted to the Christian religion of their masters. They, therefore, saw themselves as different and superior to other blacks (Fight for Freedom, Carey Robinson, p. 95).

It is also very important to understand that despite Bertram's quotation of M.G. Smith and others, white men, regardless of what they said, were not displaying human affection for black women. African women were always seen as lesser beings, and any copulation was an act of rape, even if they gave consent, because they could not say no and enforce it.