“The Island Belonged to Them” Slave Provisioning and Empire in the British West Indies, 1679-1833
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Recent scholarship on New World slavery has emphasized both the violent and non-violent means by which the enslaved reacted to, and shaped, their circumstances. This thesis explores how the enslaved of the British West were able to both affect their lived experiences and challenge the power of the planter class through something as innocuous as taking on the responsibility of growing their own food. The perspectives of both planters and slaves will be considered, finding that the systems of self-provisioning emerged during the earliest phase of the plantation complex in an environment of uneasy mutualism. Subsequently, analysis of the power considerations that undergirded the interplay between the wants and needs of both orders will demonstrate how this uneasy mutualism gave way to antagonisms over the greater implications of self-provisioning. When the enslaved took on the right to self-provision they simultaneously seized the right to mobility as well as the right to keep and dispose of personal property; the slaves materially benefited and socially coalesced as a result of these developments. The planters were weary of the loss of social control associated with this development, but they were unable to end these systems because of their increasing socioeconomic dependence thereon. Further, planter efforts to control the effects of self-provisioning were vexed by their inability to totally dominate the social developments of the West Indies. Ultimately, self-provisioning occupied a paradoxical position at the intersection of political economic, geo-political, and social forces; it was economically essential for the maintenance of the regime, but it constantly undermined the social control that was essential for social stability within the West Indies. Ultimately, self-provisioning systems, which were the product of the agency of the enslaved, proved to be one of the most important forces that shaped the plantation complex during the period of slavery.