“Into the World of Bad Spirits”: Slavery and Plantation Culture

Between 1500 and 1880 ten to eleven million Africans were moved by force and terror into “new worlds.” Sir Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett write of the immensity of the “physical suffering, anguish of spirit and unbearable cruelty” of their lot “from the time of … capture” (The Story of the Jamaican People [1997, p. 122]). Chained together in the “floating tombs,” Africans were bound for a strange land and doomed to serve a strange owner of another race for life. Gordon Lewis, author of the monumental Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: the historical evolution of Caribbean society in its ideological aspects, 1492-1900 [1983, p. 5], comments: “Caribbean society thus became a society of masters and slaves. It constituted open and systematic exploitation of chattel labour, therefore, based, in the final resort on the psychology of terror.”

The structure of plantation society

The entire system of slavery could not have been sustained over so many centuries without the prevalent European belief in their racial superiority. It wasn’t just the crude and ignorant planter class who were racists. The great white philosophers Kant and Hegel ascribed to the myth of European superiority. In Culture and Imperialism [1993], Edward Said observes, too, that great English novelists like Jane Austen simply took-for-granted the plantation system. Her stories, set within England’s “great houses,” assume the exploitative plantation system as backdrop. In an article, “The measuring rod of history” (Daily Observer, November 28, 1996, p. 6), Sherlock quotes Basil Davidson, the celebrated Africanist.

Davidson claims that the doctrine of black inferiority “was not a mistake, a misunderstanding of a grievous deviation from the proper norms of behaviours. It was not an accident of human error. It was not unthinking reversion to barbarism. On the contrary this racism was conceived as the moral justification, the necessary justification for doing to black people what church and state no longer thought it permissible to do to white people; the justification for enslaving black people, that is, when it was no longer permissible to enslave white people…a growing number of scholars have accepted that the study of Africa’s past is not only possible, but is also useful and even indispensable to any understanding of the general condition of humanity, whether Africa or not.”

The Atlantic slave trade (mercantile capitalism) was very lucrative for Europe. “King sugar” ruled. Sherlock and Bennett observe that the “West Indian sugar-and-slave plantation brought into existence a special kind of society created for sugar; Jamaican customs and culture were fashioned by sugar; sugar for two hundred years, was the only reason behind Jamaica’s existence as a centre for human habitation” (The story, p. 157). In this society of exiles, there was hardly any “genuine community, with common interests binding all members into a coherent civic whole, with common values and common aspirations” (Lewis, Main currents, p. 6). Sherlock and Bennet note conflicts between black/white slave maser; slaver quarters/great house; provision ground and plantation; outlaw religion/established church; justice for whites/legally instituted injustice for blacks; chattel status/civil rights for whites; restricted/freedom of movement; bongo/busha image; yard-talk/English; slave-freeman” (The story, p. 151).

The plantations developed their own internal hierarchies. By around 1830, 36% of Jamaican slaves lived on fairly large plantations. Hope, Papine and Mona Estates were more than 1000 acres each. The white planters created various divisions amongst the slave population (in the great house, in the fields, between skilled artisans and unskilled labourers, etc.). Most scholars argue that Caribbean colonial society was an “anti-intellectual society. In Pere Labat’s lament, everything was imported into the West Indies except books” (Lewis, Main currents, p. 26). Lewis describes the Cuban plantocracy as flagrantly ostentatious, dissolute and snobbish. And Sherlock speaks of the moral bankruptcy of the white planter society. At the time of emancipation, 80% of the sugar estates were owned by absentees. The sugar planters would eventually be destroyed by the industrial revolution in Britain and Europe.

The plantation as a learning system

The sugar plantation was consciously designed to keep the slaves ignorant. The system placed radical constraints on adult learning and development. The planters tried to control the slaves’ bodies and minds. The horsewhip was their dominant pedagogical instrument. They wanted to keep the slaves so busy that they wouldn’t have any time to think. But the planters knew that the slaves could learn to do various tasks and functions on the plantation. Some of them also sensed that Christian teaching was potentially disruptive. In 1657, one Richard Ligon, a planter, commented that “being once a Christian, he [the planter] could no more account him a slave, and so lose the hold they had on them as slaves, …”. This is a very interesting quotation because Ligon actually recognizes that, indeed, both whites and blacks could transform the way they see each other.

In “The literate few: an historical sketch of the slavery origins of black elites in the English West Indies,” Caribbean Journal of Education, 11(1), January 1984, Hilary Beckles suggests that during the slavery period, some blacks in the West Indies were able to acquire literacy of both a basic and advanced kind. The extent of the acquisition of this cognitive skill was directly related to changes within the plantation economy, characterized by the growth of occupation stratification and social elitism within the slave communities. As the plantation social formation became increasingly complex and creolized, many slaves were able to obtain high levels of occupational mobility. Until 1670, West Indian sugar planters gave little thought to the notion of developing their slaves as artisans or other skilled professionals on the plantations. The dominant and operational conception of European colonists in the West Indies was that Africans were savages who had no contribution to make to the region’s economy beyond field labour. In addition, there was a general hostility to the use of blacks in occupations which involved any form of intellectual or creative assertion. The planters feared that the slaves’ intellect, once mobilized and developed by occupational demands, would be employed in the politics of rebellion.

Beckles goes on to argue that falling productivity in the 1680s-90s forced the planters to turn to slaves for certain skilled jobs. But planters like the Barbadian Peter Colleton argued that any form of re-education or training of slaves would have the following adverse effects: firstly, it would ‘impair their value and inure…the planters,’ since such ‘uplifted Africans’ were prone to scorn arduous labour; secondly, the specialist knowledge and skills would ‘endanger the island, in as much as converted negroes grow more perverse and intractable than the others.’ The rise of non-white professional elites subsequently became more associated with much fear amongst the whites that they would inevitably attempt, by rebellious politics, to “turn the world upside down.” This logic runs throughout West Indian history (pp. 21-22). Many black slaves became very successful, particularly in their mastery of the role of boiler. These skilled artisanal slaves became “elite slaves” with privileges not permitted the “field slaves.” Beckles also observes that the elite slaves in the Barbados were the “relentless revolutionary element in the slave community” (p. 29).

The African slaves did not arrive in the West Indies as empty slates, but with “cultural baggage” (specialist knowledge, cognitive orientations). They carried with them basic assumptions about social relations, the way the world works, the spirit-world and attitudes towards change. Sherlock observes that the African diaspora “revealed the extraordinary capacity of the African people to respond to the challenge of radical change, of total uprooting, of life-threatening penalisations” (The story, p. 126). While we understand what Sherlock means by “total uprooting,” it is inaccurate to think that African cultures were erased in the course of adapting to the new world. African cultures were carried orally into the Caribbean, and obeahism (divination) and myalism (spirit possession), present hundreds of years ago in Africa, still persist to this day in various expressions. So do speech and story, music and song.

Autonomous learning spaces

The slaves created “their own spaces” where they could learn and express themselves free from the master’s panoptical gaze. We can identify two important learning spaces: provision grounds and Sunday markets. Here, free from backra’s eye, the slaves functioned as “free peasants.” In these small-scale attempts to command their life situations, the slaves learned to act autonomously. These activities “promoted the survival and development of precisely those intellectual capacities which the slave system was intended to destroy: curiosity about the world and determination to exert control over life” (Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: the disintegration of Jamaican slave society, 1787-1834 [1998, p. 47). Their subjection as chattels in the plantation system was contradicted by their small actions as human beings capable of exercising control.

In his searching discussion of the legacy of slavery and plantation culture in Jamaica, the late Rex Nettleford, an esteemed choreographer, social critic and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, insists that today “there must be the liberation of the Jamaican black, whether he be peasant, proletarian or struggling middle class, from the chains of self-contempt, self-doubt and cynicism” (Mirror mirror, p 211). If Nettleford is right, then we can show how the plantation system miseducated the slaves by coercing them to internalize the oppressor’s image of them as inferior being. As Paulo Freire puts it, the oppressor comes to reside within the oppressed’s psyches. Emancipatory learning processes, in this dreadful situation, must assist learners to expel the oppressor from the inside. Then the oppressed could begin to live as fully human and free persons.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.