When a wealthy man in 18th century Scotland listed his property it was usually his land which was more valuable than anything else he owned. In the Caribbean, however, the most valuable thing owned by a planter was his slaves, the people who drew value and profit from the land that he owned. But in lists of their property plantation owners listed livestock as the second most valuable commodity that they owned. Horses, oxen, cattle, mules, pigs, goats and sheep could produce food (both meat and dairy), were also vital for transport, as beasts of burden pulling wagons and powering mills, and for their dung which was vital in the production of manure on which sugar and other crops depended.
However, because planters could make so much money by using most of their land for the growing of sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, indigo and other crops by enslaved labourers, often they did not devote much time and effort to maintaining and breeding livestock. Instead, they regularly purchased such animals from people who ran what were called livestock pens. Some white Jamaicans, and a few free people of colour (often descendants of white men and enslaved women who were now free, and at the time were call mulattoes or free people of colour) owned smaller pieces of land not well which were not suitable for sugar cane and other export crops. In 1774 the Jamaican Edward Long wrote that the island’s increasing number of sugar plantations ‘has been the means of increasing the number of pens, by enlarging the demand for pasturage and stock.’
Historians have estimated that a little over 10% of the slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica worked with livestock, some of them on plantations but many more on smaller livestock pens. Some areas were unsuitable for sugar cane and other crops, such as rolling hill country or swampy land, and often livestock pens dominated these areas. A typical livestock pen in Jamaica was Vineyard Pen. It was one of two pens owned by a planter named Florentius Vassal, who used the pens to supply livestock for his three large sugar plantations. Vineyard Pen was just over 1,000 acres and in 1750 had 42 slaves, which was about average for a Jamaican pen. At that time the pen contained about 250 cattle, 16 horses 86 sheep, 80 goats, 108 chickens, 23 turkeys, 21 ducks and a few pigs.
Pens had a smaller slave workforce, and these people had greater variety and flexibility in their workloads than did slaves on sugar plantations. Slaves tended the animals, allowing them to graze during the days, herding them into pens at night, and transporting them to plantations and markets. Others cut trees and wood to make and mend fences and sheds for the animals, and others watched sheep and goats as shepherds and goatherders. Some slaves worked as watchmen, particularly at night, to prevent animals from escaping or being stolen. Other slaves, mostly women, acted as housekeeper for the white manager of the pen, prepared food, did laundry, sewing and cleaning. Both male and female slaves planted, tended and harvested crops as food for both people and animals.
In some ways the work on a pen was easier and more varied than on a plantation. But slavery was just as harsh and violent on pens, and masters still used horrible violence. For example, early in 1750 Dick, the driver and therefore the most senior male slave at Vineyard Pen, received a brutal whipping of 300 lashes, a punishment so brutal that it took Dick nine days to recover, and left him with deep scars on his back for the rest of his life.