Plantation Life in the British West Indies, 1650–1850
- Jenny ShawJenny ShawUniversity of Alabama Department of History
Over two million enslaved people labored on cash crop plantations in the British West Indies in the almost two hundred years between the development of sugar plantations on Barbados in the 1650s and the age of emancipation in the 1830s. Although both the sizes of plantations and the crops produced varied across the Caribbean, generally the system of enslavement and therefore the plantation life generated within that system, did not. The contours of enslaved lives were shaped by myriad forces—the violence of the institution of slavery, the strictures of gender, reproduction, and patriarchy, the racial animosity engendered by whites, the hierarchies of the enslaved community, and the demographic reality of the colonies. The labor enslaved women, men, and children performed, the violence they endured, the familial and kinship ties they forged, the cultural practices they engaged in, and the strategies they employed to challenge their bonded status, were the constituent elements of their enslavement and their daily lives. But once slavery ended, the demands of the plantation did not fade. Neither did the racist attitudes of whites about people of African descent, or elite assumptions about what constituted a good subject in Britain’s burgeoning empire. As they forged new lives in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, former slaves grappled with how to set limits on their labor, build families, and live lives free from white scrutiny and oppression.