Women's Lives and Labour on Radnor, a Jamaican Coffee Plantation, 1822-1826.*

Article excerpt


Over the course of the past two decades there has been an explosion in the historical and anthropological literature on slavery and slave life, both in the Caribbean and on the North American mainland. While much of the historiography of the British West Indies in general, and Jamaica in particular, has traditionally focused on the economic and social dynamics of sugar production, many scholars have recently turned their attention to the history of Jamaica's alternative agricultural industries, particularly livestock and coffee production.1 In recent years, scholars have begun to thoroughly investigate the history of plantations organized for the production of coffee in the Spanish, French and British Caribbean A simultaneous trend has been the development of a significant body historical literature on the lives of women working on plantations. It is my hope to add to these subsets of the important and growing body of literature on Caribbean slave life by examining the lives of women on one of the few well-documented coffee plantations of Jamaica, Radnor Estate, which was (and still is) situated in the Blue Mountains of eastern Jamaica, specifically addressing what life was like for women living and working as slaves on Radnor. The primary source of evidence for the material presented here is a well-preserved estate journal, which documents the day-to-day workings of the plantation from January of 1822 to March of 1826. Through the examination of this important document, I hope to suggest how enslaved women on this plantation were negotiating gender identities given the constraints of the oppressive mode of production under which they were compelled to operate.

The nature of the historical record of Radnor Plantation allows for several vectors of analysis, each of which can be considered a forum through which gender identities were defined, negotiated and redefined: labour occupation, social and biological reproduction, sexuality, health, and resistance to the oppressions of slavery. While this list does not encompass the entire extent of the terrain across which gender identities were negotiated, each of these phenomena can be analyzed through a close reading of the Radnor Plantation Book.

Negotiating Gender through Plantation Work.

As a primary determinant of an individual's identity, the gender category to which one is assigned defines the various roles one will play in society. Any individual can exert some degree of agency in constructing the various elements of this identity; however in most cases this will be mitigated by other social identities over which individuals have relatively little control. By its very definition plantation slavery limited the range of occupations a woman could pursue in her life. As was the case on most New World plantations, enslaved people engaged in coffee production in the early 1 9th century were assigned specific tasks to perform by plantations managers or overseers. While coffee plantations required some specialized skilled labour, most of these skilled positions went to men. Such skilled occupations included artisans, particularly masons, carpenters, sawyers and doctors. Supervisory occupations such as driver were also primarily the domains of men. While Beckles among others has argued that women who worked as domestics may have been socially or materially privileged by their occupation, the number of women so employed was relatively limited, as were the skills they would be able to acquire. It is evident that there were far fewer skilled occupations open to women under the slave regime. As the pre-emancipation division of labour was such that women performed more of what might be considered the menial plantation tasks, in the long-run their post- emancipation opportunities would be limited. Concurrently by the 1820' s the field gangs of many Jamaican estates were composed of a female majority. This seems to have been typical on plantations in the West Indies at large. …