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Book Review.. Law and Society

By starnatasha Jan 28, 2012 2336 Words
Slavery, Law and Society in the British Windward Islands 1763-1823 September 29, 2011
Lecturer: Dawn M. McNeil
Reviewed by Natasha Stewart

Published by Arawak Publications
ISBN 976 8189 81 9 (hbk)
ISBN 976 8189 27 4 (pbk)

One of the most important courses that are required for matriculation into law school is “law and society”. This is due to the fact that this course covers interaction between Law and Society from a historical, economical, political, sociological perspective of Caribbean societies, from primitive to transitional and also modern societies. It incorporates trends of law enforcement as well as current social and technological changes that influence society. It is premised on the fact that law has a critical function in all forms of social conduct. Though not the exact words of lecture McNeil, they were enough to help me to understand the importance of this course. Therefore upon her instructions to review the book “Slavery Law and Society”, I was most enthused, as I intended to read with an objective that would allow me to understand more about the laws of slavery and their impacts, the composition of society and to compare it with the society we have today. As I thought that this would allow me to be understanding of this course of study. My attention was also naturally drawn to the author Bernard Marshal, as I think he did a great job in compiling this case study. Nonetheless, I feel privilege to know that my review o this book will ultimately make it better, while giving me knowledge of a society that I fortunately escaped. The book slavery law and society is a comparative study, which looks at the political, economical, legal and social life of a majority black population, a minority white population and a relatively large amount of free colored in St Vincent, Tobago, Dominica, Grenada and the Grenadines between the years 1763 to 1823. This period marks a relevant and vital time in the history of the Caribbean and the importance of these Windward Islands to French and British economy. These two European nations stood in constant conflict over wealth and ownership of these islands. Thus building our understanding of how Caribbean history in these islands was developed. Bernard Marshall assessed the relationship between different groups in society, with special attention placed on the enslaved population who were in constant resistance of slavery, especially the maroons. Throughout the sixty years of slavery, many writers have analyzed the nature of slavery in some of the more popular Caribbean islands, however it must be noted that this book is the first to help with understanding the nature of the slave system in these four important communities. At a time when slavery and plantation ownership was very important to the economic success of the planter class, the nature of the slave society was examined and critiqued in this study. Special emphasis was placed the political, social, religious, economic and legal organizations of these islands. Nonetheless there was decline which brought into question, the importance of a seemingly redundant enslaved population. Bernard however, presents a harsh historical reality, which was seen in the most inhumane activities meted out to mankind, which is the trans-Atlantic slave trade. During that period the establishment of sugar plantations required purchasing of land, plantation buildings, equipment and upkeep of one’s own labour force which translated into large expenditures: for example a sugar estate in St Vincent that contained 442 acres was 74,035 pounds. Funds were secured to purchase such an estate from the mercantile houses in the metropolis. When the economy declined and prices paid for crops were reduced, many planters defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt. This period saw many such declines and loss for planters, whether for economic reasons or as a direct result of the many revolts that were carefully planned and executed by the slaves seeking freedom and social status. To date the Caribbean is very familiar to almost everyone, due to the contributions of historians, sociologists, lecturers and legal scholars. Nonetheless, only this writer has sought to give a comparative analysis of these communities as they are generally ignored in most readings of Caribbean history, though same were the experiences of these islands in the era of slavery. The role of law was carefully examined and most importantly, its relationship with economic, political and social life of persons in these communities. Marshall’s study provides adequate insight into the society of slavery in an ignored area of the Caribbean history. It must be noted that while the whips and the other physical brutal methods of control were deemed effective to control the slave population. A critique of religion was also evident as it was used as an effective form of social control which made the slaves subservient to their masters. The book is mostly viewed from a Marxist perspective; therefore the function of law was an instrument of the ruling class. This authority created an exploited Caribbean society by colonial rule whose authority was justified by the existing political and judicial precedents created by them and used to keep the “less fortunate” Africans and free coloured in check. Marshall showed how the law worked in favour of the ruling class, those who owned the means of production. This aspect of Marshal’s analysis can be compared to present day societies, where preference is given to the “big man”. Law is a coercive order….. the norms which form a legal order must be norms stipulating a coercive act, e.g. a sanction, the evil applied to the violator of the order when sanction is socially organized, consists in a deprivation of possessions- life, health, freedom or property. As the possessions are taken from him against his will, this sanction has the character of the measure of coercion; a social order that seeks to bring about the desired behavior of individuals by the enactment of such measures of coercion is called a coercive order. “The laws of the islands recognized the owner’s right to his property in the slave, and protected right from violation by others”. Therefore various acts were passed to govern the every movement of slaves. (Slave laws of 1768)

In an attempt by the minority white to ensure social stability, laws were designed to push actions such as rebellions, robbery, running away, arson etc, the actions were severely punished, in fact, dealt was the ultimate. The responsibility of punishment was given to the police, who ensured that laws were upheld. The law was therefore seen as a weapon of social control that worked in the interest of the minority white population. It was used to dehumanized the African population in a most barbaric and unthinkable way. The ruling class fashioned its own brand of social engineering to support a system of racial inequality and exploitation. In the period between 1763-1773, Great Britain acquired what was well known as the British Windward islands. An economy which was initially based on the production and trade of cocoa, coffee, spice and tobacco was now changed into one based on sugar production. This lead to the immediate migration of white owners who could not compete with the emerging sugar industry and influx of slaves. this lead to a cultural change of the society into that of which was centered around the sugar industry, slavery and a dominating planter class. “The history of slavery in the British Windward islands indisobly and extricably linked to the expansion of the sugar industry. Ever since 1773, sugar had gained a position of first rate importance in the plantation economy. A position which it maintained throughout the period of this study, to almost the total neglect of other kinds of economic activities. For instance, in St.Vincent after 1773, tobacco cultivation was carried out by the Black Caribs only, and following their expulsion in 1797 it was most likely to be abandoned. Report from the island in 1788 also revealed that the culture of coffee and cocoa was being neglected by planters”. This aspect of history saw decline in the economy of these islands due to revolts by slaves and other economic reasons such as cut off of trade with America, knowing that this trade with America was vital to the survival of plantation economy. In Grenada and St. Vincent, production level fell, while prices also declined presenting famine in these islands. French rule played a significant role in the losses suffered by these islands. Nonetheless, the treaty of Versailles gave back to Britain these islands. British were well interested in the American rum and liquor, which were relatively cheap and affordable, thus inviting the interest of the British to trade for a profit in their market. The economy suffered extreme effects of war, of which the planter class was seemingly unaware. Through Marshall’s theses, revelation was made of economic politics which resulted in revolts of the whites, mullatos and slaves. Slave rebellion in Tobago between the years 1770 and 1773 saw 80 whites killed. These revolts were influenced by other revolutionary wars, such as French Revolution, American Revolution and enlightenment thinkers. Passive and submissive behaviors were thought to the slaves by Christian missionaries. In a report submitted to the Privy Council in 1788 it was asserted that “if they (the slaves) receive punishment for misdemeanors, though they might seem too severe, the brethren have no business to interfere” this policy was perused by the Moravian Brethren in Tobago. In addition, they preached the virtues of obedience, submission and diligence to their converts and by doing so they made a fairly significant contribution to the maintenance and stability of the slave society. The brethren had no choice than to adapt to these policies of the planters, since their focus should be on conversion of the heathen to Christianity. Failure to comply would result in them being forced to leave the islands. When in 1799 Brother Schirmer’s went to say the last word to a slave who was about to be executed, this was what he said: “Though God is merciful and gracious and forgives repenting sinners, yet he also executes his vengeance against those who persist in sin and commit iniquity with greediness and has authorized the powers he had established in the world, to do the same.” Even after the abolition of slave trade in 1807 the lives of slaves still had no value to the planter class. The inferiority of Negro slavery was still polished in their minds, and this harsh trend has been brought down into our societies today. The thought that slave trade was abolished and slaves could now buy their freedom was a most welcomed notion by the slaves, however this was a mere dream in reality, as the price to purchase such freedom was unattainable. In St. Vincent, one slave out of every 630 gained his freedom each year; in Grenada, one out of every 408: in Dominica 1 out of every 90 and in Tobago one out of every 832. The slave society in the new world and Brazil remained fairly closed. Slave societies in the Windward Islands and other islands of the New world such as Brazil are quite similar, regardless of a few supersticial differences. Nonetheless, Marshall’s contribution to slavery in these islands is commendable a great deal of achievement, however, many generations to come, will encounter different articles on slavery. Perceptions of slavery might change in future references. However the process and nature of slavery will be the theme for many great writers, who will borrow from Marshall’s study of these Windward Island.

A criticism of Marshall’s theory links it to a cohesive society with shared norms and values and similar goals and objectives. Nonetheless, this text was a well researched on, based on various references provided from other writers to substantiate information given. The relevance of this study to my course of study was what gave me the drive to continue reading Marshall’s work. It was quite informative; on the other hand it could have been far more concise, as there was too much repetition of points that were made clear in earlier chapters. The dates though very important, were overused and at some points they were not significant, and caused me to lose focus on many occasions. A book of this nature which caters to a wide range of intellectuals, specifically university students should have been vetted thoroughly to avoid spelling errors and incorrect grammar. I also found that paragraphs were exhausted and one point either overlapped into another or it was too long. Marshall’s study of these islands was somewhat limited as it could have incorporated more impacts of the outside world on these plantations, such as the rise to industrialism and enlightenment, impact of French revolution, slave actions in other Caribbean territories, works of humanitarians etc. all the aspects of slavery impacted the windward islands, but Marshall paid little attention to them. I think however that had he made relations to more similarities between these islands and other well written about Caribbean territories history of slavery, then he would attracted more authors of this school of thought to add the history of the windward islands into their writings of Caribbean history and slavery. Though I am appreciative of the fact that this study gave me extended knowledge of Caribbean history, which I very much appreciate, I think that this source was not one of the more captivating piece of Caribbean history that I have read, and if not for a specific purpose I would not be enthused to read it again. Though a local case study, the book is nevertheless an important contribution to the history of slavery in the Caribbean and in the New World in general.

[ 1 ]. Hans keelson, general theory of law and state
[ 2 ]. House of commons Accounts and papers, volume xxvi,1789 [ 3 ]. Periodical accounts, volume ii: extract from brother Schirmer’s diary.

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