PhD Student, Water Cultures Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
My PhD research focuses on the relationship between plantation slavery, indentured labour and water – both salt and fresh – in nineteenth-century British Guiana. It is a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a new doctoral programme which seeks to shed light on the vital relationships between human communities and water both throughout history and in the present day.
Since embarking on my research in September 2021, I have found that water permeates many different kinds of historical source but rarely becomes their central subject. Its trace must often be found in the margins of records outwardly concerned with something different, and it frequently acts as a kind of foundation that conditions the actions and relationships of the people whose lives I am studying. There are two reasons why nineteenth-century British Guiana offers such a fertile ground for this sort of analysis: its great abundance of water, and its unusually rich set of archival records. Central to this documentation is the cache of records from the Office of the Fiscal, an institution founded by the initial Dutch colonists which persisted under British rule after the three colonies which comprised British Guiana – Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo – were captured in 1796.
The Fiscal was the second-ranking official in the colony after the lieutenant-governor, and heard the complaints free and enslaved inhabitants of the colony brought against one another in a court convened for the purpose in the capital. A few complaints of serious crimes like robbery or murder were brought by white planters and managers, but the overwhelming majority were civil complaints brought by the enslaved against their owners and overseers. These records are not unmediated: the speech of the enslaved was clearly edited by the clerk who transcribed it, in order to fit a preconceived template of appropriate register for the courtroom setting. Many cases involved slaves who primarily communicated using Dutch Creole, in which case a court-appointed translator further influenced the import of their words. Such manipulations of oral evidence were conducted in real time and most changes appear aimed at increasing legibility. Some entries seem hurried, with grammatical inconsistencies suggesting that the clerk was struggling to keep up with the pace of the exchange taking place before him. Meaning was doubtless somewhat altered by such refraction, but the intended message of the enslaved speaker still shines through in most cases. Most importantly for the nature of my research, these records are filled with incidental information about the lives of complainants and witnesses which allow us access to aspects of everyday life in nineteenth-century British Guiana which were not deemed consequential enough to record elsewhere.
An especially revealing example of this can be found through reading two Fiscal cases from Berbice in the autumn of 1824. Guyana, which became independent from Britain in 1966, experiences a second dry season in between its two annual wet seasons (the first stretching from May to August and the second from December to January), and in October and November 1824 the lack of rainfall brought on a drought. The labour regime imposed by managers and drivers upon the enslaved was backbreaking and violent in ideal climatic conditions, and the additional burden required to shepherd the sugar canes through the drought fell entirely upon the shoulders of the enslaved. Managers would brook no excuse for a reduction in output, as their usually distant absentee employers were not shy of replacing overseers they felt were not maximising the ‘efficiency’ of their estates. In turn, enslaved drivers who were responsible for maintaining the punishing pace of work risked losing their positions if the manager felt that they were no longer extracting the maximum value of labour from other enslaved people. This incentivised an intensification of the already brutal workload and system of punishments.
On 20 October 1824, a deputation of ten enslaved people from Prospect plantation, whose names were Vaness, Arance, Rodger, Secunda, Cook, Tambour, Titus, Frederick, Joe and Martin, showed the Fiscal’s investigators around the estate and complained of the harsh new workload imposed over the preceding few weeks. Their main grievance was that, in addition to novel tasks imposed by the estate’s new owners to combat the drought such as deepening irrigation trenches to draw in more water and spending more time watering the young cane due to be harvested in the spring, they were still expected to work until nearly midnight carrying timber from the canalside to the engine house to feed the furnaces. The estate manager, one J. Paterson, responded by claiming that the complainants were particularly resentful because ‘some are punt men and others fire men’, meaning slaves with respective responsibility for plying the rivers and canals in barges or maintaining the furnaces for which the timber was destined. In an all-too-common outcome the Fiscal sided with the testimony of the manager and declared sanctimoniously that the new tasks were a ‘necessity … without which the manufactory of sugar cannot be effected’; evidently he gave no thought at all to the fact that the material welfare of the enslaved people forced to cultivate the sugar may also be important to the process (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 16-29).
Just over two weeks later, on Friday, 5 November 1824 Piet, an enslaved carpenter on Vrouw Johanna coffee plantation, appeared before the Fiscal in New Amsterdam to protest an unfair flogging for allegedly having incompetently repaired the water mill on the estate. The mill would not grind the recently-harvested coffee, and Piet was punished for this in spite of his protestations that the trenches for feeding water toward the mill were completely dry. When questioned about this, the ‘part proprietor’ of the plantation, C. Favre, claimed that there was plentiful water, and that Piet was lying. Backed up by the driver who depended on him for his continued higher status, Favre did not have to try very hard to convince the Fiscal of his version of events (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 31-33).
As is often the case with complaints brought before British Guiana’s fiscals, both matters were dismissed out of hand. While the Fiscal’s relationship with the plantocracy was sometimes tense – any planter whose slave complained was automatically fined, and until 1816 the Fiscal was entitled to keep a proportion – the Fiscal was nonetheless a central part of the white supremacist regime. Like many of his forerunners and successors Berbice’s incumbent fiscal since 1819, M.S. Bennett, owned several estates and shared the prejudices of his peers. Complaints were declared to be spurious far more often than they were upheld, and the Fiscal regularly sentenced complainants to further brutal punishments. The man identified by the Prospect manager as the ringleader, Vaness, received 45 lashes for insubordination, while Piet the carpenter was sentenced to 37.
The examples I have described reveal the ways in which ecological disturbance of the plantation regime could exacerbate existing tensions. After all, unfair punishment and overwork, along with insufficient food, are some of the most frequent subjects of court proceedings in the colony and drought, combined with the vicious incentive structures created by the plantation economy, meant that the lives of the enslaved materially worsened in all three areas. The drought is not explicitly mentioned in either of these cases, and only passingly alluded to in a third which mentions ‘the great scarcity of grass owing to the heavy dry season’ (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, f. 51). Instead, it is submerged out of sight. It is only by reading these sources ‘below the waterline’ that the power of water to motivate so many diverse aspects of life in nineteenth-century British Guiana becomes clear.