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“If this be living I'd rather be dead”: enslaved youth, agency and resistance on an eighteenth century Jamaican estate \ud \ud

By Cecily Jones


By the late eighteenth century, enslaved children and young adults had become vital components in the reproduction of Caribbean slavery. Yet the experiences of enslaved children and adolescents have rarely been the focus of scholarship. Indeed, the near-absence of scholarship on enslaved children and youth within the historiographies of slavery, childhood and family history is striking. While we know much about the structure of family life, gender roles, courtship, marriage, and parenting among the enslaved, we know far less about the material worlds of enslaved youth and adolescents. Childhood and adolescence represented critical stages in the lives of enslaved children for it was during these life-stages that young people were inculcated with the racialised ideologies of the wider social order, gained insight into the value systems of their society, were socialized into acceptance of their status as unfree peoples, and prepared for their future roles as labourers. Hence, their experiences of slavery were qualitatively different from those of adult slaves.\ud \ud This paper explores some aspects of adolescent life on the Jamaican estate of Thomas Thistlewood in the late decades of the eighteenth century. Thistlewood, manager of a slave-pen, early recognised the importance of young people in furthering his ambitions to become master of his own estate, and his purchases of young people reflect that market-rational strategy. Thistlewood’s preference for a youthful labour force stemmed from his conviction that young people could be more easily made to submit to his authority than adult slaves. Yet, Thistlewood’s belief in the greater tractability of enslaved youth was often undermined, as his adolescent labour force frequently and forcefully tested the limits of his mastery and asserted their rights to freedom. Thistlewood’s journal not only offers rich insights into the processes of transformation of enslaved children to adolescents and mature adults, but it also sheds light on enslaved youth and their negotiations with, manipulations of, and resistance to the master–slave relationship. This paper argues then, that far from being the passive objects of planter mastery, enslaved youth were active agents in the shaping of their own histories. In exploring these issues, this paper reveals much of the contradictions and ambiguities of enslaved childhood, youth and adolescence.\ud \u

Topics: HT, HN
Publisher: Elsevier
Year: 2007
OAI identifier:

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