Recovering Slave experience
Most slaves were non literate, and with high death rates among the population, and movements of slaves through buying and selling, there is little on record. Throughout empire there has been consistent resistance, violent and non violent.
As an example the Thistle woods estate in Jamaicathe writings of Thomas Thistlwood an overseer, reveal a cruel regime of punishments for even the most minor offences, duties and tasks enforced by floggings and beatings. The sexual abuse of female slaves was considered normal, from Thistlewoods account, we learn that female slaves were powerless to resist. Also the random cruelty displaced shows a complete disregard for human life, as slaves seen as nothing more than commodities, with few human rights which we take for granted today. The attitudes of elites towards slaves, reveals a certain mind set where random cruelty was acceptable, the logic was to ensure compliance, but the effects of these policies on slaves must have been devastating to the mind and body of slave experience, we can only guess what a slave must have felt after a flogging.
Despite the brutality, the slaves themselves were able to organize family and social structures and hierarchy among themselves, within the limits of their brief lives. They had culture, religion, music, dance, customs and some were small merchants. There was continual resistance covert and non-covert.
Slaves running away was a common problem, if caught the punishment was very severe including possible execution, although some escaped slaves were given land and freedom, as long as they prevented other slaves from doing the same. From these policies we can deduce that the fate of slave and master was linked economically and socially.
Some female slaves through their relations with the master were able to gain privileges for themselves or their family, i.e. from being sold and separated from their family. From Thistle woods account we know that those female slaves who resisted sexual advancement would often be sold off to other plantations or punished in other ways, from this we can deduce that many female slaves accepted sexual abuse as the price to be paid to remain in their community.
We know that the birth rate of slave women was very low, as a consequence slaves were having to be imported. From this we can deduce that those children born to slave women died early due to neglect or other reasons, possibly as mothers did not want their children to become future slaves. It is difficult to know the slave mindset, as little written evidence remains of their existence, but from patchy evidence we can tell that slaves were not passive, were well aware of their circumstances and many resisted in subtle and non subtle ways including slave revolts which existed throughout the slave empire
What i have described is related to plantation experience in Jamaica. I want to look at slavery in the America’s. Unlike plantation slavery where slaves outnumbered whites by a good margin, living isolated lives, the threat of slave revolts were always on the mind of the overseer hence the brutal punishments handed out. In the America’s the slave population was small and lived within the vicinity of the white slave master and his family. Worthy Park reveals a lot about slave experience .
House slaves would be in daily contact with the master and his family, there would be some sort of mutual relationship between master and slave. Daily contact with slaves, close bond with the Masters children could be used to gain privlages, i.e.not being sold off to other estates or subject to harsh brutal treatment. From work records we can deduce type of labour and activities performed by men, women and children, such as Worthy Park Estate, detailed records show a system of rewards and punishment, but we must resist the temptation to believe all Estates are run on the same basis, allowing for this we can recreate some aspects of the daily working lives and personal relationships of slaves.
What i have written above has been supported by records by elites and literate non elites. The writing of free slaves like Olaudah Equinos, a slave bought and sold many times. Of Ignatius Sangho describes in detail the sexual abuse of female slaves, of the runaway slaves, of the cruel punishment and of the black on black violence. We must be careful in reviewing elite evidence of free slaves, as they are not representive of the normal lives of slaves, also they are not going to be too critical of the system which has released them from slavery.Despite these qualifications elite black slaves can provide useful information of the slave experience in general, through their often biased personal accounts.
Sex and Empire
Within the British Empire there was continual movement of people, mostly males going to parts of empire from the metropole, and people within the empire to work on projects of empire. Many of these were males and single, as a consequence demand for women to serve these men became a priority, and prostitutes filled this role along with wives.
The lives of these women are long forgotton, but we can try to see through the fog of history by using the right lens. Singapore and Nairobi came to have a high concentration of prostitutes because of the high single male population. The empire authorities tried to regulate this business, through various policies, to try to contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It is from these policies of elites that we can try to recreate the lives of these women.
In the Japanese colony of Singapore, prostitutes from Japan were registered in Japan before being brought over, the Japanese were less caring about prostitutes from other places like Korea and Taiwan. From accounts of Osak who was bought from a poor family for 300 yen, made to work in a brothel to repay 2000 yen to the owners. Japanese prostitutes like Osaki served mainly Japanese men about 6 per day, she had regular medical checks and was protected from violence.
Some went on to become mistresses and wives, some to do other things like Janet Lim who went on to become a nurse. We must be careful of Osaki’s oral account and must cross reference it with other evidence. The Geisha syndrome popularised in movies and books has distorted the reality of the lives of these women.
Also the survivor’s syndrome, for Osaki personal account will have many negative view of men. The reality is that Osaki’s parents are ultimately responsible for her being sold into prostituition, which she clearly avoids mentioning. This could be due to cultural factors of not offending parents in Japanese society.
Coroner’s reports of Japanese prostitutes like Lee ah choi, give us glimpse of the reality.Choi stabbed by a client for refusing to run away with him, had acid thrown into her face. Many prostitutes suffered from venereal diseases and routine violence, and ended up in mental institutions as being certified insane. By looking through the records we can try to see patterns, of reports of payments to brothel owners or medical expenses, relationships, drug addictions and alcohol abuse.
All this tells us that prostitutes died early, of debt, disease and violence. Prostitutes in Nairobi often were sole operators, conducting business on their own, had more freedom, despite this they had no protection from random violence and disease
The British when they controlled Singapore, a coolie town for migrant male workers. Rampant spread of venereal disease forced the authorities to pass the settlement contagious disease act 1870 to try to control the spread of infection, with regular medical checkups and identity cards and those women infected, locked up. The policies were not effective as it drove the business underground.
Female historians have pointed out the voices of women ,elite, literate or non literate have been little heard in the empire. This tells us the role of women was seen as subservient to the male in empire, almost second class citizens.
As for the non elite, non literate women, they were little more than commodities to bartered, with little personal protection and colonial policies which effected them in a very direct way, we can deduce that prostitutes had very little control over their lives, and few options to escape poverty and prostitution.
Settler Communities Kenya
The Kenyan people being non literate, ‘signed agreements’ through,customs,ceremonies,blood ties and oral agreements, land rights was a non issue, as it was common land. With arrivals of white settlers things changed dramatically for the inhabitants. Chief Kamiri was made to sign a treaty which he did not understand, which in effect turned most of his people into squatters, also giving much giving fertile land to settlers.
Failure to understand the agreement and its consequences, as the Chief had no access to independent legal advice marginalized his people.
At first the locals did not resist white settlers as they thought they would leave. As the situation deteriorated for the locals and weakened by drought, there ability to resist declined. Kenyan history being oral and belief in Gods, the locals accepted their situation as disaster was fore told by the prophets, of domination of non circumcised people.
Now it is difficult for us to express the emotions of the dispossed people who became unwelcome squatters on their own land. Half of the Gikuyu became squatters.Resistence to encroachment, and evictions by settlers created conditions for conflict. The locals continued to graze on white settler land, gather food and firewood in protected area’s, and kill animals for food, on payment of taxes.
The white settlers used some of the settlers as a cheap labour force, some evicted by force of the land. Also the Maasi who’s life and culture and wealth revolves around cattle, found many of their traditional grazing lands and water supplies out of bounds as white settlers partitioned of land with fences and wires, as a consequence they had to find other area’s for their cattle to graze, this meant they were encroaching on other tribal lands, with inevitable conflicts. The British by imposing their cultural values and legal system upon a pastoral people had naturally upset the patterns of relationships which existed before, of land, water and resource use.
From the locals perspective their culture and laws did not recognize the white settlers rights to the land which they had held communally for hundreds of years.Resistence lead to a number of rebellions, culminating in the most serious the Mau Mau rebellion brutally put down by the British.
Later the British did set up a land commission to address the grievance of the locals no satisfactory solution has been found, the conflict remains unresolved to this day. This tells us that the events of the past effecting the non literate locals has become part of the social history which has been handed down, from this we can recover the lost voices of resentment of colonial policies, which have had a direct impact on the lives of non literate Kenyans.
Looking from the perspective of the locals we can see a clash of cultures between the white settlers with their legal documents and the locals who saw the land issue not a problem. Misunderstanding about ownership of land from the beginning set in motion future conflict. The concept of absolute private property rights was an alien concept to Kenyans .After independence one million acres of land released,Gikuyu and non Gikuyu rushed to buy land which they had owned originally, and has lead to tribal clashes
Slave experience tells us that the simple master/slave relationship was more complicated. Slaves were able to within their limited circumstances to negotiate preferential treatment for their family, especially slave women through their personal relationship with the master. Also there was continual slave resistence throughout including slave revolts. Slaves had their own culture, religion, petty business, and legal system of punishments and rewards
With the issue of sex and empire, the lives of prostitutes can be given meaning, by looking at colonial policies, records of sales, coroner’s reports, personal accounts.
The Kenyan experience, through elite policies tells us a clash of cultures and misunderstanding which lead to conflict, how a non literate people were conned out of their lands. We can see how the world of the Kenyans fell apart as they became squatters on their own lands, their oral history now has a bitter colonial past which still impacts on politics today