- The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
Prior to the advent of modern medicine, many newcomers to the Caribbean islands and the tropical lowlands of the American continents died of vomito negro (yellow fever), malaria, and dengue fever after having been bitten by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Death swept away great numbers including new settlers, cantoned military forces, seamen, and slaves. Wherever yellow fever struck, the population suffered from terror and panic. On islands such as Jamaica that is the subject of Vincent Brown’s path-breaking study, there was no remedy or escape from the omnipresent threat of death. After Spanish Jamaica fell to the British in 1655, the island became a major sugar producer dependent upon the importation of African slave labor. These unfortunate people faced the horrors of capture and shipment to the African coast and incarceration in coastal trading establishments, followed by the ordeal of the trans-Atlantic voyage under the most appalling conditions imaginable. Although contemporary writers and Jamaican slave owners such as Bryan Edwards wrote their versions of history intended to sanitize the slave trade and the unspeakable conditions suffered by the Africans, it was difficult to escape the mortality rate owing to extremely cruel treatment, dysentery, dehydration, poor provisions, and sometimes the outbreak of epidemics of cholera and yellow fever. In 1780, toward the end of a long voyage to Jamaica, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered the massacre of 132 sick slaves who were thrown overboard with their hands tied to collect the insurance money.
Many slaves who arrived in Jamaica with family members faced new emotional trauma when they were sold off individually—separating them permanently from their relatives. Weakened by the voyage, many slaves contracted smallpox or other diseases. Brown estimates that women were ill sixty percent of their working lives and men about forty-eight percent of the time. Confronted by hard labor in the cane fields and fed a diet lacking in adequate nutrition, many slaves suffered from starvation and died from dysentery, respiratory ailments, bowel diseases, depression, and influenza. Child mortality was often over fifty percent—caused by lockjaw, measles, smallpox, yaws, intestinal parasites, and many other diseases. The high death rate among slaves in Jamaica served as a stimulus to maintain the trans-Atlantic trade. As was common in Spanish and Portuguese American possessions, miscegenation involving white men who forced themselves on defenseless black women and girls produced a significant mulatto population. Unlike the experience of Spanish America, only some [End Page 287] Jamaican mulattoes managed to gain their freedom. Nevertheless, by 1832 ten percent of the slave population had white forebears. Serving mutual interests, slave owners often permitted their slaves to raise crops, to keep livestock, and even to draw up wills—a negotiated informal system that allowed them to bequeath possessions and property to others.
In spite of minor privileges, slave masters employed both brutal physical and mental forces to maintain obedience. To escape the horrors of their situation, slaves of direct African origin often attempted suicide by cutting their own throats or hanging themselves. The Africans, though not the Creoles born in Jamaica, believed that when they died they would return to their home countries. To inculcate exemplary terror in the minds of the living, slave owners mutilated, decapitated, and incinerated the corpses. To deter crime, executed slaves were hung up along roads and those found guilty of assaulting a white person or engaging in acts of rebellion had their ears, noses or feet cut off. Nevertheless, there were slave rebellions such as Tacky’s Revolt (1760–1761), and other uprisings in 1765, 1766, and 1767. By the 1780s, the growing debate in Britain about the inherent immorality of slavery fueled the growing abolitionist movement. Anti-slavery advocates publicized cases such as that of the Zong, associated slavery with death, and warned that God might judge people for the sin of slavery. Finally, in 1791 the House of Commons...