Sunlit Water

February 13, 2008

Brown Sugar

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 9:58 pm

When I was at my mom’s house a couple weeks ago I decided to finally get some of the books I had been meaning to bring over to my apartment. (Taking these books also inspired me to finally update my LibraryThing.) The books I took included some of mine, most of which I’d already read but wanted to have around for various reasons, and some of my dad’s, mostly ones he’d bought in connection with taking and teaching American history courses. I took those books because I’d thought the looked interesting for a while and I figured now would be a good time to read them.

The first one I read, which I finished yesterday, was Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650–1838 by Barbara Bush (no, not that one, or that one).  It’s a very focused account of the lives of slave women in the colonial British West Indies, with particular attention to the larger sugar plantations.  The documentation of the lives of both slaves and women in this period is very sparse, and the documentation of the lives of slave women is therefore even sparser, so Bush is forced to wring an enormous amount of analysis out of a very little source material.  She depends primarily on published works from the period in question, mainly polemical accounts by both pro- and anti-slavery writers (mainly pro-slavery, actually, since the planters who wrote these books had more firsthand experience with plantation life than the abolitionists who wrote the anti-slavery ones), with the addition of a few accounts by less invested outsiders such as John Stedman and private journals of less polemical planters such as Matthew Lewis.  She supplements the rather meagre clues she can glean from these sources with the findings of modern quantitative historians who have researched slave life from plantation records and anthropologists who have researched the modern societies of the parts of West Africa whence most of the Caribbean slaves came.

Given how little source material she has to deal with, Bush does quite a good job of reconstructing the lives of slave women and their prominent role in slave society.  She focuses in particular on their contributions to slave resistance in all its forms, from everyday malingering and preservation of African cultural forms to violent rebellion.  Her goal throughout much of this is to rehabilitate the image of the slave woman from the stereotypes, first put forth by the planters themselves and later adopted unthinkingly by many historians, that they were more inclined to assimilate to white society on account of their roles as housekeepers and concubines and therefore less inclined to resistance and more prone to betray slave revolts than men.  Her evidence is pretty convincing, showing, for example, that the vast majority of female slaves were engaged in fieldwork rather than being domestics and that they were generally considered by planters to be difficult to manage and resistant to European cultural influences such as Christianity.

Despite the overall convincing nature of Bush’s argument, the slightness of the evidence on which she bases it leads to some oddness, such as her contention that the notion that slave families were “matrifocal” without strong father figures was both based on misunderstanding of African family traditions and false because there is ample evidence that many slaves did have strong nuclear families.  This sort of thing crops up at several points in the book, generally when two different lines of evidence point in different direction and there isn’t any other evidence to use to determine which is more accurate.  She does properly indicate that much of her arguments are based on informed conjecture and are necessarily tentative due to the nature of the sources, however, so this isn’t a major issue in evaluating the quality of the book overall.

This isn’t a very long book, but it’s fairly dense and academic in style, and not really light reading for a popular audience.  It does contain a lot of interesting evidence and analysis that sheds much-needed light on a part of history that has received too little attention, however, and is definitely a worthwhile read for those with a serious interest in the history of slavery and the Caribbean.



  1. Ooh, thanks for linking to Library Thing. I like browsing other people’s bookshelves.

    Did you read the Hernando De Soto The Other Path? It looks interesting, although scantily reviewed by other LT-ers, so maybe it’s crackpot-ish.

    I was amused to see The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook or whatever it’s called. Was that a gift?

    Comment by Witt — February 14, 2008 @ 6:30 pm |Reply

  2. I did read The Other Path. It’s interesting, and not really crackpottish (though I have since heard that De Soto’s theories don’t actually stand up very well to the empirical evidence), but it focuses entirely on Peru, in great detail. I haven’t read his other book, but I think it’s basically a generalization of the theory to development worldwide. That’s probably a better one to read.

    The survival handbook was a gift from my mom. I’ve looked through it a little, but it’s not really my thing.

    Comment by teofilo — February 14, 2008 @ 6:56 pm |Reply

  3. Teo, have you read Jen Morgan’s _Laboring Women_?

    Comment by ari — February 18, 2008 @ 9:21 pm |Reply

  4. No.

    Comment by teofilo — February 18, 2008 @ 9:23 pm |Reply

  5. There is a water district in the Central Valley called the Panoche WD. Panoche, I’m told, means brown sugar and is suggestive slang for a dark-skinned woman. Mentioning Panoche WD was often good for a short laugh among my hispanic classmates.

    Comment by Megan — February 20, 2008 @ 12:07 pm |Reply

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