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Jamaica and the Atlantic slave trade - Pt I

published: Sunday | March 19, 2006 Arnold Bertram

IN 2007, a significant part of the international community, led by Ghana, will observe the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Last December the Government of Jamaica established a national committee to plan and implement a programme of activities consistent with the importance of this major landmark in human freedom to the Jamaican people. It should not be necessary to remind Jamaicans that it was as a result of the Atlantic slave trade that the forebears of some 90 per cent of the population came to the island to provide the labour for English capital in the most dehumanising and exacting system of plantation slavery. However, we still have to contend with an education system that has neither sufficiently raised cultural and information levels nor imbued self-esteem. It is against the background of this reality that we must assess the response of the St. Elizabeth Parish Council to the invitation from the national committee to participate in the programme of activities to mark the bicentenary. JLP councillor, Broderick Wright, invoked the authority of National Hero, Alexander Bustamante, in rejecting the invitation to participate on the grounds that "we should not look back at our shame." Councillor Winston Sinclair of the PNP spoke with equal conviction, "I do not wish to remember that kind of thing." DRIVING WITHOUT A REAR-VIEW MIRROR What is clear is that after 90 years of Marcus Garvey's UNIA, 67 years of the National Movement and 43 years of independence, we still lack, and lack badly as a people, a sense of history and our place in it. These deficiencies in turn account for our diminished self-confidence, without which Marcus Garvey warns "you are twice defeated in the race of life." Self-confidence assumes a critical importance in Jamaica's development process, given the legacy of three centuries of British colonial rule. For during this period, as R.C. Bodily who served as a Resident Magistrate in Jamaica for seven years readily admitted, "Colonial rule exists on a carefully nurtured sense of inferiority in the governed." We share Councillor Sinclair's sentiment that our priority in this period must be "how to develop this country." Where we part ways with the councillor is in our belief that a frank admission of our weaknesses and a fuller understanding of the roots of our present underdevelopment is indispensable to further progress. In short, can we drive effectively without a rear-view mirror? THE ROLE OF AFRICANS IN THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE The first reality with which we must contend is the role of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. It was Africans who collaborated with the European slave traders and facilitated the enslavement of fellow Africans for the benefit of the European capitalism by agreeing to the exchange of manufactured goods, especially cloth, for slaves. It should be pointed out that the slave in African society was not dehumanised nor treated with the barbarous cruelty which characterised plantation slavery in the Americas. African slaves were often described as slaves in name only "by virtue of their relative freedom and the wide variety of employment to which they were put." However, the fact that "The institution of slavery was widespread in Africa and accepted in all the exporting regions, while the capture, purchase, transport and sale of slaves was a regular feature of African society," (John Thornton in Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World) created the basis for the expansion of this trade to supply the labour required by the plantation economy of the Atlantic world. The pressure on Africa to expand slavery was virtually irresistible. The entire European ruling class was involved in encouraging and financing the tribal wars which produced the slaves, and investing in the trade which supplied them to plantations in Jamaica and the Atlantic world. Queen Elizabeth I herself financed the slave trader John Hawkins by providing him with a ship which she named Jesus and giving him a knighthood. Even if we concede the capacity of the Europeans to create the conditions for the growth of the Atlantic slave trade, the role of the Africans can neither be overlooked nor excused. The major impetus, however, for the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade came from the large-scale extended tribal war between 1660 and 1775 in the region which now comprises Ghana, Nigeria and Benin. This conflict added considerably to the availability of slaves for export, since the defeated automatically became the property of the victors. It was the Ashanti who emerged the victors and the supreme military power among the Akanspeaking people of the Gold Coast and Ivory Coast, and as a consequence the controlling force in the slave

trade from where most of Jamaica's slaves came. Whereas before tribal wars were the principal source of accumulating slaves, kidnapping was now added as a major strategy, and as a consequence slaves bought in the markets of the north and interior were obtained by raiding as well as warfare. The lesson we need to learn is that it was the enmity and division among African people which was promoted and exploited by European capitalism, which sustained the process by which Africa was bled of its finest sons and daughters for over two centuries. The tragedy is that there is no evidence that we have learnt this lesson as yet. We are still susceptible to manipulation and remain a most fractious society. In 1943 the British Governor was able to capitalise on the sectarianism of the PNP by manipulating Bustamante into splitting the National Movement. As a result, between 1943 and 1949 we had our own tribal war with the two tribes fighting under the banner of their respective political parties. In 1963 these wars resumed with even greater intensity, and the gun had become the weapon of choice in 1980 when the country was reduced to a virtual civil war. We have not yet recovered. CROSSING THE ATLANTIC The slaves were brought in chains from Africa's interior, linked three or four together and kept in this condition in trading centres until the opportunity for sale presented itself. They were then loaded, men and women on the ship and sometimes kept on the ship for as much as 14 days until they were ready to sail. On the "middle passage" as the voyage to the Caribbean was called, slaves were allocated a space 2 ft by 5 ft and chained. In this position, they remained for the entire voyage which lasted anywhere between six and twelve weeks, coming up once a day for exercise and to clean the pails. "But when the cargo was rebellious or the weather bad, then they stayed below for weeks at a time. The close proximity of so many naked human beings, their bruised and festering flesh, the fetid air, the prevailing dysentery, the accumulation of filth, turned these holds into a hell." Arriving in Jamaica, the standard practice was for the slaves to be "placed altogether in a large yard belonging to the merchants to whom the ship was consigned ... as the hour agreed on arrived the doors of the yard were thrown open and in rushed the purchasers with all the ferocity of brutes." WHO WERE THESE SLAVES? They included the cream of African artisans, blacksmiths, millwrights, coopers, wheelwrights, masons, plumbers, carpenters, coppersmiths and engineers who could hold their own with their counterparts in any part of the world. One particular slave, Ancass, was a 12-year-old African prince, born about the year 1799 in the country of the Iboes. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, ending up on the Krepp Estate in Westmoreland. From early he showed leadership qualities becoming an elder of the Moravian Church and buying his freedom one year before emancipation. Today he is remembered, perhaps only by his descendants as the patriarch of two outstanding Jamaican families the Lloyds and the Monteiths. Both families have served Jamaica well providing modern Jamaica with three parliamentarians and an impressive cadre of professionals. The Atlantic slave trade sustained the institution of plantation slavery in Jamaica, which still exerts a most powerful influence on the outlook, attitudes and values of Jamaicans. It is my view that this subject requires continued study and analysis if the development of which Councillor Sinclair speaks is to be realised and sustained.

Jamaica and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Part II)


published: Sunday | March 26, 2006 Arnold Bertram

THE FIRST African slaves to be brought to Jamaica came in 1534 when Pedro Mazuelo, one of the early Spanish colonists, brought thirty Africans from the Canary Islands. By the time the Spanish conducted the first census in 1611, the number of African slaves had grown to 558. There were also 107 free blacks. However, only 74 of the 60,000 indigenous Indians found by Columbus in 1494 remained. The rest had been decimated by disease, as well as by the severity of the labour regime imposed by the Spanish. The planter/historian, Edward Long, estimates that three years after the British captured the island from the Spanish in 1655, "there were about 4,500 whites and 1,400 negroes." The white population included the white indentured servants described by Josiah Child in his New Discourse of Trade as "loose, vagrant people, vicious and destitute of means to live at home ... or had so misbehaved themselves by whoring, thieving or other debauchery which merchants and masters of ships gathered up about the streets of London and other places, and transported to be employed upon plantations." It was to replace this indentured labour force, which proved totally unfit for the labour required on the plantations, that African slaves were imported. In 1664, the arrival of Sir Thomas Modyford from Barbados with 700 planters and their slaves, signalled the rise of the plantation economy in Jamaica, which dramatically increased the demand for African slave labour. By 1703 the number of slaves had increased to 45,000. A LABORATORY FOR RACISM While racism was not a primary consideration at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, it quickly became an endemic feature of plantation slavery. The sustained exploitation of Africans as slaves quickly acquired a racial character and over time required an ideology based on racism which made the terms 'negro' and 'slave' interchangeable. As Norman Girvan points out, the primary objective of this ideology was to depreciate the cultural and physical attributes of the enslaved race. "African speech, religion, mannerisms and indeed all institutional forms were systematically denigrated as constituting marks of savagery and cultural inferiority ... and extended to the physical, genetic and biological attributes of black people. The very colour of the African skin was held to be the first and lasting badge of his inferiority; as were the characteristics of his mouth, nose and hair texture. The desired consequence of extending the ideology of racism from cultural to physical attributes was to ensure that the African ... was permanently imprisoned in his status as a slave in as much as he was permanently imprisoned in his black skin." The effect of this campaign on the self-confidence of Africans and people of African descent continue to this day. Three centuries later, we seize upon every opportunity to disguise the physical features which define us as African. DIVIDE AND RULE The tribal and other divisions in Africa which were exploited by Europeans to enslave the Africans were again used by the white planters on the Jamaican plantation. Don Robotham, in a very insightful essay 'The Development of a Black Ethnicity in Jamaica' makes the observation that "Whatever the historical roots of these hostilities, the fact of being sold into slavery sometimes by members of the self same group now confronted in Jamaica as fellow slaves could only have intensified the ill-will, which had already existed. Recrimination and individualism, rather than solidarity and cooperation, was thus what characterised the initial phase of enslavement." For reasons of personal security, the European minority deliberately exploited the antagonisms among the African majority to the fullest. A planter from Barbados, Charles Leslie, who visited Jamaica in 1739, immediately identified the judicious placement of the slaves on the estates as integral to the security of the planters. "The slaves are brought from several parts in Guinea and they hate one another so mortally that some of them would rather die by the hands of the English than join with other Africans to shake off their yoke." Over time the 'driver' emerged as the dominant African personality on the plantation. These were the men and women who led the labour gangs of which the 'number one' gang was the most prestigious. In the driver of the 'number one' gang was concentrated leadership, authority, the capacity to coerce as well as the power to dispense favours. As Robotham points out, a young man or woman as the repository of leadership signalled the erosion of "the most revered and authoritative of African statuses that of the elder or the chief." The capacity to coerce rather than the ability to give wise counsel determined success and the aspirations of the people and

their sense of themselves was transformed accordingly. The emergence of the 'don' in the urban communities, which became political garrisons, is the closest parallel to the driver of the number one gang. The divisions which were a feature of slavery have become so institutionalised, that 168 years after the abolition of slavery African-Jamaicans still find it difficult to unite in any project for national development. A LABOUR TO DEATH The Atlantic slave trade was initially conducted on the premise that the African supply of slave labour was inexhaustible. The economic theory based on this assumption led to an extremely cynical and cruel abuse of the African on the plantation. For once it was assumed that the slave could be readily replaced "the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion." (Karl Marx). This was the thinking which led to the labour regime on the sugar plantation, which began at 4 in the morning, and except for a one hour break at noon continued until night, when the slaves on their way to their miserable huts "picked up a little brush wood or cow dung to prepare some simple mess for supper ... before midnight." Over 700,000 Africans were brought to Jamaica as slaves in the 153 years between the capture of the island by the British in 1655 and the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807. Such was the toll in human lives exacted by plantation slavery in Jamaica that there were only 323,827 slaves and 9,000 free blacks alive when the slave trade was abolished in 1807. The only word to describe this absolute reduction in the slave population is 'genocide'. In contrast, after the first 150 years of freedom the African-Jamaican population increased some 700 per cent to over two million. COLOURED AND BLACK SLAVE OWNERS It is estimated that the time of Emancipation, free coloureds and blacks owned approximately 70,000 slaves. What is alarming is that some of them had earned the reputation of treating their slaves worse than their white counterparts. The white planters had deliberately promoted differences between coloureds and blacks by recognising four shades of colour between white and black mulatto, sambo, quadroon and mustee. C.L.R. James, writing about Caribbean society in 1963, 125 years after slavery, observed that "the surest sign of a man having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself?the people most affected by this are people of the middle class who, lacking the hard contact with realities of the masses and unable to attain to the freedom of a leisured class, are more than all types of people given to trivial divisions and subdivisions of social rank and precedence." There are many who will argue that these divisions are not only still with us but also still regarded with some importance. This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its impact on Jamaica. However, to the extent that there are important lessons to be learnt from a serious analysis of that part of our history, I would suggest to the members of the St. Elizabeth Parish Council that they think again. The activities to mark the bicentury of the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade need not only "remind us of our shame". It could be a turning point for the entire society as to how we understand our history and profit by that understanding.