Economy and material culture of slaves: Goods and chattels on the sugar plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana

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    Authors & editors

    McDonald, Roderick A [Author]

    Publisher Louisiana State University Press
    Year of publication 1993

    Medium Book

    Food (non-cereal) processes > Sugar
    People and communities > Slavery


    Scope & contentPublisher's comment (ex Google):
    This pioneering study examines in extensive detail the economies and material cultures that slaves built among themselves in two of the most heavily developed plantation regions in the Americas. Focusing on two geographical areas that led in the production of sugar - Jamaica in the eighteenth century and Louisiana in the mid-nineteenth century

    Roderick A. McDonald presents a fascinating picture of the resourceful efforts slaves on sugar plantations made to better their circumstances under working conditions that were among the most taxing endured by slaves anywhere. McDonald draws on a wide range of primary documents in repositories in the United States, Jamaica, and Great Britain to show that the slaves had well-developed and integrated economic systems that let them accumulate and dispose of capital and property within economies they themselves created and administered.

    Their economic systems were probably in operation on every sugar estate in Jamaica and Louisiana, with an importance far outweighing the often limited pecuniary benefits the slaves realized. The slaves' internal economy not only reflected the ways they earned and spent money but also influenced the character and evolution of their family and community life, and the quality of their material culture.

    The author describes the products the slaves sold - which ranged from the crops they raised on small plots that the landowners provided for their private use to raw materials such as Spanish moss and handcrafted items like baskets and pottery - as well as the goods the slaves purchased. He also discusses the role the slave economy played in the larger economy of the two plantation regions, not only the uses the planters made of slave-produced materials but also the agreements, whether tacit or formalized by custom or legal recognition, between planters and slaves that allowed and encouraged a degree of economic independence on the slaves' part.

    By comparing the slave economies of two regions similar in staple crops but dissimilar in political systems, McDonald reaches conclusions about the realities of slave life and the nature of plantation economies based on slave labor. What he finds is that despite the brutalities and restrictions of bondage, many slaves were able to wrest from their masters a certain independence that mitigated, to a degree, the harshness of their servitude and to develop skills that after emancipation served a large number of them well.

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    Accession no. 230685

    • Shelf location: D400-MCD