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The slavery experience (Part 1)

Published:Friday | August 3, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Freedom fighters: Maroons and many others fought slavery.
The Zong Massacre monument at Black River, St Elizabeth, erected in honour of 133 Africans who were thrown from the slave ship, the Zong, in 1781.

AUGUST 1, 2012 marked 174 years since the proclamation of full freedom for Africans in the British colonies. Full freedom for approximately 311,000 enslaved Africans in Jamaica was not achieved until August 1, 1838.

Emancipation Day was officially introduced as a public holiday in Jamaica in 1893. The 'First of August' celebrations, however, was discontinued in 1962, when Jamaica gained Independence. It was replaced by Independence Day, which was then recognised on the first Monday in August.

In 1997, the then government re-introduced Emancipation Day as a public holiday and Independence Day was fixed to August 6. This re-introduction of Emancipation Day provides the opportunity for us to reflect on the journey of our ancestors in their struggle for freedom. As Bob Marley sings, "If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from". An understanding of our past and the experiences of our ancestors is important as we continue to build our country.

The period of enslavement in Jamaica began with the first European colonisers, the Spanish. The arrival of the Spanish in 1494 led to the decimation of the indigenous Ta'no. In less than a century, the Ta'no died as a result of Spanish enslavement, imported diseases and Spanish brutality.

The Spanish method of enslavement was called the Encomienda System, which required the Ta'no to work on Spanish plantations and in their mines. This method of forced labour resulted in the decimation of the Ta'no in a relatively short time. Many of the Ta'no died as a result of exhaustion on the plantations. Others died because they fell victims to famine, European diseases, such as smallpox, and some were brutally killed by the Spanish when dogs were used to subdue them to work.

In retaliation, many indigenous people took their lives, while others migrated to the interior and established free settlements.

African replacements

According to Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett (1998), when the Spanish settlers found their labour force depleted, they turned to Africa for replacements. Bartholomew las Casas, a Spanish priest, recommended the use of Africans in Jamaica and other Spanish territories when Indian labour had diminished. Until then, the only Africans on the island were personal household servants of a few settlers. These servants did not come directly from Africa, but from European countries where African slavery was already institutionalised.

When the English invaded Jamaica in 1655 and subsequently captured the island, the enslavement of Africans became far more degrading. During 1655 and 1658, the Spanish freed and recruited the enslaved Africans in their battle against the English. Many of these Africans fled to the interior. Here, they interbred with the free Ta'no and became the Maroons. Over time, the ranks of the Maroons were swelled by Africans who sought freedom from enslavement on the plantations of the English.

Close to 1,000,000 enslaved Africans were imported to Jamaica. Most of the African captives came from the Gold Coast (present day Ghana, Togo and Benin) and the Bight of Biafra (including present day Nigeria, Cameroon and the Equatorial Guinea). The inhumane treatment for the Africans began at the point of capture.

The villages were raided to get sufficient numbers for the voyage to the West Indies, and in some cases, the Africans consisted of prisoners of war. Once captured, they were forcefully brought to the African ports of departure in chains where they awaited the arrival of a slaver. The journey from the African coast to the Caribbean took on average five to eight weeks in good weather. This leg of the journey was referred to as the Middle Passage or the Atlantic Passage.

The conditions of the Middle Passage were appalling. The slavers were usually overcrowded and this led to unsanitary conditions, resulting in the outbreak of various diseases, including small pox and dysentery. Many Africans died as a result of these contagious diseases and others died from inhumane treatment. For example, on September 6, 1781, the Zong left West Africa with a crew of 20 men led by Captain Luke Collingwood and a total of 440 Africans. As many as 60 died within the first seven weeks, and many others fell ill. One hundred and thirty-three Africans who the crew thought were least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle and then thrown overboard, weighed down with balls. Some 55 were thrown overboard on November 29; 42 on November 30, and 26 more Africans were thrown overboard on December 1.

On December 28, 1781, the Zong docked in Black River, St Elizabeth, with 208 Africans, 232 fewer than when it left the African coast. The matter was brought before the British courts, not for the mass killing, but because the insurers refused to pay ship owners, James Gregson et al, compensation for the loss. This is just one of the many cases of inhumane treatment on the slavers.

Major ports of entry for the African captives in Jamaica included the Kingston Harbour, Port Royal, Falmouth and Black River. Those Africans who endured and survived the horrors of the Middle Passage would then begin a life of inhumane treatment on the plantations, which included working without pay, whipping, torture and sexual abuse.

Many were maimed or killed as punishment for daring to seek freedom. The enslaved African was now chattel, an item that could be disposed of at the whim of the enslavers, in the same way as land, cattle, furniture or equipment.

Overworked, underpaid

On Jamaican plantations, the enslaved Africans worked about 12 hours daily (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.), up to six days a week. They were usually given about half an hour for breakfast and one and a half hours break for lunch. At the end of their routine tasks or their respective work for the day, they were also expected to do extra tasks such as put trash in the cattle pens, or carry grass for the planters' horses. On sugar plantations, the enslaved persons were required to work additional hours during 'crop time'. This was the period of intensive activity in the factory and in the field as the cane had to be harvested and converted to sugar within a specified time. In many instances during the harvesting of the cane the enslaved persons had to work in the factories day and night with very few hours to rest.

During their so-called 'spare time', the enslaved persons were allowed to cultivate their own provision grounds or garden plots near their houses or on remote parts of the estate. They also had to use this time to provide much of their own clothing, household utensils and build their houses. There was therefore very little time for family and other activities.

Although the condition of enslavement did not usually go hand-in-hand with independence there were some women and men who managed to rise above their situations. One of these persons was Phibbah - an enslaved Creole or Jamaican-born woman who worked as a housekeeper on several properties in Westmoreland.