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Plantation Life

Once sold at auction the slaves were taken to their new home - the Plantation. The owners branded the slaves with "estate marks" to show which plantation they belonged to and to make it easier to identify runaway slaves. These same marks were used on cattle, barrels and other goods. 

 

New slaves often took a long time to become used to plantation life and many failed to survive in their harsh new living conditions and climate. Diseases like dysentery and pneumonia killed many in the West Indies sugar plantations. Huts, built by the plantation owners for their slaves, were flimsy protection against the cold winds of winter.

Food was often dull and lacked nourishment. Meat was a rarity; owners decided it was "bad for slaves". Salt Herrings, sent from England instead of meat, had often turned rotten before they arrived. On some plantations, slave families were given small gardens where they were expected to grow yams and vegetables and raise pigs and poultry.

Often, slaves were given new names, although many hated giving up their African names. Roman names, Scots names and names of famous people were popular amongst plantation owners.

 

Work in the fields

Work on the sugar plantations was extremely exhausting and required large numbers of workers. All slaves, including children and the old, were expected to work. Discipline was extremely harsh and, in some cases, very cruel.

On a typical Barbados plantation in the seventeenth century, the working day in the fields lasted from 6am to 6pm with a two-hour break at midday.

First, land had to be cleared and ploughed, then divided into squares of about one metre. Holes six inches (15cm) deep were dug for plants, a back-breaking task for the line of slaves who moved slowly across the field, row by row, with the whips of the overseers hovering over them. At harvest time the cane was cut, stripped, tied in bundles and loaded on to donkeys to be carried to the mills.

 

The Sugar Mills

Sugar was extracted from the cane in the mills by crushing the cane then boiling the juice that drained off. It was not unusual for a slave to have his fingers trapped and crushed in the giant rollers as he fed in the cane. In the boilers, the scum that formed on top of the boiling syrup had to be ladled off; a tricky and dangerous job.

The boiling liquid passed through five or six boilers before it was finally transferred to a cooler, where the sugar crystallised. The refined sugar could now be loaded into large barrels to await transportation back to Bristol or Liverpool on the Return Passage.

Working in the boiler houses was very unpleasant. The stench, like sickly manure, was filthy, and the heat terrific. Limbs swelled in the hot, damp atmosphere and even the strongest slaves, specially picked for the job, could not work in the boiler house for more than four hours at a time.

 

Slaves existed for nothing except work.

Not all were cruelly treated, but many suffered savage and horrible punishments.

 

Worst of all they had no future to look forward to. They were condemned to a life of endless toil, and their children and grandchildren after them.

It is not surprising therefore, to discover that many slaves tried to escape this terrible life. However, if recaptured, they could expect little mercy from their owners, who would want to make an example of them to deter others from attempting to escape.

Whippings were common, and on some plantations other much crueller punishments were carried out by ruthless overseers.

These conditions greatly reduced  life-expectancy for slaves, creating the need for a constant flow of new slaves.

Slaves planting sugar cane in the West Indies

Slaves working in the sugar boiling rooms

© 2002-2005 Andrew Nash