The Buff Bay plantation was a sugar estate next to the Buff Bay River, south of Charlestown in Jamaica. By 1839, the estate was 840 acres.
This is the second page from a list of enslaved people on the Buff Bay Plantation in Jamaica in December 1819. The full document details the names of all 157 enslaved people on the plantation, their occupations and their “condition.”
There is much that can be gathered from these three categories, particularly when combined with information in the slave registers. In this instance, the occupations of enslaved people can be insightful into understanding the hierarchies and cultures that existed within plantation societies. In particular, the document above highlights the majority of enslaved women and their occupations.
Most of these women were forced to work in the fields on the plantation; 65% of the 48 enslaved adult women worked in the fields compared to only 42% the enslaved adult male population. Enslaved women were not trained for the typical artisan roles that were given to enslaved men, mirroring gender roles within Britain itself. Outside of fieldwork, other roles assigned to enslaved women were also on a gendered basis, working for example as midwifes or nurses. On the Buff Bay plantation, Mary Adilla was the designated midwife. She was 52 years of age, and “Old and Healthy” in 1819, having been enslaved in Africa and trafficked across the Atlantic prior to 1807. Age was often a determining factor in the roles enslaved people were given, with older women assigned to take care of the sick and to mind small children. Some of these older women may have been considered unfit for field work. Sally Vidals, who had “lost one arm”, was working as the “nurse in negro houses”; Sarah Wordsworth, the 42-year-old “field nurse”, had a “sore leg”; and Elizabeth Hamilton, the “Hospital Doctress”, had “lost one leg”.
Plantation owners believed that African women were suited for fieldwork because of a combination of their own racial ideologies as well as their often-misinformed understandings of African societies. For example, Europeans theorised that African women were suitable for field work due to their “subservient” role in polygamous relationships, which was an aspect of certain African cultures that was viewed negatively. Alongside this, there was a belief amongst Europeans that Africans had a higher tolerance for pain. This also led to enslaved people of colour being required to work in domestic roles rather than in the field as plantation owners and overseers believed that the ‘greater the infusion of white blood, the weaker the slave was thought to be.’ Peter Duncan, for example, aged 12 was described as “Waiting Boy a Mulatto”. Pregnant women were expected to continue their positions in the fields until the final weeks of their pregnancy. After giving birth, the plantation owners or overseers expected them to return to the fields shortly, giving them at most a few weeks respite.
In contrast, enslaved men primarily worked in craftsmen roles for the proto-industrial process of sugar production, working for example as carpenters, sugar boilers, masons and coopers. These roles often offered an elevated social position in comparison to the enslaved field workers and provided an opportunity to be hired to other estates and in towns at higher prices. Robert Scobie was 42 years old in 1819 and had been trafficked across the Atlantic prior to 1807. On the Buff Bay Estate, he was the head boiler, responsible for ensuring the cane juice was successfully transformed into crystalised sugar. Thomas Anderson was 34 years old and is listed as a “creole,” meaning he was born into slavery in the Caribbean. He worked as a carpenter on the Buff Bay estate and suffered from rheumatism.
Enslaved children were working full-time in the fields as young as the age of six. Plantation owners believed that if an enslaved child remained unemployed for too long, they would become lazy and inefficient. The young children would typically be assigned to the Third Gang, or “Grass Gang”, weeding fields on the estate. For example, Richard Walker, and William Phillips, were both six years old and listed as “Field”. Historians have analysed the lives of enslaved women field workers in relation to resistance and rebellion. Jamaican plantation owners such as William Beckford believed field workers had more “independence” compared to other enslaved people on the plantation. Field workers could often resist their plantation overseers by acts of intentional low productivity to more extreme cases of sabotage and arson. They may also have been able to retain a stronger cultural autonomy and maintain a spirit that helped sustain their struggle against slavery.
You can find more information about the Buff Bay River estate here. (See the bottom of this webpage for all three pages in the original document).
Barry Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807-1834 (New York, 1977), pp. 190, 208; Barbara Bush-Slimani, ‘Hard Labour: Women, Childbirth and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies’, History Workshop Journal, 36 (1993), 85.
We are grateful to Will Douch for writing this entry.