Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean 1807-34

A review of Surviving Slavery: Politics, Power, and Authority in the British Caribbean, 1807-1834, by Randy Browne.

Randy Browne’s dissertation complicates an overly simplistic and dichotomous understanding of the master-slave relationship and avoids the resistance paradigm in slave studies by not asking as a central point of investigation how slaves resisted their masters or the institution. Instead, he looks at how slaves struggled with both their master and each other in plantation communities in nineteenth-century Berbice in what is now British Guyana. He avoids the terminology of “agency” and chooses to stress “struggle,” “authority” and “violence” instead. Browne takes his cue from Vincent Brown who called for studies of the “politics of survival” among the enslaved (“Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery,” American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (December 2009): 1246). Browne sees power dynamics on plantations as multifaceted and multilayered. He outlines a complicated series of master-slave and slave-slave relationships in which the struggles of the enslaved rarely threatened the existence of the institution. He examines the politics of daily survival in these enslaved communities as well as the range of interpersonal relationships among the enslaved. He pays close attention to the role of violence in maintaining plantation societies. Physical violence not only towards the enslaved but also between enslaved peoples is a central theme throughout.

There are two important theoretical lenses in Browne’s work. To understand the larger context of nineteenth-century amelioration policies and the new interventionist government regulation of plantation societies, he relies heavily on Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopolitics.” He also draws on the concept of the “moral economy” to examine negotiations between slaves and masters about customary rights to food, time and clothing. Browne explores the 1826 amelioration laws on the eve of emancipation in greater depth than anything in the literature. The most significant contribution in Browne’s dissertation is the incredibly detailed evidence he draws from the records of the Berbice fiscals and protectors of slaves about the interpersonal relationships among the enslaved and the internal dynamics of the slave communities. His dissertation is filled with rich stories about conflicts.

In Chapter 1, Browne explores Obeah practitioners and the role of Obeah in power hierarchies in the enslaved community. His records allow him to examine “Obeah from the bottom up” rather than simply from the perspective of colonial administrators and plantation owners and managers (p. 18). He focuses on one Obeah ritual in particular: the Minje Mama dance. He stresses that in the Caribbean these Obeah rituals with African roots became violent and that the violence made the dance a creolized “Caribbean phenomenon” (p. 45). Obeah practitioners used forms of physical violence that they had “learned on Caribbean plantations” in order to assert and maintain their authority in the enslaved community (p. 46). This emphasis on how the culture of violence on Caribbean plantations transformed African culture will be an important contribution to longstanding historiographical debates about African cultural retentions and transformations in the Americas.

In Chapter 2, Browne examines how much power and authority the drivers had in the slave community. It is perhaps the fullest discussion in the recent historiography of the role of drivers in enslaved Caribbean communities. Browne, like most scholars of the subject, sees drivers as “intermediaries” between the overseers and the slaves or “between the most powerful and the most compromised” (p. 57). He stresses that drivers relied on violence to maintain their authority and that such violence was often endorsed by managers. He concludes that the authority of the driver and of the white managers “intersected, overlapped, and at times reinforced one another in surprising ways” (p. 97). He suggests that this “cooperation” between managers and drivers helped the plantation system survive (p. 97).

Chapter 3 examines the interpersonal dynamics between men and women in slave communities and the way that men used violence to control women’s sexuality. Browne relies heavily here on Foucault’s concept of “bio-power” to examine how ameliorative governments tried to control slaves’ marriage, sexuality and reproduction. Browne concludes that the ameliorative legislation had little impact on marriage or sexuality and that Berbice’s colonial government gave slave women “scant protection” from domestic violence and that slave men often used violence to control women’s sexuality (p. 133). This violence was often endorsed by European men in an effort to “reduce female power” (p. 135).

Chapter 4 explores the impact of amelioration and changes in slave punishment. It focuses in particular on colonial administrators’ efforts to reduce and standardize whipping and to remove passions and emotions from physical punishments. Browne stresses that these efforts were aimed in particular at reducing the whipping of women. He also describes how a unique tool (the treadmill) was adapted from European penal reform movements and brought to the Caribbean to help reduce the barbarity of physical punishments in slavery. His discussion of treadmills is lengthy and fascinating. It helps illuminate connections between penal reformers and ameliorationists. This chapter makes important contributions overall to the literature on amelioration and to broader historiographies about early humanitarianism. Overall, Browne stresses that there was an “increasingly interventionist imperial government” in Berbice (p. 188), which tried to control relations between slaves and white managers, but that the government’s ameliorative reforms “had an ambivalent impact” on those relations (p. 187).

While Chapter 4 focused on the legal rights and protections increasingly introduced for slaves, Chapter 5 examines how slaves struggled to negotiate and maintain what were conceptualized as their customary rights to such things as property or provisions or time. Browne relies heavily in this chapter on the theoretical construct of the moral economy. This chapter explores how the government began to transform those customary rights into legal rights with the 1826 ameliorative laws. He argues that these ameliorative laws were “consistent with the imperial government’s effort to begin the transition to wage work and turn owner-slave relations into employer-employee ones, but it was also a codification of practices that had already been established by custom” (p. 243). Browne explores slaves’ efforts to negotiate their customary and legal rights but he concludes that the “disconcerting truth” is that the slaves’ actions never threatened slavery as an institution (p. 243).

Once it is published, Browne’s evidence of violence and power struggles among the enslaved will be controversial but it will have a significant impact on the literature. It is based on deep research in archives in Berbice and in the United Kingdom. His work is clearly written and carefully analyzed and it draws on an incredibly rich source collection that has been overlooked by historians. Trevor Burnard’s Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) is the only book in the literature on Caribbean slavery that can rival Browne’s when it comes to detailed evidence about the daily interactions, conflicts and concerns of individual slaves who can be identified by their names. In this sense, Browne’s book will show the slaves as complicated actors who can be violent and who engage in power struggles, but he humanizes the enslaved by showing how complicated their lives and choices were and by offering his reader such an incredible range of anecdotes about interactions in the slave community. Browne’s work focuses on the nineteenth century, making it a useful complement to Burnard’s examination of such issues in the eighteenth century, but Browne’s work is focused more on the slaves’ perspective whereas Burnard examines slave societies through the English overseer Thomas Thistlewood. One wonders whether Browne’s conclusions can be extended to other areas of the British Caribbean or to the pre-abolition era. His work goes a long way towards making scholars re-conceptualize how slaves struggled and who they struggled against.

Justin Roberts
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Dalhousie University

Primary Sources

Records of the Berbice Fiscals and Protectors of Slaves in the Colonial Office Papers at the National Archives, Kew
Berbice Registers of Slaves at the National Archives, Kew
Incoming Letters from Berbice at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, England
Berbice Gazette
Parliamentary Papers, 1818-1829

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2012. 261 pp. Primary advisor: John Wood Sweet.


Image: Berbice, detail from Map of British Guiana by William Hilhouse, sworn Land Surveyor, Demerary, 1827.

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