Seventeenth-century reports of the suffering of European indentured servants and the fact that many were transported to Barbados against their wishes has led to a growing body of trans-Atlantic popular literature, particularly dealing with the Irish. This literature claims the existence of “white slavery” in Barbados and, essentially, argues that the harsh labor conditions and sufferings of indentured servants were as bad as or even worse than that of enslaved Africans. Though not loudly and publicly proclaimed, for some present-day white Barbadians, as for some Irish and Irish-Americans, the “white slavery” narrative stresses a sense of shared victimization; this sentiment then serves to discredit calls for reparations from the descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. and the former British West Indies.
This article provides a detailed examination of the socio-legal distinctions between servitude and slavery, and argues that it is misleading, if not erroneous, to apply the term “slave” to Irish and other indentured servants in early Barbados. While not denying the hardships suffered by indentured servants, referring to white servants as slaves deflects the experiences of millions of persons of African birth or descent. We systematically discuss what we believe are the major socio-legal differences and the implications of these difference between indentured servitude and the chattel slavery that uniquely applied to Africans and their descendants.
2016 (Jerome S. Handler) “My Daddy was a Great Man in my Country”: Sibell, An enslaved African in Barbados relates her life story
Sibell was an “old” woman of African birth who, in 1799, narrated a brief account of her life to John Ford in Barbados. Ford’s identity is unknown though he was probably a white creole sensitive to the dialect (or the English creole language) of enslaved people on the island.
Ford’s transcription of Sibell’s account and another one by “Ashy of the Fantee tribe” ended up in the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford. The transcription came to Oxford sometime before 1893 — probably much earlier — but how it got there is not known. In July 1974, I consulted and transcribed both accounts. Details on the background and context of these accounts, including notes on the possible identity of the transcriber and various linguistic and African ethnographic references, as well as full transcriptions of the two accounts, can be found in my article, “Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in Barbados” (Slavery & Abolition 19 : 129-140; see this website for a copy).
Regardless of some possible inaccuracies in Ford’s transcriptions, the narratives apparently represent the enslaved Africans’ legitimate voices. A variety of linguistic features as well as African ethnographic data in the narratives argue for their authenticity. See John R. Rickford and Jerome S. Handler, “Textual Evidence on the Nature of Early Barbadian Speech, 1676-1835″ (Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9 : 221-55). These features make a strong case that the narratives reflect the actual speech of the enslaved individuals; they also express, however briefly and imperfectly, their genuine thoughts and feelings.
While I was in Coventry, England, in November 1999, I asked Marcia Burrowes, a Barbadian friend then doing doctoral studies at the University of Warwick, to read Sibell’s account in Bajan, the English creole or dialect of Barbados. She was asked to pretend she was an older/elderly woman (Marcia had earlier acting experience) and with a small hand-held tape recorder we recorded her reading of Sibell’s account. This unique recording is now placed before a wider audience which both Marcia Burrowes (now on the faculty of the University of West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados) and I hope will be particularly useful to teachers on secondary and college-university levels.
Listen to Sibell’s account here (the listener is urged to follow along with the published transcription, below).
Massah! my Daddy was a great man in my country and called Makerundy, he have great many slaves, and hire many man – And one of my Budders was a great man in de fight in my country – my Daddy nebber want – he have ground two, tree miles long and hire as many man dat he put de vittles in large tubs for dem – When he cut honey, he fill tree, four barrel he have so muchee. When we want good drink in my Country we go and cut de Tree and de juice will run, and keep some time will make good strong drink. I bin veddy fond of my sister- and she went out of de house one Day and let me alone, and my Budder in Law come in, and take me up and say he going to carry me to see his udder Wife. he take and carry, carry, carry, carry, carry me all night and day, all night and day `way from my Country- in de way me meet a Man and de Man know my Daddy and all my Family – Ah! Budder (me beg pardon for calling you Budder, Massah) you see me here now but dere has bin grandee fight in my country for me, for he will tell my Family – As my budder in law carry me `long, me hear great noise, and me wonder, but he tell me no frighten – and he carry me to a long House full of new Negurs talking and making sing – But veddy few of dem bin of my Country and my Budder in Law sell me to de Back-erah’ people. Me nebber see de White people before, me nebber see de great ships pon de water before, me nebber hear de Waves before which me frighten so much-ee dat me thought me would die. My Budder in Law took up de Gun and de Powder which he sell me for and wanted to get `way from me, but me hold he and cry – and he stop wid me till me hold Tongue and den he run away from me – De sailors keep me in dere long time and bring down two, tree ebbery day till de long house bin full – Dere bin many Black people dere veddy bad man, dey talk all kind of Country and tell we all dat we going to a good Massah yonder yonder, where we would workee, workee picka-nee-nee and messy messy’ grandee and no fum-fum. Me no know nobody in de House, but ven me go in de ship me find my country woman Mimbo, my country man Dublin, my Country woman Sally, and some more, but dey sell dem all about and me no savvy where now. [At this point, the transcriber writes] “Here she burst into tears and could say no more.”
The island of Barbados provides an ideal case study to explore the beginnings of slavery and definitions of slave status in England’s early American colonies. Africans and Europeans confronted each other earlier and on a larger scale in Barbados than in any other English colony. By tracing the development of slavery from the colony’s settlement in 1627 this article argues that the legitimization or legalization of African slavery and the status of slaves were established in custom long before any slave laws were passed. Focus is on slave status as a point of analysis, implicitly defined by three major features: chattel property, lifetime (or permanent) servitude, and inheritance of slave condition from an enslaved mother. In examining the evidence for these features, the article contends they were part of the culture of the Euro-Atlantic world and English worldview by the time the island was settled. None of the features was ever defined in any law; rather, they were implicit in any Barbados law that mentioned slaves.
In 1654, Antoine Biet, a French Catholic priest, travelled to Cayenne in South America, but unforeseen circumstances led him to a short stay in Barbados; ten years later he published an account of his experiences in the New World, including his visit to the island. In 1967, Handler published a translation of the two chapters of Biet’s volume that describe his three-month Barbados sojourn. Biet’s account offers a unique first-hand glimpse into life in Barbados during a period when the so-called sugar revolution was well underway and Barbados was generating an enormous amount of wealth from sugar produced on large-scale plantations largely worked by enslaved Africans. Although writers have used Biet’s account to illustrate a number of features of Barbadian society, little attention has been paid to his interactions with Irish nationals on the island and how such interactions reflect broader issues concerning the lives of Irish Catholics in a Protestant-dominated English colony.
Formerly British and French colonies, the eastern Caribbean islands of Barbados and Martinique were major players in the early development of European overseas empires dependent on African slave labor and the large-scale production of sugar. Utilizing documentary and archaeological data we discuss and compare the independent production activities or household economies of plantation slaves on these two islands. The household economy was one of the more prominent aspects of plantation slave life throughout the Caribbean, and in this paper we examine the multiple adaptive production strategies slaves employed to ameliorate the poverty of their material and economic lives.
The anonymously authored manuscript reproduced below * was written in late 1667 (or early 1668) towards the end of, or shortly after, England’s war with the French and Dutch. Barbados was approaching the peak of its economic prosperity and its preservation as an English possession was of great concern; it was especially important that the island be able to defend itself militarily. Aside from the condition of Barbadian fortifications, the militia was, to many observers, considerably weakened by the decline in the European population, especially the poorer elements upon whose services the militia depended for its effectiveness.
The very forces that had been responsible for Bardadian economic prosperity now militated against retention of the island’s European population. The expansion of sugar plantations debilitated the small land-holding system, thus depriving many poor Europeans of what had primarily motivated their coming to Barbados in the first place; or, in the case of indentured servants, of what had encouraged them to stay when their period of service was over. With the loss of Europeans and the concomitant rise in dependency upon African slaves, it became increasingly difficult to fill the host of artisan and other specialized roles needed for the maintenance of sugar plantations. Plantation owners began to fill these positions with their slaves, thereby further lessening opportunities in the island for poor Europeans.
Starting in Jamaica in 1760 and continuing to the present, scores of laws criminalizing obeah have been enacted in the 17 jurisdictions of the Anglophone Caribbean, the former British West Indies. These laws include laws solely concerned with obeah — so-called “Obeah Acts” or “Obeah Ordinances” — as well as anti-obeah provisions in sections of Penal Codes, Criminal Codes, Police Acts, Vagrancy Acts, and Summary Jurisdiction Acts. This paper gives a comparative summary of the main features of anti-obeah laws from the period of slavery to the present.
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Arguably the best known visual depiction of African American life during the eighteenth century, this small watercolor, owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF), poses a number of questions of interpretation and identification. The artist did not name the painting, which gives a unique visual perspective on early African American life, but former owners gave it the arbitrary title “The Old Plantation,” by which it is now commonly known. The painting, which is unsigned, undated and not given a provenience, depicts what are presumed to be plantation slaves dancing and playing musical instruments within a rural setting. The history of how this painting came to be known and ultimately owned by CWF is well documented in a recently published work by Susan Shames, the decorative arts librarian with CWF. Most importantly, her meticulous genealogical and historical research has identified the artist for the first time, and has also refined earlier speculations on the probable locale of the painting and the approximate date at which it was made.
Today, in a handful of Caribbean islands (e.g., Jamaica, Martinique, Barbados, Antigua, Nevis, and St. Lucia), persons of African descent continue to manufacture earthenware pottery, generally somewhat loosely and variously referred to by modern Caribbean archaeologists as Afro-Caribbean pottery or ceramics. These small-scale industries have always played an insignificant role in insular national economies and at present they seem to have a very limited chance for long-term survival. Today they produce largely for the tourist market and are disappearing to varying degrees. Several of these industries have been ethnographically reported over the years, and these reports provide a base line from which to examine the changing demands and pressures confronting local potteries. Diachronic studies of these industries permit researchers to chart changes as these industries decline, and also provide a lens through which archaeologists can understand the ways in which local craft industries have confronted changing economic landscapes. Moreover, traditional locally made earthenware is today found in historical archaeological sites in the West Indies and ethnographic knowledge about local industries helps interpret the archaeological data. The following information on the little-known industry in the small island of Antigua, a former British colony in the Leeward island chain — today an independent member of the British Commonwealth — is based on limited field work, published literature, and personal correspondence with persons possessing first-hand knowledge.
This paper describes the houses and household furnishings of the enslaved people on Barbadian sugar plantations, and traces the development and changes in architectural forms, including wattle-and-daub, stone, and wooden plank dwellings, over the several centuries of slavery on the island. We also treat the housing policies of plantation owners/managers, and explore possible African and European cultural influences on the Barbadian vernacular housing tradition that emerged during the period of slavery.
This website brings together a selected list of my publications which have appeared since the early 1960s in widely scattered sources. These publications treat a variety of topics dealing with slavery in Barbados and the Atlantic World as well as some aspects of production activities in modern rural Barbados.