Review: Browne, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean

Browne, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of  Pennsylvania, 2017)

Surviving Slavery (Randy M. Browne

In the early Americanist community’s conception of #VastEarlyAmerica we constantly attempt to push the boundaries of what and where early America is. Randy M. Browne’s Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean will appeal to proponents of a vaster early America in part because it pushes the geographical limits of early America. Browne’s study of slavery in Berbice (present-day Guyana), takes his readers to one of the most understudied slave societies in the Americas, to understand how enslaved Berbicians attempted to survive their bondage from the beginning of the nineteenth century in the Dutch period, to 1834 when British slavery ended. This is an important distinction from other studies of slavery which focused on understanding and fighting against notions of “agency” and “resistance” such as Marisa Fuentes’ prize-winning Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, and Vincent Brown’s  2009 American Historical Review article “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” among others [1]. By contrast, instead of highlighting the voices of those in open rebellion, Browne focuses on those whom attempted to better their situation despite remaining under the yoke of bondage. Browne does this by accessing one of the most bountiful, yet underutilized, archival records of the voices of enslaved people [2]. Browne mines information about how enslaved Berbicians attempted to survive and carve out lives in one of the most oppressive slave regimes in the Americas. Whether describing the use of obeah as a spiritual defense mechanism to sustain themselves through the institution of slavery, the use of Black slave drivers, or how enslaved women and men attempted to sort out marital and partner discourses, Browne adeptly traces how enslaved Berbicians attempted to live, and most importantly, to survive, slavery.

Surviving slavery, on average, under the bleak conditions of South American and Caribbean slavery was a much tougher task than in North America. Death and mortality rates were much higher there than in North America. This was not the only important difference between the regions slave societies, however. Browne highlights how vestiges of the Dutch legal system embodied in the Berbician fiscal allowed enslaved people to flex a power (albeit small) unseen in other slave societies in the Americas. Under Dutch legal codes, if enslaved people judged their enslaver to have broken the laws of slavery against them, they could flee to their local fiscal empowered to hear their claim(s), and prosecute enslavers and other free members of the community. The fiscal’s use continued under the British system of amelioration. The British added another colonial official during amelioration as well, and this was the “protector of slaves.” The protector of enslaved people was another important colonial administrator established in Berbice to enforce new regulations on British enslavers (5). Much of Browne’s archival evidence is based on the testimonies of enslaved Berbicians who prompted fiscals and protectors to investigate their claim(s). As a result, enslaved voices literally forced their way into the colonial archive. To be heard though, enslaved Berbician claimants were forced to put themselves in grave danger. This conflict is at the heart of Browne’s focus on “survival” because, by virtue of being enslaved, Black lives were inherently endangered. The danger involved in voicing discontent with their enslavement was not new, the medium of expression and officials to voice their displeasure to though, was.

One chapter that demonstrated this tension excellently was “The Slave Drivers’ World.” Because the number of whites was so low and the number of enslaved Berbicians was so high, many absentee enslavers chose enslaved drivers for their plantations. Drivers were necessary for the capitalist system to work in Berbice and the British Caribbean as a whole, meaning that, as Browne put it, they “occupied a crucial position in Atlantic slave societies (73).” Browne demonstrates how enslaved drivers faced major challenges in simultaneously maintaining authority over those enslaved with them, and keeping their enslavers happy with their performance. Drivers were in precarious positions because they were “supposed to make a system run by extracting labor from people offered no incentive to work, people who lived on the brink of death (73).” Enslaved people who were drivers lived longer and enjoyed more freedoms under bondage. Yet, as Browne shows, their positions were always under scrutiny and the sustainability of their plantation authority was based on the power they wielded from their enslaver(s). If enslaved drivers were too harsh to the enslaved people over whom they held authority, they could lose support of those in their slave community. But if they were too lenient, they faced the potential to lose their positions. A major strength of Browne’s analysis is how deftly he displays the tension embodied in the lives of enslaved drivers; people attempting to please all, while holding little power to please anyone fully.

The tension Browne brings out is magnified because we do not see the driver through the lens of resistance, or with him attempting to wield his power for a revolt. Rather, because Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean centers the experience of those attempting to survive slavery through various means like performing the role of slave driver or obeah practitioner, slavery scholars and students alike receive an important companion to discourses centering questions of agency and resistance. Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean will not forstall discussions about the importance of agency and resistance. On the contrary, Browne’s work opens other areas of inquiry about whether even attempting to survive slavery was itself a form of resistance? Using the driver and obeah practitioner examples again, one could even posit how both groups are exemplars of the agency/resistance paradigm Browne quests to trouble. They both were atypical of the overall experience of other enslaved Berbice, and they wielded power to survive and resist slavery. Was living a form of resistance to slavery? Nevertheless, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean will speak to the broad audience of scholars interested in investigating #VastEarlyAmerica, not only because it pushes our geographical understanding of what and where early America was/is, but because this work also should motivate more scholars and graduate students to utilize the Berbician archive, allowing future scholars to tell more capacious stories about enslaved people and better understand the interior lives of enslaved people. Ultimately, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is a must-read for all scholars of slavery, but particularly for those seeking to understand histories of slavery in the period of amelioration, and how—despite the limited means of controlling their lives undisturbed by whites—enslaved people attempted to survive.

[1] Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” American Historical Review 114,, no. 5 (2009): 1231-1249; Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113-124.

[2] An introduction to the Fiscal Records Browne accesses for Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean: Trevor Burnard, Hearing Slaves Speak (Georgetown: The Caribbean Press, 2010).



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