October is Black History Month in the UK. We’ll be exploring the history of slavery in Britain, from the country’s first steps into the Atlantic slave trade, through its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, to its abolition in the 19th. In this, our fourth blog we look at life on the plantations
Having undergone the horror of the ‘Middle Passage’ and perhaps having been interned in a ‘seasoning camps’ the life of the Africans sold into slavery continued to be harsh. Sometimes plantation owners bought them very cheaply with the intention of working them to death. In the Caribbean, most were put to work on sugar plantations. The major secondary crop was coffee, though coffee plantations tended to be smaller than sugar estates and, because of their highland locations, were more isolated.
On plantations gangs of slaves, consisting of men, women, children and the elderly worked from dawn until dusk under the orders of a white overseer. Work would begin at dawn, the slaves only stopped for rest and food at breakfast and lunchtime, after which they worked until nightfall.
Work was allocated according to factors such as sex, healthiness and strength, with the majority of men worked as craftsmen or worked in the semi-industrial mills. Meanwhile, women were mainly limited to working in the fields or as domestics. On many plantations women, who made up the majority of the field workers, were forced to work throughout pregnancy and their babies were raised in nurseries whilst they worked all daylight hours in the fields. In Jamaica for example, the majority of women between the ages of 19 and 54 were working in the fields. Girls worked on estates from the early age of four. Occupations for girls between the ages of 12 and 19 varied from field work and stock work, to domestic duties. Mature women often worked as midwives, nurses or housekeepers.
After returning to their living quarters, they would often still have chores to do before going to bed. During harvest time, slaves worked in shifts of up to 18 hours a day. Housing on the plantations was poor; slaves lived in small cottages with thatched roofs. The cottages often had earthen floors and were furnished with only a bed, table and bench.
White masters had complete control over the lives of their slaves and treated them like mere property. As slaves had no rights, plantation owners were free to act as dictators. Slaves who disobeyed or resisted even in small ways were violently punished - in Antigua it was not a crime to kill a slave until 1723.
The punishments handed out to slaves varied in severity. Captured runaways could be hanged or maimed. Slaves were often flogged with a whip for any wrongdoing – the number of lashes that they received depended upon the seriousness of their ‘crime’.
Despite these horrendous conditions, enslaved Africans tried hard to find ways to keep their humanity and dignity. They created families and communities that enabled them to share stories, music and religions within a culture of resistance to their dehumanisation. In our next blog we will look at some of the ways the resisted and the consequences of such actions.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models for Black History Month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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