Black History: How Slaves Lived and Died

West Indies sugar plantation rendering (Source unknown)

This is part 3 of a 4-part serialization of the first chapter of a book being written by Shaun A. Pennington about the historical and modern-day consequences of sugar that have plagued Virgin Islanders and Americans for 400 years. The excerpts – which have been edited for purposes of this Black history series – paint a grim picture of the ties between slavery’s horrific place in Black history in the Virgin Islands, Caribbean and United States and the nature of the substance that secured slavery as an institution and whose side effects people of color often suffer disproportionately from to this day.

My curiosity was piqued by the tour of the plantation that hundreds of years ago was connected to the land around my house, I decided it was time to explore my side of the road.

A hike up the nearly 60-degree incline above my house in search of history makes me question whether I am on the right path. No village could have clung to this loose, rock-strewn soil. But then suddenly the land flattens. Lofty, inextricably intertwined trees hold what little soil remains along with blue bit rocks that could have been walls or may simply be random boulders caught on their way downhill in the grip of the mighty roots of the older trees.

I survey this flat ground but find little of the evidence I am seeking. By both time and design, the history of slavery is mysterious and hidden.

Historian David Knight Sr., former resident at Eensomhed, had warned me, “Most of the old village has been wiped out by the roads.”

What remains is sheltered in silence broken only by the nearby rumbling of trucks or whining of motorcycles. A cool breeze reaches through the thick bush providing support for continuing my search. I have been told there are ruins somewhere, but they are hard to distinguish from the cactus-covered rocks in the overgrown landscape before me.

Thick vines both dead and alive encased by thorny casha and clinging catch-n-keep vines make exploration challenging. But the land is rarely this flat for no reason. I can assume hundreds of souls slept, cooked, ate, died and were buried here – either before or after producing offspring that would issue forth also into bondage.

I read a quote once, “We only remember what we write down.” Another is “History is written by the victors.”

But there is another history.

Slave Quarters sign at Annaberg Plantation St. John (Shaun Pennington photo)

Few slaves learned to read and write, therefore few non-whitewashed written versions of what life in the village was like exist. But one account passed on from abducted African Olaudah Equiano, who by reason of being small, sickly and smart, left the world a glimpse into the life of slaves.

“Their huts, which ought to be well covered, and the place dry where they take their little repose, are often open sheds, built in damp places; so that when the poor creatures return tired from the toils of the field, they contract many disorders, from being exposed to the damp air in this uncomfortable state.”

Equiano is widely referenced in other articles and books about Caribbean slavery. He was believed to be living in the West Indies between 1745 and 1797. He had been taken from Africa at age 11 to Barbados to be sold off to planters. But because he was ill-suited for physical work and as clever as he was small, he learned to read and write, leaving behind his story in an autobiography titled “The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings.”

Far worse than living conditions, Equiano describes the punishment meted upon those who attempted escape.

“It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St. Kitt’s (sic), for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks.”

In Montserrat, Equiano chronicles the fate of Emanuel Sankey, who tried to escape on a ship bound for London.

The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano (Shutterstock image)

“But fate did not favour the poor oppressed man; for being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master.” Equiano writes, “The Christian master [italics his] immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ankle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them and dropped it all over his back.”

Back in the Virgin Islands, a further telling example of the planters’ view of slaves is revealed in a 1792 inventory of Eensomhed, translated and published by historian Knight, in which people were included just below the detailed list of the animals and above the furniture.

The record of the people who came with the sale of the property numbered 99. They were categorized as Negro men, female Negroes, boys and Negro girls.

The list is not unlike that of the animals, just above, which read:

“27-mule-asses among which four exceedingly old, 18 milk cows of which two old, 3 heifers, 96 large and small goats, 6 Porto (sic) Rico horses of which 2 are very old.”

Next came the people:

Negro Men

1. Christian, Bomba, exceedingly old

2. Benjamin Moulat, under-Bomba

3. Francis, Sugar Cooker

4. Wilhelm, under-Sugar Cooker

5. Nicholaus, Distiller

6. David, ditto, old

7. Frederich, Cooper, old wooden leg

8. Martin, ditto and disabled

9. Alexander, ditto

10. Nathaniel, carpenter

11. Johannes, Barber

12. Christian

13. Jonathan.

14. Christopher

15. Moses

16. Cornelius

17. Paulus, old and in the hospital

18. Statie Lovango, old

19. Sacharias, old and disabled

20. Melius, old

21 Friderich Creole

22. Stephenus

23. David Horis, old and disabled

24. Paul

25. Aaron

26. Elian

27. Ludwig

28. Cupidor

29. DonCarl

30. Jack

31. Choro

32. Mosse, disabled

33. Boy, sickly

34. Coffe

35. Quasie

36. Friderick, sick and old

37. Ferdinand St. Jan

38. Christian Hamborg, sick

Female Negroes

39. Ethmut

40. Friska

42. Margreth

43. Juliana

44. Eva, old

45. Anna Justina

46. Caritas, old and sick

47. Salome, ditto and wounded leg

48. Rosina

49. Penino

50. Charlotta

51. Joabeth

52 Christina

53. Lisbeth

54. Lettis, sick and disabled

55. Catharina St. Thomas, with injured foot

56. Catharina St. Jan

57. Antonette

58. Kenge

59. Christina

60. Anna Catharina, with injured foot

61. Presilla

62. Angenes

63. Judith, sickly

64. Justina Paul, ditto

65. Anna Martin, with child Martin

66. Maria Kokkie

67. Quasiba

68. Adjuba

69. Ramina, disabled

70. Lovisa

71. Janike

72. Bosen

73. Charolina

74. Susanna

75. Rosana

76. Clarissa

77. Maria, Bosal (newly arrived from Africa)

78. Bilha, old


79. Johannes

80. Jochum, in the fort*

81. Joshua

82. Joseph

83. Peter

84. Frantz

85. Christian

86. Little Nathaniel

87. Francis, Bosal (sic) bossel is the correct spelling and refers to those newly arrived from Africa

88. Frantz, Bosal (sic) bossel is the correct spelling and refers to those newly arrived from Africa

89. Hose

Negro Girls

90. Bilha

91. Regina

92. Penina Walte

93. Anna Maria

94. Tharone

95. Rachel

96. Maria Malena

97. Antonette

98. Charin

99. Thiana

* “in the fort” likely meant the slave was imprisoned and the subject of severe physical punishment.

In this list of belongings, human beings are being categorized according to their value as tools: whether they have skills, whether they are infirm, whether they are young or old. This “human inventory” presages the modern demographic profiling methods used to “target” customers with sales messages.

Although the methods of calculation have grown sophisticated – and slightly more humane – as actuarial tables and algorithms have evolved, the same cold, jaded vision prevails.

Just as slaves were seen solely in terms of “return on investment,” so are consumers – and the chronically ill and the insured – viewed in terms of what they can consume or what they can yield in premiums. In the past, human life was figured in terms of production. Now the terms revolve around consumption. In both cases, the result is a form of bondage. In both cases, sugar plays a prominent role.

Next: Sugar and Slavery are Inseparable

See part 1: Black History: Sugar Slavery in the Virgin Islands  

See part 2:  Black History: The Plantation Next Door