“No one is more enslaved than a slave who doesnt think they’re enslave.” – Kate Beckinsale
This is the concluding part of the report on a groundbreaking book, “Beyond Massa: Sugar Management in the British Caribbean, 1770-1838”, by John Campbell. The author proposed that enslaved people (not “slaves”) seized much more agency that normally acknowledged by historians and those in skilled positions negotiated working relations that were forerunners of the modern Harvard Human Relations Management (HRM) techniques.
Campbell also pointed to the establishment of a female elite class of enslaved people. They formed their own network that acted as a support system for their fellow enslaved people. This support system “accommodated female identity creation, enslaved resistance, and also subversion of the white male power centre”. These women also practiced folk medicine and helped to heal their fellow enslaved so that the enslaved were not dependent of the plantation for healthcare. He used the Maroon leader Nanny as an example of “defining female leadership”.
Despite being placed into these elevated positions of power over their fellow enslaved, the elite of both sexes still identified strongly with their fellow enslaved, since they used their positions as “a means of securing rights for all enslaved people”. At times the elite were even moved to encourage their fellow enslaved to rise up to protect the interests of the plantations.
The elites were very astute and selective in how they wielded their power. They were careful to maintain their positions of power by collaborating with the white managers, but at the same time, they maintained close links with their fellow enslaved. They were concerned with improving the conditions of living and working for the enslaved, to change the tone of Caribbean slavery to more resemble the West African form of slavery.
Campbell proposes that the enslaved people had “ideological clarity”, which also influenced the degree to which they opposed or resisted the managerial class, since their underlying issue was not with the system of slavery itself, but instead with the chattel aspect of Caribbean slavery. More concerned with securing greater autonomy and rights for the enslaved people, Dr Campbell suggested: “Their move to resist seemed to be contradicted by some of their accommodationist tendencies”.
From the HRM perspective, what helped was that in Jamaica, like many other British colonies, most plantation owners were absentee owners, living in England while appointing managers to take charge of the day-to-day running of the plantation. The absence of the plantation owners gave much autonomy to the managers to innovate in ensuring high sugar production, given that there was no means of quick communication between the manager and the owner.
This fact is used to propose that worker-manager relations presaged the present Harvard framework of HRM which acknowledges the fact that the sugar managers had to make many day-to-day decisions that could crucially affect the production the plantation given contingencies such as “warfare, weather, and slave resistance”.
More to the point, they were forced to include stakeholders such as the enslaved elite and women in their decisions given the resistance and bargaining power of these groups at the time.
Additionally the managers were limited in their options to dramatically increase the numbers of enslaved people purchased and instead were forced to turn to HRM techniques to improve productivity (and to keep potential rebellions at bay) by providing managerial gifts and other appeasement strategies. Another HRM technique used to compensate for the inability of the estate to constantly buy increasing numbers of slaves was the renting of “Jobbing slaves”. The jobbing slaves “were often in a better condition than the estate’s own enslaved people”.
Overall however, it would appear that while the contingencies of the local West Indian factors forced managers to utilise some HRM techniques, the central tenet of the latter approach – to acknowledge workers as not simply means to accomplish ends – was missing.
A more tenable proposition might be that the techniques that evolved in the management of slaves on plantations might have led to those techniques being a forerunner of HRM in the following centuries. The Caribbean is therefore not only a forerunner of mass industrial production but also modern Human Relations.