Nicholas Radburn (Lancaster University) will present “Gold versus Life: Enslaved Jobbing Gangs and Amelioration in the British Caribbean” on Friday, January 26, 2018, from 5:15 to 7:15pm at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London (IHR Seminar Room N304, Third Floor, IHR, Senate House, Malet Street, London).
Description: This paper examines Caribbean jobbing gangs, enormous roving gangs of plantation-less slaves who were principally hired to dig the deep holes in which sugar canes grew—the stage of sugar production that placed the greatest physical demands on enslaved workers. Using a wide range of plantation papers and printed materials, we reconstruct the emergence, operation, and eventual decline of jobbing gangs between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. We demonstrate that jobbing gangs emerged in the early eighteenth century soon after planters divided sugar cultivation into a series of discrete stages.
The use of the gangs became prevalent by mid-century, and they increased in use in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when they became an important component in plantation management. We tie the expanding use of jobbing gangs to the Amelioration movement by arguing that the planter elite increasingly chose to reduce the physical toll on their own slaves by hiring jobbing gangs to do the most backbreaking work, without decreasing the production of sugar. We demonstrate the terrible consequences of this purportedly “Ameliorative” management system by showing that jobbing slaves were almost all young Africans whose lives were miserable and short, as their owners worked them incessantly to make quick profits. The planters’ efforts to mitigate labor demands on their own slaves thus displaced violence onto the jobbing gangs—highly mobile and transient slaves whose existence challenges the stationary plantation archetype of New World slavery.