HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Practice of Slavery

This week's big question:

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

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 chose 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 mobilising 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. 
But, again as we'll see in a few weeks, not everyone was shrugging their shoulders and saying, oh, that's just what they need need to do.

 ... more ...

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 colonisers, not the colonised. 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 piece offer us a challenge, asking us to think differently about not only historians have selected dimensions of the story that exclude slaves and the practice of slavery, but also archives and how they create distortions in what is available to us to see.  

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.

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:    

Harvey Amani Whitfield, “Black Loyalists and Black Slaves in Maritime Canada,” History Compass 5, 6 (Nov. 2007): 1980-1997.

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.


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