A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic

A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic

A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic

A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic

Synopsis

The small and remote island of Barbados seems an unlikely location for the epochal change in labor that overwhelmed it and much of British America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, by 1650 it had become the greatest wealth-producing area in the English-speaking world, the center of an exchange of people and goods between the British Isles, the Gold Coast of West Africa, and the New World. By the early seventeenth century, more than half a million enslaved men, women, and children had been transported to the island. In A New World of Labor, Simon P. Newman argues that this exchange stimulated an entirely new system of bound labor.

Free and bound labor were defined and experienced by Britons and Africans across the British Atlantic world in quite different ways. Connecting social developments in seventeenth-century Britain with the British experience of slavery on the West African coast, Newman demonstrates that the brutal white servant regime, rather than the West African institution of slavery, provided the most significant foundation for the violent system of racialized black slavery that developed in Barbados. Class as much as race informed the creation of plantation slavery in Barbados and throughout British America. Enslaved Africans in Barbados were deployed in radically new ways in order to cultivate, process, and manufacture sugar on single, integrated plantations. This Barbadian system informed the development of racial slavery on Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, as well as in South Carolina and then the Deep South of mainland British North America. Drawing on British and West African precedents, and then radically reshaping them, Barbados planters invented a new world of labor.

Excerpt

The small and remote island of Barbados appears an unlikely location for the epochal changes in labor that overwhelmed it and then much of British America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lying some sixty miles farther out into the Atlantic than any other Caribbean island, and 166 square miles in size, Barbados is only twenty-four square miles larger than the city of Philadelphia and smaller than the combined boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Its location and small size meant that the Spanish and Portuguese had largely ignored Barbados, and it was uninhabited and densely forested when English settlers arrived in 1627. Yet within a quartercentury Barbados had become the greatest wealth-producing area in the English-speaking world, the center of a circum-Atlantic exchange of people and goods between the British Isles, West Africa, and the New World. Between 1627 and 1700 some 236,725 enslaved Africans disembarked onto the island, part of a mighty exodus, without equal in seventeenth-century England’s New World colonies. By contrast, during those same years, as few as 16,152 enslaved Africans arrived in the Chesapeake colonies, while 119,208 traveled to the island of Jamaica. By 1808, a further 371,794 Africans had arrived in Barbados, meaning that during the era of the transatlantic slave trade well over 600,000 enslaved men, women, and children had been transported to the island.

This exchange stimulated the creation of an entirely new system of bound labor, for on Barbados enslaved Africans were deployed in new ways in order to make it possible to grow, process, and manufacture sugar and its by-products on single, integrated plantations. the Barbadian system informed the development of racial slavery on Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, as well as in South Carolina and then the Deep South of mainland British North America. Drawing on British and West African people and precedents, and then radically reshaping them on Barbados, the island’s planters had not so much discovered a New World as they had invented one.

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