The secret lives of slaves: Berbice, 1819 to 1827
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis examines slavery in Berbice in the decades prior to emancipation in 1834 utilising a unique cache of slave testimony recorded during the period. The testimonies and evidence from the slaves of Berbice reveal a situation very different from that portrayed in the wider historiography of slavery. While the slaves of Berbice could easily escape and live as 'bush negroes', the overwhelming majority chose to stay. In part, this was because they were able to negotiate a wide range of customary work and social practices which ameliorated the conditions of slavery. In part, it was because they were able to trade the exploitation of their labour for the ability to form cohesive and enduring communities which incorporated complex familial and kinship networks and which enabled them to establish identities, values and status which transcended their legal position as slaves. And in part, it was because while physical coercion in Berbice was often cruel and inhumane by modem standards, the most severe punishments were seldom imposed upon a majority of slaves and were less severe than the treatment routinely inflicted upon some sections of the British population. Slavery needs to be contextualised in time and place to understand the impact it had on slaves. By using a detailed study of the slave testimony, supported by the evidence from a statistical analysis of the information recorded in the documents, this thesis has sought to distinguish the typical from the untypical and in so doing recover the lives of the society's inhabitants.