Prosperity for planters meant something entirely different for the enslaved Africans brought to the islands to provide the labor that fueled the plantation economy. During the most prosperous years of plantation life here, slave ships sailed to St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Tortola with cargo directly from Africa. Newly arrived Africans were given one week of “seasoning” to recuperate from the horrific Middle Passage from Africa before being put to work; mortality rates among newly arrived slaves were as high as 30 percent.
Most slaves lived in mud and thatch huts on their plantations, except for the slave driver, or bomba, who often lived in a wooden house. Field slaves worked from sunup to sundown, with longer hours during the arduous sugar harvest period. Slaves were often given small patches of land on which they were expected to produce food for themselves and their families, which was augmented by meager provisions from their owner. Each slave was supposed to receive one new piece of clothing each year but on some occasions got none.
Slaves in the British Virgin Islands were subject to unfettered brutality, in part because of a Slave Code now noted as one of the most repressive in the entire Caribbean region. One report from Tortola tells of a planter stabbing a slave through the heart because he did not like the meal she prepared. In another case, slaves who executed a rebellion on Josiah’s Bay Plantation in 1790 were tortured for days and then put to death in a public execution. In the Danish islands, authorities responded to the 1733 St. John rebellion by instituting repressive rules against slave gatherings.
The miracle of slavery is that the slaves not only survived but developed a rich culture and strong character despite oppression and brutality. Most plantations allowed slaves one and a half days off each week. On Saturday afternoons they were expected to cultivate their own crops, on which they depended for food, and on Sundays they rested.
Many slaves found ways to earn money, some developing skills that allowed them to buy their freedom and the freedom of their families. A market was held on Sunday mornings in Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, Frederiksted, Road Town, and other villages, where slaves would bring produce and other goods to sell. Slaves also depended on their religious beliefs. Before missionaries began Christianizing slaves in the late 1700s, many slaves practiced the religions of Africa, labeled obeah today. These religions involved belief in various gods, and also knowledge of bush medicine and other healing methods. Recognizing the threat of the slaves’ religious gatherings and beliefs, authorities passed laws making obeah illegal. It remains illegal in the British Virgin Islands today.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition