Gold versus Life: Jobbing Gangs and British Caribbean Slavery
Jobbing gangs—large groups of enslaved people who were principally hired out to dig sugarcane holes—were a crucial component of the British Caribbean slave economy. Emerging first in the early eighteenth century, they comprised approximately 10 percent of enslaved people in the British Caribbean by the late eighteenth century before declining after the abolition of the slave trade. The growth in jobbing gangs stemmed from elite sugar planters’ desires to temporarily augment their permanent captive labor force, boost productivity, and simultaneously preserve the health of their own enslaved laborers. The enormous profits that middling whites could earn by buying captive Africans and hiring them out as a jobbing gang accelerated social mobility in the islands. The captives whom these whites enslaved were highly mobile, enabling them to escape the confines of a single plantation. But they also experienced some of the worst working and living conditions of any enslaved people in the Americas, exposing significant inequalities among British Caribbean slaves. Examining the origins, operation, and eventual decline of jobbing gangs thus reveals the British Caribbean sugar economy as an insidiously adaptable institution that combined the flexibility of wage labor with the unmitigated violence of racial slavery.
IN recent years, historians have explored the wide variety of tasks that hired-out slaves were forced to perform in the British Americas. Hired slaves in urban or maritime occupations were generally allowed mobility and an escape from plantation labor, along with the chance to earn small sums, albeit with the trade-off of close surveillance by capricious whites. These studies have also noted that enslaved people laboring in the sugar fields of the British Caribbean were frequently part of so-called jobbing gangs. As an abolitionist explained in 1830, jobbing gangs were groups of slaves who were hired from “a master who is not the owner of the soil” and engaged “chiefly . . . in the laborious process of holeing”: digging holes to plant sugarcane, one of the most backbreaking tasks performed by any enslaved person in the Americas. Jobbing gangs emerged in the early eighteenth century so that planters could grow more sugar without increasing their own permanent labor forces. In the second half of the eighteenth century and particularly in the last quarter, many Caribbean planters, spurred by the rising cost of imported slaves, started to rely on jobbing gangs to dig an even higher percentage of the cane holes. At their height in the thirty years before the 1807 abolition of the slave trade, jobbing gangs were a critically important and ubiquitous component of plantation management. By that period, as much as 10 percent of the enslaved population of the British Caribbean were forced to work in them.1 [End Page 223]
Although scholars know of the existence of jobbing gangs, they have neither fully explored their role in plantation management nor examined the lives of the tens of thousands of people who were enslaved within them. The best work on jobbing gangs has emerged out of studies of individual sugar plantations, investigations that have led a few scholars to discuss the sometimes-enormous sums that planters paid to jobbing gangs to both increase sugar production and alleviate some of the plantation slaves’ work. Mary Turner, for example, has suggested that by the late eighteenth century jobbing gangs were used so widely that they were “instrumental” in the plantation slaves’ wider “struggle to improve their [work] conditions.” By the early nineteenth century, Turner argues, plantation slaves in Jamaica had successfully made it “customary” for jobbers to do the hardest work of sugar production. B. W. Higman’s demographic studies of Caribbean slaves in the same period have hinted at the prevalence of jobbing gangs and touched on some of the ways that the gangs were employed. Viewing the widespread use of jobbing gazngs, Heather Cateau has suggested that “hiring out was not merely an aberration, but instead must be conceptualized as an important part of the labour system in the British Caribbean.” Contracted and wage labor, Cateau concludes, was “evolving . . . within the bowels” of Caribbean slavery, providing an important mechanism for the extraction of labor from both former slaves and indentured workers after emancipation. Although this small corpus of works has sketched the importance of jobbing gangs to the economic history of the Caribbean, they remain an overlooked phenomenon, especially compared to the large sugar plantations that have commanded scholars’ attention. Work on the experiences of jobbing-gang slaves is particularly absent. Numerous books and articles have studied sugar plantation slaves, but there is not a single sustained study of the enslaved within jobbing gangs. Moreover, the scholarship on jobbing gangs focuses on the period after the 1807 abolition of the slave trade. Although planter demand for jobbing gangs certainly rose after 1807, the supply was dwindling. The jobbing-gang system was at its height before 1807 because the slave trade was essential to its survival.2 [End Page 224]
Jobbing gangs have been largely overlooked because the records describing them are fragmentary. No owner of a jobbing gang (known contemporarily as a “jobber”) has left papers that describe the business. Neither do we have firsthand testimony from any of the tens of thousands of people—most of them Africans, not Creoles—whom jobbers enslaved. Jobbing gangs appear instead across numerous archives: brief remarks in planters’ correspondence, expense lines in account books, advertisements in newspapers, and the testimony of abolitionists and planters in front of Parliament. Although jobbing gangs could be found in almost every British Caribbean sugar colony, the sources describing them are concentrated heavily in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jamaica, largely because Jamaica was by far the most significant sugar island in the British Caribbean by then. To describe the emergence, growth, operation, and eventual decline of job-bing gangs, historians must piece together these myriad fragments left by the enslavers while simultaneously reading their papers against the grain to recover the experiences of enslaved people.3
Reconstructing the history of jobbing gangs demonstrates that Caribbean slavery was an insidiously adaptable institution that assumed many forms to meet both specific economic demands and changing visions of the master-slave relationship. The prevalence of jobbing gangs by the late eighteenth century provided a pool of specialized enslaved laborers who could be called upon to resolve inefficiencies in sugar production that came with a largely fixed population of plantation slaves and varying seasonal labor demands. Planters could choose to treat hired slaves as an operating expense to preserve their own enslaved people—the enslavers’ principal capital investment—from the terrible toll that holing took on the bodies of sugar workers while still producing large crops and reliable revenues. The dual systems of [End Page 225] temporary and permanent labor, jobbing gangs and plantation slaves, combined with other innovations to perhaps double plantation productivity per slave throughout the British Caribbean from 1700 to 1790; these productivity gains per slave were particularly strong after 1770—the very period when planters began to rely most heavily on jobbing gangs.4
The function of the jobbing gang in the British Caribbean sugar islands underscores what historians of slavery and capitalism are increasingly finding in their studies of slave economies across the Americas: violence, productivity, and economic growth were all deeply wedded. These scholars argue that planters were ruthlessly self-interested capitalists focused on extracting ever more labor from their own slaves; yet, of course, these planters saw enslaved people as both laborers and capital investments. A study of jobbing gangs enhances our narrative of the role of slavery in capitalist development by showing how planters could innovate in economically rational ways by alleviating, rather than increasing, their own slaves’ labor while still achieving increased productivity. Historians have made an important contribution to our understanding of the trajectory of capitalist economies by questioning the naturalizing of assumptions about the inevitability of wage-labor systems.5 Whereas some scholars describe slave hiring [End Page 226] as a form of proto–wage labor and a seemingly inevitable step in a transition toward the postemancipation world, looking more closely at jobbing gangs exposes hiring out as a hybrid system of slavery and wage labor in its own right, one that did not necessarily have to disappear or evolve into wage labor. Jobbing gangs functioned to untether land and labor and create a reserve pool of workers, but these gangs maintained both draconian forms of coercion and the extreme exploitation of bondage to compel production. It was a labor system that complemented plantation production and investment strategies, and it worked efficiently and brutally until 1807, after which the supply of gangs dwindled until emancipation.6
Examining jobbers and the people they enslaved demonstrates the ways that planters’ self-interested attempts to alleviate the burdens of their own captives created one of the most ruthlessly exploitative forms of slavery in the Atlantic world. Demand for hired labor, coupled with the supply of captive Africans through the slave trade, enabled ambitious whites to purchase slaves specifically for jobbing gangs. Jobbers were usually from a lower socioeconomic class than planters, and they sought to elevate themselves by buying captives, working them violently and incessantly, and then using the profits to purchase more slaves. The enormous sums that could be earned by hiring captives out enabled landless whites to access the fabled profits of Caribbean slavery and join the plantocracy, accelerating social mobility in the islands. The labor of Africans enslaved in jobbing gangs permitted these ambitious men’s ascents. Marching long distances, digging cane holes under a tropical sun using nothing but a hoe, and working under the capricious eye of numerous white overseers, slaves in jobbing gangs avoided the confines of a single plantation but not the violence of production. They were forced to do more arduous labor and typically had a worse standard of living than settled plantation slaves, offering evidence of significant inequalities among slaves in Caribbean sugar economies. Enslaved people in jobbing gangs, one observer wrote in the nineteenth century, “are worked so very much, that they do not last long”—a statement that is borne out by [End Page 227] examining the often short and miserable lives of jobbing slaves. After noting the “fortunes” that were built on the graves of these captives, the same author succinctly summed up the ruthlessly capitalistic attitudes of the jobbers: “It is gold versus life.”7
Jobbing gangs emerged in the early eighteenth century, born of the environmental devastation that attended the intensive methods of sugar production pioneered by Barbadian planters. In the mid- and late seventeenth century, Barbadian planters deployed enslaved people to open new lands for cane cultivation by felling forests, causing widespread soil erosion and depletion. To combat these environmental challenges, Barbadian enslavers, whose laborers had been planting canes in small holes and then long trenches, developed a new system for planting that they called deep holing. Enslaved people had to mark out a grid of squares, each measuring approximately three feet by three feet, using twine and wooden pegs before digging a series of six-inch-deep holes with banks around them (Figure I). Larger quantities of manure could be placed in the holes to combat the depletion of the soil’s fertility, and the banks prevented water and soil from running into the sea. Although it is difficult to date the emergence of this new deep-holing system precisely, it was certainly in use in Barbados by 1679, when planter Henry Drax instructed his manager to have his slaves dig “Large and deepe holes” to plant canes. The new holing technique made its way to the other British Caribbean islands as the sugar frontier expanded out of Barbados during the late seventeenth century, and by the second half of the eighteenth century, deep holing was the predominant form of planting canes in the British Caribbean.8 [End Page 228]
Deep holing lent itself to the gang labor system that Barbadian planters also developed and exported to the other British Caribbean islands. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, Barbadian planters organized their slaves into gangs according to their age, sex, and health, with each gang assigned to different tasks depending on the laboriousness or complexity of the operation. The division of labor enabled Barbadian planters to increase productivity by forcing their slaves to work in regimented fashion under the close supervision of whip-holding drivers. Slaves in the first gang, considered the strongest and most capable of all the enslaved people on the plantation, were picked out specifically to dig cane holes; they were often known as the “holing gang” even though they performed a variety of tasks. The grid pattern of holes resembled an assembly line, forcing the holing gang to work in lockstep rather than in what one Jamaican planter called a “straggling and confused manner.”9 [End Page 229]
Holing was brutal work done at an exhausting pace. Two different Jamaican planters estimated that a healthy slave should dig approximately one hundred cane holes per day. By that measure, each person daily shifted 182 cubic feet of soil—about seven tons of dirt—using nothing but a heavy iron hoe that was swung overhead and smashed into the ground.10 Slaves typically holed in the rainiest months of the year, from May to November, because young canes required ample water, so the slaves frequently dug soil that was muddy or clay-like. On other occasions the ground was baked “so hard a Hoe would not enter it”; one planter described the richest soils as having “the hardness of a brick.” The holing season was also the hottest of the year, with temperatures soaring to more than a hundred degrees in the open fields. But enslaved people could not rest: a driver beat anyone who fell behind. Slaves, moreover, had to return to the fields day after day. A gang of fifty people could hole from one and a half to two acres a day, and each cane field was as large as twenty acres; planters typically forced their slaves to hole multiple fields in a season. Indeed, digging cane holes required more working days of labor from the enslaved on sugar plantations than any other single task in the planting cycle.11 [End Page 230]
Holing murdered enslaved people, something that contemporaries understood well. Absentee Jamaican planter William Vassal called holing “the hardest work done on an Estate” and noted that it led to more “Fevers, Dysentries & Sores, than from any other Causes I know of.” Barbadian William Dickson likewise believed that holing was a “very laborious” task that produced “colds, fevers, and ruptures.” And Jamaican planter Edward Long explained that there was “no other work on a plantation . . . so severe and so detrimental to them [the slaves] as that of holing.” Demographic evidence supports these eyewitnesses’ assertions. The annual attrition rate of British Caribbean slave populations was always disastrous—ranging from a high of 6 percent on late seventeenth-century Barbados to a norm of 3 percent through most of the British Caribbean by the late eighteenth century—but the mortality rates on sugar plantations were regularly much worse than for other staple crops. Studies of seasonal mortality and morbidity rates on British Caribbean sugar plantations show that both were highest from October through January—in other words, at the end of the holing season and immediately thereafter. Whites in these islands do not appear to have had increased mortality rates in these months, suggesting that mosquitoes and weather cannot have been the only factors. A smaller sample of 391 deaths among enslaved people living on sugar plantations from 1779 until 1798 for which sex of the deceased could be determined shows that women—who typically comprised the majority of a plantation’s first gang—were three times more likely to die in October, the prime season for holing, than in May, when they were mostly finishing the harvest. Likewise, the skeletal remains of slaves at the Barbadian Newton sugar plantation show arthritic knees, elbows, wrists, and vertebrae, the kinds of injuries that one would expect from the heavy labor of holing. Well might jobbing-gang owner James Grainger describe holing as “a task how arduous!”12 [End Page 231]
Planters began renting jobbing gangs to keep their own enslaved people from performing this murderous work soon after enslavers transitioned to the new cane-holing system. The gangs are first mentioned in 1708 when “Mr. Arnol” in Barbados “did send thirty negroes for two dayes to help to hole a piece of ground,” although such groups of enslaved laborers may have appeared at an even earlier date. The demand for jobbing gangs seems to have exceeded the supply by midcentury in Barbados. At the island’s Codrington plantation, attorneys complained in 1748 that they were trying “to do the work” that “cannot be performed by those belonging to the plantation,” but the “demand for Negroe-hire in the country” made available slaves scarce. The annual accounts from the Lowthers plantation in Barbados show that in 1756 the managers were relying heavily on jobbing gangs to hole: 7 percent of all the plantation’s expenditures that year went toward hiring these enslaved laborers. Jobbing gangs had spread beyond Barbados by that point. For example, an Antiguan wrote in 1742 that he had “hired ye holling of 24 Acres.” By 1754 at the very latest, jobbing gangs were available for hire in Jamaica. The number of jobbing gangs in Jamaica exploded in the mid-1760s when, according to Jamaica’s agent in Britain, a plunge in the price of coffee obliged coffee planters “to let out their working Negroes upon Job Work, on the Sugar Estates”; in 1769, one Jamaican attorney told an absentee plantation owner that “every other Estate in that . . . [parish] hire[d] jobbing Negroes.” By the 1780s, jobbing gangs—or “Task work Gangs,” as they were sometimes labeled in the eastern Caribbean—had spread to every British sugar colony except Nevis, where it appears that enslaved people continued to plant sugar through the older method of trenching.13 [End Page 232]
The availability and hiring price of jobbing gangs “varie[d] exceedingly in the different islands,” according to Dickson. The biggest differences were between the longer-settled sugar islands in the eastern Caribbean and the areas in which there was a more rapid expansion of sugar, such as Jamaica and the Ceded Islands, which Britain acquired from France in 1763. As ambitious jobbers moved their enslaved people to the newer sugar frontiers, the gangs become more difficult to find in the older settled islands. For example, the manager of Parham, one of the largest sugar plantations in Antigua, wrote in 1771 to encourage the absentee owner to “augment” his labor force by buying newly arrived Africans because it was “not easy to get Negro’s for hire as formerly.” He explained that “most of the people that had task work Gangs, have now got Land at one or other of the near Islands, and have sent their Negro’s to settle them.” By the early nineteenth century, planters in Jamaica and Grenada still paid nearly twice as much for jobbing gangs to hole land as the planters paid in Barbados or Saint Kitts, suggesting that the disproportionate demand for hired labor in the sugar frontiers persisted. The jobbers in Barbados, in particular, had “considerable gangs of Slaves” and not enough land to work them on, so they hired them out to the sugar plantations to dig cane holes at low rates. Barbados was unique in that it was the only sugar island whose population of enslaved people became self-reproducing before abolition of the slave trade; as a result, the planters there faced fewer chronic labor shortages than on islands such as Jamaica. Yet Barbadian planters still chose to hire jobbing gangs to both increase production and preserve their own slaves’ health. Though distributed unevenly and varying in expense, jobbing gangs were in demand in nearly every British Caribbean sugar economy.14 [End Page 233]
The number of jobbing gangs grew at the end of the eighteenth century as the sugar frontier and the transatlantic slave trade expanded in tandem. Henry Coor, who had been a millwright in Jamaica for fifteen years, told a parliamentary committee that jobbing gangs were “very much on the increase” when he left the island in 1774. Numerous sources indicate that jobbing gangs did play a larger role in plantation management in the late eighteenth century. On Mesopotamia, a Jamaican sugar plantation, the amounts spent on hired gangs rose from £100 sterling a year in 1751–77 to £157 in 1777–88 and £293 by 1798–1808. Vassal had a third of his cane holes planted by jobbing gangs in the fall of 1773 because he did not want to “overwork” his slaves. At Turner’s Hall in Barbados, the amount spent on jobbing gangs for digging holes rose to as high as 20 percent of all plantation expenses in 1779; it appears that nearly all the holes on the plantation were dug by hired gangs that year. In 1782, experienced Jamaican attorney Simon Taylor wrote that just under half of the 114 acres of “Hard Clay ground” on the massive Golden Grove sugar estate would be put into production by a jobbing gang because the plantation’s enslaved people could not do it without “hurting them.” Jobbing became such a critical element in the sugar production cycle that “almost every man in Jamaica,” planter William Beckford wrote in 1788, was “anxious to call in the aid of hired labour.”15
Although jobbing gangs were common and becoming ever more so before the abolition of the slave trade, the precise number of enslaved people in the gangs at any point in time is hard to determine. Jobbing gangs lived on the margins of plantation society. Because they were not associated with a spot of land, they were often invisible in official records. When a Jamaican planter was asked by the House of Lords how many “jobbing Negroes” were in the island, he admitted, “It is impossible for me even to hazard an opinion upon that head.” A prominent merchant testified that although there were 193,000 enslaved people reported in the tax rolls in 1774 in Jamaica, “there were at least 10,000 more” because of “jobbers, and others, who did not give in their numbers.” Nevertheless, the uniquely detailed 1774 census of Saint James Parish, a sugar-growing district in western Jamaica, does give a glimpse of the ubiquity of jobbing gangs in the last quarter of the eighteenth century—likely the height of their use [End Page 234] in that plantation economy. There were 493 slave owners in Saint James in 1774, who collectively owned 16,656 enslaved people. Of the enslavers, sixty men and one woman, or 12 percent, were jobbers, and they possessed 2,166 slaves—13 percent of all the enslaved people in the parish. Given that Saint James was a sugar-growing parish recently opened to settlement, a similar proportion of enslaved people may have been employed in jobbing gangs elsewhere on the frontiers of sugar agriculture, such as the Ceded Islands and, after the 1790s, Demerara and Trinidad. By contrast, jobbing gangs in some of the longer-settled areas in the Leeward Islands and Jamaica’s southern parishes employed perhaps half as many enslaved people. A 1788 report from Montserrat, for example, informed Parliament that there were “about 700” slaves in “Task work Gangs,” just over 8 percent of the island’s 8,310 enslaved people. Barbados, given the “considerable” size of its job-bing gangs, might have fallen somewhere between the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. Though it is impossible to give precise Caribbean-wide figures for the number of jobbing slaves, one in ten enslaved people in the last quarter of the eighteenth century seems a reasonable estimate.16
Jobbing gangs proliferated because they allowed planters to grow more sugar with less permanent labor by addressing seasonal inefficiencies in production. The number of enslaved plantation workers was constant throughout the year, but the demands of labor were seasonal and varied by task. The sugar content of canes began to deteriorate as soon as they were cut, so harvesting and processing work was time sensitive, unlike holing. Consequently, planters determined their permanent labor demands by the number of slaves needed to do the time-sensitive tasks. Enslaved people were forced to do shifts of “night work” to complete the fast-paced harvest, one planter noted, but that sort of labor could be done by people who were not strong enough to hole. Thus, the work logs from Jamaica’s Prospect plantation in 1791 show that during the harvest as many as sixty-six enslaved people—all the slaves in the first gang—cut canes together. Yet, when Prospect’s overseers wanted cane holes dug, they always separated the first gang into two groups: one group dug holes while the rest were assigned lighter tasks, almost certainly [End Page 235] the strongest and weakest slaves respectively. In fact, William Belgrove’s 1755 Barbadian plantation manual explained that one of the tasks of a plantation manager should be to identify “the abelest and best” for “Holeing and the stronger Work” and separate them from the rest. Plantation owners’ decisions to assemble their holdings of enslaved people with the harvest in mind meant that the bottleneck in sugar production was the number of holes that could be dug by these smaller groups of slaves, rather than the number of canes that could be cut. Hiring jobbing gangs removed this bottleneck, increasing the amount of cane that the plantation’s own slaves could cut. Many planters also routinely hired jobbers to put in a “Spring Plant” while the plantation’s regular slaves were busy cutting cane from January to June, ensuring that more canes were available to cut in the following year; some enslavers insisted that they would always have a “Spring Plant” done by jobbing gangs even when they were trying to reduce expenses. Jobbing gangs allowed planters to temporarily increase the capacity of their labor force, just as British farmers might bring in workers to scythe their wheat; two planters even equated job-bing gangs to “English day-labourers.”17
The escalating price of newly arriving enslaved Africans coupled with the planters’ ruthless economic self-interest helped make jobbing gangs even more essential to plantation management in the second half of the eighteenth century. The real price of imported slaves nearly doubled from the late 1740s to the late 1780s, making enslaved people an increasingly valuable share of a plantation’s capital. From 1780 to 1807, the real price of imported slaves increased a further 140 percent. In the same period, the real price of sugar increased by 40 percent, largely because the Haitian Revolution destroyed the Saint Domingue sugar industry after 1791. The cost of African slaves was so “extravagantly dear” compared to the price of sugar by 1795 that two absentee Barbadian planters asked their plantation manager if it made sense to lessen the workload for the slaves already on the plantation until they “increased by propagation” on their own because “we woud rather [End Page 236] avoid purchasing any Negroes in these times.” In an era in which prices for enslaved people escalated faster than sugar prices, it made increasing economic sense to hire slaves to dig cane holes—a process that required large numbers of able captives for a short period of time.18
As slave prices rose, planters hired jobbing gangs to preserve the health, and therefore investment value, of the people they owned. Planters conceived of slaves literally as human capital—living tools who would quickly wear out if they were overworked because they were not, as Simon Taylor reminded one absentee planter in 1770, “Steel or Iron.” Sugar planters envisioned enslaved people as an estate’s “strength,” which increased through the purchase of captives and was reduced by their “falling of[f ].” They thought of the purchase of African slaves not as an operating expense but rather, as one Jamaican attorney told a sugar planter, as “adding to your Capitall.” In 1783, the manager of Parham in Antigua explained how critical the hired jobbing gangs were for preserving the value of the plantation’s enslaved people. “The loss of one good Negroe” from the plantation’s own workforce would, he wrote, “amount to much more than the Money paid for holing many Acres of Land” by jobbing gangs. The operating costs of jobbing were worth paying, he explained, because it was “saving the Negroes.” As one astute nineteenth-century observer noted, the planters made the jobbing gangs do “the hardest and most disagreeable work” because they wanted “to save their own slaves as much as possible from such work.”19
From the 1780s onward, some planters claimed that their economically motived use of jobbing gangs was also morally virtuous because it preserved their slaves’ health and encouraged their natural reproduction—key strategies in the era of amelioration when metropolitan critics and even some planters argued that slavery should be reformed. For planters the primary metric for the effectiveness of ameliorative management was always, as a Barbadian manager explained in 1798, whether the slave population was [End Page 237] “upwardly increasing, a certain sign of Happiness & good treatment.”20 Jobbing gangs were an ameliorative tool because they reduced the amount of labor that a plantation’s slaves had to perform, lowering death rates and raising birth rates. A 1786 Barbadian plantation manual recommended that planters should arrange to have one-half of the cane holes dug by jobbing gangs to help ensure the plantation’s slaves were “worked moderately, and treated kindly” in order to naturally “increase” the number of slaves on the plantation each year. The manual reiterated the idea that “increase is the only test of the care with which they are treated.” Likewise, a Jamaican agriculturalist writing after emancipation remembered, “as soon as the slaves on the property naturally decreased, jobbing gangs were further employed.” Hiring jobbing gangs, in fact, became a way to signal the adoption of ameliorative management. For example, an Antiguan plantation manager explained in 1783 that he preferred to hire gangs to hole when the plantation slaves “are Sickly, or . . . weak and low in Flesh” because it saved on labor replacement costs and also because of “the inhumanity of severely working the Slaves when they are in distress.” In 1823, the Reverend Thomas Cooper gave Jamaican planter George Hibbert “the fullest credit for humanity and generosity” toward his slaves, citing as his evidence that the enslaved people on Hibbert’s plantation “were often eased in their labour by the assistance of a jobbing gang.” From the 1780s through emancipation, jobbing gangs thus gained a new purpose: they became ideological tools that could be used to demonstrate ameliorative management. Meanwhile, the “ignorant and cruel” owners of jobbing gangs, as one Jamaican-born sugar planter scornfully described them, became a convenient scapegoat for the miseries of Caribbean slavery.21 [End Page 238]
When jobbing gangs became too expensive or difficult to hire, the planters quickly dispensed with such supposedly humane management techniques. Patrick Kein, former planter and author of a 1796 plantation management manual, warned his readers that the cost of hiring gangs for holing was “very great indeed” because their owners charged premium rates. Hired gangs could be difficult to find immediately, and the wait could hinder the precise timing necessary to cycle fields and maximize production on a sugar plantation.22 At Turner’s Hall in 1757, for example, the plantation manager wanted more permanent slaves on the estate, and he complained that relying too much on hired slaves created “a very uncertain dependence.” Experienced plantation managers saw an overreliance on jobbing gangs as a potential road to ruin because the cost of hiring devoured profits without adding to capital. When they calculated whether to hire labor, planters carefully weighed the capital cost of buying new slaves against the expenses of jobbing gangs while simultaneously trying to predict the price of sugar and the amount of holing their own slaves could bear. In 1783, for example, Simon Taylor urged the owner of Golden Grove to purchase newly arrived Africans to reduce the enormous expense of jobbing. Easy access to jobbing gangs had led to too much cane being planted. “It is only Ruin to throw away money to plant land” merely for the sake of having large crops in the ground, Taylor wrote. Later in the same year, Taylor informed Golden Grove’s owner that he would purchase forty-seven enslaved people from Africa and then “there never will again be a Stroke of Jobbing on the Estate, except for a Spring plant.” Taylor—one of the leading managers of sugar plantations in the British Caribbean—believed that jobbing gangs should only be employed to do what was “actually necessary”: preventing a plantation’s slaves from being “pushed on to do more than they are able more [End Page 239] especially in holing land.” There were real limits to the extent to which planters were willing to hire jobbing gangs to spare their own slaves, and those limits were almost always connected to the enslavers’ profits and to the cost of their new capital investments.23
The closing of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 marked the beginning of the end for jobbing gangs because it raised the demand for hired labor while halting the supply of captive African workers. Of course, the jobbing-gang system did not immediately disappear. In fact, when journalists Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey toured the Caribbean in 1837, they noted that before 1834 Jamaican sugar planters were hiring jobbing gangs “to dig the greater part of the cane-holes.” Likewise, Matthew Lewis explained in his 1816 journal that on his large Jamaican sugar plantation “digging holes” for canes was “chiefly performed by extra negroes, hired for the purpose”; in the same period, Jamaican planter Hibbert’s “cane-holes were always dug by jobbers.” Yet without access to imported Africans, labor-hungry planters were eventually forced to buy the gangs outright to obtain new workers, and the previous owners of those gangs could not replace the people they sold or those who had died, which led to a steady decline in the number of slaves working in jobbing gangs. In his proslavery work of 1826, Alexander Barclay wrote that “many of the jobbing gangs” that had been in existence when the slave trade was abolished had “since been bought up by the plantations.” “Slaves are going out of the hands of the lower classes,” he added, “into those of the more wealthy, and concentrating on the plantations.” B. W. Higman’s analysis of compensation records on the eve of abolition in 1832 found that of the 313,000 enslaved people in Jamaica, just 6.4 percent were employed in jobbing gangs, a clear decline from the pre-abolition era when jobbers probably owned around 10 percent of the enslaved people on the island. When British Caribbean slaves were emancipated, the owners of the jobbing gangs were given financial compensation for the slaves that were freed, but some slaves continued working in the jobbing gangs as apprentices until as late as 1838. Emancipation had dealt the final blow to the deadly business of jobbing: no record explicitly mentions jobbing gangs as being in operation after 1839.24 [End Page 240]
Sugar planters’ self-interested attempts to preserve the lives of the people they enslaved provided a demand for hired laborers that middling whites met by purchasing Africans and forcing them into jobbing gangs. To the thousands of landless whites who traveled to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, the ownership of enslaved laborers potentially offered enough wealth to allow social mobility or even a route into the exalted ranks of the plantocracy. There were few other paths to a fortune in the Caribbean for men possessed of little capital. Purchasing an entire plantation was beyond the means of most middling whites. Bookkeepers on plantations, entry-level positions for newcomers, were typically paid around £43 sterling per annum in 1793, whereas a medium-sized sugar plantation in Jamaica with 250 slaves cost £29,629 sterling—689 years of earnings! The purchase and hiring out of slaves was consequently, Jamaican planter-attorney Lewis Cuthbert explained, “the only source” by which non-planter whites could “increase their property in money.” That fact explains why Simon Taylor warned the House of Lords in 1792 that abolition would drive whites off the island: “These people come there with an intent to better their circumstances; what little money they can save out of their salaries, or whatever little credit they can procure, they invest in Negroes.” Slave ownership was therefore widespread in the British Caribbean because, as one witness to Parliament pointed out, “every overseer or White Man, who had money or credit, purchased some new Negroes in order to job them out.”25 [End Page 241]
Jobbing gangs were the pinnacle of this wider world of hiring because they were some of the largest groups of slaves in the British Atlantic world. Whereas most middling whites might hire out individuals to perform day labor on plantations or in towns, jobbing gangs, by their nature, consisted of large numbers of enslaved laborers working together. The Saint James census reveals that the smallest jobbing gang comprised 10 enslaved people, and the largest, of which there were two, had 120 slaves; the median was 40 slaves. Jobbing gangs were relatively small compared to the sugar plantations that they serviced; a median sugar estate in Saint James held 168 captive workers. But these gangs were extremely large when viewed in the wider context of the British Americas. Tobacco and rice plantations averaged twenty and fifty enslaved workers respectively, and the median size for an antebellum U.S. cotton plantation was thirty-five slaves. Jobbing gangs were large because they needed to accommodate the labor-intensive requirements of digging holes across several-acre cane fields; as Cuthbert explained, with less than thirty slaves a jobber “cannot, with his own strength, undertake any job of any consequence.”26
Given their large size, whites formed jobbing gangs “by degrees” over several years, a process that is detailed in the papers of Thomas Thistlewood, overseer on Egypt, a Jamaican sugar estate. In 1756, six years after arriving in Jamaica, Thistlewood bought a sixteen-year-old African man using a bill of credit and renamed him Lincoln. Thistlewood used the money that he earned from renting Lincoln to Egypt, in combination with his own salary, to draw credit from slave factors and purchase twenty-four other Africans from six different ships from 1758 to 1765, deploying his increased borrowing power to acquire progressively larger groups of captives (Table I). By 1765, Thistlewood had spent £876 sterling on twenty-five Africans, an enormous sum given that he initially earned just £43 sterling as an annual salary as Egypt’s overseer. From 1761 to 1766, four of Thistlewood’s enslaved African women gave birth to six children. Thistlewood rented out most of his captives to perform day labor on Egypt, but he also had two of the enslaved women trained to sew and launder and then hired them out to whites in a nearby town. Rather than turning his slaves into a jobbing gang, Thistlewood used his accumulated earnings in 1767 to purchase Breadnut Island, a 160-acre provisions and livestock pen. So, although Thistlewood never became a jobber, his accounts demonstrate that whites who did so first spent much time and money acquiring slaves—twelve years and £876 in Thistlewood’s case. Their captives could expect to perform a variety of [End Page 242] tasks both on and off plantations for several years before they became a job-bing gang.27
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Whites formed their captives into jobbing gangs because they stood to earn large sums through the business. In the second half of the eighteenth century, cane holing by a jobbing gang was normally done at the rate of approximately £3 sterling per acre in Barbados, £4.10–8 in the Leeward Islands, £7–10 in the Windward Islands, and £6–7 in Jamaica. These rates were twice those for an equivalent number of individual slaves, accelerating the earnings for those who acquired enough captives to form a jobbing gang. A range of contemporary estimates suggest that it took approximately thirty-three slaves—nearly a median-sized jobbing gang—a day to hole an acre of land in the second half of the eighteenth century. Given that thirty-three enslaved people cost approximately £1,205 in the same period (£36.5 sterling each), a jobber only needed to hole 402 acres in Barbados and 201 acres in Jamaica to pay off the purchase price of his or her gang. This calculation does not include expenses such as clothing and food, of course, but even when these items are accounted for, jobbers likely earned substantial profits from their captives. One planter calculated that it only took “three or four years” for jobbers to earn more than the cost of their slaves. And a Jamaican millwright who himself hired out gangs of slaves in the 1760s and 1770s estimated that jobbers earned 14 percent each year on their capital, returns that exceeded those earned by both sugar planters and slave traders in the same period. The testimony of jobbers confirms that they made large sums. Dr. James Blaw, who worked in eastern Jamaica in the 1760s and 1770s, told a correspondent that he was making “about” £643 sterling “annually” from his gang of forty-nine slaves; John Kelly, the overseer on the Golden Grove Jamaican plantation, turned “a profit of near” £1,071 a year from his gang of 140 slaves in the same period; and Jamaican overseer Charles Ruddach made “£1,400 sterling” from hiring his much larger gang out in 1793 alone. These were phenomenal sums for men who made just £43 per year upon their arrival on the island, and it made jobbing a particularly attractive business for someone who owned enough enslaved people to form a full jobbing gang.28 [End Page 244]
The jobber’s ultimate ambition was to gain enough wealth to sell the jobbing gang or—less likely because of the prohibitive costs—purchase land, settle the gang on it, and join the planter elite. For sugar planters, purchasing a jobbing gang provided an opportunity to acquire seasoned slaves who were inured to the backbreaking labor of holing and who were typically already acquainted with their plantations and slaves. Jobbers used the planters’ desires to their advantage and valued their slaves at prices that were around one-third to one-half higher than for newly purchased Africans. If they sold their gangs, jobbers might either take their earnings back to Britain or remain in the Caribbean. Blaw sold his Jamaican gang for £3,000 sterling in 1775—more than enough to support a genteel lifestyle in his native Orkney—and retired to Britain four years later. In 1793, Dr. Benjamin Turney sold his seventy-three captives to the Golden Grove plantation for £4,257 sterling and left the island “for good.” At an earlier date, Golden Grove’s overseer, Kelly, sold his enormous gang of 120 slaves for the princely sum of £6,225 sterling. Kelly used the proceeds to form another jobbing gang and became the attorney of the nearby Duckenfield estate, one of the largest sugar plantations in the British Caribbean. According to one account, Kelly was making “twice as much” in profits as the “Proprietors” of Duckenfield by renting out his new gang to the estate. James Renny, a Scottish émigré who owned a jobbing gang in eastern Jamaica, purchased a small sugar estate by borrowing money from his affluent relatives and settled his captives upon it. He was, he wrote, “heartily tired of Jobbing” and wanted to earn “considerable income” from his slaves whether he remained in Jamaica or returned to Britain as an absentee. In the late 1780s, large numbers of jobbers in Barbados, Grenada, and Saint Vincent responded to rising cotton prices by settling their gangs on cotton plantations, which cost less than sugar estates and could be worked by fewer slaves. To landless whites who arrived in the Caribbean as ambitious migrants, the sale or settlement of their jobbing gangs meant that they had entered the plantocracy.29 [End Page 245]
Like sugar planters, jobbers were ruthless pragmatists who made their own careful decisions about how hard to push or how much to preserve their slaves depending on the price of their labor and the value of their bodies. Sugar planters distanced themselves from the “cruel” jobbers to entrench class distinctions, but “a jobber is not necessarily a hard master,” one writer noted in the early nineteenth century; “in his case, as well as in that of the sugar planter, . . . it is his interest to take care of his slaves.” Enslaved people were capital investments for the jobber as well as the planter. As William Beckford noted, “many” jobbers were “practitioners of physic,” and they likely tried to use their knowledge of medicine to heal their captives when holing wore them down. Moreover, holing was task labor, so the jobber, who cared little about long-term soil erosion or the plantation’s crop yields, could allow slaves to dig shallower holes to mitigate their labor. Simon Taylor, for example, complained in 1784 that Golden Grove’s cane fields had just been “Scratched instead of being holed” by a jobbing gang. Barbadian planters likewise complained in 1811 that jobbing gangs did not dig deep enough holes for their canes. The slaves in jobbing gangs undoubtedly struggled to adapt to the brutal demands of so much holing by simply digging shallower holes; jobbers might have been willing to turn a blind eye in order to move their gangs to the next field and, perhaps, help preserve their capital. Yet jobbers’ ultimate goal was still to profit quickly and advance their socioeconomic status. As one author noted in the early nineteenth century, “high [sugar] prices operate in increasing the labour and diminishing the comforts of jobbing gangs” because with “the price of their labour being raised . . . their owner is tempted to compress more of that labour into a small space . . . even at the expense of over-driving his slaves, and exposing to risk both their health and life.” The demand for job-bing gangs soared with sugar prices, and the inflated sugar prices of the 1790s significantly increased the planters’ reliance on gangs and the willingness of their owners to push captives to hole faster and longer.30 [End Page 246]
Scattered records shed light on the bleak lives of the enslaved people whom jobbers worked incessantly to build their fortunes. The five surviving inventories of individual jobbing gangs, all from late eighteenth-century Jamaica, suggest that these groups of slaves were strikingly different than permanently settled plantation communities. Whereas the proportion of permanent male and female plantation slaves tended to be balanced in the late eighteenth century, skilled and supervisory positions almost exclusively went to men, meaning that the vast majority of the field workers were women. The gender composition of jobbing gangs varied considerably, but the majority had a balance of both men and women, tending slightly toward a male majority: of the 337 people in the five gangs, 189 were male, or 56 percent. As one Jamaican planter observed, “The jobber . . . always buys more men than women.” However, almost everyone in a jobbing gang, both men and women, worked in the field because the only supervisory or skilled slaves needed to hole a cane piece were a few drivers. Jobbing-gang slaves were also younger on average than plantation slaves, and the jobbing gangs had fewer children (defined here as fourteen or younger) and elderly people. The average age of Blaw’s fifty slaves was twenty-four years old, and only six people were thirty or older. Overseer John Bromfield’s gang of fifty-three slaves averaged twenty-three years old, but only one was over the age of fifty and only three were children (Figure II). All five jobbing gangs included children, but they only comprised 15 percent of the slaves. When Dr. James McViccar Affleck’s gang, which included a disproportionate number of children, is exempted, the numbers are more striking: just 8 percent of the slaves were children. By comparison, in 1782 at York, a large sugar plantation in Jamaica’s Saint James Parish, the average age of the 449 slaves was twenty-seven, but 23 percent were children and 7 percent were fifty or older (Figure III). Presumably, jobbers sold enslaved people who lived beyond their ability to do hard labor, or else they died young. And, as one abolitionist wrote in the nineteenth century, children were always in the “peculiar danger of being sold to accommodate the circumstances of their owners.” Jobbing slaves, who often lived in what were effectively mobile work camps with fewer elderly people or children among them, faced more challenges than plantation-based slaves in trying to form multigenerational communities and pass on cultures and traditions.31 [End Page 247]
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Jobbing slaves were not only younger but were also more likely than plantation slaves to be African born. In his comprehensive analysis of the slave population of Jamaica ca. 1829–32, B. W. Higman discovered that the highest proportion of Africans “was found in the jobbing gangs.” Given that Higman’s statistics were recorded twenty-two years after the abolition of the slave trade, they likely understate the proportion of Africans in jobbing gangs in the pre-abolition era. In a series of explanatory notes accompanying the inventory of his jobbing gang, for example, Blaw explained that he had “always made a point to buy” enslaved people “rather young than otherwise out of the Ship”; another man built a whole jobbing gang by purchasing people “from the ships.”32 Jobbers forced these Africans “to hard labour as soon as they are bought which is the cause of the death of many of them,” a Jamaican planter observed. In April 1784, for example, a Jamaican bookkeeper and jobber wrote to his uncle that he had purchased fourteen African captives and had hired them out just six weeks later to clear twenty acres—laborious work that involved felling trees and lifting heavy stones. This approach to slave ownership stands in contrast to the periods of rest prescribed by the wealthiest sugar planters to “season” newly arrived Africans. [End Page 250] Jobbing slaves’ incessant work must have been an unimaginably miserable experience, especially for captives who had spent months trapped aboard a slave ship. Forcing Africans to hard labor to quickly extract profits, regardless of the effects on their health, was apparently a deliberate strategy on the jobber’s part. The “jobber only thinks of immediate profit,” one Jamaican planter-attorney observed. “He never thinks of the slow mode of increasing the value of his gang by natural increase.”33 The jobber’s profits depended heavily on a regular supply of captive Africans through the slave trade.
Jobbers lodged the Africans whom they purchased in small work camps. If they were owned by an overseer, jobbing gangs typically lived on the plantation where he was employed. A map of Golden Grove, for example, shows a fifty-acre plot in the woods a mile from the plantation slaves’ houses that was leased to John Kelly to house his jobbing gang. Other jobbers purchased small pieces of land for themselves, either marginal plots in the hills and woods between the fertile sugar-producing areas or livestock “pens” with cattle, mules, poultry, and sheep. Like plantation slaves, job-bing gangs were forced to erect huts and grow their own food in provision grounds. They also had to tend livestock and plant ginger, pimiento, and coffee, which they were expected to cultivate and harvest in the brief time they spent at home. Kelly’s land even included a structure labeled as “Kelly’s Folly,” implying that he had his gang working on frivolous construction projects in their meager spare time.34
Jobbing gangs traveled the countryside depending on when and where their owners found them work. They often spent part of the year toiling [End Page 251] on the same plantation for which their owner worked, or they would labor on nearby estates belonging to their owner’s acquaintances. Jobbing slaves thought working “near home,” one nineteenth-century observer wrote, “particularly advantageous” because they did not have to walk far to start the taxing work of holing and could return home to collect provisions at night. On other occasions, jobbers contracted with plantations that were as far as twenty miles away, so the enslaved people had to begin the work week by spending hours trudging on rough and often washed-out roads to a work camp. Once at these more distant plantations, their owner would force them to erect a “hut, consisting of one long room”; alternatively, they were made to sleep in the plantation slaves’ houses or in the estate’s works. Jobbing slaves returned to their homes “every Friday evening or Saturday,” one former overseer wrote, where they were expected to tend their provision grounds and prepare enough food to subsist on for the week. On Monday morning, they returned to their work sites to begin holing again, carrying with them a week’s worth of provisions. For enslaved people living in this sort of situation, it was quite difficult to tend provision grounds of their own and trade their surplus for small luxuries at market. While they were away from home, their unattended provision grounds could also be easily plundered by thieves or trampled by livestock.35
Mobility had its advantages and disadvantages for the enslaved when it came to fostering community relationships. The enslaved in jobbing gangs had the opportunity to make the “numerous acquaintance” of free men and slaves, certainly more than the average plantation-based slave. They could form friendship and romantic bonds with slaves on the plantations they visited, and the numerous Africans in jobbing gangs could find captives who shared their languages and cultures and even maintain contact with shipmates. Mobility may thus have allowed jobbing slaves to mitigate some of the barriers they faced in forming multigenerational communities and transmitting cultures and traditions. Ideally, they became conduits of [End Page 252] information for enslaved people, linking together shipmates, friends, and colinguists over the long distances that they traveled. Yet, as one Barbadian argued, it was also possible that “hurtful, and sometimes fatal jealousies” could erupt between the enslaved in jobbing gangs and the more permanent plantation community. Tensions over inadequate food resources, unequal workloads and the daily struggle for survival created a tinderbox in enslaved communities.36
Though all slaves spent their days toiling for capricious masters, job-bing slaves had one of the most laborious calendars of any captives in the Americas. In addition to the drudgery of marching long distances and struggling to raise provisions, jobbing slaves had “hard labour to perform” from sunup to sundown. Whereas plantation slaves might only hole one or two cane pieces at a time, jobbing slaves had to dig throughout the holing season, which stretched for seven agonizing months. They also holed sporadically outside the main season, enabling planters either to put in canes later or to allow cane fields to bear at key moments in the year; some planters likely hired jobbing gangs out of season because they were more readily available. And in the five months that these enslaved people were not doing their primary work of holing, jobbers hired them out to do other laborious tasks, such as digging roads, felling trees, building fences, hauling heavy baskets of dung, tending crops and animals, “hoe-ploughing” fields, and planting provisions.37
As a result, though enslaved sugar workers of all sorts experienced exhausting labors and malnourishment, jobbing slaves were, numerous contemporaries thought, even “more worn down and wretched.” Four different witnesses compared jobbing slaves to workhorses whose masters worked them to their “last expiring sob.” These comments, largely from abolitionists, are borne out by the testimony of planters and even jobbers themselves. “In the hands of jobbers,” planter-historian William Beckford wrote, “it is amazing what numbers of negroes die.” Jamaican overseer and jobber William Fitzmaurice told Parliament that he had purchased ninety-five people and sold the remaining fifty-two just four years later—almost half of his captives died. Blaw “lost upwards of 20 Negroes in the space of 6 or 7 years in forming” his gang of forty-nine slaves. Blaw’s treatment (or mis-treatment) killed almost a third of the slaves he purchased, even though he lodged them on a “dry healthy hill.” Blaw added in an explanatory note to the inventory of his captives that four of them were not “fit” for what he [End Page 253] called “the hardships of Jobbing.” These “hardships” were so terrible that jobbing was, according to two nineteenth-century commentators, “universally regarded by the negroes as the worst kind of service.” “So great is the objection they have of being sold to jobbers,” one Jamaican observer wrote, “that I have known many of them run away to avoid it.” Another witness opined that plantation slaves faced the continual fear of being “converted into jobbing gangs” when their masters fell into “pecuniary distress.” An enslaved community on a Bahamas cotton plantation staged a revolt in 1830 to prevent their master from converting them into a jobbing gang on a neighboring island.38
A few jobbing slaves may have been able to revolt or flee the grueling labor of holing, but the majority escaped jobbing only through sale to plantations. Jobbing slaves were, according to one Jamaican attorney, “happy when they are fixed for life upon a larger Estate” because they no longer had to “work on different Estates.” Though it is difficult to test this statement, the logic behind it is clear. Former jobbing slaves could tend their provision grounds and become enmeshed in more permanent slave communities. Some former jobbing slaves may have been able to live permanently with their wives or husbands, people whom they met while traveling the countryside or camping on a plantation. Kelly’s gang, for example, already had “their Houses & Grounds on” the Golden Grove plantation to which they were sold in 1774, and at least five of them subsequently had children there. And Dr. James McVicar Affleck’s gang of 143 slaves was “intimately connected” to the slaves on a nearby Jamaican sugar plantation to which they were meant to be sold in 1796. Sale to a plantation also meant that jobbing slaves had an opportunity—albeit a slim one—to finally escape the grinding work of holing and move into non-field positions. Thus, of the forty-three slaves from Kelly’s gang who were still living in 1790 (twenty-six years after their sale), twenty-one no longer worked in the field. Though sale to a plantation did not end jobbing slaves’ miseries, it did offer a better chance to start families and to perform different kinds of work.39 [End Page 254]
“With the jobbing gang,” a visitor to Jamaica wrote in 1828, “appeared another and a new view of slavery”: plantation-less enslavers who hired out large, mobile gangs of enslaved people to perform the most physically taxing tasks on sugar plantations. Although marginal in the historiography, the slaves working in jobbing gangs may have comprised 10 percent of the enslaved population of the British Caribbean in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and an even higher percentage in the most fertile sugar-growing parishes. Moreover, with from 10 to 150 captives in each gang, these were some of the largest slave holdings in the Atlantic world. The lives of these slaves challenge our understanding of the experience of Caribbean slavery. Enslaved sugar workers were not only life prisoners on plantations but instead could be highly mobile, covering many miles in a single week, working at multiple sites, and interacting with numerous communities of other slaves, all the while remaining deeply enmeshed in sugar production. The trajectory of typical jobbing slaves over the course of their working lives—from initial purchase from a slave ship through their labors in traveling gangs and then, perhaps, sale to a plantation—also demonstrates that enslaved people often shifted from a mobile to a stationary status, and when plantation slaves were sold to jobbing gangs they could shift the other way. Studying jobbing gangs thus prompts us to think about the experiences of the tens of thousands of enslaved people who were not attached to plantations in the British Caribbean but whose lives were still shaped by the draconian violence and unmitigated work of agricultural slave labor.40
The existence of jobbing gangs also highlights the importance of the transatlantic slave trade for enabling innovative, but highly exploitative, new forms of enslaved labor to flourish in the Americas. It was the availability of Africans through the slave trade, coupled with the enormous sums that could be earned by hiring those Africans out, that created jobbing gangs in the early eighteenth century. A continual supply of replacement workers enabled ambitious whites to work their captives literally to death while still earning large profits—what one nineteenth-century observer rightly called a “sordid and cruel calculation.” And the existence of a large pool of reserve laborers—untethered from the land—allowed planters to resolve inefficiencies in production that came with a fixed-labor force and varying [End Page 255] seasonal demands. These enslavers could shift the most arduous work onto this growing reserve force and simultaneously preserve their own labor force. The work of holing was “hard on the hired negroes,” one Jamaican planter candidly wrote, but it “at least relieves my own.”41 Moreover, planters could use the hired gangs while they monitored the price and availability of African slaves, built up capital for investment, or improved bad credit, making the acquisition of new workers through the slave trade less pressing. Given that jobbing gangs were a phenomenon that was almost literally shackled to the slave trade, it is not surprising that the numbers of enslaved people in jobbing gangs dwindled rapidly after abolition in 1807.
Seen in this way, the institution of slavery did not force planters to resist innovation and change, as abolitionists and an older generation of historians suggested. Rather, it encouraged whites to think of novel ways to commodify and exploit African laborers, creating a new form of labor that melded the unchecked violence and coercive control of racial slavery with the flexibility that historians more readily associate with capitalistic wage labor. This new hybrid system helped sugar planters both to significantly increase the productivity of their estates in an era when slave prices rose faster than sugar prices and to avoid increasing the burdens upon their own slaves, their capital investments. But it was only the ceaseless toil and premature deaths of thousands of jobbing-gang slaves that enabled this new system to flourish. Paradoxically, then, the planters’ demand for hired workers to mitigate the labor of their own slaves made some people even more disposable, nothing more than a notation in an expense account, all but invisible and all too easily forgotten. [End Page 256]
Nicholas Radburn is a lecturer in Atlantic history at Lancaster University, and Justin Roberts is an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University.
The authors would like to thank the participants in the May 2017 Johns Hopkins Atlantic Research Seminar, the September 2017 Dalhousie University Laurence D. Stokes Seminar, and the January 2018 Economic and Social History of the Early Modern World Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. The authors are also in debt to Ian Beamish, Trevor Burnard, Brennan P. Dempsey, Claire Gherini, Scott Heerman, B. W. Higman, Philip D. Morgan, Diana Paton, Katherine Smoak Radburn, Sasha Turner, Nuala Zahedieh, and the anonymous readers for the William and Mary Quarterly for helping them to develop and hone this article.
1. James Stephen, The Slavery of the British West India Colonies Delineated. . . ., vol. 2, Being a Delineation of the State in Point of Practice (London, 1830), 233 (quotations). For works that stress opportunities, freedoms, and social mobility for slaves who were not confined to a plantation, see for example B. W. Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 (Kingston, 1995), 203–4, 226–59; Howard Johnson, The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude, 1783–1933 (Gainesville, Fla., 1996), 18–23, 33–46; W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass., 1997); Heather Cateau, “The New ‘Negro’ Business: Hiring in the British West Indies, 1750–1810,” in In the Shadow of the Plantation: Caribbean History and Legacy, ed. Alvin O. Thompson (Kingston, 2002), 100–120; Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, Mass., 2003); Pedro L. V. Welch, Slave Society in the City: Bridgetown, Barbados, 1680–1834 (Oxford, 2003). In contrast, Marisa J. Fuentes has recently stressed the significant degrees of violence and oppression that enslaved women experienced while living in urban sites. See Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016).
2. Mary Turner, “Slave Workers, Subsistence and Labour Bargaining: Amity Hall, Jamaica, 1805–1832,” in The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas, ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (London, 1991), 92–106 (“instrumental,” 103); Heather Cateau, “Re-examining the Labour Matrix in the British Caribbean 1750 to 1850,” in Emancipation and the Remaking of the British Imperial World, ed. Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, and Keith McClelland (Manchester, 2014), 98–112 (“hiring,” 101); Ulrich B. Phillips, “A Jamaica Slave Plantation,” American Historical Review 19, no. 3 (April 1914): 543–58; B. W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (Kingston, 1995), 11–27; Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 47, 54, 164. See also Higman, “Patterns of Exchange within a Plantation Economy: Jamaica at the Time of Emancipation,” in West Indies Accounts: Essays on the History of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic Economy in Honour of Richard Sheridan, ed. Roderick A. McDonald (Kingston, 1996), 222–24; Johnson, Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude, 42; Cateau, “New ‘Negro’ Business.” For studies of sugar plantations that discuss jobbing gangs, see Turner, “Chattel Slaves into Wage Slaves: A Jamaican Case Study,” in From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves: The Dynamics of Labour Bargaining in the Americas, ed. Turner (London, 1995), 33–47; Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), 134–38, 154.
3. For Jamaica’s portion of British Caribbean sugar output, see Ahmed Reid, “Sugar, Slavery and Productivity in Jamaica, 1750–1807,” Slavery and Abolition 37, no. 1 (March 2016): 159–82, esp. 160. At its height in 1797, Jamaica was producing 66 percent of British Caribbean sugar.
4. For the argument that British Caribbean plantation productivity “possibly doubled” from 1700 to 1790, see David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and David Richardson, “Slave Prices, the African Slave Trade, and Productivity in the Caribbean, 1674–1807,” Economic History Review 58, no. 4 (November 2005): 672–700 (quotation, 694). For J. R. Ward’s assessment that these productivity gains were most rapid from the 1770s until abolition, see Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 1750–1834: The Process of Amelioration (Oxford, 1988), 190–98. Ward argues that some of the productivity gains were due to the improved physical health and diet of the enslaved. Other innovations that contributed to increased productivity included changes in processing equipment and accounting practices and the development of more drought-resistant varieties of sugarcane; see Veront M. Satchell, “Technology and Productivity Change in the Jamaican Sugar Industry, 1760–1830” (Ph.D. diss., University of the West Indies, Kingston, 1994); Justin Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750–1807 (Cambridge, 2013), 26–79; Trevor Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820 (Chicago, 2015), 189; Reid, Slavery and Abolition 37: 159–82.
5. For recent works that have explored the links between slavery and capitalism, see Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” in The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions, ed. Cathy Matson (University Park, Pa., 2006), 335–62; Caitlin C. Rosenthal, “From Memory to Mastery: Accounting for Control in America, 1750–1880,” Enterprise and Society 14, no. 4 (December 2013): 732–48; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven, Conn., 2015); Caitlin Rosenthal, “Slavery’s Scientific Management: Masters and Managers,” in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, ed. Beckert and Rockman (Philadelphia, 2016), 62–86; Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston, 2017). For the link between violence and productivity, see Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass., 2013), 248; Edward E. Baptist, “Toward a Political Economy of Slave Labor: Hands, Whipping-Machines, and Modern Power,” in Beckert and Rockman, Slavery’s Capitalism, 31–61. For West Indian planters’ exploitative nature, see for example Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1972); Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004); Burnard and John Garrigus, The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint-Domingue and British Jamaica (Philadelphia, 2016).
6. For the importance of jobbing gangs in the transition to wage labor, see Walter Rodney, “Plantation Society in Guyana,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 4, no. 4 (Spring 1981): 643–66, esp. 648; Michael J. Craton, “Reshuffling the Pack: The Transition from Slavery to Other Forms of Labor in the British Caribbean, ca. 1790–1890,” New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 68, no. 1/2 (1994): 23–75; Cateau, “Re-examining the Labour Matrix”; Natasha Lightfoot, Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation (Durham, N.C., 2015).
7. R[ichard] Bickell, The West Indies as They Are; or a Real Picture of Slavery: But More Particularly as It Exists in the Island of Jamaica (London, 1825), 52 (“worked,” “gold ”), 51 (“fortunes”). For more on inequalities in standards of living among Caribbean slaves, see Justin Roberts, “The ‘Better Sort’ and the ‘Poorer Sort’: Wealth Inequalities, Family Formation and the Economy of Energy on British Caribbean Sugar Plantations, 1750–1800,” Slavery and Abolition 35, no. 3 (September 2014): 458–73.
8. For the development of the deep-holing system, see Peter Thompson, “Henry Drax’s Instructions on the Management of a Seventeenth-Century Barbadian Sugar Plantation,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 86, no. 3 (July 2009): 565–604 (quotation, 590); David Watts, “Origins of Barbadian Cane Hole Agriculture,” Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 32, no. 3 (May 1968): 143–51. For earlier planting techniques, see Richard Ligon, A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados. . . . (London, 1657), 87–88; Samuel Clarke, A True, and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America. . . . (London, 1670), 80. For the spread of deep holing beyond Barbados, see [Edward Long], The History of Jamaica. . . . (London, 1774), 1: 435; “Mr. Richard Beckford’s Instruction to Messrs. John Cope, Richard Lewing and Robert Mason,” Apr. 10, 1754, Thomas Thistlewood Papers (TTP), OSB MSS 176, box 11, folder 81, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (hereafter BRBML), Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; An Old Planter [Samuel Martin], An Essay upon Plantership. . . ., 2d ed. (Antigua, 1750), 20–31; The Art of Making Sugar. . . . (London, 1752), 6–7; An Old Planter [Gordon Turnbull], Letters to a Young Planter . . . Written on the Island of Grenada (London, 1785), 2–10; Clement Caines, Letters on the Cultivation of the Otaheite Cane. . . . (London, 1801), 40–51.
9. A Professional Planter [James Collins], Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, in the Sugar Colonies (London, 1803), 177 (“holing gang”); John Dovaston, “Agricultura Americana or Improvements in West India Husbandry. . . .,” 1774, Codex Eng 60, vol. 2, p. 53 (“straggling”), John Carter Brown Library, Providence, R.I. For the development of the integrated plantation and gang labor, see Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves, 22–52.
10. According to experienced Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards, an “able” slave was expected to dig “sixty to eighty” holes in a ten-hour workday, or one every eight to ten minutes; on loose, fallow soils, a slave had to dig twice as many holes. See Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (Dublin, 1793), 2: 206–7 (quotations, 2: 207). A nineteenth-century Jamaican planter offered a calculation for all soils, estimating that each person should dig one hundred holes per day; see H. T. De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes in Jamaica (London, 1825), 6. According to Edwards, the base of a cane hole was fifteen inches wide and its top thirty inches on its square sides, dug to a depth of six inches; Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, 206–7. That equals 1.82 cubic feet per hole: v=1/3 ((15*15) + (15*30) + (30*30))*6=3,150 cubic inches=1.8229 cubic feet. A hundred holes are consequently 182 cubic feet, each cubic foot of which weighs approximately eighty pounds, equaling 14,560 pounds, or 7.28 tons. For the heavy hoe used in holing, see Chris Evans, “The Plantation Hoe: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Commodity, 1650–1850,” WMQ 69, no. 1 (January 2012): 71–100.
11. Simon Taylor to Sir Chaloner Arcedeckne, Sept. 9, 1782, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean: Part 1: Jamaica, c1765–1848 (PLC): The Taylor and Vanneck-Arcedeckne Papers. . . . (Marlborough, U.K., 2005), microfilm, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1782/36 (“hard”); Gilbert Mathison, Notices Respecting Jamaica, in 1808–1809–1810 (London, 1811), 37 (“hardness”). For holing, see also [James Stephen], The Crisis of the Sugar Colonies. . . . (London, 1802), 10; William Dickson, Letters on Slavery. . . . (London, 1789), 22–23. For daily acreage, see James Ramsay, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (London, 1784), 119; Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, 2: 207; Caines, Letters on the Cultivation of the Otaheite Cane, 246; Minutes of the Society for the Improvement of Plantership in the Island of Barbados. . . . (Liverpool, 1811), 12. For the days of labor involved in holing, see Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment, 107. One witness before Parliament noted that in some holing gangs the “weakly” slaves fell behind the pace when the “able” slaves “work[ed] forward.” In such circumstances, “the weakly Negro seldom fails of being severely flogged up by the driver, and considered as worthless,” “hurr[ying]” the person “to their grave”; see Testimony of [William] Fitzmaurice, Mar. 9, 1791, in Sheila Lambert, ed., House of Commons Sessional Papers of the Eighteenth Century (HCSP), vol. 82, George III: Slave Trade 1791 and 1792 (Wilmington, Del., 1975), 217–20 (quotations, 219).
12. William Vassal to John Wedderburn, Jan. 1, 1778, in The Vassal Letter Books, 1769–1800 (Wakefield, U.K., 1963), fol. 128 (“the hardest”); William Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, in Two Parts (London, 1814), 164 (“very laborious”); [Long], History of Jamaica, 1: 448 (“no other”); James Grainger, The Sugar-Cane: A Poem. In Four Books. With Notes (London, 1764), 21 (“task”). A Barbadian doctor writing in 1812 traced the “diseases of debility” to holing; Minute book of the [Barbados] Agricultural Society, 1812–16, May 23, 1812, University of Keele, U.K., 63–64, quoted in Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 163. For demographic decline in Caribbean slave populations, see Michael Tadman, “The Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in the Americas,” American Historical Review 105, no. 5 (December 2000): 1534–75; Eltis, Lewis, and Richardson, Economic History Review 58: 690. For seasonal mortality and sickness rates, see Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 150–51; Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment, 170–78. For white mortality rates, see Amanda Thornton, “Coerced Care: Thomas Thistlewood’s Account of Medical Practice on Enslaved Populations in Colonial Jamaica, 1751–1786,” Slavery and Abolition 32, no. 4 (December 2011): 548–50. For a sample of 391 deaths showing seasonal mortality rates by sex, see Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment, 177–78. For arthritic changes in skeletons, see Kristrina A. Shuler, “Health, History, and Sugar: A Bioarcheaological Study of Enslaved Africans from Newton Plantation, Barbados, West Indies” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2005), 301–4, 309. For Grainger’s jobbing gang, see John Gilmore, The Poetics of Empire: A Study of James Grainger’s “The Sugar-Cane” (London, 2000), 17.
13. “Governor Crowe to the Council of Trade and Plantations,” Nov. 3, 1708, in Cecil Headlam, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series: America and West Indies (London, 1922), 24: 126, quoted in Watts, Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 32: 149 (“Mr. Arnol”); Codrington Attorneys to Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), June 20, 1748, Correspondence of Attorneys, Codrington Papers (CP), C/COD/35 in West Indies Records of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel c.1710–1908: In the U.S.P.G. London (East Ardsley, U.K., 1984), microfilm,  (“do the work”); Walter Tullideph to Governor Thomas, Aug. 18, 1742, in Richard B. Sheridan, “Letters from a Sugar Plantation in Antigua, 1739–1758,” Agricultural History 31, no. 3 (July 1957): 3–23 (“hired ye,” 7). For the prevalence of jobbing gangs throughout the British Caribbean in the 1780s, see the islands’ numerous responses to Parliament’s question “Are many Negroes usually let out to hire, in what Numbers, and on what Conditions?,” in Report of the Lords of the Committee of Council appointed for the Consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations. . . . ([London?], 1789), 210 (“let out”), 350 (“Task work Gangs”), 284, 290, 322, 357, 368, 406, 427. For the Jamaican attorney, see Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedekne, Jan. 27, 1769, in Betty Wood, with T. R. Clayton and W. A. Speck, eds., “The Letters of Simon Taylor of Jamaica to Chaloner Arcedekne, 1765–1775,” in Travel, Trade and Power in the Atlantic, 1765–1884, ed. Wood and Martin Lynn (Cambridge, 2002), 66–72 (“every other,” 71). For Lowthers plantation, see Lowthers Plantation Annual Financial Abstract, 1756, Papers of the Duke of Cleveland, Add. MSS 43507, British Library (BL), London. For the scarcity of hired slaves in Barbados, see also William Belgrove, A Treatise upon Husbandry or Planting. . . . (Boston, 1755), 9. For jobbing gangs in Jamaica, see “Mr. Richard Beckford’s Instruction,” Apr. 10, 1754, TTP, OSB MSS 176, box 11, folder 81, BRBML, where Beckford empowered his manager to “hire Negroes to fall & plant” forty acres of his plantation. For jobbing gangs in Demerara, see [Georgetown, Demerara] Essequebo and Demerary Gazette, Jan. 28, 1804.
14. For differences between the older and newer sugar islands and the high prices paid in Jamaica, see Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, 262–63 (“varie[d],” “considerable,” 262); Francis Farley to Clement Tudway, Mar. 5, 1771, Correspondence from Antigua, 1767–1783, D01, Tudway of Wells Papers (TWP), Somerset Record Office (SRO) (“augment”). The Parham attorney also recommended that the overseers be paid more or they would be lured away by prospects in the “new islands” (ibid.). For the different demand for jobbing gangs within Jamaica, see Higman, “Patterns of Exchange,” 222.
15. Testimony of Henry Coor, Feb. 19, 1791, in Lambert, HCSP, 82: 93–99 (“increase,” 82: 96); William Vassal to John Wedderburn, Aug. 24, 1773, in Vassal Letter Books, fol. 72 (“overwork”); Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Sept. 9, 1782, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1782/36 (“Hard”); William Beckford, Remarks upon the Situation of Negroes in Jamaica. . . . (London, 1788), 95 (“almost”); Annual Abstract of Accounts, 1779, FitzHerbert of Tissington (FT), D239/M/E/20689, Derbyshire Record Office (DRO), microfilm copy, Barbados Department of Archives, Black Rock. For Mesopotamia, see Dunn, Tale of Two Plantations, 134; the year 1777 appears in both date ranges on page 134. For consistency, we have rendered Jamaican pounds in pounds sterling. One pound sterling was worth 1.4 Jamaican pounds.
16. Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, in Minutes of the Evidence Taken at The Bar of the House of Lords, upon the Order made for taking into Consideration the present State of the Trade to Africa, and particularly the Trade in Slaves. . . . ([London], 1792), 87 (“jobbing”); Testimony of George Hibbert, Mar. 20, 1790, in Lambert, HCSP, vol. 72, George III: Minutes of Evidence on the Slave Trade 1790, Part 2 (Wilmington, Del., 1795), 385–97 (“10,000,” 394, “and others,” 395); Report of the Lords, 350 (“about 700”), 354; Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, 262 (“considerable”). For the difficulty in determining the precise number of enslaved people in jobbing gangs, see Higman, “Patterns of Exchange,” 222. Higman agrees that the demand for jobbing gangs may have been higher in St. James than in some other parishes; see ibid., 224. For the St. James census, see “Settlers in the Parish of Saint James next in degree to sugar Planters, consisting of Pens, Coffee planters, Jobbers, Millwrights, Carpenters, Masons & suchlike,” Edward Long Papers, Add. MSS 12435, BL.
17. [Collins], Practical Rules, 175–212 (“night work,” 184); William Belgrove, A Treatise Upon Husbandry or Planting (Boston, 1755), 65 (“abelest”); Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Sept. 3, 1787, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1787/14 (“Spring”; as Taylor pointed out, the spring plant “never can be done by the Estates people, as the Mill is then always about”); entry, Jan. 13, 1816, in Matthew Gregory Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, Kept During a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (London, 1834), 95–102 (“English,” 102); William Vassal to John Wedderburn, June 18, 1784, in Vassal Letter Books, fol. 209; A Gentleman [John Stewart], An Account of Jamaica, and Its Inhabitants (London, 1808), 111. James Collins estimated that only “one-sixth” of a plantation’s slaves would be strong enough for holing; [Collins], Practical Rules, 177. For the division of labor at Prospect plantation, see Six Plantation Journals for Prospect Estate, Jan. 1, 1787–Dec. 31, 1793, 0627-0019, in Records of the Jamaican Prospect Estate, microform (Wakefield, U.K., 2004), CD-ROM, also available at “Slavery: Supporters and Abolitionists, 1675–1865,” British Online Archives, https://microform.digital/boa/collections/69/slavery-supporters-and-abolitionists-1675-1865?q=Prospect%20Jamaica; for the records guide, see https://microform.digital/map/guides/R97615.pdf.
18. John Lane and Thomas Lane to [William Yard?], Sept. 12, 1795, Newton Family Papers, MS523/967, Senate House Library, University of London Archives (quotations). For rising slave prices from the late 1740s to the late 1780s, see Eltis, Lewis, and Richardson, Economic History Review 58: 679. For the comparative price increases from 1780 to 1807, see Reid, Slavery and Abolition 37: 163.
19. Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedekne, Feb. 25, 1770, in Wood, “Letters of Taylor to Arcedekne,” 85–89 (“Steel,” “falling of[f ],” 87); Taylor to Arcedekne, Jan. 27, 1769, ibid., 1 (“strength”); Malcolm Laing to William Philip Perrin, Mar. 24, 1772, FT, D239/M/E/16733, DRO (“adding”); Main Swete Walrond to Clement Tudway, Apr. 23, 1783, Correspondence from Antigua, 1767–1783, D01, TWP, SRO (“The loss”); J[ohn] Stewart, A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica. . . . (Edinburgh, 1823), 234 (“hardest”), 234–35 (“save their”); Robert Thompson to William D. Shipley, June 22, 1797, Bodrhyddan Papers, in Clare Taylor, ed., West Indian Planter Attitudes to the American and French Revolutions as Seen in Manuscripts, in the National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth, U.K., 1978), 308–11. See also Robert E. Gallman and Ralph V. Anderson, “Slaves as Fixed Capital: Slave Labor and Southern Economic Development,” Journal of American History 64, no. 1 (June 1977): 24–46.
20. Sampson Wood to Thomas Lane, Mar. 31, 1798, Newton Family Papers, MS523/334, Senate House Library, University of London Archives (quotation). For the emphasis on natural reproduction starting in the 1780s, see Sasha Turner, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (Philadelphia, 2017). The most complete work on the era of amelioration and its economic and social consequences remains Ward, British West Indian Slavery. See also Mary Turner, “Planter Profits and Slave Rewards: Amelioration Reconsidered,” in McDonald, West Indies Accounts, 232–52; Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment, 60–61; Christa Dierksheide, Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas (Charlottesville, Va., 2014); J. R. Ward, “The Amelioration of British West Indian Slavery: Anthropometric Evidence,” Economic History Review 71, no. 4 (November 2018): 1199–226.
21. Edwin Lascelles et al., Instructions for the Management of a Plantation in Barbadoes. And for the Treatment of Negroes, etc. etc. etc. (London, 1786), 2 (“worked”), 1, 6; W. F. Whitehouse, Agricola’s Letters and Essays on Sugar Farming in Jamaica (London, 1845), 220 (“as soon”); Main Swete Walrond to Clement Tudway, Apr. 23, 1783, Correspondence from Antigua, 1767–1783, D01, TWP, SRO (“are Sickly”); Thomas Cooper and George Hibbert, Correspondence between George Hibbert, Esq. and the Rev. T. Cooper: Relative to the Condition of the Negro Slaves in Jamaica. . . . (London, 1824), 7–8 (“the fullest,” 7, “often eased,” 7–8); [Robert Charles Dallas], A Short Journey in the West Indies. . . . (London, 1790), 2: 4 (“ignorant”). At least one planter believed that his use of jobbing gangs would forestall rebellions among his slaves. The manager of Nathaniel Phillips’s Jamaican plantations explained to him in 1792 that the slaves in the nearby mountains “were mutinous,” but he assured Phillips that his own slaves “have never shewn the last discontent.” By way of explanation, he noted that “they have not been pressed too much in holeing last year” because he had contracted to have new canes on both plantations put in by a jobbing gang. See Thomas Barritt to Phillips, Feb. 8, 1792, in Jamaican Material in the Slebech Papers (JMSP), British Records Relating to America in Microform (BRRAM) (Wakefield, U.K., 2004), 8388.
22. For the expense of holing and the premiums paid, see Patrick Kein, An Essay upon Pen-Keeping and Plantership (Kingston, 1796), 85 (quotation); Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment, 149–50. Jobbing gangs cost twice as much as an equivalent team of day-laboring slaves hired as individuals. Presumably planters paid premiums to cover the cost of the detrimental effects of holing on the health of the slaves in the jobbing gangs, the specialization of the jobbing slaves, and the logistics of forming a jobbing gang. Like the free labor market, the availability of jobbing gangs did create some labor uncertainties for planters. The attorneys for the SPG complained about the “Precarious Dependency on hired labour” on the society’s two Barbadian estates because “it is almost always a Contingency, whether they [jobbing gangs] can be hired or not”; Letter from SPG Attorneys at Barbados, July 10, 1760, Correspondence from Attorneys, 1760–1770, CP, C/WI/COD/39, in West Indies Records, microfilm,  (“Precarious”),  (“Contingency”).
23. Samuel Rollstone to William Fitzherbert, July 9, 1757, FT, D239/M/E/20512, DRO (“uncertain”); Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, June 1, 1783, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1783/19 (“It is”); Taylor to Arcedeckne, Nov. 3, 1783, ibid., Vanneck-Arc/3A/1783/40 (“never will”); Taylor to [Haughton?], July 24, 1784, ibid., Letterbook 1779–1785 (“actually”). In 1793, a Jamaican jobber wrote that the “business is now really almost overdone” because the planters were all “stocking their Estates with Negroes,” indicating that Taylor was not exceptional in choosing to purchase slaves to lower the cost of jobbing. See James Renny to John Tailyour, June 28, 1793, Tailyour Family Papers (TFP), box 5, William Clements Library (WCL), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
24. Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey, The West Indies in 1837; Being the Journal of a Visit to Antigua, Montserrat, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbadoes, and Jamaica. . . ., 2d ed. (London, 1838), 442 (“to dig”); entry, Jan. 13, 1816, in Lewis, Journal of a West-India Proprietor, 101 (“digging holes”); Cooper and Hibbert, Correspondence, 8 (“cane-holes”); Alexander Barclay, A Practical View of the Present State of Slavery in the West Indies. . . . (London, 1826), 266 (“many of ”). Barclay estimated that of the 320,000 slaves in Jamaica in 1817, somewhere from “50,000 to 70,000 [remained] the property of small settlers, jobbers, mechanics, and persons in towns.” Ibid., 264–65. Sugar planter H. T. De La Beche wrote in 1825 that “Jobbing gangs are . . . by no means so numerous as they formerly were, the abolition of the slave trade having in a great measure prevented overseers and others who had acquired some little money from investing it in this kind of property.” See De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes, 34. For the numbers of enslaved people in Jamaica in 1832, see Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 16. For the decline of jobbing gangs after 1807, see also Christer Petley, Slaveholders in Jamaica: Colonial Society and Culture during the Era of Abolition (London, 2009), 28–29. Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (LBS), database, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs, shows that six jobbers were compensated for the emancipation of their gangs. The editors of LBS informed us that there are likely hundreds of jobbing gangs within the database, albeit without being explicitly identified as such; Dr. Nick Draper, editor, email to authors, Aug. 21, 2018.
25. Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, in Minutes of the Evidence, 77 (“the only”); Testimony of Simon Taylor, ibid., 121–30 (“These people,” 128); Testimony of Henry Coor, in Lambert, HCSP, 82: 96 (“every overseer”). For the cost of a plantation and the wages of white bookkeepers, see Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, 2: 238–48. Edwards noted that overseers earned £143 per year. Even with that sum, a white employee would have to work for 207 years before he could purchase a sugar plantation; ibid., 248. For white plantation staff, see B. W. Higman, Plantation Jamaica, 1750–1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy (Kingston, 2005), 29–32.
26. Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, in Minutes of the Evidence, 109 (quotation). For the Saint James census, see “Settlers in the Parish of Saint James,” Long Papers, Add. MSS 12435, BL. For tobacco and rice plantations, see Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Williamsburg, Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998), 40–41. For cotton plantations, see Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York, 1994), 30.
27. Thomas Cooper, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves in Jamaica: With Notes and an Appendix (London, 1824), 62 (quotation). For Thistlewood’s group, see Table I. For Thistlewood’s initial salary, see Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, Sept. 16, 1751, TTP, OSB MSS 176, box 1, folder 2, BRBML. For Thistlewood, see Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire. For the use of credit to acquire slaves to hire out, see also Charles Ruddach to Charles Stewart, Apr. 1, 1784, Jamaica Manuscripts Collection (JMC), 1774–1950, ASM0320, item 17, University of Miami Special Collections (UM), Gainesville, Fla.
28. Bickell, West Indies as They Are, 51 (“three”); Dr. James Blaw to William Philip Perrin, Jan. 13, 1775, FT, D239/M/E/17730, DRO (“about”); Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedekne, Mar. 12, 1774, in Wood, “Letters of Taylor to Arcedekne,” 126 (“a profit”); Charles Ruddach to Charles Stewart, May 14, 1794, JMC, ASM0320, item 17, UM (“£1,400”). For the time taken to hole a cane piece and the cost of jobbing gangs versus individual hired slaves, see Ramsay, Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves, 119; Caines, Letters on the Cultivation of the Otaheite Cane, 246; Minutes of the Society, 12; Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, 262–63; Cateau, “New ‘Negro’ Business,” 105. See also 239 n. 22, above. The demand for jobbing gangs was high enough in Barbados by the end of the eighteenth century that the costs rose to £4 per acre in 1798. See Edward Clarke to John Brathwaite, Oct. 2, 1798, Correspondence of Edward Clarke, Estate Manager, 1795–1800, CP, C/COD/46, in West Indies Records, microfilm, . For estimates of jobbers’ profits, see Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, 264. The Jamaican mill-wright wrote that many jobbers “make much more” than the 14 percent average return that he quoted; see Testimony of Henry Coor, in Lambert, HCSP, 82: 96 (quotation). Sugar planters from the British West Indies earned average annual rates of profit that fluctuated from 7.1 to 13.5 percent from 1749 to 1834. See Ward, British West Indian Slavery, 48. For slave traders’ profits, which averaged 10 percent, see Nicholas Radburn, “Guinea Factors, Slave Sales, and the Profits of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica: The Case of John Tailyour,” WMQ 72, no. 2 (April 2015): 243–86, esp. 278–85.
29. Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Feb. 4, 1794, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1794/3 (“for good”). For Kelly as attorney, see Taylor to Arcedeckne, Oct. 29, 1782, ibid., Vanneck-Arc/3A/1782/44 (“twice”). For James Renny, see Renny to John Tailyour, Oct. 23, 1795, TFP, box 5, WCL (“heartily”). For the premium prices charged by jobbers for the sale of their slaves, see John Jaques and Ralph Fisher to William Philip Perrin, Aug. 25, 1783, FT, D239/M/E/16991, DRO. For the sale of Turney’s gang, see Taylor to Arcedeckne, Sept. 4, 1793, in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1793/25. For the sale of Kelly’s gang, see Taylor to Arcedekne, Mar. 12, 1774, in Wood, “Letters of Taylor to Arcedekne,” 126–27. For Kelly’s second jobbing gang, see Thomas Barritt to Nathaniel Phillips, July 24, 1789, JMSP, BRRAM, 8344. Although the gross amounts yielded from the sales of these gangs do not include outstanding debts, a letter from John Scott reveals the large capital that remained after a sale. Scott reported that he owned fifty enslaved people worth £3,214 sterling and was due £679 for work performed by his gang for the year—assets of £3,893. He owed £1,429 to Kingston slave factors for captive Africans and had “small demands” for £214—liabilities of £1,643. That left him a “clear property” of £2,250, which did not include his “Houses & trifling household furniture.” See Scott to James Mill, Sept. 8, 1794, TFP, box 5, WCL (quotation). Lewis Cuthbert told the House of Lords that he knew “many proprietors of sugar estates, now in opulent circumstances, who” had become such by purchasing and hiring out African slaves; see Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, in Minutes of the Evidence, 77 (quotation). For the movement of jobbing gangs onto cotton plantations, see Report of the Lords, 290, 368, 427.
30. Cooper, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves, 56 (“cruel”), 63 (“a jobber”); William Beckford, A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica. . . . (London, 1790), 2: 345 (“many”); “Canes to be Cutt on Golden Grove Plantation in 1784,” in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1784/1 (“Scratched”); John Riland, Memoirs of a West-India Planter: Published from an Original MS. with a Preface and Additional Details (London, 1827), 209 (“high”). For the Barbadian complaints, see Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 164. John Scott reported in 1794 that he had “plenty of Jobbing” until “ye low price of Sugars” put a brief halt to the business. Scott had his slaves raise ginger until the demand for holing rose again. Scott to John Tailyour, Apr. 28, 1793, TFP, box 5, WCL (quotation). For the link between jobbing and sugar prices, see also James Renny to John Tailyour, Dec. 12, 1794, TFP, box 5, WCL.
31. William Sutherland to William Philip Perrin, Jan. 14, 1798, FT, D239/M/E/17843, DRO (“jobber”); Cooper, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves, 62 (“peculiar”). The five inventories are “List of Negroes Bought by Malcolm Laing of William Gray as Valued by Thomas French & John Nixon Esqrs Vizt,” 1769, FT, D239/M/E/18207, DRO; “A List of Negroes belonging to James Blaw with their Qualifications &c,” 1775, FT, D239/M/E/17731, DRO; “List of Doctor McKays Negroes purchased for William Philip Perrin Esqr. 1st July 1795,” FT, D239/M/E/17170, DRO; “A Valuation of Negroes belonging to James McViccar Affleck Esqr. Taken this 10th day of July 1796 by William Innes & Robert Whitfinch Esqrs at the request of the said James McViccar Affleck and William Sutherland Esquires,” FT, D239/M/E/17208, DRO; “List of Mr John Bromfield’s Negroes with their Age & Valuation,” 1797, FT, D239/M/E/17219, DRO. In Blaw’s gang, just two of the fifty slaves had non-field occupations, and those two slaves were drivers. Bromfield’s gang of fifty-three people had seven skilled slaves. However, three of those people also worked in the field. For women doing the majority of fieldwork, see Richard S. Dunn, “Sugar Production and Slave Women in Jamaica,” in Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas, ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 49–72. For York plantation, see Figure III.
32. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 79 (“was found”); “A List of Negroes belonging to James Blaw with their Qualifications &c,” 1775, FT, D239/M/E/17731, DRO (“always”); John Jaques and Ralph Fisher to William Philip Perrin, Feb. 2, 1785, FT, D239/M/E/17078, DRO (“from the ships”). Higman based his analysis on the origins of enslaved people who died. See Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 78, table 13. Using that metric, 59 percent of the slaves in jobbing gangs were Africans, compared to 46 percent on coffee estates and just 32 percent on sugar plantations. Reflecting on the pre-abolition era, proslavery writer Alexander Barclay wrote that “there was scarcely an overseer that was not an owner of slaves—scarcely a person, black or brown, who could afford it but had purchased one or more from the Guinea ships”; Barclay, Practical View, 266, emphasis added. Planters’ ethnic biases and stereotypes about the bellicosity of “Coromantees” (that is, Akan-speaking slaves) may have meant that they were disproportionately represented in the jobbing gangs. William Beckford thought that Africans from that region had a more “savage” and “intrepid” nature and were not suited to “be fixed upon” a plantation because they “do not easily domesticate, and form attachments.” He suggested, however, that “they may do very well for jobbers.” See Beckford, Remarks upon the Situation of Negroes, 11 (“savage”), 12 (“fixed”).
33. William Sutherland to John Jaques and Ralph Fisher, Nov. 24, 1783, FT, D239/M/E/17766, DRO (“to hard labour”); Sutherland to William Philip Perrin, Jan. 14, 1798, FT, D239/M/E/17843, DRO (“jobber”). For the lack of seasoning in jobbing gangs, see also Beckford, Remarks upon the Situation of Negroes, 12; Charles Ruddach to Charles Stewart, May 16, 1784, JMC, ASM0320, item 17, UM. For the lengthy process of “seasoning” on sugar plantations, see for example Testimony of Simon Taylor, in Minutes of the Evidence, 125–27; Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, ibid., 66–67.
34. For Kelly’s land, see Higman, Plantation Jamaica, 170 (“Kelly’s Folly”). Among the owners of the forty-five gangs in the Saint James census, eighteen were listed simply as “jobber,” implying that they exclusively pursued that business. Eighteen were listed as “Pen & Jobber”; nine “Overseer & Jobber”; one “Surveyor & Jobber”; and one “Doctor & Jobber.” See “Settlers in the Parish of Saint James,” Long Papers, Add. MSS 12435, BL. Newspaper advertisements for the sale of jobbing gangs are also revealing about their lodgings and occupations when not holing. William Huey offered his gang of thirty slaves for sale at his “Mountain” near Kingston, a 130-acre plot, 70 acres of which were “in coffee.” His enslaved people, he claimed, had “good houses” and provision grounds that “abound[ed] with plenty of plantains, yams, and cocoa.” Huey’s captives were expected to work as a jobbing gang for “six or eight months in the year” and spend the remaining months growing coffee. See [Kingston] Jamaica Mercury, supplement, Oct. 2, 1779, . Another man sold his gang of eighty-five slaves a year later along with his eighty-acre “Mountain Plantation” east of Kingston, where seventy acres were “planted in Provisions and Ginger.” The captives were “well acquainted with the business of sugar work, having been frequently worked and employed as a jobbing gang.” See [Kingston] Royal Gazette, supplement, Nov. 11, 1780, .
35. Cooper, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves, 61 (“near home”), 62 (“hut”); Ja[me]s A. Thome and J. Horace Kimball, Emancipation in the West Indies. A Six Months’ Tour in Antigua, Barbadoes, and Jamaica, in the Year 1837 (New York, 1838), 382 (“every Friday”). For the distances traveled by jobbers, see De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes, 34. According to one witness, jobbing gangs were “less furnished with grounds for themselves than the Negroes upon estates.” See Testimony of Lewis Cuthbert, in Minutes of the Evidence, 109. There may be some truth in this assertion. John Scott, for example, complained that he was “under ye necessity of Buying provisions for ye most of my Negroes” because the land upon which he lodged them was “entirely wore out”; Scott to John Tailyour, May 28, 1793, TFP, box 5, WCL (“under”); Scott to Tailyour, Feb. 4, 1794, ibid. (“entirely”). Slaves on jobbing gangs who ate “their week’s allowance in three or four days,” one witness wrote, “were under the necessity to labour” after finishing holing to receive further provisions; Testimony of Captain Giles, Feb. 21, 1791, in Lambert, HCSP, 82: 103–7 (quotations, 82: 104). For the destruction of jobbing gangs’ grounds while they were away, see for example Sturge and Harvey, West Indies in 1837, 307–8.
36. John Jaques and Ralph Fisher to William Philip Perrin, Aug. 25, 1783, FT, D239/M/E/16991, DRO (“numerous”); Dickson, Mitigation of Slavery, 265 (“hurtful”).
37. De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes, 35 (“hard labour”); [Long], History of Jamaica, 1: 443 (“hoe-ploughing”). For the variety of tasks performed by jobbing gangs, see for example Thomas Barritt to Nathaniel Phillips, Jan. 21, 1790, JMSP, BRRAM, 8351; Annual Abstract of Accounts for 1785, FT, D239/M/E/20696, DRO.
38. Riland, Memoirs of a West-India Planter, 137 (“more worn”); Christian Reformer; Or, New Evangelical Miscellany 12, no. 135 (March 1826), 116 (“last expiring”); Beckford, Descriptive Account, 2: 345 (“In the hands”); Dr. James Blaw to William Philip Perrin, Jan. 13, 1775, FT, D239/M/E/16792, DRO (“lost upwards”); “A List of Negroes belonging to James Blaw with their Qualifications &c,” 1775, FT, D239/M/E/17731, DRO (“fit”); Thome and Kimball, Emancipation in the West Indies, 296 (“universally”); Bickell, West Indies as They Are, 51–52 (“So great”); Analysis of the Report of a Committee of the House of Commons on the Extinction of Slavery (London, 1833), 68 (“converted”); Substance of the Debate in the House of Commons on 15th May, 1823, on a Motion for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. . . . (London, 1823), 202; Cooper, Facts Illustrative, 61–62; Testimony of William Fitzmaurice, Mar. 11, 1791, in Lambert, HCSP, 82: 227–33, esp. 82: 230; Michael Craton, “We Shall Not Be Moved: Pompey’s Slave Revolt in Exhuma Island, Bahamas, 1830,” Nieuwe West-Indische Gids/New West Indian Guide 57, no. 1/2 (1983): 19–35.
39. William Sutherland to John Jaques and Ralph Fisher, Feb. 11, 1783, FT, D239/M/E/17758, DRO (“happy”); Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedekne, May 1, 1773, in Wood, “Letters of Taylor to Arcedekne,” 117–19 (“Houses,” 118); Sutherland to William Philip Perrin, May 6, 1796, FT, D239/M/E/17817, DRO (“intimately”). The sale of Affleck’s gang ultimately fell through because Perrin thought that Affleck demanded too high of a price. In April 1798, Affleck was still working his captives as a jobbing gang and, according to Sutherland, “wear[ing]” them out “very fast.” See Sutherland to Perrin, Apr. 17, 1798, FT, D239/M/E/17848, DRO. For the subsequent lives of Kelly’s slaves, see “List of the Original Negroes on Golden Grove Plantation taken 1st January 1791,” in Plantation Life in the Caribbean, Vanneck-Arc/3A/1790/47.
40. Marly; or, a Planter’s Life in Jamaica (Glasgow, 1828), 166 (quotations).
41. Substance of the Debate, 202 (“sordid”); entry, Jan. 13, 1816, in Lewis, Journal of a West-India Proprietor, 101 (“hard”), 102 (“at least”).