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A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and…

A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia

by Richard S. Dunn

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Dunn compares slave life on two plantations, Mesopotamia and Mount Airy in the generations before emancipation (1833 in Jamaica, 1865 in Virginia). Though Dunn doesn’t claim that they’re entirely representative of the two systems, he argues that they typify the key demographic difference—Jamaica’s slave population continually shrank because (often absentee) owners worked the slaves to death or long-term disability, while Virginia’s slave population continually grew, leading owners to expand and sell slaves into the deep South, ripping families apart. Thus, the cruelties of the system were inflicted in somewhat different ways. Notably, the British West Indies imported far more enslaved people from Africa (2.3 million before the close of the British slave trade, compared to 388,000 to the mainland, but the population on emancipation was much smaller because of population increase/decrease—775,000 enslaved people in the sugar islands and 1.4 million enslaved in the U.S. by 1807, when the slave trade ended. Blacks outnumbered whites by ten to one in Jamaica, while whites outnumbered blacks six to four in Virginia, contributing to unrest and the use of brutality in Jamaica—also enhanced by the absentee owners who saw Jamaica and its enslaved people as a resource to exploit, while Virginians also had residential settlements. A greater percentage of white Virginian householders owned slaves—more than half did—compared to white Jamaicans.

Jamaican slavery couldn’t long survive the termination of the slave trade, while American slavery could because of its ability to produce—and then drain off—surplus population. The “high-intensity production units” for cotton in the Gulf States and Mississippi valley, constantly renewed by Virginia imports, more closely resembled the Jamaican sugar estates. Mount Airy moved significant numbers of enslaved people to Kentucky, either to the enslavers’ Kentucky properties or sold to others (and while the enslaved people may have been told they were reuniting with family already moved to Kentucky, a substantial number were sold off on arrival).

Dunn admits with what seems like real chagrin that in the 1970s, when he was just starting to work on the project, he wrote that it was better to be a slave in Virginia than in Jamaica, where brutal punishments were common and enslaved people were worked to death or disability. He tries to complicate that story in this volume, but I wish he’d just said “wow, that was some Sophie’s Choice bullshit framing I used, and too subject to misuse (as indeed it was reported in the press as confirmation that American slavery wasn’t all that bad) to admit of justification.”

In Mesopotamia, the owners even charged £100 to white fathers who wanted to free their colored enslaved children, which may have contributed to the somewhat lower percentage of African-born slaves compared to other Jamaican plantations. Among other things, though there were in theory lands set aside for enslaved people to grow their own provisions, they were laid out 3-5 miles away from the slave village, apparently a deliberate choice to make them waste time in transit and to discourage them from producing extra food that they could have sold in the market. Most of the year, they worked six days a week and could only cultivate food on Sundays.

One Jamaican overseer/planter kept a diary in the 18th century reporting “the large number of lashes” he administered in daily punishments and his frequent sexual abuse of enslaved women. In his last two years in England, he recorded twenty acts of “fornication” with various women, while upon arrival in Jamaica he began recording 200 acts per year. “[H]e recorded numerous occasions in which two or three white males came to his plantation, got roaring drunk, and commandeered their favorite slave women for sex.” He recorded white men punishing enslaved people for no reason—or really, because they couuld. Enslaved people on Caribbean sugar plantations had shorter lives and fewer children than enslaved people forced to do any other form of labor. Dunn attributes disproportionate male deaths, in the midst of this wholesale slaughter, to the extra “emasculation” inflicted on African men. We don’t have a word for “efeminization,” but Dunn tells the story of Dido, who was punished for having stillborn twins, then punished again for miscarrying, and was recorded as recalcitrant as a result. With no Canada to flee to, Jamaican runaways often stayed away only for relatively short periods.

Dunn also spends time with the Moravian missionaries at Mesopotamia. They were never very successful in converting Africans or Afro-Jamaicans, but I was fascinated by their emphasis on Christ’s wounds and “a sensuous relationship with Jesus, illustrated by Moravian depictions of the Saviour’s side wound at his crucifixion in the shape of a vagina.”

The Virginia side of the story has its own horrors, though Dunn focuses mainly on the tearing apart of families. He doubts all cotton planters were “as grossly abusive” as those documented by Edward Baptist. The Mount Airy slaves apparently did not produce as much cotton per enslaved person as Baptist calculates, suggesting that the technologies of terror weren’t as advanced for them. Many Mount Airy slaves were “among the 30-40 percent of the migrating slaves who were moved to the cotton states by their masters,” who were expanding into those states. Of course, a fifth of them were sold when they arrived in Alabama, a fifth “experienced serious abuse in the 1830s, and all of them were forced to work very hard. But slave life for the Mount Airy people in Alabama does not appear to have been hugely different from slave life for the Mount Airy people in Virginia.” In particular, they often had a chance to form families, before those families were torn apart.

I find it very interesting, and telling, that Dunn doesn’t use “emasculation” to interpret the situation of enslaved Virginian men, even though their servility was equally forced and “their” women (his framing, not mine) and families were equally subject to arbitrary appropriation by whites. Interracial sex was prevalent but secret, not open as in Mesopotamia. Overt resistance was much riskier in the U.S. than in Jamaica, with the larger white Virginia population and more effective white surveillance. Jamaican slavery depended on the collaboration of “head men”—enslaved people set to oversee other enslaved people—while U.S. slavery didn’t; correspondingly, Jamaican head men were more likely to join the Moravian church and to turn in runaways than the average enslaved person, while skilled/household workers in Virginia were more likely to run away than field workers, perhaps simply because of greater opportunity.

Dunn also discusses the immediate post-abolition situation. In Jamaica, abolition came in stages, with forced “apprenticeship” for several years and monetary compensation to slaveowners. Freed Jamaicans preferred individual work to gang labor, and sometimes rejected wages at their “home” plantations in favor of supposedly lower offers at neighboring plantations. In response to abolition, the planters “planned to eject all freed slaves not willing to work as regular wage laborers from their estates.” Women who wanted to withdraw from field labor objected strongly, and also the formerly enslaved tended to believe that “the houses they had built and inhabited, as well as the provision grounds they had been tending, in many cases for several generations, belonged to them.” Life was very hard for these new Jamaican peasants, but still births began to outstrip deaths for the first time. White oppression continued for decades; Jamaicans didn’t achieve citizenship until 1962.

William Tayloe, who owned Mount Airy at abolition, by contrast said “I cannot turn off the old who have worked for me, nor starve the children. We need not expect to live as heretofore.” But, as Dunn points out “he soon changed his tune,” suggesting sending them off to the poorhouse or the Freedman’s Bureau. Although he was intimately familiar with his former human property, he also considered them unfit for freedom—his duty was a paternalistic one. Meanwhile, the U.S. underwent greater political change than Jamaica after emancipation, but much less economic and social change—Jamaican freedmen got access to land, and U.S. freedmen did not. And the political change was, of course, tragically shortlived. ( )
  rivkat | Aug 18, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674735366, Hardcover)

Forty years ago, after publication of his pathbreaking book Sugar and Slaves, Richard Dunn began an intensive investigation of two thousand slaves living on two plantations, one in North America and one in the Caribbean. Digging deeply into the archives, he has reconstructed the individual lives and collective experiences of three generations of slaves on the Mesopotamia sugar estate in Jamaica and the Mount Airy plantation in tidewater Virginia, to understand the starkly different forms slavery could take. Dunn’s stunning achievement is a rich and compelling history of bondage in two very different Atlantic world settings.

From the mid-eighteenth century to emancipation in 1834, life in Mesopotamia was shaped and stunted by deadly work regimens, rampant disease, and dependence on the slave trade for new laborers. At Mount Airy, where the population continually expanded until emancipation in 1865, the “surplus” slaves were sold or moved to distant work sites, and families were routinely broken up. Over two hundred of these Virginia slaves were sent eight hundred miles to the Cotton South.

In the genealogies that Dunn has painstakingly assembled, we can trace a Mesopotamia fieldhand through every stage of her bondage, and contrast her harsh treatment with the fortunes of her rebellious mulatto son and clever quadroon granddaughter. We track a Mount Airy craftworker through a stormy life of interracial sex, escape, and family breakup. The details of individuals’ lives enable us to grasp the full experience of both slave communities as they labored and loved, and ultimately became free.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:36 -0400)

"This book reconstructs the individual lives and collective experiences of some 2,000 slaves on two plantations--Mesopotamia sugar estate in western Jamaica and Mount Airy Plantation in tidewater Virginia--during the final three generations of slavery in Jamaica and the USA. It also compares Mesopotamia with Mount Airy to demonstrate the differences between slave life in the British West Indies and slave life in the Antebellum US South. The chief difference was demographic. Mesopotamia had a continually shrinking slave population, with many more deaths than births, which was standard throughout the British Caribbean. Mount Airy had a continually expanding slave population, with many more births than deaths, which was standard throughout the Old South. At Mesopotamia the slaveholders imported their laborers from Africa, worked them to death and replaced them with new Africans, so that family life was perpetually stunted. At Mount Airy, where the slaves were all American-born, the slaveholders sold their surplus people or moved them to distant work sites, so that families were routinely broken up. On both plantations numerous individual slaves are observed in action, a mix of leaders and followers, rebels and conformists. A principal theme is slave motherhood and intergenerational family formation; another is the impact of field labor upon health and longevity. The Mesopotamia people engaged with Moravian missionaries and responded to two major Jamaican slave rebellions, while 218 of the Mount Airy people migrated to Alabama as cotton hands. The book concludes with emancipation in Jamaica and the USA. Never before have two slave communities from differing regions in America been portrayed over a long time period in such full detail"--… (more)

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