Enslaved men, women and children dominated the islands of the Caribbean. Many had been born in Africa, with the result that ‘creole’ society and culture (the culture of the descendants of new arrivals) often was more African than European. Sometimes white men on isolated plantations went days or even weeks without seeing other white men, and instead they were surrounded by African language, accents, music, religion and foods.
Although more males than females were brought as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, on British islands a roughly equal gender balance developed. During the 1600s and for much of the 1700s more enslaved people died than were born each year, so it was only the constant importation of more slaves from Africa which kept population levels high. Thus, even as more slaves were born on the islands, African culture remained a powerful influence.
African slaves could often be identified not only by the African languages they spoke, but also by the ‘country marks’ on their faces, arms and shoulders. This was ritual scarification applied to some children in West Africa.
Richard Bridgens, ‘Negro Heads,’ in West India Scenery… from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in… Trinidad (London, 1836).
Weakened by the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and then forced to work incredibly hard in the tropical sun, often with insufficient food, clothing and shelter, enslaved people died in great numbers, often within a short period of their arrival in the Caribbean. Tropical diseases including malaria, yellow fever and small pox all killed many more. The diary of a white Jamaican named Thomas Thistlewood recorded 153 pregnancies among the enslaved women he owned or managed. Of these 121 resulted in the birth of live children, but at least 51 of these children, nearly half, died before they reached the age of 7. At the same time some mothers who were weakened by arduous work, pregnancy and childbirth, and insufficient food died during or after childbirth. This all made it difficult for enslaved people to form stables and long-lasting families, as parents and children were constantly dying. At the same time, masters and owners regularly sold slaves to other white people, in the process separating husbands from wives, and parents from children. The result was that throughout the 1600s and 1700s even the enslaved children who survived to adulthood tended to grow up in broken families, with one or even both parents and brothers and sisters dying.
The enslaved on plantations lived in slave quarters, collections of small and very basic huts which were often positioned near to masters’ and overseers’ houses and the main buildings of the plantation. These were primitive houses, and often people slept on straw placed on the floor of the one-room building. Larger houses contained more than one family. On every day except Sunday enslaved people left these homes before or at daybreak and did not return until the evening.
Reconstruction of slave cabin on Seville Plantation, Jamaica.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that despite the fact that so many enslaved people were dying, and families were constantly being broken up by death and sale, a new culture developed among the people of the British Caribbean. It drew heavily from cultures from West and Central Africa (an area larger than Western Europe), as well as from European culture, and created something new. Its religion, food, music and language all helped enslaved people create an identity and some meaning for and in their lives.
Masters usually gave each slave a certain amount of food such as some salted fish and some grains, perhaps once a week, which the slaves then prepared. It was not enough, and slaves had to gather and grow more food. The slaves’ diet consisted of a mix of traditional African foods brought over to the Caribbean (including okra, blackeyed peas, saltfish, ackee, mangos, kidney beans and rice), vegetables and fruits native to the Caribbean (such as papaya, yams, guavas and cassava). Many of the foods eaten in the Caribbean today originated among slaves. For example, Jamaican ‘jerk’ pork and chicken probably originated in the flavouring and cooking of meat without smoke by slaves who were trying to cook and eat meat (which they may have taken from their masters) without white people knowing.
William Berryman, Woman pounding cassava to make food, Jamaica, 1808.
Masters issues slaves with plain and hard-wearing cloth once or twice a year. Sometimes slaves adapted their clothes or made their own for those brief times when they could leave work behind and socialise with friends and family. Many liked the bright colours which were common in West Africa. Some, both male and female, wore earrings or had large holes in their ear lobes.
Sometimes slaves would leave their homes late at night, and gather together in woods and secluded places where they could sing and dance. They made instruments that were often inspired by those from West Africa, including drums and various stringed instruments, as well as all kinds of rattles and percussive instruments. The resulting music sounded nothing like European music, and when white people heard it coming from the woods through the darkness it often frightened them.
Enslaved musicians and dancers, Barbados, from John Waller, A Voyage in the West Indies (London, 1820). Courtesy of John Carter Brown Library.
Elements of West African religion and belief systems could be seen in the ways in which enslaved people organised burial of the dead, whose journey from slavery in this world to freedom in the next commanded respect. Mourning ended with burial, after which sadness was replaced with joyful singing, dancing and celebration of the liberation of the spirit of someone who would never again be a slave. Throughout the islands of the Caribbean some of the enslaved sought to harness supernatural forces and spirits, and often the names for these practices had African origins (such as ‘obeah’ in Jamaica or ‘voodoo’ in Haiti). Obeah men and women were often ‘wise’ men and women, with extensive knowledge of herbs and medicine, and respected cultural leaders. White people tended to regard these people as dangerous witches.