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

F.J.Bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk

L.K.Birkinshaw-2019@hull.ac.uk

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.

Covid-19 in Camps – How the pandemic is impacting young refugees

Charlotte Russell

Wiseman Khuzwayo Scholarship PhD student

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

From the early stages of the pandemic, we have seen the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minority and marginalised groups. This disparity continues to disadvantage those living in refugee camps across the world. While Covid-19 mortality rates in refugee camps have not been as devastating as was initially predicted, the impacts of the pandemic for displaced people are both broad ranging and ongoing. In the case of young refugees, we are seeing a particular set of adverse consequences which extend beyond physical health.

In my research I’m speaking with NGOs working within refugee camps on the Greek islands, and with people living in the camps who are seeking asylum. Time and time again, when I asked about the safety issues which young people in these camps are facing, Covid-19 came up. Interviewees spoke about the increased, unmonitored abuse and exploitation of young people as a result of Covid-19. One young man referred to this as the ‘hidden pandemic’ in refugee camps. A little more exploration revealed that this is unfortunately very much a trend across camps globally. While every camp presents distinct problems, trends such as this are appearing across the world.

Lockdowns, income loss, restriction of services and confinement to insecure environments are increasing the existing threats to the safety and well-being of young refugees. They are facing higher levels of mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, abusive smuggling, social exclusion and separation from caregivers. In a refugee camp setting, where the stresses of daily life are already severe and child protection services are limited or non-existent, these increased safety risks are felt all the more intensely. While interconnected, these issues can be grouped into three dimensions: provision of services, poverty and xenophobia.

Services which young people in camps relied upon to alleviate the associated problems of encampment are slowed, or unable to function. One example of this is the closure of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing education services. Schools in refugee camps provide an informal safeguarding role – one which is rarely filled in any formal capacity. NGO representatives have described to me how getting to know young people and seeing them on a regular basis allowed their teachers to spot indicators that a young person may be experiencing some form of abuse, and to act accordingly. Remote learning is simply not accessible financially to the majority of these young people. It requires a mobile device, mobile data, and very often a long journey on foot to purchase the mobile data, not to mention the risk of exploitation or abuse faced while making this journey to the nearest town. In any case, it is the in-person contact which most effectively alerts teachers or support staff to a safeguarding issue.

Many other support structures are now closed too, including ‘safe spaces’ in camps. In Vial refugee camp on the island of Chios, the ‘safe space’ for women and young people has now been closed for ten months, making it harder for children to report child protection issues and receive the necessary support and care. Closures of support structures such as these are linked by NGOs and refugees themselves to the increasing rates of neglect, abuse, gender-based violence and child marriages occurring in camps.

Shifts in the services processing asylum claims are also having a tangible impact on the overcrowding and poor monitoring of camp residents. United Nations agencies suspended resettlement procedures at the beginning of the pandemic. In many countries, border closures have left displaced people stranded, placing children and their families at risk of further harm and potentially separating families for longer stretches. In the United States, people seeking asylum, including children, have been turned away or deported to their countries of origin at the United States–Mexico border as part of the response to Covid-19. This indefinite prolongation of encampment also further increases the poverty of those living in camps worldwide.

While the pandemic has not only increased the impacts of poverty on displaced people in camps, it has also altered and reduced the means available to refugees to combat these poverty increases. Children and young people are no exception to this change. Families and caregivers of refugee children are inherently more vulnerable to job loss or economic downturns. With loss of access to support services (which have been forced to withdraw or reduce their support due to social distancing measures or lack of funding), comes a greater intensity of need. This increased need for food, clothing, shelter, and income must be accommodated somehow. And with the closure of ‘safer’ channels to do so, there is an increased likelihood of children accessing what they or their family need through means which exploit them. More children are now working to provide income for their families, engaging in coercive or emotional relationships, exploitative or abusive smuggling, or sexual exploitation.

Very much interwoven with these issues is the circulation of misinformation on the spread of Covid-19. Stigma, xenophobia and discrimination towards displaced children and their families are being exacerbated worldwide. In Lebanon, multiple municipalities have introduced restrictions on Syrian refugees to stem the spread of the virus. However these do not apply to Lebanese nationals. Similarly, displaced people on the Greek islands are facing curfews, and even lockdowns that do not apply to Greek residents. In Italy, there have been incidents of police brutality towards young refugees simply for leaving their camp. With these trends a differentiation is made between the rights of nationals compared to those of refugees. They also underscore the overlap between health inequality or the commodification of health, and the enjoyment of basic human rights to safety and protection, a relationship which Covid-19 has highlighted all too clearly.

While it is important not to homogenise the experiences of minority groups, or to associate the personal identities of these people with only the labels of ‘refugee’ or ‘child’, it remains important to demonstrate that they are facing distinct challenges. These challenges need to be tackled with their particular circumstances in mind. The health implications of displacement, particularly in a pandemic, are of course vital to appreciate. However the ‘hidden pandemic’ of unmonitored and unprevented abuse presents an equally vital child health crisis which continues to be overlooked.

Moria Corona Awareness Team (MCAT), a refugee-led initiative working to provide protection from Covid-19 in camps on Lesvos island. Image at https://www.facebook.com/MoriaCoronaAwarenessTeam/

What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240871183?accountid=11528 (accessed July 25, 2020).

Racial Precedents to COVID-19

Jasmine Holding Brown

‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk, #FallingThroughTheNet

As part of the ‘Falling Through the Net’ cluster my work examines children and childhoods that are exposed to exploitation. In the first six months of my PhD the focus of my research has shifted, more than once. Currently my interests lie in exploring ideas relating to rescue: the rescuers and the rescued.

The two central topics of my comparative study, British child migration and Indigenous Canadian child removal (between 1850 and 1970) were, on the surface at least, supposed to ‘save’ children from something: poverty; sin; poor parenting; limited social and economic opportunities; indigeneity. Frequently these ‘rescued’ children were placed in highly exploitative and harmful situations.

To stretch the initial analogy further though, there are children that these particular ‘nets’, however poorly designed, were never designed to catch. I suggest that by looking closely at the particular characteristics of the ‘rescued’, including the ‘non-rescued’ and the ‘rescuers’, we can attain a clearer understanding of the social dynamics at play. The intersections of class, gender and race in the development of policies drastically altered the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and left many in mass unmarked graves. I intend to explore the underexamined role that ‘white womanhood’ played in the formulation of these child-focused social movements, and their relation to broader settler-colonial projects.

Ultimately, I am interested in the relevance that these issues have to contemporary practices and the protection of ‘vulnerable’ children and young people, dilemmas regarding the ethics of intervention, the distribution of resources and how ‘best interests’ are conceptualised.

The current global health crisis has brought some of these vulnerabilities into stark relief, exposing the rampant social and health inequalities that exist within societies. Despite children being one of the least affected groups in relation to the virus itself, the wider implications of the COVID-19 disease pandemic will undoubtedly impact some young people more than others. This includes the inability to access outdoor spaces and the internet;  reduced contact with support services; and the increased pressures of lockdown on family dynamics for the estimated 2.3 million children in England considered to be at significant risk, but not currently receiving support from social services.

In addition to class distinctions, racial disparities in relation to COVID-19 are now being discussed openly. Analysis conducted by The Guardian called for the recognition of race, and racial inequalities as risk factors for COVID-19. Afua Hirsch, writing in the same newspaper has been highlighting these concerns since early April, when the emerging data appeared to corroborate what many suspected, that individuals from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups are dying in significantly greater numbers relative to their representation in the population as a whole: in the UK this means a 27% higher rate than would be expected. An official inquiry into the issue was recently announced.

The statistics for black American deaths are even more telling; in Chicago black people constitute a third of the population but accounted for 72% of deaths at the beginning of April. It will be some time before we fully understand the correlation between BAME individuals and COVID-19, although it’s likely that socioeconomics, housing, high-risk occupations and higher levels of co-morbidities will be factors. It suggests that the tragic consequences of COVID-19 will also be felt disproportionately by the children of racial minority groups.

The social determinants of health are perhaps even more apparent, when looking at the potential impact COVID-19 could have for Indigenous communities. In Canada, especially areas without access to clean running water, frequent hand washing is not always feasible. Social distancing and isolation are not viable choices in overcrowded living arrangements, and where there are chronic shortages of adequate housing. A significantly higher proportion of the population have underlying health conditions, and there is a very high prevalence of respiratory illnesses. Inuit children, for example, suffer from tuberculosis at 300 times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians, and, experience the highest rates of chronic respiratory disease in the world. These issues are compounded by limited access to healthcare services, with some remote areas only accessible by air, and others having no resident medical personnel. For these communities the impact of COVID-19 could be devastating.

The legacies of colonialist and racist mentalities have been exposed, in some quarters, in the ways in which the current pandemic has been articulated. Historically, Indigenous children were used as guinea-pigs for experimental and often brutal treatments. An idea invoked recently by a French doctor suggested a potential vaccine could be trialled in Africa. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, commonly known as the BCG, which is currently being examined for its potential use against COVID-19, was tested on Indigenous children in the 1930s to counter ‘Indian tuberculosis’, an example of racialised and pathologizing language that echoes the current American President’s use of the term ‘Chinese virus’.

Brandon Sanitorium for Indians, Brandon, Manitobe, Canada. November 1947.
Racially segregated hospitals originally operated to contain ‘Indian tuberculosis’.
Library and Archives Canada: Available here

From a personal perspective the pandemic has, to some degree, limited my ability to access resources. It has made connections with others more difficult to achieve, and it means events have been cancelled or postponed. They are difficulties though that seem largely trivial, given the struggles many people are facing to access even basic sanitation in order to protect themselves.