Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice, Guyana, 1803-1831

Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice, Guyana, 1803-1831

Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice, Guyana, 1803-1831

Unprofitable Servants: Crown Slaves in Berbice, Guyana, 1803-1831

Synopsis

In 1803, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British imperial government conquered the Dutch colony of Berbice and took over the management of presumed governmental slaves. These consisted of persons on four estates and artisans in New Amsterdam, the colony's capital, which comprised a group known as winkel (shop) slaves. The British efforts to generate a profit from these slaves caused conflict and engendered resistance.

This study is important because it illustrates that the imperial government arrived at the general abolition of slavery throughout its colonies in a rather ad hoc and piecemeal fashion. The study also raises important questions about the government's commitment to general abolition, noting that the crown slaves were hardly treated better than the majority of privately owned slaves. Thompson uses a wealth of archival sources and makes a significant contribution by utilizing primary material so that the slaves themselves recount their individual experiences. The major strength of this work is that it deals with state slaves, a study that has never been done before in the historiography of slavery in the Americas.

Excerpt

In 1803, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British imperial government conquered the Dutch colony of Berbice and took over the management of a number of presumed government slaves. These comprised persons on four estates and others - mainly artisans - in New Amsterdam, the colony's capital, who were known as winkel (that is, “shop”) slaves. At the end of the war the British government accepted the submission of the Netherlands government that the slaves really belonged to the Berbice Association, a private shareholding company, and returned the estates to that association. However, the negotiations did not encompass the winkel people because these were considered “public” slaves, that is, slaves of the colony's public works department (see chapter 3). They therefore remained the property of the British imperial government until their emancipation in 1831. This study will argue that the imperial government proved to be highly delinquent in overseeing the properties and often in appointing the right persons to administer them, and that it was only in the last few years before abolition that the government addressed the issue of the winkel people in any sustained manner.

The subject of slavery in the Caribbean has engendered a growing body of literature, especially since the late eighteenth century when the attack on the slave systems was commenced by philosophers, jurists, economists . . .

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