plantation punishment -- 8/2/22

Today's selection -- from Slave Empire by Padraic X. Scanlan. The first major concentration of enslaved Africans in the New World north of the Equator was in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Sugar plantation work was perhaps the hardest and most dangerous of any during this era, and the treatment and punishment of the enslaved exceptionally harsh:
“All enslaved people were vulnerable to physical punishment at almost any time. For assaults on white colonists or for conspiracies to rebel, executions were routine and often grotesque. The lawyer and abolitionist James Stephen was shocked to witness in Barbados the trial of four enslaved people accused of murdering a physician. The physician had been discovered near his house with a broken neck. The accused were tried, in decaying rags and tied at the wrists, in front of five justices of the peace, without a jury. Many of the whites in attendance told Stephen they doubted that the dead man had been murdered, and guessed he had broken his neck in a fall from a ladder, but the court bullied enslaved witnesses into incrimi­nating the accused. Technically, enslaved people were not permitted to give evidence at all, but planters bent the rules when it suited their interests. An enslaved woman on the stand was told 'to beware not to conceal anything that made against the prisoners' on pain of being indicted along with them. After the defendants were convicted, the court asked for an 'exemplary death' by being burnt alive or condemned to die of thirst in a gibbet, a large hanging iron cage. In the end, two of the accused burned; the other two were exonerated after the man who claimed to own them intervened with the court. Stephen was revolted, both by the brutality and cruelty of the execu­tion and by the way slaveholders upended the normal rules of crimi­nal proceedings to suit their needs.
"In the seventeenth century enslaved people who rebelled might have their arms and legs broken with sledgehammers and then be methodically burned from their feet to their heads. This happened to an enslaved man in Jamaica in 1677, and it took him nearly three hours to die. In 1654, a Barbadian planter cut off an enslaved man's ear and forced him to eat it. Other planters gouged out eyes, slit noses open, slashed off ears, castrated men and burned or cut the breasts off women. These and similar tortures continued through the eighteenth century but became less common. Although slaveholders in the later era of the slave empire still closed ranks around one of their own accused of a mutilation or other shocking punishment, they often disapproved in principle of grotesque torture. A plantation in good order, they reasoned, need not resort to excessive brutality. Rebellions, however, were always met with extreme violence.

"Most plantation punishments happened outside of the courts. Slaveholders and their representatives had the right to punish enslaved people with summary justice for nearly any imagined offence. The most common reasons for punishment were closely related to the constant demands of plantation agriculture. By the mid-eighteenth century, enslaved people who lost or destroyed their tools, left the fields, ate sugarcane outside of crop time, or stole food or farm implements were beaten with cartwhips or sticks by drivers or overseers, or made to wear heavy iron 'puddings' around their necks or ankles.

"Enslaved people recorded instances of planter violence in the work songs they sung in the fields. Songs spread from plantation to plantation, an oral history of the crimes of the slaveholders. One song, which circulated in Jamaica from at least the early 1800s, recounted when the owner of Spring Garden estate ordered some of his enslaved workers to strip a sick man naked and throw him into a gully to be eaten by the turkey vultures, called ‘john crows’  on the island. The men refused, and the man was secretly nursed back to health. 'Take him to the Gulley! Take him to the Gulley!' the song begins, 'But bringee back the frock and board.' The chorus, 'Oh! Massa, massa! Me no deadee yet! ... Carry him along!' was both the call and response of the oppressed and their oppressor, and a subtle reminder to the slaveholders that the enslaved, if united, could not always be commanded."



Padraic X. Scanlan


Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain


Little, Brown Nook Group


Copyright Padraic X. Scanlan, 2020


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment