The Ecology of Bondage: Writing the History of Water and Slavery in the Atlantic World 

Laura Birkinshaw and Fred Bricknell

PhD students, Centre for Water Cultures

University of Hull

A significant amount of historiographic attention has been devoted to the ways in which European imperialism and colonialism fundamentally and irrevocably transformed the global environment. The suite of ideas and practices which typified colonial attitudes toward physical landscape, flora, fauna, and ecological processes continue to influence our behaviour in the twenty-first century. This reality has led ecofeminist scholars Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing to propose a qualification for the increasingly widespread concept of an ‘Anthropocene epoch’ defined by the radical changes which human societies have wrought on the natural world. They posit instead that we are currently living in the ‘Plantationocene epoch’: an era defined by the consequences of an economic system which transported plants, microbes, animals and people all around the globe and transformed to unrecognisability entire ecosystems throughout the Americas, Asia and Africa.

It remains the case, though, that there have so far been few academic inquiries into the environmental history of the most infamous sites of plantation agriculture: the slave societies of the Caribbean and mainland North and South America between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two landmark works published earlier this year seek to redress the lack of overarching studies on the environmental history of plantation slavery and the regions where it flourished. David Silkenat’s Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South (Oxford, 2022) describes how ‘slavery more than nature’ created the Southern United States as a discrete ecological zone through the transformations wrought by flood, deforestation and a host of other environmental catastrophes. In Sea and Land: An Environmental History of the Caribbean (Oxford, 2022), Philip D. Morgan, J.R. McNeill, Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart B. Schwartz synthesise decades of research to create a holistic overview of the Caribbean environment before, during and after slavery. We can only hope that these will be looked back upon as the first of many works which represent an environmental turn in the history of Atlantic slavery.

Water sits at the root of almost all environmental processes, and has therefore been a key factor in historical development,  though it is often difficult to disentangle and isolate its impact in historical sources.  However, despite the often-unacknowledged role of water in histories detailing the development of the transatlantic slave trade, the prevalence and importance of water in the establishment and maintenance of the trade, and its direct impact on those both willingly and forcibly involved in the trade, cannot be overstated.  Water not only ensured survival (through its consumption), but facilitated the triangular trade and economic prosperity for its benefactors.  Water played a fundamental role in all aspects of enslaved people’s lives, and in the transatlantic slave trade as a whole.  From the unwilling conveyance of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, known as the Middle Passage, to the success of plantation societies, where water was crucial for crops such as sugar, to the transportation of goods from the Americas to Europe, water facilitated the economic growth and success of maritime ports on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alexander Gordon, ‘Plan of the Government Lands in the Colony of Demerara’, 1823 (The National Archives, Kew, MR 1/941)

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century West Africa was known as the ‘White Man’s Grave’ due to high mortality rates amongst Europeans. Swampy, marshland areas in West Africa provided ideal conditions for both the mosquito Aedes aegypti and the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum – twin vectors of yellow fever and malaria, two of the largest culprits of European fatalities in the transatlantic slave trade – to thrive. This fear of disease motivated Europeans to establish plantations in the Americas, and to transport enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to work on these plantations. Africans’ seeming ability to withstand diseases which proved fatal to Europeans – due to previous infection during childhood, thus granting resistance, in the case of malaria, and life-long immunity from yellow fever, unbeknownst to Europeans at the time – was used as a justification for their enslavement.

Drought and rates of rainfall in Africa could exert a huge influence on the number of Africans enslaved and transported across the Atlantic.  Drought often led to greater interethnic conflict and violence, contributing to higher rates of African enslavement and increased numbers of slaves being exported.  Furthermore, drought, rainfall and crop success in Atlantic Africa were key factors in the timing of slaving voyages and could affect the mortality rate of captives transported across the ocean. 

Simultaneously, water performed a crucial role on land by dictating the location of plantations and the colonies in which they existed, their prosperity or failure, and the health of those kept in bondage within them. Sugarcane, the premier crop of the British Caribbean, requires vast quantities of water to ensure its survival and the presence of so much water on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean provided an ideal environment for disease vectors like mosquitoes (carriers of malaria and yellow fever), as well as waterborne pathogens such as dysentery.

Not only did water facilitate the transatlantic slave trade, and impact on the daily lives and lived experiences of those in the trade, it also shaped the development of green-blue areas (land lying within 100km of the coast) on both sides of the Atlantic.  From the ports where slaves were departed from, to maritime cities such as Liverpool and Bristol water allowed a number of actors to benefit from the commerce in goods and people through jobs, investment, profit and the consumption of goods produced in the trade.  The impact is visible on the landscapes of these places from barracoons where slaves were held, to hospital stations or lazarettos where enslaved people were treated, to the infrastructure and architecture of port cities in Britain where the wealth and prosperity gained from the trade was spent.

Advertisment in the South Carolina Gazette, 16 August 1773 (courtesy of Charleston County Public Library)

Laura’s research focuses upon the prevalence, and impact, of disease in the transatlantic slave trade.  From the inception of that trade, disease threatened the health and well-being of everyone involved, resulting in high mortality rates amongst enslaved Africans and Europeans alike, during both the legal and illegal periods of the trade.  Laura’s work explores the transmission of disease in green-blue spaces such as barracoons, slave factories and lazarettos, and emphasizes the significance of water in the transmission of diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and dysentery.  Additionally, her work explores how the spread of disease was prevented, or curtailed, through methods such as the white-washing of vessels, and through the utilization of maritime quarantines.  Her work will also explore the lived experience of disease, particularly of the enslaved, and how disease was treated by medical practitioners, focusing on green-blue spaces such as ports areas, and on the slave voyages of the Middle Passage. Her research hopes to add to the existing historiography on the production and dissemination of medical knowledge as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.  She seeks to shed new light on how Indigenous and enslaved Africans’ botanical and medicinal knowledge contributed to developments in European medical understanding in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Fred’s research explores the environmental history of slavery and its legacies in one part of the plantation Americas: the colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana). His work emphasises the role played by both fresh and salt water in the creation of a plantation society, the transformation of the natural environment, and the survival and resistance of enslaved people and indentured labour migrants in the nineteenth century. Standing apart from Britain’s other Caribbean colonies geographically, culturally and ecologically, British Guiana represents an important and under-studied place. His research hopes to reveal how water influenced almost every facet of life in British Guiana, and was a space and substance contested by the people kept in bondage there, both before and after the formal abolition of slavery. A plantation system novel in the history of the British Empire shaped, and was shaped by, the volatile natural hydrology of the region, and the watery environment conditioned a particularly brutal labour regime even by the standards of the nineteenth-century Caribbean. Fred shows how enslaved people and their descendants found themselves at the sharp end of ecological crises from drought (which sharply increased the burden of labour without any form of concession or increased provision from white colonists) to flood (to which enslaved and free African-Guianese communities were always at most acute risk). Enslaved people of African descent and indentured labourers from all over the world frequently found themselves living at the margins of survival, but a few were able to deploy their skill as aquatic labourers to find ways of subverting the plantation system or escaping it altogether.

Laura and Fred will both be presenting their research as part of the inaugural Centre for Water Cultures Conference on 7 December 2022. Held on the University of Hull campus, the conference, which is open to the public, will include a range of papers from different disciplinary backgrounds demonstrating the myriad ways in which water has influenced human societies and cultures from the earliest times to the present day.