Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean

Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean

Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean

Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean


Atlantic slave societies were notorious deathtraps. In Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean, Randy M. Browne looks past the familiar numbers of life and death and into a human drama in which enslaved Africans and their descendants struggled to survive against their enslavers, their environment, and sometimes one another. Grounded in the nineteenth-century British colony of Berbice, one of the Atlantic world's best-documented slave societies and the last frontier of slavery in the British Caribbean, Browne argues that the central problem for most enslaved people was not how to resist or escape slavery but simply how to stay alive.

Guided by the voices of hundreds of enslaved people preserved in an extraordinary set of legal records, Browne reveals a world of Caribbean slavery that is both brutal and breathtakingly intimate. Field laborers invoked abolitionist-inspired legal reforms to protest brutal floggings, spiritual healers conducted secretive nighttime rituals, anxious drivers weighed the competing pressures of managers and the condition of their fellow slaves in the fields, and women fought back against abusive masters and husbands. Browne shows that at the core of enslaved people's complicated relationships with their enslavers and one another was the struggle to live in a world of death.

Provocative and unflinching, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean reorients the study of Atlantic slavery by revealing how differently enslaved people's social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies appear when seen in the light of their unrelenting struggle to survive.


Everyone dies, but few people face the horror of being sealed in a coffin while still alive. One man who did was Harry, an enslaved African laborer on a coffee plantation along the Berbice River (in present-day Guyana). Along with thousands of other African captives, Harry had been taken to Berbice, a British colony on the Caribbean coast of South America, toward the end of the eighteenth century. By 1825, when Harry was in his mid-thirties, he had endured decades of brutal work in one of the deadliest slave societies in the Americas. When Harry got sick, it would have come as no surprise, but by June, Harry was so ill that “he swelled all over [and] he was able to do nothing,” according to his friend Billy, another enslaved African. Several months of medical attention did nothing to improve Harry’s condition, and his owner, Richard Bell, grew impatient. He tried flogging Harry to force him back to the field, but that did not work. Harry was barely breathing by the time Bell sent him to the plantation’s “sick house.” Expecting Harry to die soon, Bell ordered an enslaved carpenter, Demerara, to make a coffin. Billy described the gruesome scene that unfolded when Demerara went to where Harry was lying. Harry opened his eyes and saw Demerara holding a measuring stick over him. He knew what was happening. He struggled briefly to sit up, then gave up and “hung down his head.” Horrified, Billy protested to his owner’s wife that it was “not good nor right fashion” to make a coffin for a living man. His owner responded by ordering Billy and two other men to dig a grave. a few hours later, Harry, still “frothing at the mouth,” was “put in the coffin & was nailed up.”

What is remarkable about this case is not so much its horror—this was a society full of atrocities—but that we know it at all. We know about the final hours of Harry’s life because Billy was angry enough to complain to a militia officer, who, complying with his official responsibility, forwarded the case to Berbice’s fiscal, the legal authority in charge of investigating enslaved people’s complaints. the fiscal summoned Billy, his owner, and other witnesses to Berbice’s capital, New Amsterdam, to testify. When questioned by the fiscal and other members of the Court of Criminal Justice, Billy emphasized the . . .

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