Our domestic lives are still being shaped by the culture of domination that took root in those fields. European powers were not totally ignorant of the moral hazards involved. Writing more than two hundred fifty years ago, the French novelist Voltaire noted the gap between Western material comforts and the price paid for them in his darkly satirical travelogue Candide.
The protagonist meets a Guinean-born enslaved man in Suriname Dutch Guiana who is missing an arm and a leg. The worker explains that he lost an arm in the sugar mills; when he attempted to run away, his Dutch master cut off a leg. As sugar became a mass product, it became a dietary staple in Europe. As the masses became addicted to sugar, profits exploded. Sugar generated piles of cash for the European and American investors.
Slave labor is what made this transformation from a precious luxury to a mass product possible. The history of Haiti, the only country poorer than Guyana in the Americas, is also a story of sugar. It seems the global economic powers have not known what to do with these former sugar colonies outside this paradigm of domination and exploitation. Edwidge Danticat fictionalizes this massacre in her dazzling novel The Farming of Bones.
Even less visible still are the narratives that spring forth further down the Atlantic.
On sugar plantations, African enslaved women were always greatly outnumbered by men of all races. Their sexual attention was in great demand, as black women greatly outnumbered white women as well. As many of the colonies were being established, ratios of men to 1 woman were not uncommon. Worker living quarters allowed no sexual boundaries within families forced to share cramped spaces. On plantations in the American South and the West Indies, it was common for white men to sexually brutalize black women. Many American plantations were often owner-occupied and the owners lived among a society of other whites, where cultural norms encouraged them to be discreet in their sexual relations with enslaved women.
In the West Indies, where more of the planters were absentee owners, a more freewheeling sexual culture took hold. It was common for white men and overseers left to manage the plantations to sexually brutalize enslaved women, and few bothered to hide it. The emerging mulatto class in both the American South and the West Indies visually attests to this norm. My own origins may be traced to such liaisons.
Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Refinery in amazing photos taken before it was destroyed
Enslaved black women were expected to work the fields as a man, take floggings as a man, and make babies like a woman—often at the same time. Under Dutch rule in the Berbice colony in present-day Guyana, plantation owners clung fiercely to their independence and rejected any attempt to protect the welfare of slaves. Many Caribbean planters eventually acquiesced to policies regulating the number of lashes allowed as punishments. Some historic accounts nonetheless have Guyanese women and a girl as young as seven years old taking hundreds of lashings during a single punishment.
British planters took control of the plantations in Guyana, with many switching from cotton and tobacco to sugar to ride the boom.
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Gendered oppression did not stop in the fields. Simon Little, stationed in Jamaica, pled for higher payout on those grounds. The widow had been living in England off the proceeds from fourteen urban slaves she owned in Jamaica. I speak strongly on this subject as my existence depends on the rent of these few negroes and what am I to do when seven-eights of my income are taken away? Enslaved women were often prostituted to raise more money for plantation owners and overseers. Their poor health led to low fertility levels, and many enslaved women also sought to get some control of their bodies through abortion.
The few white women in residence on the colony were often just as brutal toward enslaved workers. However, rape of white women was also a tool of revenge by black men. A narrative of gender domination runs through one of the most triumphant plots in Guyana history: On February 23, , an Akan enslaved man named Cuffy led five thousand in a revolt against his Dutch slave masters on a sugar plantation. It was the most successful uprising in the Americas until the Haitian revolution of Cuffy ruled as governor of Berbice for nearly a year before a Dutch naval fleet was deployed from the Netherlands to regain control of the colony.
This notion of enslaved men recapturing the manhood deprived them on sugar plantations by conquering white women sexually also shows up in Guyanese fine art. In the painting commemorating the uprising, we see the back view of a shirtless enslaved man. His shackles have been broken. His right arm is raised high with a cutlass a machete. Scars from lashes lace his back. Cheddi Jagan who would eventually succeed him as president, argued for the right to exhibit the painting. Jagan later made sure the painting was included in the national collection at Castellani House, according to the painter Bernadette Persaud, who served with Jagan on the board of Castellani House.
Otherwise you will only get a superficial view of this country. Our parents never talked about what happened at the sugar estates. The women who were trapped and how they survived.
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The more successful revolt in Haiti, in , inspired fear of more uprisings in the Americas. In most European nations banned transport of slaves across the oceans. Many enslaved women were desperate. New Jersey.
In a Sugar Town, a Show’s Sweet Harmony - The New York Times
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