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Plantation Life PDF Print E-mail

In the fifteenth century, the Europeans travelled west in search of a route to get to the riches of China and India but instead landed in the Caribbean, an area they called the “New World”. Their aim was to acquire gold and other precious metals, stones and spices. They did find a large amount of gold and silver (mainly in South and Central America and the Greater Antilles) but also a rich fertile soil ideal for cultivating exotic crops sought after in Europe. Fortunes were made trading in these crops. Agriculture became the mainstay of the Caribbean economy and the basis for slavery.

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The European settlers who came to the Caribbean could not exploit this wealth on their own. A reliable supply of cheap labour was needed. The native Amerindians were pressed into service; but as a source of slave labour they proved ineffective. Europeans introduced diseases to the Amerindian population for which their immune system had no answer. Their numbers dwindled further from cruel treatment.

The settlers turned to white indentured labourers from Europe but this source of labour proved expensive. These workers had to be paid in land and cash; and the majority could not endure the climate. The Portuguese had been using labourers from Africa for many years and the Spaniards soon realized that tapping into the market for African slaves would solve the labour problem and reduce production costs. The first shipload of African labourers was brought to the “New World” from West Africa in 1518. Thus began the Transatlantic Slave Trade, an evil traffic that lasted well into the nineteenth century, when it was abolished.

The production of crops such as sugar, tobacco and cotton necessitated the establishment of plantations. The size of the plantation, the crop that was under cultivation and the availability of capital, determined the number of slaves needed for cost-effective management of the plantation. In Saint Lucia, apart from sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, and cotton were grown for exportation. Ground provisions and cassava were grown for home consumption. Some plantations had as little as one slave such as the Petit Chateau in Soufrière, which grew coffee; the St. Sulpice in Laborie, which grew cocoa; and the Petit Mornet in Micoud, which grew cassava. Other plantations boasted hundreds of slaves, particularly those which grew sugar cane – the king crop. In 1819, the Roseau, Marquis and River Dorée plantations, all grew sugar cane and counted two hundred and fifty-two, three hundred and forty-six and three hundred and seven respectively.

Given the topography of the island with its many mountains, rivers and ravines the plantations in Saint Lucia were not as well-laid out and expansive as those in Barbados, Jamaica and St. Kitts. Most plantations were close to the coast with the parish of Soufrière being the largest agricultural producer on the island.

In Saint Lucia, the majority of plantation names were of French origin such as L’Esperance (Hope), Bel Air (Wonderful Air), Morne Plaisant (Pleasant Hill), Bienvenue (Welcome), Traquilité (Peace) and Morne D’Or (Golden Hill) among many others. The sentiments of these names reflect the beauty of the island. Plantations may also be named after the plantation owner such as St. Catherine, Morne Chabot, St. Jacques, Duvigneau and Thibaut. Other plantations bear the name of particular place names such as Pointe La Torque, Cap, Choc, Coconut Point and Roseau. Many of these names have survived giving us place names and family names that exist today.

Plantations with their social, political and economic structure were a microcosm of the wider society. There were three social groups: the whites, coloureds and blacks; within which there were sub-divisions. The Plantation owner, who enjoyed political, social and economic advantages, was the most important person within the ‘white group’, and the other white persons on the plantation were ranked according to position such as the overseers/managers, book-keepers and indentured servants. The coloureds, also called mulattoes, occupied the position of personal or house slaves and were considered more prestigious among the slave hierarchy. However, they could be demoted to plantation slaves. A young, attractive, mulattress house slave might catch the eye of the master and be ordered into the field by the mistress of the plantation who felt threatened as personal slaves served in the master’s house. The status of the blacks depended on a number of factors such as skill, ethnicity, physical appearance and place of birth. Skilled blacks such as drivers, masons, carpenters, wheelwrights and laundresses, enjoyed a higher status to that of the ordinary field slaves. The whites had rights and freedoms, the blacks were chattel without rights, bought and sold at will.

Slaves and the plantation owners did not trust each other. Plantation life was rarely peaceful and harmonious. Despite the soothing sound of plantation names, much anguish, dissatisfaction and deceit existed. Although there were laws to regulate behaviour and to protect the slaves, on many occasions these were violated. Beatings, mutilation and cruelty were common and many slaves bore physical evidence of ill-treatment on their bodies. In the Slave Registers which recorded information about the slaves on the various plantations there was a section entitled “Marques” which detailed the marks and scars.

In many cases the slaves sought their freedom by running away. Others destroyed equipment, displayed malignancy on the job and deliberately disrupted the smooth-running of the operations. Some plantation owners were extremely harsh and sought to humiliate and degrade their slaves. They did not feed and clothe them according to the requirements of the law, and tried to limit the amount of land they could use as provision and vegetable grounds. Considered less than human by their owners, the slaves possessed an innate sense of justice which drove them to attempt escape from their masters at any cost.

Countries like St. Kitts, Barbados and Jamaica had well-established plantations from the early seventeenth century. This was not the case in Saint Lucia. The fight put up by the Amerindian Kalinagos against European settlements, the constant wars between the French and the English for possession of St. Lucia and the many natural disasters militated against plantation life. It was not until the 1700s that plantations were established throughout the island. Saint Lucia’s plantation legacy can be traced in Returns of Plantation Slaves and Returns of Personal Slaves for the island.
The British finally abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1834.

When one takes a tour of the remaining plantations on the island, to Mamiku Gardens in Micoud, La Sikwi in Anse la Raye, Coubaril, Fond Doux and Soufrière Estate in Soufrière, Fond d’Or in Dennery and Balenbouche in Laborie, remember their bittersweet history. The paths were walked by a suppressed people and their sweat, blood and tears built and cultivated the island.

Margot Thomas is the Director of the National Archives of St. Lucia. She is the author of the book From Slavery to Freedom: Some Aspects of the Impact of Slavery on Saint Lucia available at the National Archives.

PLANTATION LIFE
By Margot Thomas

 
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