Slave work, slave family
published: Thursday August 2, 2007
As Emancipation Day approaches, my son and I labour in the hot sun of a July day in our own yard. We stop for ice-cold lemonade made by the wife and mother. Not seasoned for heavy manual work, we stop when we feel like and quit after a couple of hours. We are free and family. We own ourselves. And, unlike a large number of Jamaican children, this boy has a present father.
One of the devastating effects of slavery was its impact on family. The dry historical accounts fail to capture the personal human tragedy of the shattered slave family.
Most slave babies did not survive infancy and most of those who reached adulthood were dead from overwork, under-nutrition and disease, including sexually transmitted diseases, before they were 50. The slave population never became self-sustaining up to the abolition of the slave trade when it became more economically rational to encourage slave reproduction.
The children who survived, who may have been the unfortunate ones, were put to work by age six in the small gang, or pickney gang, one of three or four gangs that the slaves on a plantationwere divided into. Some were pressed into work as early as four, "at which time," as one planter explained, "the fruits of their labour are sufficient to defray the expenses of their support".
It was important to keep the slaves at 'work' from sunrise to nightfall almost every day of the year, except for the few allowed holidays. Slaves who were hard at work under the whip would have little time to hatchrebellion.
As girls reached puberty they were initiated into sexual activity by massa or fellow slave. Orlando Patterson writes in The Sociology of Slavery: "Slavery in Jamaica led to the breakdown of all forms of social sanctions relating to sexual behaviour, and with this, to the disintegration of the institution of marriage both in its African and European forms. As one missionary described the situation, 'Every estate on the island - every Negro hut - was a common brothel; every female a prostitute; every man a libertine.' A male partner dared not complain if his 'wife' was taken by massa as he would be flogged 'couched under the name of some other misdemeanour'."
Thomas Thistlewood, an overseer in Jamaica between 1750 and 1786, whose diary has been unearthed by historian Douglas Hall, kept a meticulous record of which slave women he had had: name, tribe, time and place. And he also recorded whippings for refusal.
Forming stable unions
But even in this mess, attempts were made to form stable unions, only to be frustrated by the caprice of massa. Apart for taking whomever he wished, slaves were sold without any regard for family ties, and, indeed, often deliberately to break up 'families' as punishment. Most slave children who escaped being aborted died in early infancy and the survivors could readily be ripped from their mothers' arms and sold away.
It is hard for us in freedom to truly grasp how final the separation of sale was. With no freedom of movement, a child or partner sold just a few miles away could well be in another country with a thousand miles of water in between, or dead. And it is not likely that the parent or partner would even know where they were sold. Our famous Lovers' Leap legend captures the grim determination of two slave lovers to die together by jumping over a cliff, rather than be separated.
Debates now run about the surviving impact of the disintegrated slave family life on the modern Jamaican family and on the marginalisation of the Jamaican male. Patterson writes rather preachily: "Incapable of asserting his authority as husband or father, the object of whatever affection he may possess, beaten, abused and often raped before his very eyes, and with his female partner often in closer link with the source of all power in the society, it is no wonder that the male slave eventually came to lose all pretensions to masculine pride and to develop the irresponsible parental and sexual attitudes that are to be found even today."