HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Practice of Slavery

Warning: in this week's lesson we'll be reading about and viewing acts of violence and human degradation. It is, frankly, awful to read, but important if we are to understand the legacies of slavery in modern society.  

This week's big question:

How was slavery supported and maintained in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Learning outcomes:

At the end of this week you should:


Last term we saw how the slave trade operated and saw some of the economic practices that drove the slave trade. By the middle of the 18th century, slave economies, especially sugar but also indigo, cotton, rice, chocolate, and coffee had become not just profitable side economies but major drivers of wealth and capital formation, particularly in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and Holland. As we'll see in our next few weeks, however, increasing numbers of people were coming to view slavery as morally unacceptable. Many saw that aside from the human indignity of enslaving another human being, slavery was almost entirely predicated in violence.

Violence lay at the heart of slavery's practices, its ability to continue. While this violence led to its harshest criticisms, it also explains why it was able to sustain itself: only with fear of extreme punishments - whipping, branding, beating, death - would human beings work under forced inhuman conditions. When we were looking for primary sources for this lesson, this passage from a 1740 history of Jamaica struck us because of the extraordinary violence it described.

They have indeed here [in Jamaica] the severest ways of punishing. No Country exceeds them in a barbarous Treatment of Slaves, or in the cruel Methods by which they put them to Death: A rebellious Negro, or he that twice strikes a white Man, is condemned to the Flames; he is carried to the Place of Execution, and chained flat on his Belly, his Arms and Legs extended; then Fire is set to his Feet, and so he is burnt gradually up: Others they starve to Death, with a Loaf hanging before their Mouths: I have seen these unfortunate Wretches gnaw the Flesh off their own Shoulders, and expire in all the frightful Agonies of one under the most horrid Tortures. Perhaps, indeed, such Severities may in some sort be excused, when we consider the State of the Country, and how impossible it would be to live amidst such Numbers of Slaves, without watching their Conduct with the greaten Strictness, and punishing their Faults with the utmost Severity.

Charles Leslie, A new history of Jamaica (London, J. Hodges, 1740), pp.40-1.

In the end, we didn't choose this document, mostly because the book rambles and digresses, making it difficult to find a nice compact section for students to read. The passage, however, stayed with us, though less for the exceptional level of violence and more for the banality with which it was treated. Though Leslie was clearly struck by the "barbarous treatment", he just as quickly moved on, noting that such severity was understandable because, after all, there are so many slaves.Many people point to such passages and say, see, that's just the way it was back then. We disagree. And as we'll see later in our week on abolition, slavery was not generally accepted "back then" (whenever that was!). As early as the 1720s, people in Britain, France, and elsewhere were mobilizing against slavery. In the 1780s a major push for the abolition of the trade almost passed in the British Parliament, and in 1793 the new Revolutionary government of France made slavery illegal. But what this passage does point to is an extraordinary willingness on the part of some people, even people who acknowledged the cruelty, to accept it as somehow acceptable. If there is a simple way to understand why slavery was allowed to continue so long, this passage points to a simple failure of human empathy, of not being able to see another human being's suffering.

Violence was the most important tool for the masters in disciplining their workforce. And it was extreme violence: cropping ears, branding, whipping, gibbetting and other forms of painful and barbaric executions. But violence could be two side-sided. The white population of slave-based societies lived in constant fear of slave rebellions. There were many, like the Christmas Rebellion pictured here in Jamaica in 1831, though few succeeded. Fewer still succeeded for a long period of time (we'll see the first large-scale and successful rebellion when we get to the Haitian Revolution in a few weeks). These rebellions, and the fears they engendered, were driven by the huge disparities in populations. In Jamaica in 1830, for example, only 8 per cent of the population was white; another 1 per cent were free Blacks [Maroons]; and thus over 90 per cent of the population were slaves. This brings into sharp relief how much force was required to prevent rebellions. For whites in these societies, it certainly brought into sharp relief how quickly and forcefully retribution might come. 
Several times this year a number of you have commented on the difficulties we have seeing the perspectives of our subjects. Slaves, Africans, Indigenous peoples were mostly pre-literate peoples and the sources we have left to us are predominantly those of the colonizers, not the colonized. You have a choice of two secondary sources this week. Though examining different places at different times, both tackle the difficulty of "seeing" slaves, especially individual slaves, in the historical record. Both pieces offer us a challenge: they ask us to think differently about not only how historians have selected which evidence to present, but also how archives can distort what is available historians to see.  

1. Fuentes asks us to think not just about the past, but about history - that is, not just about things that happened in the past, but about how historians write that as a story. Historians have only so much evidence to work with. They are limited by what makes it into archives, and then from that body of material the historian then selects what we receive as history. What does Jane's story tell us about slaves' lives? How do archives shape what we can know? 

2. Whitfield too asks us to think about how history is written. The Loyalists form part of the mythology of Canada: a nation formed in defence of loyalty to the British Crown. It's become popular in modern multicultural Canada to include the Black Loyalists as part of the "mosaic" of peoples who found freedom in historic Canada. That's good, but as Whitfield reminds us, many of the Black people who came to Nova Scotia and Canada in the Loyalist era were slaves, and remained so for the rest of their lives. What does that tell us about our founding mythologies?  What does that tell us about the writing of history? What does that tell us about the writing of history in our national identities?

3. Two of your documents relate to Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti). We'll be examining the Haitian Revolution in a few weeks; this week on that topic all you need to know is that a revolution occurred and that it hadn't yet started in the "Society of Friends" document and was just underway in the Edwards document. In the first document, a British writer Bryan Edwards describes governance and the condition of slaves in Saint-Domingue. How does he explain the maintenance of slavery in that French colony? He was a British writer, and in places shows a bit of chauvinism. Can we see him as a reliable source? Can we infer who was his audience? The second document requires a bit of context. There's an introduction included with the document, but for our purposes we can simply say the piece we're reading criticized the Society of the Friends of Blacks, a French anti-slavery society. In other words, the document we're reading is a defence of slavery. What can this piece tell us about the place of slavery in late-18th-century French society and politics?
4. Though shocking to modern eyes, the list of "Penn Slaves" is a simple inventory of property - it is a clear example of how slavery de-humanized people [here too think of the Probate Inventory of the Pollards from two weeks ago]. The list, as well as the bill of sale of Dinah, reduced people to items of property. Fuentes offers us a way to bring back something of these people's humanity; she's also very careful not to re-victimize them by continuing to treat them as de-humanized, an important reminder to us of the ethical practice of history. Can we recreate histories of Dinah and the "penn" people? What can these documents tell us about slavery? What can these documents tell us about these people? And what does it tell us that so many of these people were women?


This week you should probably read either Whitfield or Fuentes before you jump into the primary documents.

Primary docs.

List of "Penn Slaves", Top Hill Farm, Jamaica, 1818 [courtesy of Sasha Turner].

Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, 3 vols, London, 1793, vol. 3, pp. 1–15.

"The Sable Venus; An Ode", in Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, 3 vols, London, 1793, vol. 2, pp. 32-38. [see image above]

Bill of Sale for a slave named Dinah, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 19 November 1776, Nova Scotia Archives.

Unknown author [possibly Julien Raimond], “On the state of slaves regarding the prosperity of French colonies and their metropole: Address to the nation’s representatives", 17 March 1789.  

Secondary sources: 

Read one of the these two pieces:    

Ken Donovan, "Female Slaves as Sexual Victims in Île Royale", Acadiensis, 43, 1 (2014).

Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press), 13-45. 

Additional materials:

Podcast: Marisa Fuentes, “Colonial Port Cities and Slavery”, Ben Franklin's World Podcast, Episode 173. 

Video: Lecture: Sketches of Everyday Enslaved Black People in the Canadian Maritimes, Harvey Amani Whitfield, McMaster University, January 2020.

Webster avec Karim Ouellet - Qc History X (Quebec, 2011).


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