Slavery: How the Church of England Treated Its Slaves

Article excerpt

Early this year when the Church of England formally apologised for its part in the slave trade, many did not know what exactly the Church had done during that despicable era. Now we know, thanks to the meticulous research by Adam Hochschild. "The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse," he informs us. This extract is from his book, Bury the Chains--The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, recently issued in paperback.

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The island of Barbados was one of the earliest British colonies in the Caribbean and the first to grow sugar. Its plantations pioneered various techniques soon applied elsewhere. We have a detailed picture of slave life there because Barbados, as it happens, was home to an estate that left unusually abundant records, the seaside Codrington plantation.

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The land at Codrington totalled 700 acres. The rich red soil and plentiful rain produced a first-rate crop of sugar. Like many West Indian plantations--and unlike most of those in the American South--Codrington had absentee owners in England.

In a good year, Codrington's profits were more than [pounds sterling]2,000--roughly $325,000 in today's money. The plantation's accountants kept a detailed inventory of all its assets, including the slaves. A headcount in 1781 showed the slave quarters holding 276 men, women and children.

Skilled male workers such as the carpenters, the boiler mechanic and three barrel-makers were valued on the books at [pounds sterling]70 apiece, the two children's nurses at only [pounds sterling]15 each. Even the names given to the slaves reflected their jobs. Sloop Johnny, Cuffy Porter, Quashey Hog, Quashey Boyler.

At Codrington, as throughout the Caribbean, new slaves from Africa were first "seasoned" for three years, receiving extra food and light work assignments. Slaves were vulnerable during this early traumatic period, when they were most liable to die of disease, to run away, or to commit suicide.

The ordeal of the Middle Passage, plus the shock of adjusting to new lives, foods and diseases, was so great that roughly one-third of Africans died within three years of disembarking in the West Indies. This merely increased the demand for slaves. If you survived those three years, you were regarded as ready for the hardest labour.

Almost all the skilled jobs done by the slaves, like maintaining mill equipment, building sugar barrels, or doing masonry, went to men. This meant that--contrary to the picture in most Britons' minds, then and now--the majority of the slaves in the fields of plantations like Codrington were women. The fact that women did the hardest labour, combined with their abysmal diet, delayed menarche and brought an end to a slave woman's fertility by her mid-30s. In the mid-18th century British West Indies, half of all women sugar slaves were barren.

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Amongst the harshest labour at Codrington was to be found in the windmills. There were three wind-powered mills on the plantation for pressing the juice out of the cane, the largest "boiling house" on the island for turning cane juice into sugar and molasses, and a distillery for making molasses into rum. The mill rollers had no brakes and sometimes the hatchet did not help.

A planter described one incident in Barbados. "Two negro women, being

chained together by way of punishment for some offence, were employed ... in a windmill, one of them unfortunately reaching too near the rollers, her fingers were caught between them, and her body were thrown through the mill. The iron chain, being seized by the rollers, was likewise drawn through, and the other female negro was dragged so close to the cylinders that her head was severed from her body."

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Discipline was draconian. For a Barbados slave, running away for 30 days or more meant death. An owner who killed a slave, however, was subject only to a [pounds sterling]15 fine. …