Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Centring the City in the Amelioration of Slavery in Trinidad, 1824-1834

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Centring the City in the Amelioration of Slavery in Trinidad, 1824-1834

Article excerpt

Introduction

Although scholars have studied aspects of urban slavery in the Caribbean, this subject remains marginal to the hegemonic plantation genre.1 Nonetheless, colonial towns, particularly the political capitals, are of considerable importance to a broader understanding of Caribbean slavery. If the plantation was the heart of the colony, then the capital (often identified simply as "town") was its brain. The capital legalized relations of power on slave plantations and buttressed the plantation authority structure through coercive state institutions. The most influential planters met in town to engage in political intercourse with the colonial authorities and, by extension, the Crown. In time, the town became a quasi-metropolis to which some planters retired, leaving their estates in the hands of managers and overseers.2

The town was also a meeting place for enslaved persons resident on the plantations. In this respect, Port of Spain was typical. Enslaved persons from all local administrative divisions congregated in the Sunday market in town to trade wares, provisions, news and gossip, or drifted off to the rum shops, the most popular recreational space for men. Many of them increasingly sought employment under self-hire. During the amelioration period, enslaved persons also frequently went to town to lodge complaints with the protector and guardian of slaves. Because of the many opportunities for earning one's freedom price, the town also attracted many runaways who often met former acquaintances there. In spite of severe punishments for persons harbouring them, the more robust and skilled runaways were almost always guaranteed shelter while performing labour that was always in short supply in the city.3 New freedmen and women also often migrated to Port of Spain to start a new life, rather than seek employment on estates where they were likely to suffer the same rigours of slave labour, including brutal punishments.

The city evolved its own peculiar forms of slavery in which the life of the enslaved persons approximated more to "a free agent than a piece of property".4 Enslaved persons were employed in most, if not all, of the skilled, semiskilled and purely manual occupations associated with city life. Invariably, they shared more personal, albeit tension-filled, relationships with their masters than enslaved persons in plantationbased occupations.5 They were builders of public roads, mansions for the rich, ornate churches and cathedrals, and government offices; at the waterfront, they were stevedores and watercraft specialists, among other occupations.6 They were also the principal respondents before the criminal courts and the largest population in the royal jail with its notorious treadmill and chain gangs.

This article attempts to demonstrate the central importance of Port of Spain, the capital town, to an understanding of amelioration, which was intended to reform plantation slavery. The article deals with the office of protector and guardian of slaves, as well as the criminal courts, as critical domains of contestation between the plantocracy and a new, legally empowered enslaved group, determined to exploit the amelioration laws to exact as much benefit as possible for themselves, including their personal emancipation. One of the major corollaries of slave agency during amelioration was the partial transformation of the plantation landscape from a domain of planter paternalism into an experimental field of industrial relations - a revolutionary development for colonial slavery. This interpretation departs radically from the popular, negative perspective of amelioration.7 In establishing continuity between nouveau manumitted, runaways and the group of older freed persons in Port of Spain, the article suggests that petit marronage became a vehicle for the broadening of social and economic contacts and opportunities within the town, and between it and the plantation. The article also represents such contacts as manifestations of cultural resistance to the hegemony of the plantation. …

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