Q&A with Randy M. Browne on “Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean”

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As a follow up to our previous post on Randy M. Browne’s Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press 2017), here is an interview with the author, a historian of slavery and colonialism in the Atlantic world, who teaches History at Xaverian University (Cincinnati). This interview conducted by Jessica Parr for The Junto (27 August 2018). [Many thanks to Michael O’Neal for sharing the link.] Here are excerpts:

JUNTO: For those who are less familiar with Berbice, can you tell us a little bit about your decision to focus on it?

BROWNE: I got interested in this project because I wanted to understand how enslaved people in the Americas fought to survive in spite of the brutal conditions they faced. [. . .] It turned out that Berbice—a small British colony in what is now Guyana—was an ideal place to consider the problem of survival under slavery thanks to an extraordinary set of records. Because of its unique historical development, nineteenth-century Berbice is home to the single largest archive of first-person testimony from and about enslaved people in the Americas. When the British seized Berbice from the Dutch at the end of the eighteenth century, they maintained many Dutch laws and institutions, the most important of which was the fiscal, a legal official who heard slaves’ complaints against enslavers, free people of color, and other slaves—and recorded testimony nearly verbatim. Then, as part of the British Crown’s experiment in the “amelioration” or gradual reform of slavery, a new crown official—the protector of slaves—was established to enforce new laws on the treatment of slaves. Taken together, the records of the fiscals and protectors of slaves span thousands of pages and allow for an unusually intimate study of life and death under slavery.  Now, ten years after I first began working with these records, I’m more convinced than ever that they are some of the richest sources for Atlantic slavery.

JUNTO: How did the demographics of the Caribbean and Berbice compare to those of North America, and how did it factor into your research?

BROWNE [. . .] Taking seriously the life and death struggles of enslaved people in the Caribbean led me to question some of the most important assumptions that have shaped the study of slavery over the past several decades.  In Berbice—and I suspect in other Caribbean slave societies, too—the organizing principle for enslaved people’s politics was not the struggle for “freedom.”  Instead, enslaved people themselves experienced enslavement as first and foremost a fight to stay alive.  In the end, focusing less on the question of resistance and more on the problem of survival also opened up new ways of understanding enslaved people’s social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies.

JUNTO: You have a fairly extensive discussion about black slave drivers in chapter 3. How do these slave drivers help us to understand the complexities of power and resistance in Berbice?

BROWNE: Exploring slavery from the perspective of drivers offered an opportunity to explore what Vincent Brown described as a “politics of survival.”  On Caribbean plantations, drivers were crucial go-betweens appointed by slaveowners to supervise labor, enforce rules, and punish other slaves.  These enslaved men (and they were almost always men) were especially important in colonies like Berbice, where there was a very small white population, colonial authority was thinly spread, and plantations often had hundreds of slaves.  Being a driver was dangerous and difficult, with constant conflicting pressures from one’s enslavers and other slaves, but those who succeeded in walking this tightrope reaped considerable rewards.  Drivers received better food, clothing, and housing than other slaves, escaped the most physically demanding tasks (such as cutting sugarcane), and, as a result, were sick less often and lived several years longer than other enslaved men.  They were also more likely to marry and have families.  In short, drivers lived better, longer lives than other slaves.

Working on drivers was challenging because it forced me to grapple with the fact that they pursued a survival strategy that forced them to cooperate with their enslavers at the expense of other slaves.  Far from resisting the slave system, drivers helped perpetuate it.  And so drivers really illustrate the difference between efforts to survive the plantation world and efforts to resist slavery.  Trapped in a system designed to exploit and dehumanize them, men who became drivers made a devil’s bargain, carving out the best possible lives for themselves and their families while necessarily exploiting other slaves in a brutal system controlled by others. [. . .]

For full interview, see https://earlyamericanists.com/2018/08/24/qa-with-randy-m-browne-author-of-surviving-slavery-in-the-british-caribbean/#more-22291

Also see previous post https://repeatingislands.com/2017/10/30/new-book-surviving-slavery-in-the-british-caribbean/

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