Monday, July 27, 2020


The long-term survival of slave systems did not depend upon daily displays of terror or force, though obviously displays of power and the threat of dire punishment were always in the background.

No, slaveholders were smarter than that: divide and rule, giving some status, privilege and prestige, made it endure.
Even the most brutal of slaveholders were therefore compelled to develop a sophisticated system of management that exploited the most human aspirations and fears of the people they dominated.

Creating divisions between slaves was essential to this. Enslaved people outnumbered free whites in the British Caribbean. In Jamaica the ratio was higher than 10 to one, and on some big plantations it was about 100 to one. Managers therefore needed to divide slaves in order to rule over them. The slave trade from Africa provided them with one opportunity. As a manager of several large Jamaican sugar estates remarked in 1804, it was a general policy to ‘have the Negroes on an estate a mixture of nations so as to balance one set against another, to be sure of having two-thirds join the whites’ (in the event of an uprising). The theory behind this was that enslaved people from one African ‘nation’ would refuse to join rebellions plotted by those from others, or by creole (locally born) slaves, choosing instead to serve their white masters in the hope of rewards for loyal service.

Privileging some enslaved people above others was another effective means of sowing discord. Slaveholders encouraged complex social hierarchies on the plantations that amounted to something like a system of ‘class’. At the top of plantation slave communities in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean were skilled men, trained up at the behest of white managers to become sugar boilers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, masons and drivers. Such men were, in general, materially better-off than field slaves (most of whom were women), and they tended to live longer.

The most important members of this enslaved elite were the drivers, responsible for enforcing discipline and work routines among the other enslaved workers. These men were essential to effective plantation management – a conduit for orders and, sometimes, for negotiations between white overseers and the massed ranks of field workers. They were also among the strongest survivors of the system.

The privileges conferred on the enslaved elite came in several forms: better food, more food, better clothing, more clothing, better and bigger housing, even the prospect (in some rare cases) that a master might use his last will and testament to free them.

Now, it is possible that a crude, nuance-impaired cynic might see something similar in the confluence of the divisions instilled by identity politics and the dispensation of privileges via governmental and corporate largess, all occurring while power and wealth are increasingly-centralized on a global scale.

But such persons can be dismissed out of hand.

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