Identity and opportunity in post- Slavery Jamaica

Kenneth G. Kelly, Mark W. Hauser, Douglas V. Armstrong

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

9 Scopus citations


On August 2, 1834, a lead article in the London Guardian described the official end of slavery in the British Empire: Throughout the British dominions the sun no longer rises on a slave. Yesterday was the day from which the emancipation of all our slave population commences; and we trust the great change by which they are elevated to the rank of freemen will be found to have passed into effect in the manner most accordant with the benevolent spirit in which it was decreed, most consistent with the interests of those for whose benefit it was primarily intended, and most calculated to put an end to the apprehensions under which it was hardly to be expected that the planters could fail to labour as the moment of its consummation approaches. We shall await anxiously the arrivals from the West Indies that will bring advices to a date subsequent to the present time. Despite the Guardian's prosaic anticipation of a new period of freedom, the legal decrees of 1834 were only a stepping- stone toward freedom and must be considered part of a historical continuum that includes both the 1807 abolition of the slave trade and the 1838 termination of the apprenticeship period that formalized de facto emancipation in 1838. It must also be remembered that the British were but one of the European powers legislating the conditions of labor in the Caribbean, and their endeavor to end slavery must be considered less a punctuated moment and more part of a continuum of abolition. That continuum includes not only legislation like the Abolition Act but also acts of realized or attempted selfemancipation like those experienced in the 1733 St. John Slave Rebellion, the 1794 French Revolution and Haitian War of Independence, abolition of slavery in the French possessions in 1848, and the 1886 transition to emancipation in Cuba. The binding wholesale abolition of slavery in the British colonies memorialized in the Guardian article is as much about the transition in legal status for hundreds of thousands of people in the West Indies as it is an implicit self- congratulation for the British nation and its citizens. The significance of the apparent resolution of the "slavery problem" cannot be doubted, but we must also acknowledge that many aspects of life remained relatively unchanged and that there was a distinct continuity between the social and economic conditions endured by enslaved laborers and wage laborers (Armstrong 2010; Trouillot 1988; Turner 1995). Michael Craton (1985:128) has even argued that the Emancipation Act of 1833 (implemented in 1834) was "a colossal hegemonic trick." In reference to Jamaica, Mary Turner has referred to the transition as simply a shift from "chattel slaves into wage slaves" (1995:33), and Doug Armstrong has discussed a continuum of "degrees of freedom" based on relative access to property in the pre- And post- emancipation eras for each respective colonial domain (2010). The trials, tribulations, and challenges faced and overcome by enslaved Africans on plantations in the British West Indies have been studied in considerable detail (Delle 1998; Armstrong 1990; Higman 1998; Pulsipher 1994; Farnsworth 2001; Wilkie and Farnsworth 2005). This research has operated under the justifiable argument that the condition of slavery forcefully relegated enslaved Africans to the status of "people without history" and that archaeology was one means by which that history could be recovered. However, in many cases archaeology has not been similarly applied to the post- slavery period, and yet emancipation did not suddenly render workers "with history." In this chapter we examine three related questions. 1. To what extent can we use archaeology to recognize the strategies employed by formerly enslaved laborers and planters in the post- emancipation landscape in Jamaica? 2. What are the implications of these strategies for the post- emancipation lives of former slaves and laborers in Jamaica? 3. Who were these people, and how did they see themselves? To answer these questions we reexamine archaeological data from Drax Hall and Seville Plantation on Jamaica's north coast (see Armstrong 1990, 2010; Kelly 1989; Kelly and Armstrong 1991; Hauser 2001, 2008). Archaeological data from these estates are contextualized to explore the material consequences of emancipation and how strategies enacted by management to continue to exploit the sugar plantation workers manifest themselves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOut of Many, one People
Subtitle of host publicationThe Historical Archaeology of Colonial Jamaica
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780817356484
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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