"By their own labor": Enslaved Africans' survival strategies on two Jamaican plantations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Douglas Armstrong


nineteenth century, slavery

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Archaeological Anthropology


This study uses the archaeological record and historic data specific to two early nineteenth-century communities to investigate the economic and social strategies enslaved laborers used to negotiate the stress of plantation life. The two communities examined in this study were the Juan de Bolas Coffee Plantation and Thetford Sugar Estate, both located in St. Catherine, Jamaica. Both the amount of labor expected from each enslaved individual and the organization of labor varied on plantations of different crop types. While enslaved populations on Jamaican plantations raised cash crops that were sold by the plantation management, they also raised crops in provision grounds (gardens) and sold their excess crops at Sunday markets. Enslaved Africans' ability to produce for themselves varied with the demands of the labor they were exposed to on the plantation.

Analysis of the historic data on the two slave communities investigated in this case study reveals that, overall, the community at the coffee plantation was healthier and had more material culture. However, some households at the more labor intensive sugar estate had a higher amount and diversity of material goods than any of the other households. The findings of this study reveal that while enslaved Africans at the coffee plantation were able to provide for their sustenance through provisioning and marketing, individuals on the sugar estate manipulated their position within the hierarchical labor organization to ensure the survival of their household. Depending on their position within the labor hierarchy at the sugar estate, some individuals were better able to provide for their households than others. These survival tactics suggest the possibility that different segments within the enslaved population had different views on their place within the plantation system and within Jamaican society.


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