"Always Free":

West African Continuities and the Limits to Enslavement on 18th Century Atlantic World Sugar Plantations

by John F. Campbell, Ph.D.

     The legalization of the trade for imported African ‘slaves’ in 1549 set the tone for the mode and type of labour production that was to dominate the sugar plantations of the Atlantic World until 1838.1  Sugar plantation colonies, like Jamaica, under this official directive were quickly transformed into production enclaves dominated by the ‘slave mode’ of production.2  In this mode "freedom" was a dangerous word, a ‘dangerous’ word because it brought to the fore the cries of the labour force and worked against the profit-maximizing ends of the white plantation management. Planters felt that all the time of the enslaved should be spent in the profit-maximizing thrust of white plantation management.

     Time became then a central commodity3 harshly contested for by both the worker and supervisory classes on the plantation. Time meant production.4   "Free time" meant, for the planter, loss of production. For the enslaved, however, it meant something else. "Free time" afforded them opportunities to socialize with other enslaved people in the marketplace, to meet and visit with friends and family, to plan revolts, and through constant revolts to re-affirm their personhood and will to be free. Thus, "freedom" was viewed by the enslaved West Africans and by white plantation management from two contesting perspectives. One concerned the freedom to control the enslaved person’s time; the other dealt with the freedom to control the enslaved’s will. The planter believed that, by virtue of ownership, he had both under his control. The enslaved thought otherwise.

     When set against this framework, resistance must be seen as a constant reminder to the planter that the enslaved was never totally his property. Maroonage and revolts were the more spectacular ways in which the enslaved asserted this right to be "always free." Less spectacular, but as effective, were the ways that the enslaved used the very system of sugar production to continue strategies of resistance. The closed economic nature of the plantation economy, and its heightened dependency on the ‘co-operation’ of enslaved labour, meant that plantation management was forced into an aspect of enslaved labour dependency which they never anticipated. This dependency was based not only on the reliance by the planter on the labour of the enslaved, but was intensified by the fact that "if provoked…they could sabotage the plantation’s operations."5


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August 2000