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The Period Of Chattel Slavery In The Caribbean History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Caribbean during the 18th century was categorized mainly as an agriculture based region with numerous plantations. These plantation main outputs were sugar, a commodity highly demanded in Europe earning high profits for plantation owners. However, to create such vast quantities of sugar required human labour, resulting in the development of the chattel slavery system. This slavery system comprised mainly of Africans whose characteristics were suitable for the tropical climates. Enslavement was a dictatorship system where the enslavers had absolute power, like a puppet master pulling all the strings, hence, rendering the enslaved powerless, however, the enslaved reacted waging a protracted war cutting the strings of the enslavers in a fight for their freedom.

Chattel slavery refers to “A system of slavery whereby an individual and their offspring’s are recognized by the law as being the property of another person for life”1. Enslaved could be bought, sold and branded just as a piece of furniture, and these inhuman conditions enraged the enslaved resulting in resistance. This is further supported by Hilary Beckles et al who stipulated “This record of resistance illustrates that there was hardly a generation of enslaved males or females in the Caribbean who did not take their anti-slavery actions”. Entrapment, is against human nature, and thus, enslaved resisted from the start in a long or ‘protracted’ war. “Many slave revolts and plots in these territories between 1638 and 1838 could be conceived of as ‘200 years war’ one protracted struggle launched by Africans and their Afro-West Indian progeny against slave owners” stated Hilary Beckles. The Enslaved worked under harsh conditions from sun up to sun down, with little rest and exposure to diseases, under strict control from supervisor who demanded productivity. The world of the enslaved therefore, was a constant battle between oppression of master control and the desire for freedom.

“Slave society refers to the whole community based on slavery, including masters and freedmen as well as slaves” stipulated Brian L. Moore. The Societal structure was a hierarchy, white masters at the top socially and politically, the coloured in the middle and the enslaved forming the foundation at the bottom. “Around 1832 there were approximately 50,000 whites and 100 000 freedmen in the British Caribbean but only 32 000 slave owners” suggested B.W Higman. Freedmen owned slaves; however, it was not in any high concentration when compared to the whites. Although, representing the minority whites control the politics and the majority of wealth maintaining absolute power. The whites were highly educated when compared to the freedmen who had basic education, leaving majority of the slaves uneducated. This is supported by B.W Higman, who noted “this strong contrast reflected differences in the education of free males and females, but it’s also indicated differences in wealth”. Whites were the maters operating the plantations, while freedmen were either ‘freed coloured’ or ‘freed blacks’ who earned their freedom and tried to invent their own identity. These combined features and characteristics of each class created an arrangement of diverse practices and behavior that illustrated the properties of a slave society.

For any society to function adequately there must be system of control and the slave society was no exemption. Christopher Humber et al stated “System of slave control embodied physical, social, psychological, economic and legal factors”. The enslaved were economical exploited by enslavers, as they were forced to labour in plantation through physical violence denying them personal freedom. ” The whip was a stimulus to labour and a constant form of punishment and for fear of the hundreds of lashes ‘kept in line’ and did basically as they were told” 2. Slaves lived on the plantation in small dirt huts, and enslavers positioned their mansions at the top overseeing their enslaved community and society practices, emphasizing enslaved social inferiority. Food and clothes were controlled by the enslavers, as they decided what and when enslaved should eat and also how they should dress. “Slaves were not allowed to be educated; ignorance was a powerful means of control”3. Denying basic social function such as education signified enslaved inferiority. The Enslaved religions practices, such as their drumming, music and dance were not allowed and even punishable by death. The enslaver’s religions were forced upon them as a form of control, and Christopher Humber et al noted “Enslaved were only allowed to sit at the back of the Anglican/ Catholic churches”. The enslaved were seen as inferior to the whites and the whites argued that Africans were barbaric and uncivilized. Enslavers tried to oppress and crush the spirits of the enslaved through psychological ideas of race and colour. Economic structure of society in terms of property, earnings (Money) and time were control buy the enslavers. ” Slaves could not legally posses property or legally make contracts, could not be paid for nay work that they did, could not own animals and could not own land”4. These economic and legal restrictions crippled the enslaved freedom of movements. The different control systems implemented enforced enslavement and entrapment, however, the enslaved resistance continued to punctuate the society.

“The period of slavery was characterized primarily by one protracted war launched by those enslaved against their enslavers”, suggested Hilary Beckles. From the commencement of slavery, the enslaved pursed their freedom through different forms of resistance and these resistance activities were illustrated in the Caribbean. Enslaved resistance comprised of ‘day-to-day’ resistance, plots and revolts and rebellion including marronage. Sheperd V. noted “The several stages in the development of Caribbean anti-slavery activities in the period up to 1834: 1500-1750, 1750-1807, and 1807 up toe end of slavery”. During the period 1500-1750, the society was dominantly enslaved Africans and plantation construction was now developing. The main form of resistance used during this period was marronage, which Barbara Lalla stipulated as “The process of flight by slaves from servitude to establish their own hegemonies or wild territories”. Maroons, also known as, “Runaways” were able to establish small communities creating independence from the plantation social, economically, and legally. However, for successful maroon developments the island had to be mountainous, Sheperd V. noted “Forested and mountainous interiors of colonies like Jamaica, Dominica and Guyana facilitated the maintenance of runaway slaves”. In an island like Barbados, marronage had limited success due to the lowland. Maroons developed structure, in terms of farming for food and in situations earned money by selling produce, persons were able to practice their own religion freely without feeling inferior, Possibilities of ownership of items and most importantly they had freedom of choice. Maroons were able to formulate strategies of successful revolts and attacks on plantations, under the assertive leadership such as Price, lead to arrangements between the Europeans. According to Hilary Beckles “What is clear is that maroon activities which were endemic over the entire period greatly undermined the colonizing efforts of the Europeans and the economic life of the plantations”.

The sugar rush peaked during 1750-1807 creating a mature plantation society, increasing some aspects of Creole diversity and Sheperd V. stated during this period “resistance assumed different forms such as ‘day-to-day’ acts and negotiation for rights and also marronage increasing”. Christopher Humber noted ‘day-to-day’ resistance as “the subtle methods used by the slaves to express rejection of slavery” and further supported by Hilary Beckles, who noted “‘day-to-day’ resistance were generally designed not to overthrow the slave system, but undermine its efficiency. A vital part of ‘day-to-day’ resistance was enslaved women and the particular strategies they employed. “Field women’s adaption of the strategy of labour withdraw, interpreted as laziness by drivers and overseers, was considered a universal problem” suggested Hilary Beckles. Low level or productivity was not tolerated, and the malingering attitude adapted by women was a great discouragement to the sugar industry. “This was particularly effective at harvesting time when a few hours behind schedule could make a world of difference in the level of profits realized” stated Christopher W. Humber. Women also resisted through children, because the birth of enslaved children meant that the child was automatically born a slave. Enslavers wanted to use birth control as a means of maintaining an enslaved labour force, however, enslaved women committed infanticide as Hilary Beckles noted “acts of infanticide are frequently cited on plantations”. Acts such as harming farm animals, making them unable to turn the mill were also done by enslaved women. The variations of resistance during this period focused on ending slavery by making the plantation system unprofitable as Hilary Beckles noted “These acts of resistance were considered effective strategies and undermined greatly the efficiency of the plantation”.

The period 1807-1834 marked the ending of slavery, with first the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the continuous resistance from the remaining enslaved on the plantations. Hilary Beckles further noted “1807-1834 was marked by growing protest among the enslaved, particularly among creoles, linked also to the impact of growing anti-slavery discussions in the metro pole”. Creoles also called “country-borns” undeniable had a hand in the overcoming of slavery and bringing emancipation. Creoles resisted politically, seeking to earn rights for the enslaved through lobbying in the parliament and instigating the continuing unjust behaviors towards the enslaved. “It was not Africans who organized, an attorney wrote, but creoles, which “were never known before to have been concerned in anything of this sort”5. In Britain the profitability of the plantation system was in decline and so was the slave system on a whole. “The funds from New world slavery had significantly contributed toe he primitive accumulation of capital that enable the industrial revolution in Britain”6. With Britain moving towards more profitable investments, slavery resistance in the parliaments increased leading to the passing of acts, such as, the emancipation act of 1833. Armed revolts and rebellions were the most violent, and dramatic forms of resistance that the enslaved used against their enslavers. Armed revolts were usually, bloody and many enslaved died, as Hilary Beckles noted “The enslaved were conscious of the military might of their enslavers and knew it would be suicidal to always engage them in armed conflicts”. The large scale slave rebellion under the leadership of Toussaint L. Ouverture end slavery in Saint Domingue, marking Haiti as the first free black republic in the Caribbean. After news of slave efforts leading to freedom in Haiti spread throughout the Caribbean, the enslaved consciousness was no longer an issue and widespread rebellion transpired all over the Caribbean. Some such revolts as noted by Hilary Beckles are “1816 revolt in Barbados, 1823 in Damara (Guyana) and 1831/32 “Christmas rebellion in Jamaica”. The enslaver’s methods of control were failing and emancipation was no inevitable. Eric William noted in 1833 stating “The alternative were ‘clear’ emancipation form above or emancipation from ‘below'”. The rewards and benefits of the different forms of resistance were realized on the 1st of august 1834 marking the end of slavery.

Since the existence of slavery for thousands of years, one aspect has persisted, that is, the resistance of the enslaved towards their enslavers and thus the period of chattel slavery in the Caribbean is no different. From the arrival in the Caribbean the enslaved develop anti-slavery attitudes, despite being at the bottom of the societal structure. To counteract this anti-slavery attitude control procedures were develop and implemented, however, resistance acts such as marronage, and ‘day-to-day’ resistance eventually escalating to large scale revolts threaten and ultimately ended chattel slavery. From the commencement to the termination of chattel slavery, the enslaved have plagued their enslavers in a fight for freedom and such an endemic resistance could only be seen and best described as a ‘protracted war’ for freedom.


National Glossary of the U.K National Archives Based on Caribbean History access through link :


See The Spanish instituted the Siete Partidas, the French had the Code Noir access through link :


See Slavery, Freedom and Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society page 137

See The Spanish instituted the Siete Partidas, the French had the Code Noir access through link :


See Africa in America: slave acculturation and resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean, 1736-1831 Page 221

See Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams Page 68

Works Cited

Beckles, H. Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados. London: Zed, 1989. Print.

Bryan, Patrick. Campbell Carl. Higman B. W. Moore Brian L. Slavery, Freedom and Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society. United States: U OF OKLAHOMA PR, 2002. Print.

Higman B.W. Slavery Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834. Kingston Jamaica: The Press, University of the West Indies, 1995. Print.

Humber Christopher. Caribbean History Section B: Resistance & Revolt. Teach Dip (Mico): 2006. Print.

Lalla Barbara. Defining Jamaican Fiction: marronage and the discourse of survival. University of Alabama Press, 1996. Print.

Sheperd V. Beckles, H. Caribbean anti-slavery: the self liberation ethos of enslaved blacks. In Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: Student Reader. London & Kingston: Ian Publishers Ltd., 2000. Print.

Williams Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. The University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Print.

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