Contesting “White Slavery” in the Caribbean: Enslaved Africans and European Indentured Servants in 17th-Century Barbados

Submitted 2016 (J. S. Handler & M. Reilly) “Contesting “White Slavery” in the Caribbean: Enslaved Africans and European Indentured Servants in 17th-Century Barbados.” In Press. New West Indian Guide. 2017.

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.

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Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-century Barbados

2016 (Jerome S. Handler) “Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in seventeenth-century Barbados.” Slavery & Abolition 37: 233-255.

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.

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Father Antoine Biet’s Account Revisited: Irish Catholics in Mid-Seventeenth Century Barbados

2015 (J. S. Handler & M. C. Reilly) “Father Antoine Biet’s Account Revisited: Irish Catholics in Mid-Seventeenth Century Barbados.” In A. Donnell, M. McGarrity, and E. O’Callaghan, eds., Caribbean Irish Connections (University of the West Indies Press, Mona, Jamaica), pp. 33-46.

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.

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Production Activities in the Household Economies of Plantation Slaves: Barbados and Martinique, Mid-1600s to Mid-1800s

2014 (J. Handler & D. Wallman) “Production Activities in the Household Economies of Plantation Slaves: Barbados and Martinique, Mid-1600s to Mid-1800s.” International Journal of Historic Archaeology. 18 June 2014.

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.

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A Seventeenth Century Commentary on Labor and Military Problems in Barbados

1973 (J. S. Handler and L. Shelby) “A Seventeenth Century Commentary on Labor and Military Problems in Barbados.” JBMHS 34: 117-121.

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.

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Anti-Obeah Laws of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760s to 2010

2011 (Jerome Handler) Anti-Obeah Laws of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760s to 2010. 35th Annual Conference, Society for Caribbean Studies, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. July 2011.

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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The Old Plantation Painting at Colonial Williamsburg: New Findings and Some Observations

2010 (Jerome S. Handler) “The Old Plantation Painting at Colonial Williamsburg: New Findings and Some Observations.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter. December.

"The Old Plantation"

\”The Old Plantation\”

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.

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Change in Small Scale Pottery Manufacture in Antigua, West Indies

2009 (M. W. Hauser and J. Handler) “Change in Small Scale Pottery Manufacture in Antigua, West Indies.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter. December.

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.

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Vernacular Houses and Domestic Material Culture on Barbados Sugar Plantations, 1650-1838

2009 (J. S. Handler and S. Bergman) “Vernacular Houses and Domestic Material Culture on Barbados Sugar Plantations, 1650-1838.” Journal of Caribbean History 43: 1-36.

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.

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The Middle Passage and the Material Culture of Captive Africans

2009 (Jerome S. Handler) “The Middle Passage and the Material Culture of Captive Africans.” Slavery and Abolition 30: 1-26.

Scholars of the Atlantic slave trade have not systematically addressed the question of what material objects or personal belongings captive Africans took aboard the slave ships and what goods they may have acquired on the Middle Passage. This topic has implications for the archaeology of African descendant sites in the New World and the transmission of African material culture. This paper reviews the evidence for clothing, metal, bead, and other jewelry, amulets, tobacco pipes, musical instruments, and gaming materials. In so doing, the paper provides an empirical foundation for the severe limitations placed upon enslaved Africans in transporting their material culture to the New World.

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