“I HAVE often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies they forget God and all feelings of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things. They tie up people like hogs – moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged,” Mary Prince, 1831 (a British abolitionist and auto biographer, born in Bermuda to an enslaved family of African descent).
The magnitude of the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean was insurmountable. After surviving the horrors of the Middle Passage, another harsh environment awaited them after being sold at the auctions.
White plantation owners devised theories to justify slavery: ‘Negroes were lazy’, and ‘Black indolence had to be kept in check’.
Methods of keeping them ‘in check’ included branding, tarring and burning.
Overseers or ‘slave-drivers’ generally carried whips, while corporal punishment, which left deep flesh wounds, was used to control the slaves. While not all slave-owners meted out physical punishment, slavery was a system conceived and nurtured in an environment of violence.
Excerpts from the account of Mary Prince say it all of the brutalities and inhumane treatment the slaves were subjected to.
Mary was born in Brackish Pond in Bermuda, known today as Devonshire Parish, Bermuda, on October 1 1788.
It was at the height of slavery.
Her father (whose only given name was Prince) was a sawyer at a company owned by David Trimmingham, while her mother was a house-servant to Charles Myners.
Mary had three younger brothers and two sisters, Hannah and Dinah. When Myners died in 1788, Mary, her mother and siblings were sold as household servants to Captain Darrell, who gave Mary and her mother to his daughter, with Mary becoming the companion servant of his young granddaughter, Betsey Williams.
At the age of 12, Mary was sold for
£38 sterling (2017: £4 484 according to www.revealinghistories.org.uk) to Captain John Ingham, of Spanish Point.
Her two sisters were also sold that same day, all to different enslavers.
Mary’s new enslaver and his wife were cruel and often lost their tempers; Mary and others were often severely flogged for minor offences.
Ingham sold Mary in 1806 to an enslaver on Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, who owned salt ponds.
The Bermudians had used these seasonally for a century, for the extraction of salt from the ocean.
The production of salt for export was a pillar of the Bermudian economy, but the production was labour-intensive.
As a child, Mary worked in poor conditions in the salt ponds up to her knees in water.
Due to the nature of salt mining, Mary and others were often forced to work up to 17 hours straight as owners of the ponds were concerned that if the workers were gone for too long, rain would come and spoil the salt.
Generally, men were the salt rakers, forced to work in the salt ponds, where they were exposed to the sun and heat, as well as the salt in the pans, which ate away at their uncovered legs.
Women packaged the salt.
Mary Prince was returned to Bermuda in 1810, where her master at the time had moved with his daughter.
While there, she was physically abused by her master, and forced to bathe him under threat of further beatings.
Mary resisted her master’s abuse on two occasions; once, in defence of his daughter, whom he also beat; and the second time, defending herself from her master when he beat her for dropping kitchen utensils.
After this, she left his direct service and was hired out to Cedar Hill for a time, where she earned money for her master by washing clothes.
In 1815, Mary was sold a fourth time, to John Adams Wood of Antigua for US$300 (2017: US$4 600). She worked in his household as a domestic slave, attending the bedchambers, nursing a young child and washing clothes.
There, she began to suffer from rheumatism, which left her unable to work. When Adams Wood was travelling, Mary earned money for herself by taking in washing and by selling coffee, yams and other provisions to ships.
The story of Mary Prince represents the story of thousands of slaves who worked in the Caribbean.
By 1750, around 800 000 Africans had been imported into the Caribbean and yet the enslaved population was only 300 000.
The sugar islands became a literal ‘graveyard for the slaves’, according to Dr Alan Rice. Children were made to work on plantation crops from as young as five. It was the kind of work that left little time for anything else.
Plantation slaves were expected to work as and when their owners and ‘overseers’ dictated.
To a marked degree, their treatment depended on the whims of the individuals in charge.
Yet the most brutal aspect of their lives was not so much personal ill-treatment (though there was plenty of that), but the system itself.
On the sugar plantations, the way the work was organised meant that a majority of men worked as craftsmen or worked in the semi-industrial mills.
Meanwhile, women were mainly limited to working the fields or as domestics.
On many plantations, women, who made up the majority of the field workers, were forced to work throughout pregnancy and their babies were raised in nurseries whilst they worked all day in the fields.
How much a slave was worth in monetary terms depending on the individual slave’s skills.
In the 1780s, in the Caribbean, the value would range from £6 for an old slave to £150 for a skilled boiler of sugar.
The value of 56 slaves on a plantation in Antigua in 1782 was £3 590, which is about £360 000 today.
Those who were forced to work on the plantations were considered chattel (items or property), commodities owned by others.
Slave owners determined the nature of the enslaved’s daily working lives – and even what happened to them when they were not at work.
The lash – both its image and its sound – was perhaps the most common memory of plantation slavery, and critics and visitors were often astonished at how frequently they saw plantation slaves physically abused.
Normally, such punishment was used to force them to work; but the lash was also employed for a range of offences or even in a cavalier fashion, in the hands of men and women to whom brutality was a way of life.
But plantation slavery did not function simply because of threats of violence. Slaves were also cajoled and persuaded to work.
They were given small incentives – extra food, clothing, time free from work – in the hope that they would work effectively.
They were also given land on which to cultivate foodstuffs or rear animals for their own use. Yet violence was the ultimate threat and the lubricant of the entire system, much as it had been on the slave ship.
Plantation slaves suffered other personal violations. They could be moved from one property to another.
An owner might, without notice, sell his slaves to someone else, or they might be sold when a planter died or fell on hard times.
Moreover, they might be moved simply because the owner had bequeathed them as part of his property to his children.
Slaves found themselves removed, in an instant, to a distant, unknown location; leaving behind family and loved ones, friends and community.
This was one of the most bitterly resented features of plantation life right across all plantation colonies.
There were several punishments meted on offenders at the plantations. Those who tried to run away were subjected to riveting round their necks with an iron collar from which spikes projected.
Those who committed ‘petty’ offences were harshly treated and could have their tongues and noses slit, their hands chopped off or emasculated. Usually death was not part of the punishment as they wanted the perpetrator to suffer.
When death was an option, the slave was to be starved to death.
In some cases, mostly of revolt, the punishment was so severe it could result in death. In St Eustacia, the ringleader of a revolt would be put in a cage in the sun where thirst could kill him naturally.
Flogging was done by whips made of sheepskin while in some instances, the cow hide was used.
Sir Hans Sloane reported on the beatings: “For negligence, they were usually whipped by the overseers with lance-wood switches till they be bloody and several of the switches broken, being first tied up in the mill house by their hands.
After they are whipped till they are raw, some put on their shins pepper and salt to make them smart and use several very exquisite torments.
It is only fair to note that such searing applications were not always intended to cause additional torture, it was believed that they promoted healing and the slaves themselves treated their wounds with compresses of tobacco leaves, urine and salt.”
Although plantations were designed for work, they quickly became critical locations for the family and social life of enslaved people.
Africans, recently landed from the slave ships, were overwhelmingly alone. Some arrived on a plantation in the company of ‘shipmates’ or with Africans from their native region in Africa, but they did not come there as families.
Professional floggers were employed to mete some form of punishment on the slaves and it was usually done in public to deter others from committing offences. They were also known as ‘jumpers’.
They visited plantations to whip offenders as per contract from the plantation owners.
Pregnant women could also be flogged while a special hole was created to accommodate the bulging belly as her behind was exposed on to the ground. Flogging was usually done while naked and after receiving the strokes, one was obliged to thank the jumper.
No less common and brutal was sexual exploitation. Women slaves always fell prey to the predatory sexual habits of their masters. Young and old, sisters, daughters and wives – all found themselves subject to sexual assault.
The white men responsible for those assaults took little or no notice of the woman herself, her age, or her men folk, or family.
Not surprisingly, it was a cause of deep hurt and humiliation. It was also often the cause and occasion for smoldering resentment or revenge if, and when, the opportunity arose – in whatever fashion deemed suitable.
At first, mainly men were imported in the belief they were stronger workers.
Initially, male slaves would be worked to death and a fresh supply would replace them.
Later, more women were introduced to carry out field labour and domestic work as well as breeding the next generation of slaves (although slave marriages were not recognised).
Historian Verene Shepherd found that, after 1801, in Barbados, women formed 53,5 percent of the enslaved population.
Elsewhere, in the British territories, there was a high concentration of female slaves, with women also outnumbering men in St Kitts, Nevis and St Vincent.
A new breed of offspring grew in the Caribbean; a clear testimony of rape on African women. The offsprings were called ‘mulatto’ and often received favours from the slave masters who were their fathers.
However, white women were prohibited from engaging in sexual relationships with blackmen.
Sexual assault could be done by the slave owners who usually had left their families in England to grow the gigantic grass in the Caribbean.
The offspring often enjoyed privileges like going to school in England, among others.
For the African woman, there was no love involved in whatever relationship with the master. It was purely done by the master to quench his sexual appetite and nothing else.
The woman remained a slave in most cases.
For the sugar to be produced, a lot had to happen behind the sugar mills; torture and all forms of inhumane treatment. Some were tortured to death and the slaves had no legal right whatsoever.
Oliver Ransford, in The Slave Trade, notes that: “…one planter Hon Arthur Hodge was estimated to have caused the death of at least 60 slaves by torturing or flogging. Monsters of this sort unhappily could always count on escaping retribution. For the law had two faces in British West Indies – black and white – and under existing legislation no Negro could give testimony against a European.”
Hundreds of deaths went unaccounted for on the plantations as the slave was always at a disadvantage.
All crimes against humanity went unabated by the white slave owners who have become the lobbers of human rights today.
The face of Africa has been adversely affected to this day as more than half of its population was taken away for unpaid forced labour, which has developed the Western metropoles.