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Plantation slavery

For over 300 years, enslaved Africans were forced to work for Europeans. In the Caribbean, many laboured on sugar, coffee and cocoa plantations owned by North East Scots.

Generations were born into this slavery. Millions died young because of poor diet, cruelty and relentless hard labour. The survivors lacked the most basic freedoms, such as the right to care for and protect family members.

Many sugar labourers were women. A girl began work around age four, collecting grass to feed the mules and oxen. By ten she was weeding the cane fields, and by 18 she was planting and harvesting the canes.

By 40 she was worn out, and was sent back to feeding the livestock. If she survived a few years more, she became a nurse to the babies on the plantation – a new generation of workers that probably included her own grandchildren.

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Authority on a plantation – a European overseer and his driver, a trusted slave who enforced his master’s orders with a fearsome whip.

Authority on a plantation – a European overseer and his driver, a trusted slave who enforced his master’s orders with a fearsome whip.

A romanticised view of life on a sugar plantation – Trinity Estate in Jamaica, 1825. (© The British Library Board)

A romanticised view of life on a sugar plantation – Trinity Estate in Jamaica, 1825.
(© The British Library Board)

I have put a few new Negroes upon Georgia Estate out of an Eboe cargo I lately sold myself. They consist of 4 women at £63 each, 1 woman-girl at £61, and four little girls at £59 each.
Charles Gordon’s agent buys nine Ibo women from Nigeria for his Jamaican estate, 1789

A reluctant slave owner – Thomas Gordon of Cairness, 1836. (© The University of Aberdeen)

A reluctant slave owner – Thomas Gordon of Cairness, 1836. (© The University of Aberdeen)

This was the life lived by a slave with a relatively mild owner, such as Thomas Gordon of Buthlaw and Cairness. In 1796 he inherited Georgia Estate in Jamaica with over 200 slaves. He disliked slavery, but he was not prepared to free his workers. Instead he tried to be a kind, sympathetic master.

But Gordon’s workers wanted freedom, not kindness. Many joined in the big Jamaican slave rebellion of 1831–2, including five men who were punished by life in prison.

In the Negro Hospital the complaints are principally pain in loins and head from burdens on the head - enough to kill the strongest animals up hills and down hill.
Jonathan Troup attnds to slaves injured by overwork in Dominica, 1789

A slave driver oversees the digging of a canefield in Antigua, 1823.
(© The British Library Board)