Life in plantations

Photograph of plantation model

Plantation model showing scenes from life on a St Kitts sugar plantation in about 1800, from the Enslavement and Middle Passage gallery.

Photograph © Redman Design/International Slavery Museum

For nearly four hundred years Europeans used Africans as slave labour for a variety of work throughout the Americas. Most, including women and children, worked on plantations, particularly in the Caribbean. Large numbers also worked in mines, in towns and in the countryside. Many had been skilled craft workers in Africa and were exploited by their owners; men worked as joiners, metalworkers, watchsmiths, gun makers, coopers and sailors. From the late 18th century, women were brought in from the fields and given domestic duties as servants, nurses, dressmakers and cooks.

Africans and their descendants also changed the landscape. They cleared bush and jungle, shaped fields, constructed roads and buildings, and dug canals. They created the environment and wealth which supported slave owners and their families.

The basic needs of the slaves themselves - rest, cooking, making and mending clothes, tending the sick, the young and the old - had to be met in the short hours at the end of the working day or sometimes on Sundays. For those on plantations, time away from the fields depended on the season and the crop.

Slaves worked their own land to supplement their poor diet. Any extra was sold at Sunday markets, vital meeting places to exchange news. All other gatherings, to celebrate a birth or marriage or to mourn a death, were strictly controlled by the owner.

During the course of the 17th century Europeans developed views of their own racial superiority for reasons of self-interest. Plantation owners wanted labour and justified the barbarity of their treatment by using biblical arguments that Africans were less than human.

Colonial governments developed legal codes to control slaves and deny them any rights. In 1661 the Barbados Assembly adopted a comprehensive slavery code which was copied by other Caribbean and American colonies.

A few people, such as Quakers, opposed such ideas, but the vast majority of European writers and philosophers defended the position. The idea of white racial superiority, which had been introduced to justify the desire for profit, became central to European attitudes. It created the foundations for racial prejudice which still exist today.