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The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana.

Almost thirty years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a controversial report on the breakdown of the Negro American family. In chapter three, devoted to the "roots" of the problem, he quoted his friend and Harvard colleague Nathan Glazer that the U.S. had produced the "most awful" system of slavery "the world has ever known." Moynihan supported this pronouncement by referring to only two books on slavery, both comparative studies by U.S. historians: Frank Tannenbaum's Slave and Citizen (1946) and Stanley Elkins's Slavery (1959). These books contributed mightily to a subsequent outpouring of slavery scholarship that redefined the field even as it overturned and qualified a number of their chief arguments. Few students of slavery today would agree with either Moynihan's extreme assessment of slavery in the U.S. or his understanding of slavery's contribution to the pathology of the modern black family. Indeed, in 1994, many black intellectuals, left and right, have accepted the recent findings on the frequency and impressive performance of two-parent black families under slavery to underscore just how bad things have gotten in the inner city. In the memorable words of the Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston, "Unlike many of our ancestors, who came out of slavery and entered this century with strong backs, discipline, a thirst for literacy, deep religious faith, and hope in the face of monumental adversity, we have produced ... a 'new jack' generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves."(1)

Roderick McDonald's comparative study of slavery on sugar plantations in Jamaica and Louisiana may not figure in the current debate about welfare and the black family, but it deserves a wide audience. He demonstrates with skill and learning how slaves in what was, arguably, the most exacting plantation regime in the Old South secured dignity, hope, and property for themselves by developing their own vibrant internal economy. Scholars have long known of the pervasiveness of slave economies in the Caribbean. The anthropologist Sidney Mintz, most notably, used the term proto-peasants to suggest how provision grounds and internal marketing had shaped the slaves' understanding of freedom. To be sure, elaboration of slave economies often represented a convergence of slave and master interests. But it also transformed the terms of dependence. Slaves, by their own assertions, translated the conditional use of plots of land and other forms of the master's property into customary rights. Slave time came to mean more than from sundown to sunup. Slaves grew their own food, raised their own animals, marketed surpluses, pocketed cash, and purchased goodies. And woe betide the reactionary master who confused customary right with privilege.

McDonald compares Jamaica in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with Louisiana in the quarter century before the Civil War because these periods marked similar high points in the development of their respective sugar economies. In the first two chapters he richly describes the many ways slaves bettered their lives by earning extra income. Most adult slaves in Jamaica and Louisiana cultivated provision grounds. Those in Jamaica tended to be farther away from the slave quarters. Jamaican slaves concentrated on plantains and yams; Louisiana slaves concentrated on corn. In both places the size of provision grounds varied from slave household to slave household. Skilled and enterprising slaves tended to have larger plots, and the very existence of slave economies led to noteworthy status differentiation in the quarters. Planters in both societies paid slaves cash incentives for garden crops, extra work or especially hard or dangerous work, successful birthing, and returning runaway slaves. In both Louisiana and Jamaica slaves established proprietorial claims of sufficient strength to force masters to indemnify them. Among slave possessions, as McDonald points out, few speak louder about slave initiatives than the prevalence of homemade and store-bought locks.

Slaves bought and sold on and off the plantations. Sunday marketing by slaves to customers of varying statuses proved ubiquitous in both areas, although Jamaican slaves probably had greater freedom to truck, barter and exchange with a wider variety of customers in nearby towns. Female slaves predominated in the Jamaican town markets. Small-time peddlers reached slaves wherever they might be in Jamaica and Louisiana. A few slaves might accumulate sufficient cash to buy their freedom or emancipate loved ones. Splurging on tobacco and alcohol happened commonly. But McDonald observes that most slaves used their hard-earned income to buy necessities such as food and clothing.

Chapters three and four compare slave material culture. Most Jamaican slaves constructed their own homes out of wattle and daub. Louisiana slaves had less control over the construction of their generally larger wood and brick cabins. Jamaican house sites showed more African-style clusters and less linearity. Slave residency in both places tended to be modestly furnished and for nuclear units, although kin usually lived nearby. Status differentiation in the slave quarters showed in house size and furnishings. Louisiana slaves received more generous clothing allowances from planters for a colder climate. Louisianian and Jamaican masters never ceased to show surprise at the slaves' acquisition of finery.

McDonald concludes that even when making allowances for climatic and geographical differences, slaves on Louisiana's sugar plantations enjoyed at least a slightly higher level of material comfort than their counterparts on Jamaican sugar plantations. By the late antebellum period within Louisiana's sugar heartland, he suggests, the master-slave relation looked similar in Franco-American and Anglo-American zones. To what extent the Louisiana Purchase changed things remains an intriguing subject for future research. On the whole, Louisiana's slave economy proved more "plantation-centered" than Jamaica's; Jamaica's proved more "slave-centered" than Louisiana's. Jamaica's slave economy involved far fewer resident planters, and metropolitan legislation in 1792 gave slaves legal protection for their provision grounds. No such protection existed for U.S. slaves. "In Louisiana, slaves lived and worked on a plantation that was an integral part of an independent nation-state, not a colony, under a planter whose life, heritage, and interests were rooted in ... the land" (p. 165). Thus, despite broad similarities in the construction of the slave economies in Louisiana and Jamaica, McDonald's impressive research implies a far different degree of cultural sharing and planter paternalism in each slave society. References to cash payments to slaves, for example, fill the account books of Louisiana planters, but for these productive slaves the resident planter-provider functioned as their central bankers and as their primary customers.

Robert L. Paquette Hamilton College


1. Eugene Rivers, "On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack," Boston Review 17 (Sept./Oct. 1992): 3.
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Author:Paquette, Robert L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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