` “I know I have to Work:” The Moral Economy of Labor Among Enslaved Women in Berbice, 1819-1834’

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In Trevor Burnard and Sophie White, eds. Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian
Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700-1848 (New York: Routledge, 2020),
ch. 9.
I have contributed a chapter to a co-edited book, coming out this northern hemisphere
summer with Routledge, edited with Sophie White of Notre Dame, in which I look at an
aspect of enslaved women’s lives in the sugar colony of Berbice, later part of Guyana, in
North-eastern South America. It looks at slave testimony (as opposed to the better-known
nineteenth-century genre of the slave narrative). Most chapters in this book, including mine,
look at how enslaved people shaped testimony, often when they were in court and often when
they were in great trouble My court documents are a little different, as they are collected from
women who are complaining about their treatment, usually unsatisfactorily, rather then
enslaved people being charged with offenses.

This chapter will feed into a larger project, utilising a very rich set of documents preserved at
the National Archives – the Fiscal and Protector of Slaves records – in which enslaved people
often give close to direct testimony about the lives and circumstances. In this allied project to
the book I show how the Fiscal’s Records of Berbice, 1819–1834, provide rich evidence,
direct from enslaved people, about what mattered to slaves trapped within enslavement and
about what remedies they sought for their problems. Enslaved women were able to bring
complaints before the Fiscal and the Protector of Slaves. A great majority of their complaints
concerned the work they were forced to do as plantation workers. Such work was not gender-
neutral. Enslaved women were employed as field workers more than were men and suffered
enormous hardship to their health and even more to their ability to look after their families,
especially infant children. This chapter shows that enslaved women had clear expectations on
what they were owed from their master, based on their understanding of the moral economy
between planters and enslaved women where the relationship was viewed by them as
reciprocal, if unequal, in which both sides had rights and obligations that needed to be
I concentrate on women’s complaints about work, as this is the area which elicited easily the
most complaints about unfairness and mistreatment. Women were insistent that they should
be expected to perform a reasonable amount of work defined according to customary rules
and adjusted to the strength and competence of individual workers. Moreover, it had to be
adjusted so that women’s special expectations relating to child care could be respected.
Women complained even when, as was common, their complaints were dismissed. They
wanted their voices to be heard. The Fiscals’ returns are a rich body of sources that outline at
length the numerous times when women sought to have their concerns aired. Those concerns
changed over time and as British officials attempted to circumscribe masters’ actions through
such things as the Amelioration Act of 1826.
Women frequently made complaints after that date that they had been illegally whipped. The
many post-1826 cases indicate that managers continued to fail to realise that enslaved women
in Berbice were involved not just in production but also in reproduction – they were mothers
as well as workers. The testimonies embedded in the Fiscal and Protestor’s records allows u
to recuperate a little bit of the perspective of the enslaved in the period of amelioration.


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