Q&A with Randy M. Browne, author of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean

Randy M. Browne is a historian of slavery and colonialism in the Atlantic world, especially the Caribbean. He is an Associate Professor of History at Xaverian University (Cincinnati). Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is his first book and he discusses it here with Jessica Parr.

JUNTO: For those who are less familiar with Berbice, can you tell us a little bit about your decision to focus on it?

BROWNE: I got interested in this project because I wanted to understand how enslaved people in the Americas fought to survive in spite of the brutal conditions they faced.  Historians have known for a long time that Atlantic slave societies were death traps, that slave populations outside of the United States did not reproduce themselves, and that planters relied on the transatlantic slave trade to replace slaves they worked to death.  But rather than simply acknowledging these demographic facts, I wanted to know what the unrelenting struggle to live in a world of death meant for enslaved people’s daily lives.

It turned out that Berbice—a small British colony in what is now Guyana—was an ideal place to consider the problem of survival under slavery thanks to an extraordinary set of records.  Because of its unique historical development, nineteenth-century Berbice is home to the single largest archive of first-person testimony from and about enslaved people in the Americas.  When the British seized Berbice from the Dutch at the end of the eighteenth century, they maintained many Dutch laws and institutions, the most important of which was the fiscal, a legal official who heard slaves’ complaints against enslavers, free people of color, and other slaves—and recorded testimony nearly verbatim.  Then, as part of the British Crown’s experiment in the “amelioration” or gradual reform of slavery, a new crown official—the protector of slaves—was established to enforce new laws on the treatment of slaves.  Taken together, the records of the fiscals and protectors of slaves span thousands of pages and allow for an unusually intimate study of life and death under slavery.  Now, ten years after I first began working with these records, I’m more convinced than ever that they are some of the richest sources for Atlantic slavery.

JUNTO: How did the demographics of the Caribbean and Berbice compare to those of North America, and how did it factor into your research?

BROWNE: As comparative histories of slavery have made clear, demography was crucial in shaping the experiences of enslaved people in different locations.  And the demographics of slavery in North America versus the Caribbean were very different.  The contrast was especially noticeable after the abolition of the slave trade.  In the nineteenth century, the United States slave population was reproducing itself at a rapid pace—fueling the expansion of cotton production in the lower South—while the British Caribbean slave population was rapidly declining.  The demographic crisis in the British Caribbean was so bad, in fact, that abolitionists, government officials, and slaveowners joined forces to study the causes of population decline and promote enslaved women’s fertility and reproduction as essential to the prosperity of the British Empire.  (For more on this, see the work of Katherine Paugh and Sasha Turner.)  The amelioration campaign was in many ways a direct response to the appalling demographic reality of slavery in the British Caribbean.

I think it’s also important to emphasize that the demographics of slavery in North America were unusual.  The demographic features of Berbice, on the other hand, were more typical.  In Berbice and most other Atlantic slave societies (especially those that produced sugar), death rates exceeded birth rates and dependence on the transatlantic slave trade produced slave populations where men outnumbered women and Africans outnumbered Creoles.

Taking seriously the life and death struggles of enslaved people in the Caribbean led me to question some of the most important assumptions that have shaped the study of slavery over the past several decades.  In Berbice—and I suspect in other Caribbean slave societies, too—the organizing principle for enslaved people’s politics was not the struggle for “freedom.”  Instead, enslaved people themselves experienced enslavement as first and foremost a fight to stay alive.  In the end, focusing less on the question of resistance and more on the problem of survival also opened up new ways of understanding enslaved people’s social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies.

JUNTO: You have a fairly extensive discussion about black slave drivers in chapter 3. How do these slave drivers help us to understand the complexities of power and resistance in Berbice?

BROWNE: Exploring slavery from the perspective of drivers offered an opportunity to explore what Vincent Brown described as a “politics of survival.”  On Caribbean plantations, drivers were crucial go-betweens appointed by slaveowners to supervise labor, enforce rules, and punish other slaves.  These enslaved men (and they were almost always men) were especially important in colonies like Berbice, where there was a very small white population, colonial authority was thinly spread, and plantations often had hundreds of slaves.  Being a driver was dangerous and difficult, with constant conflicting pressures from one’s enslavers and other slaves, but those who succeeded in walking this tightrope reaped considerable rewards.  Drivers received better food, clothing, and housing than other slaves, escaped the most physically demanding tasks (such as cutting sugarcane), and, as a result, were sick less often and lived several years longer than other enslaved men.  They were also more likely to marry and have families.  In short, drivers lived better, longer lives than other slaves.

Working on drivers was challenging because it forced me to grapple with the fact that they pursued a survival strategy that forced them to cooperate with their enslavers at the expense of other slaves.  Far from resisting the slave system, drivers helped perpetuate it.  And so drivers really illustrate the difference between efforts to survive the plantation world and efforts to resist slavery.  Trapped in a system designed to exploit and dehumanize them, men who became drivers made a devil’s bargain, carving out the best possible lives for themselves and their families while necessarily exploiting other slaves in a brutal system controlled by others.

JUNTO: What do you see as some of the most critical elements of “survival” among the enslaved in Berbice? Do you see different outcomes for men? Women?

BROWNE: What I try to show in the book is that the struggle to survive was at the center of enslaved people’s experience—and that foregrounding the problem of survival allows us to better understand some of the most important issues and themes in the historiography of slavery, from violence and punishment to labor, cultural and spiritual practices, family life, and the slaves’ economy.  When slaves went to colonial officials to protest the legitimacy of the floggings they endured, negotiated daily workloads with drivers and managers, used the Afro-Caribbean spiritual healing complex known as obeah to treat epidemic disease, sought protection from abusive partners, and asserted hard-fought customary rights to cultivate their own provision grounds, their most urgent goal was to stay alive.  The problem of survival fundamentally shaped the ways that enslaved people negotiated their relationships with their environment, their enslavers, and one another.

In general, women faced many more obstacles than men.  We can see this in all sorts of ways, but I’ll highlight two.  First, women were unable to enjoy the many benefits that so-called skilled slaves like boilers, coopers, carpenters and especially drivers enjoyed, due to British gender ideologies that assumed only men were qualified for such roles.  As a result, women were stuck in the most physically demanding and dangerous positions, primarily field labor, and had fewer opportunities to access scarce material resources like food.  Second, marriage and family life were much more dangerous for enslaved women because the patriarchal beliefs of male enslavers and colonial authorities favored enslaved men.  Enslaved men and women both sought help controlling the behavior of their spouses, especially in cases of adultery and physical abuse, but men were much more likely to get what they wanted.

JUNTO: Kay Wright Lewis recently published A Curse Upon the Nation, which looks in part at black fears of extermination by white people. How might her discussion of “extermination” intersect with your focus on “survival?”

BROWNE: There is plenty of evidence that enslaved people in Berbice thought that their white overseers, managers, and owners were trying to kill them.  And for good reason.  Many of the cases I discuss in the book involve terrified yet courageous slaves who pleaded with colonial officials to intervene before their enslavers killed them.  I open with the story of Harry, an enslaved African man who was too sick to work and whose owner had him sealed in a coffin and buried alive.  And I conclude with the case of Fortuin, who blamed his owner for the recent deaths of his daughter and infant grandson and begged that he be sold to a different owner “or we would all die.”

Slaves in Berbice had every reason to fear death at the hands of whites.  Again and again, slaves described enslavers who worked them beyond their capacity, refused to provide food and medical care, and beat them for the most trivial offenses.  They knew what historians have since confirmed: Caribbean plantations consumed black lives and enslavers had little regard for enslaved people’s suffering.  And yet, enslaved people in Berbice displayed a tenacious will to survive.  They made extraordinary efforts to endure some of the harshest conditions imaginable under a colonial slave system that was, at best, indifferent to their very lives.

JUNTO: What’s next?

BROWNE: I’m working on a new project about slave drivers throughout the Caribbean, building on the work I’ve done on drivers in Berbice.  Exploring the relationships between drivers, white plantation authorities, and other enslaved laborers offers an opportunity to reconsider some of the major themes in the study of slavery from a fresh perspective, including questions of agency and power, domination and resistance, and gender.  So far, I’ve been focusing on the interactions between drivers and enslaved women—in terms of labor discipline, marriage, and sexual abuse.  Soon I plan to turn my attention to the roles that drivers played in slave rebellions, which in some cases they prevented in others led.  This is a big, sometimes unwieldy, project since it spans several centuries and crosses imperial and linguistic borders, but I’ve enjoyed the chance to work on a wider range of slave societies than I did in my first book.  Some of the richest sources I’ve found so far were at the National Archive of Cuba, and I also have a lot of good material from Jamaica and Trinidad.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A with Randy M. Browne, author of ‘Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean’ —from The Junto Blog – Caribbean Histories: Resources for learning about the Caribbean Past

  2. I was fortunate to work as an indexer for Dr. Browne’s book and was blown away by the depth of his research. This is a fascinating book, meticulously researched, and an important contribution to the historiography of slavery.

  3. Pingback: Q&A with Randy M. Browne on “Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean” – Repeating Islands

  4. Pingback: History events & news at 3 September | History & Social Action News and Events

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