A wide-ranging survey of slavery in Berbice
By Gwynneth George
Stabroek News
May 4, 2003

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(Alvin O. Thompson A documentary history of slavery in Berbice: 1796-1834. Georgetown, Guyana: Free Press, 2002. xvi, 279 p.)

Alvin O. Thompson has written many articles on Guyanese history, and in particular on Guyanese history during the Dutch period. He notes that the production of this work was motivated primarily by the great shortage of materials on Guyana, and especially on Ber-bice during the period of slavery. Drawing from a wide collection of published and unpublished materials, the author attempts to “offer a wide-ranging survey of slavery in the colony of Berbice and to give a vivid picture of the trauma and travails of the victims of that institution” within the context of the physical, economic and social environments that were critical to defining the character of slavery in the colony. The book therefore presents a documentary history of slavery in Berbice from the period when the British took over temporarily from the Dutch, to Emancipation.

The history of slavery is not only the story of man’s brutality to man, but constitutes a social, economic and cultural experience that has shaped those nations and institutions which have come into contact with it. This selection of documents provides a useful description of the history of slavery in the Ancient County of Berbice. While the book is not a history in itself, it is an important source of information for the historian and the layman in history, as it provides a basis for the exploration of historical sources in order that they can be used as a means of enlarging and questioning the statements of textbooks.

The selections have been grouped under ten (10) topical heads, such as the physical environment, the economy, slave maintenance and labour, brutalities, religious and education reforms, among others. These accounts were selected from a variety of documents including official papers such as despatches between Governors and the British Government and reports from officials. Selections have also been made from general histories and travel accounts published at the time of the events, or which were based on the conditions they discuss.

While not a comparative documentary history of Demerara and Berbice, the documents presented help the reader to understand the factors which hindered Berbice from becoming a leading plantation colony and those that contributed to Demerara’s rise as the leading plantation colony at the expense of Berbice. The documents highlight such issues as trade in the colonies, problems associated with the abolition of the slave trade, the abandonment of plantations, and the high mortality and morbidity rate among the slaves. These are crucial issues for understanding why Berbice never became a significant staple-producing colony during the period. The publication also presents a statistical overview of the main elements involved in staple production - lands, slaves, buildings, machinery, providing the raw data for analysis of the economy and of published documents on the topic.

The reader is left with the option of deciding whether to accept that the high mortality of slaves is to be blamed on the physical culture of the colony rather than planter brutality or the general promiscuity of the women. The documents on the brutalities of slavery are given central attention. There is reason and logic in this since “Brutality is a common feature of slavery.” Thompson may have fallen short here by not saying ‘the common feature.’ However, he further states that “in any event slavery at its best was a brutal institution” and that “brutalities against slaves underlined the necrophilic nature of the institution.”

Two cases show the graphic nature of this brutality. America, a pregnant young woman received upwards of one hundred and fifty (150) lashes by two strong men with heavy cart-whips corded while “laid flat on her belly stretched on the ground naked with her hands and feet tied to the stake,” even though the law forbade more than thirty-nine (39) lashes. For the crime against America, the Manager received three months in jail and a fine of three hundred (300) guilders. In another case, a slave was convicted for the “abominable, rebellious and horrid crime” of striking a white man, for which he was sentenced to have his right hand with which he struck the blow, severed from his body.

Following the sectional sequence of the book, the writer documents measures taken to ameliorate the conditions of the slaves. The efforts at religious, social and judicial reforms were shown as a reaction to the brutalities of slavery and sought mainly to make the conditions more tolerable. The main document in the sections dealing with reforms is the slave code published in September 1826 which was the first and only slave code published in the colony. The preamble to this code states “whereas it is necessary and expedient that further provision should be made for the religious instruction of slaves in the colony, and whereas his Majesty has been pleased to appoint a Protector of slaves in this colony, and it is expedient that the said office should be fully established and due provision made for such protector, and that the authority and several duties of the said Protector be clearly and distinctly defined...” It is this code which made it illegal to carry a whip or any other instrument into the field or elsewhere. This, however, did not significantly reduce the incidents of brutality during the period.

In logical sequence, Alvin Thompson deals with the only real remedy for slavery - the path towards Emancipation. Even then, the documents show the need to control the slaves, as they depict the new police and judicial regulations that were put in place in preparation for general emancipation.

The author recognises that due to the constraints of space and the financial cost in printing the publication, he had to be extremely selective in the inclusion of documents on the topic. Consequently, while family and gender issues have not been given a separate section in the book, some of the documents give details of the work of women during slavery, the punishments they received and the deprivation of time to take care of family issues. Because of this selectivity of documents, the publication is therefore not to be considered a ‘Bible’ on the history of slavery in Berbice, but as a springboard for further research on the topic. The weakness of the document must, however, be assessed in terms of the impracticality of including everything in one volume on such a wide topical issue.

Alvin Thompson must be commended for his efforts in extracting and selecting relevant material in order to provide a topical framework. He has produced a fine piece of literary craftsmanship by dividing, separating and assembling the documents into a colourful, composite and comprehensive picture of slavery in Berbice during the period. The strength of the publication lies in its presentation of a variety of primary and other documents to allow for personal analysis and extrapolation. Documents which may have been inaccessible to the average reader, or for which the reader has very little time or desire to search, are now made accessible in one book. Explanatory notes and cross-references are provided for the interested reader, although there is still room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions from the accounts included. The documents therefore provide the impetus for further research.

This book provides interesting and stimulating reading for persons who are generally interested in the history of slavery. Indeed, while it is a documentary history of slavery in Berbice, it mirrors most of the issues related to slavery in general, regardless of where it existed.

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