September 25, 2016

Negotiating agency during slavery

“You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him”?
– Booker T Washington

Last week I explored the proposition, from the book “Beyond Massa”, that during slavery, the seeds of our Republican values were planted as a two-way negotiated space where the enslaved people on the sugar plantations exercised more ‘agency’ than previous studies had accredited to them. I use “agency” in the sense of people being able to make choices.
I also mentioned three dominant approaches to “slave historiography” none of which gave much, if any, agency to slaves: they were simply objects on whose others inscribed their will at will.  First was the European enslaving Africans to “save their souls”, followed by the British “humanitarian” impulse to “help” by ameliorating and ending slavery and finally Eric Williams” Marxian exposé of the economic imperative behind Britain’s abolition of slavery.
While Williams’ approach was subsequently challenged, it became part and parcel of a “vindicationist” approach favoured by West Indian historians in the later 20th Century. In a strategic move to counter the dominant perspectives on the post-slavery conditions of the descendants of slavery and of the need for the latter to “overcome”, this approach stressed the cruelties inflicted on the slaves by the planters and their ruling class that served to ground out the latter’s culture and sense of self which is necessary for progress. This approach was integral in the movement for independence (the final “overcoming”) in the British colonies and has remained the dominant paradigm in the local history textbooks.
It is primarily this latter account that “Beyond Massa” challenges by attempting to demonstrate the slaves had much more agency than the vindicationist approach claims. One example was the important distinction the study makes between the terms “slaves” and “enslaved people”, since by referring to them as enslaved people acknowledges that they were “people” who were acutely aware of their crucial importance to the plantation system.
Another important shift in perspective by Campbell is to re-evaluate the role of the house slaves and the skilled workers as an “elite”. This turns on its head the vindicationist perspective which saw these individuals as “betrayers” and “traitors” to the cause of the field slaves’ heroic struggle to free themselves. The “house slave” unfortunately has become a most damming insult in the modern Caribbean, even though the greatest slave rebellion, if not the greatest rebellion in the world, was led by a house slave, Toussaint L’Overture.
The production of sugar involves not only the agro-production field labour, but also skilled, technical labour involved in the refining and manufacturing process, such as the tasks of a boilerman. While the manual labour could probably be forced, however tasks requiring the enslaved person to use their judgment could not be forced.
Managers, such as Simon Taylor of Plantation Golden Grove, recognised they needed to implement incentives to appease these “selected workers and reward them in order to encourage a higher work ethic”. And it is in such accommodations that Campbell discerns elements of the Human Resource Management approach.
Thus, there was the establishment of an “enslaved elite group” as a means of collaborating with the enslaved for higher productivity in the sugar factory and also as a source of “insider information” about the enslaved to suppress potential revolts and rebellions. By rewarding the enslaved elite with a lighter workload and putting them into positions of power over their fellow enslaved (as “black sub-managers”), the white managers created a channel to gain an insight into the mood of the enslaved people and a means of controlling them through their fellow enslaved.
However, the elite were well aware of their importance to the white managerial class and they used this to the advantage of the enslaved. They “exploited the tension existing between the Crown (the governor) and the plantocracy for their own purposes”. Coming from West Africa with its established system of slavery, the enslaved already had an awareness of the political factors at work within the slavery system and how they might manipulate the system to their advantage. (To be continued)

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