By C. ben-David
“The question is this, in relation to crime, every society, every organised society since the dawn of civilisation, has a problem with crime; every single society” (Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, Prime Minister, St. Vincent and the Grenadines [SVG]).
The dawn of European colonisation of the Caribbean was accompanied by the transportation of black African slaves beginning in the early 16th century forced to work as agricultural and other labourers, a process that also witnessed the birth of contemporary regional crime.
Setting aside the contested issue of whether the subjugation of the indigenous people and the captivity of the Africans can be seen as crimes against humanity, the fact remains that coping with slavery included acts viewed and punished as crimes by the slave holders. To be sure, these acts were part of a larger resistance to the biggest, best organised, and most vicious system of economic bondage the world has ever seen.
The enslaved Africans either rebelled against or defied their position as captives in countless ways. The many recorded instances of resistance show that slaves actively fought against their coerced status. Stripped of all its moral and legal implications, slavery was ultimately about forcing people to work against their will — coerced labour — and the enslaved people struggled as best they could to resist or subvert its worst features.
Employing different forms of defiance and subversion was an important survival mechanism for people whose attempts to revolt against or escape their bondage were usually quickly thwarted by their masters supported by well-armed militias.
Despite the establishment of independent communities of runaway slaves in places like Jamaica and the Guianas, in the nearly 400 years of New World bondage there was only one successful slave rebellion, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), which created the second independent nation in the Americas after the United States, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave insurrection.
In most places and times, however, the response to enslavement included a whole array of non-violent efforts of daily defiance invented and refined to enhance the well-being, if only at a marginal level, of the slaves. Although often severely punished, many of these are still clearly visible today, even though based on different motives, as important legacies of slavery. For this reason alone, it is important to understand their origins and persistence over time.
It must be made clear that the criminological perspective employed here is not that of the slaves who certainly did not accept their actions as being in any way immoral or illegal because they were far overshadowed by what they rightly saw as the ultimate criminality: their very own bonded status.
From the beginning of the slave era, customary rights slowly emerged from place to place defining the conditions of labour and its meagre rewards. These customs defined the workday, work activities, the distribution of rations, and other labour features. If slave masters increased workloads, provided inadequate rations, or punished too easily or severely, slaves tried to resist by slowing down, pretending to be ill, breaking or stealing tools, or otherwise disrupting production.
These various forms of resistance had two aims: to punish the slave master by reducing his profits and to enhance the well-being of individual slaves. For example, routinely damaging plantation machinery so that it was out of action and needed either lengthy repairs or costly replacement doubly benefited the slaves by the economic injury to the planter and the stoppage in their backbreaking dawn to dusk labour.
All such acts of resistance were punished if they were discovered resulting in the invention of ingenious methods for preventing this from happening.
The common denominator in these acts of resistance was an attempt to claim a measure of freedom, however small, against an institution that defined people as chattel slaves: personal property that could bought, sold, traded or inherited as if those persons defined as such were inanimate objects, a status enshrined in colonial law.
Of all resistance strategies, the most common was theft. Slaves pilfered fruits, vegetables, livestock, tobacco, liquor, clothing, jewellery, and money from their masters for their personal use, to trade for other objects, or for monetary sale, sometimes employing burglary to obtain these items.
The theft of foodstuffs was widespread and justified on two grounds. First, slave rations did not provide enough nutrition to support the daily exertions of plantation labour. Hungry slaves reasoned that the master’s abundance should be shared with those who produced it.
One well-known early 19th century apologist for slavery in SVG whose writings will be examined in the next piece opined that, “Employment is their abhorrence – idleness their delight … to overwork a negro [slave] is impossible” (emphasis in the original). Mrs. Carmichael, as she is known in the slave society literature, was superficially correct: given the harsh conditions of labour and a limited diet, to overwork a slave would only result in a slave who died from overwork. The slaves knew this well and acted accordingly by toiling as slowly as they dared, sometimes even injuring themselves to conserve the limited energy their paltry diets provided.
Third, slaves recognised the inherent contradiction of the master’s “theft” accusations. How could slaves, who were themselves the master’s property, “steal” anything that the master owned? After all, the master’s ownership claims over the slave meant that he owned everything that the slave “owned”. Accordingly, they termed appropriating property from their own masters as “taking” rather than “stealing.”
Slaves were quite clever in successfully committing theft, as a commentary from one contemporary scholar reveals:
“When no one was watching, children sometimes appropriated items without first securing an owner’s permission. Boys and girls, who often spent time in their owner’s homes as wait staff, cook’s helpers, or nursemaids to the planter’s children, returning home with pockets full of salt or whatever else was at hand…. Ben Horry and his father secretly obtained so much rice that they sold some in the local black market.
“Parents did not question closely where food came from when it was presented by children, in part because they reasoned that slaves were not committing theft when they took from owners.”
Many of these practices survived the slavery era and continue to resonate today, albeit for different reasons, an assertion supported in subsequent pieces.
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The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to email@example.com.