The role of enslaved women on the British West Indian Sugar Plantation

TOPIC: What was the role of enslaved women on the British West Indian Sugar Plantation?

In history women have been often perceived as useless and inadequate. This assessment is to highlight the role of enslaved women who resided and worked on the sugar plantations in the British West Indian islands before the abolition of slavery. In order to effectively understand the enslaved women’s role and situation, their social and economic states have to be taken into consideration.

In the British Caribbean, the enslaved women were very important in the production on the plantation.

It must be noted that although reproduction was easier to acquire manual labour, the enslaved women were not valued for the reproductive skills since their masters thought that children took the women away from their responsibilities and it was usually cheaper to purchase new African rather than investing in time and money to care for a child. Enslaved women especially Africans laboured in every area of plantation life.

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Only a number of enslaved women, however, became artisan slaves such as driveress. These roles were mainly given to trust worthy slaves who had been loyal to their masters for years. TABLE 1.1 below shows the rare case of Old Dido on Unity plantation in Jamaica who was a ‘driveress’. TABLE1.1 Occupations Unity Plantation, St Thomas-in-the-East, Jamaica Occupations of Enslaved Females

Old Dido Driveress Bess Grasscutter Betty Washerwoman Rose Fowlwoman Delia Runaway Fieldwomen and Girls = 21 Juba Housewoman Sucky
Children = 6

In 1682, only about seven per cent of skilled slaves in the British-colonised territories were women.

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In the British Caribbean, the field labour was the dominant occupation among slaves. There were 339 slave labourers on the Worthy Park Estate in Jamaica in 1789, with 162 females and 177 males. From those slaves about 43 per cent of the enslaved women worked in the field while only 16 per cent of the male slaves did so. By the 19th century approximately 80 per cent of the enslaved women worked in the fields. TABLE 1.2 shows the Job Distribution on Halse Hall Estate: Clarendon, Jamaica, 1802.

47 (including 6 boys in the small gang) (20%) or 38% of the total no. of males Watchmen
3 (in the Great House/overseer’s house)
Small stockmen
Total = 23
61 (26%) or 55.5% of the total females
Total = 110
In town
At the Kraal

There are many reasons why the planters wanted women to work in the fields. Some reasons are: Women’s life expectancy was longer than men which meant that more enslaved women would spend their lives on the plantations than men. Most African women were accustomed to the agricultural labour which was much like that in Africa. When the land was clear, women were able to work just as hard and well as men in areas like harvesting, cultivation and manufacture. The planters did not reguard women as delicate but treated them the same as male slaves. Men were usually involved in many jobs other than field work such as woodwork and blacksmith.

Hilary Beckles described the job of a woman working on a sugar plantation for 12 hours per day with only breaks for lunch and sometimes breakfasts six days a week weeding, cane holing, carrying and planting: Weeding or ‘grass picking’ was considered one of the most laborious tasks required of first and second gang women. With hoes, and sometimes just their bare hands, women stooped in rows under the scorching sun to pick out the weeds growing among the young canes… when the daily tasks were not completed, it was not uncommon to see first gang women driven to complete them “by moonlight”. Cane-holing and carrying manure to the fields were also important parts of the work of first gang women.

Both required strength and stamina, with driver’s whip being used to stimulate their productivity… after the first gang had dug the holes, and, assisted by the second gang cleared the weeds, manure mixed with decomposed can leaves were applied before planting the young canes. Carrying dung from heaps near the cattle pens to the fields was considered as laborious for women as holing. They had to walk, sometimes distances of one mile, over a surface ‘now rendered very uneven by the holes, the drivers bringing up the rear, and often smacking his whip to increase their speed’… manuring was again an ‘equal task to be performed in a equal time by people of unequal strength’.

Slaves, especially female slaves, who were accustomed to different agricultural practices in Africa, planted and sold many of their goods. Most enslaved were usually given a small plot of land on/near to the plantation which was allocated for provision grounds. They grew their own food which the planters saw as a way to lessen the cost of slave maintenance and helping them to save a lot of money. On their free day which was generally Sunday, mainly enslaved women took their produce to the market and sold it. In addition to ground provisions, some sold handicrafts and poultry at the market. DOMESTIC WORK

In the British slave society, the domestic slaves were believed to be of a higher social status than those in the fields. The domestic slaves mainly consisted of coloured and locally born (Creole) enslaved women in the British sugar plantation society. These women considered working in the Great House1 as a luxury and there not make a mistake or they were usually punished by working the fields. Barry Higman rightfully stated the slave status: Historically, the low status attributed to time the “house-servant” was said to rank high in the social scale, with a relative advantage in material terms throughout the period of slavery and down to about 1850… Deterioration in the social status of the servant occurred when domestic service became the most common form of employment for women (replacing agriculture), when the women employed became predominantly black rather than coloured. Hilary Beckles deemed that ‘slave women achieved their highest status and greatest socio-economic rewards through household occupations’.

The aforementioned statement referred to the domestic workers who were mainly enslaved women as an elite group within the plantation. However, the majority of domestic slaves worked 24 hours a day and were under the constant supervision of their masters. This proved difficult for these slaves to acquire privacy and to interact with the other slaves on the plantations. The work that some did were very tiring and arduous in particular, the occupation of watercarriers who had to trot to make several trips a day. Many of them worked just as hard as those field slaves and scars were left on their bodies from physical punishment. Most of these slaves were sexually abused by their masters. The size of the colony and the total slave population, the economic status of the slave owners and the presence of resident planters all decided the number of domestics who maintained large homes. Barry Higman also found that 70% of the domestic workers consisted of female slaves. The jobs of these slaves required them to provide childcare, sewing, cooking and laundry. FAMILY LIFE

The family life of enslaved people was not stabled but it still existed. The enslaved women had a difficult time raising a family. When their children were born they were taken in the care of an elderly slave who raised them until they became of age to beginning working on the plantation. These children hardly spent time with their mothers because in the eyes of the planter, production of sugar and their works came first. Most of the fathers were not present in the lives of the children because planters tended to separate families. Some enslaved women had many children with different partners. Thomas Atwood believed that enslaved men and women were incapable of remaining in stable unions. He stated: So little are the sexes attached to each other or constant in connubial connections, that it is common for the men to have several wives at a time besides transient mistresses…and the women to leave their husbands for others, and to submit to the embraces of white men for money and clothes.

There was however no widespread promiscuity on the part of the enslaved women who were described by Mrs Carmichael, a British woman who lived in Trinidad and St Vincent and wrote and account which was published in 1833, as ‘the really respectable female negro has generally only one husband; and in this particular only is the respectable female negro more moral than the male’. There was evidence of strong family bonds based on the African family structure. Many enslaved women were raped by white men on the plantation, regardless of their marital status. Their male owners did not consider their sexual actions as rape since the enslaved women were considered to be chattel2 and they had the power to do whatever they intended the slaves to do. Many of these white men fathered the children of these enslaved women. Some white men even claimed the children as their own and gave them privileges like an education overseas.

These white men considered the women promiscuous and therefore, did not acknowledge their actions a rape. However, most of these women participated in the act for fear of punishment and in order to receive benefits such as money. In the book Centering Woman :Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society , Hilary Beckles gives evidence of a plantation owner by the name of Thomas Thistlewood who documented his sexual actions in a journal with several enslaved women. He even considered a slave woman by the name of Phibbah, who he had the most sexual encounters with, his ‘wife’. RESISTANCE & REBELLION

Perhaps the most significant role that enslaved women played a part of in the society was resistance. Women resisted so much that the white men considered them ‘bothersome domestics’ and ‘female demons’. They were probably more punished than enslave males. There are two forms of resistance—insurrectionary and non-insurrectionary. The non-insurrectionary resistance was non-violent in nature. Enslaved women practised this form of resistance by fleeing the plantation, strikes, insurbordination, malingering, lying, using gynaecological reasons to not work, wearing their hair in certain hairstyles which were not permitted and so on. The insurrectionary was extremely violent with murders and revolts taking place. Many enslaved people sought out Marronage3 whether by sea or land, this was a means of resistance. The newspapers showed a lot of runaway slaves who were never found and were suspected to have marooned to the hillside. The maroons often raided the nearby towns and plantations to free others and ruin the economic status of the estates. They practised guerrilla forces to avoid being found by the white planters.

A lot of maroons created freedom villages, women played important roles as freedom fighters, priestess, informers, providers and the role of mothers. Many famous women took upon leadership roles in the maroons like Nanny and Cubah. Women were apart of guerrilla fighters as they had specific tasks to carry out such as helping to carry the spoils of a raid or setting fire to a village they chose to abandon. Women resisted at work by lying, going slow, abusing the drivers and overseers, striking for better working conditions, stealing and protesting against the unfair treatment of overseers. While working in fields the women who made up most of the field slaves sang revolutionary songs.

This annoyed the planters. Women who were griot4 educated their children about Africa to remind them of their identity and to not conform to European culture. Domestic workers poisoned their owners, those who went to the market ran away with money from the sales and some women practised abortion by using herbs or killed their baby so that their children would not be a part of the work force and many feigned sick. Thomas Thistlewood noted that an enslaved woman had taken a herb known as ‘contrayerva’ in order to abort her child.

That way was an example of ‘gynaecological resistance’. In 1831, the famous Christmas Day rebellion took place in Jamaica. It must be noted that women played a significant part in it as they supplied the male rebels with food. Women also played major parts in the two major aborted rebellions in Barbados in 1649 and 1701. In 1680s many enslaved women were found to show insurrectionist behaviour and were executed. The famous Barbadian female rebellion leader, Nanny Grigg led and formed a militant core of slaves at the Simmons Plantation.

She had support from throughout the island especially from women who were willing to take up arms for self-liberation. Many of these women followed Nanny Grigg as they believed that human beings were born to be free. Enslaved women were punished brutally for their resistance and anti-slavery activities. They were whipped by the drivers and overseers, and tortured, put in stocks and sent to solitary confinement. Domestic workers were sent to work the fields as punishment. Some were even hanged for the part the played in the rebellions.

An enslaved women being whipped

Moore, Brian L., B.W. Higman, Carl Campbell, and Patrick Bryan. Slavery, Freedom & Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 2001. Print. Scott, Joan W., and Louise A. Tilly. Women, Work and Family. Psychology Press: Routledge, 1987. Print. Shepherd, Verene A.. Women In Caribbean History: The British Colonised Territories. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999. Print.

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The role of enslaved women on the British West Indian Sugar Plantation. (2016, Apr 15). Retrieved from

The role of enslaved women on the British West Indian Sugar Plantation

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