Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

The Demographic Contrast between Slave Life in Jamaica and Virginia, 1760-1865(1)

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

The Demographic Contrast between Slave Life in Jamaica and Virginia, 1760-1865(1)

Article excerpt

THE AFRICANS who were shipped as slaves to the Caribbean sugar islands from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century encountered enormously different conditions from those experienced by the African slaves who were landed in North America. The most obvious difference was demographic. The Caribbean slaves experienced continuous decrease, and the North American slaves experienced continuous increase. In order to sustain their labor gangs the Caribbean planters imported more than four million Africans, whereas only four hundred thousand Africans came to North America.2 Jamaica and Virginia-two of the most important slave societies founded by the British-epitomize this dramatic demographic contrast. More than eight hundred thousand slaves were imported from Africa to Jamaica and fewer than one hundred thousand to Virginia. Yet by the close of the slave trade in 1808, Virginia had a larger black population than Jamaica.3

To get a first-hand sense of what this demographic contrast meant, we need to examine particular communities in Jamaica and Virginia with comprehensive data. In this essay I focus upon two such communities: Mesopotamia Estate in western Jamaica and Mount Airy Plantation in tidewater Virginia. The owners of these two plantations-the Barhams at Mesopotamia and the Tayloes at Mount Airy-kept richly detailed records. Both the Barhams and the Tayloes compiled annual inventories listing their slaves by name, age, and occupation-which enables me to reconstruct the year-by-year population structure and the individual biographies of the 1,103 people who lived at Mesopotamia between 1762 and 1833, and the 977 people who lived at Mount Airy between 1808 and 1865.4

The Mesopotamia records show nearly two slave deaths for every slave birth. To keep this Jamaica plantation operable, the Barhams were constantly bringing in new workers. At Mount Airy, by contrast, there were nearly two slave births for every slave death. Here the Tayloes were constantly moving their surplus laborers to new work sites, or were selling them to new owners. Thus demographic developments had great impact upon both of these slave communities, but in opposite ways.

Mesopotamia, now called Barham Farm, is situated in the fertile Westmoreland Plain of western Jamaica. Sugar cane has been cultivated here for more than three hundred years. When I visited Barham Farm, there were no visible evidences of the thousands of slaves who once lived here. The eighteenth-century Great House had been replaced by a modern estate manager's bungalow (fig. 1). I asked to be taken to the old graveyard, and two men led me to a barbed wire enclosure completely filled with trees and invasive tropical plants. As we climbed inside the barbed wire, they warned me to watch out for the stinging nettles. Once inside, trapped by jungle growth, I saw no way to reach the only tombstone I could see, which was jutting upward at a crazy angle twenty feet away. What to do? Suddenly I realized that the ground under my feet was as flat and firm as a table top. I must be standing on another tombstone! My guides hacked away the plants and grass enveloping us with their machetes, and sure enough, there was a large stone slab under our feet (fig. 2). I uncovered an incised date: 1735. Then a name: BARHAM. Gradually the entire inscription came into view: HERE lieTH THE BODY OF SARAHARCEDACKNE SISTER TO MARY BARHAM WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE MAY 22 IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1735 AGED 58.

I had stumbled onto the grave of Sarah Arcedeckne, the sister-inlaw of Dr. Henry Barham, who owned and operated Mesopotamia in 1735. Henry Barham's wife also died in May 1735; she has a tombstone in this graveyard that I couldn't find. The deaths of these ladies persuaded Henry Barham to leave Jamaica before the same thing happened to him. So in 1736 he departed for England, never to return. Before leaving, he took an inventory of his 248 slaves.5 There were equal numbers of males and females. …

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