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Slavery, Racism and the Plantation in the Caribbean

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Following a cross-disciplinary review of the debates on race in the Caribbean, this work focuses on the plantation as a space of racial formation, reclaiming the centrality of slavery for the understanding of race and racism in the region.

The essay looks at continuities and changes in the racial legacy of slavery, analyzing the plantation as a defining space for racial meaning and for the racial experiences of those who lived in it and those who live its legacy in the present. The changes in the plantation as a social regime are considered through the examination of the racial and ethnic division of labour after the end of slavery. The author concludes with some considerations on the contradictions embedded in the plantation as a heritage site for tourism and the popular representation of the past.

Keywords: Caribbean plantationshistorical sociology of raceethnicityracismlabour controlheritage industry


This article emerged gradually – and somehow unexpectedly – as I presented papers in a conference in memory of Harry Hoetink in April 2005 at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and in the seminar on ‘Sugar and Slavery in Hacienda La Esperanza’ organized by the Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico (FCPR) in May 2005. I am grateful to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the UPR for enabling the organization of the former and to the FCPR and to Professor Astrid Cubano in particular for inviting me to participate in the latter.

I am grateful to Leon Zamosc and Jorge Duany from LACES for their encouragement during the essay's writing and to the three external reviewers for their stimulating comments and criticism. At the UPR, I also want to thank the Faculty of Social Sciences for a release of my teaching responsibilities that allowed me to work on the article, Manuel Martínez and his staff at the International Inter-Library Loan Office for going beyond the call of duty with their unique service, and the staff in the Caribbean Regional Library.

Across the years Juan José Baldrich and Humberto García and Jean Stubbs have influenced my ideas on some of the issues considered here. My thoughts for this essay were further stimulated by conversations with several colleagues, to whom I want to express my gratitude: Camillia Cowling, Edwin Crespo, Jorge Duany, Mariluz Franco, Isar Godreau, and Reniel Rodríguez (who visited only to pick up a book and, without knowing, left me with more work than what I already had in my hands!). ¡Gracias a todos! I am solely responsible for the essay.

[1] Whether one defines it narrowly or widely, the Caribbean stands out as the region receiving more slaves in the hemisphere, with some 4,040,000 if one only counts the islands, to over 4,500,000 if one were to count the Guianas, Surinam, Central America, and other circum-Caribbean areas (Curtin, 1969 Curtin, PD. 1969. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

The number of slaves brought to the Americas and other places in the Atlantic has been disputed, ranging from the traditional 13,000,000 estimate to Curtin's total of 9,566,000, which has been revised and its accuracy confirmed by other scholars who have estimated 9,778,500 (see Curtin, 1969 Curtin, PD. 1969. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

The Caribbean estimates would change, not only depending on the region's definition, but also considering the illegal slave trade that in places such as Cuba lasted until the second half of the 19th century.

Since the 1960s, Sidney W. Mintz (1969Mintz, SW. 1969. Slavery and the slaves. Caribbean Studies, 8(4): 65–70. [Google Scholar], pp. 65–66) had already highlighted the importance of both ‘the struggle of North American Negroes for civil equality’ and the ‘emergence of sovereign polities in Africa and the Caribbean’ as ‘crucial events’ in the validity of ‘Negro history’.

This relation between academic fields and the research emphasis in them are related to the political and social concerns of some of the authors that will be mentioned below as fundamental in the development of the study of slavery and race relations in the Americas.

[4] Still, some physical anthropologists have insisted on the existence of genetic differences within the human species, and as noted by the late Stephen Jay Gould in the revised and expanded edition of his The Mismeasure of Man, arguments of biological determinism have become cyclical in correlation with ‘episodes of political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity’ (Gould, 1996Gould, SJ. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. rev. exp. edn [first published in 1981] [Google Scholar], p. 28).

For a recent project on genetics and race, see the issue of the journal Nature Genetics Supplement (200436 2004. Nature Genetics Supplement 36, 11 ‘Genetics for the human race’ [Google Scholar]) entitled ‘Genetics for the human race’.

[5] Hoetink, however, did not elaborate explicitly on this ‘historical evolution of social structure’ because of his attempt to concentrate on the Caribbean and because of the ‘innumerable publications’ on race relations in the US South (Hoetink, 1967Hoetink, H. 1967.

The Two Variants in Caribbean Race Relations: A Contribution to the Sociology of Segmented Societies, London: Institute of Race Relations and Oxford University Press. trans. E. M. Hooykaas [Google Scholar], p. 47, note 1). A recent work by Nathalie Dessens (2003Dessens, N. 2003. Myths of the Plantation Society: Slavery in the American South and the West Indies, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. [Google Scholar]) has tried to elaborate on this ‘Southern distinctiveness’ on the basis of racial structure and demographics, particularly the predominance of the white population and the formation of the southern North American colonies as places of settlement. Dessens has also paid attention to the economic and cultural development of the plantation society.

[6] On the Iberian racist thought that eventually influenced the Americas, see the work of James H. Sweet (1997Sweet, JH. 1997. “The Iberian roots of American racist thought”. In The William and Mary Quarterly, , 3rd ser., no. 1 Vol. 54, 143–166. [Google Scholar]).

[7] On the importance of fishing as an activity of slaves and their descendants in other Caribbean islands, see Pulsipher and Goodwin (1999Pulsipher, LM and Goodwin, CM. 1999. “Here where the old time people be: reconstructing the landscape of the slavery and post-slavery era in Montserrat, West Indies”. In African Sites: Archaeology in the Caribbean, Edited by: Haviser, JB. 9–37. Princeton, NJ: Mark