British Empire Books

Journal of a Residence among the Negroes in the West Indies

AuthorMatthew Lewis
First Published1845
This Edition2005
ISBN No.1845880374

The Journal of a residence among the negroes in the West Indies is a well told account of a slave plantation in operation betweem 1815 and 1817. The author, Matthew Lewis, is an unlikely slave owner. By the standards of the day he was something of a progressive thinker with many sympathies for the anti-slavery campaigns of William Wilberforce and the like. However in 1812 his father died and Matthew Lewis found himself the master of many hundreds of slaves in far off Jamaica. This book is Matthew's account of a considerable culture clash as the cultured European dilletante comes face to face with the institution of slavery in the heat of the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean.

The publisher's introduction to the book claims that Matthew Lewis was an opponent of slavery who campaigned for improved working conditions for the slaves. This may be true but it is not the whole story. Actually, this book reveals a far more complex description of the entire socio-economic system of slavery. It shows how powerful the system of slavery is and how it corrupted the lives of virtually all who came into contact with it; from the slaves who suffered at the bottom to the slave owners who lived so familiarly with violence in all aspects of their lives. Reading between the lines, the relatively enlightened views of Matthew Lewis are equally subverted by this brutal economic system as he himself finds that he is constrained by laws, obligations and precedents that he cannot undo. One of his first observations is the humiliation he felt when one of his slaves say "Massa not know me; me your slave". Matthew Lewis rightly points out that the word 'slave' meant that whether the poor fellow liked or detested Master Lewis, he had to serve him anyway. Revealingly Master Lewis felt tempted to tell him "Do not say that again; say that you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave." The fact that he does not say that shows that Master Lewis is a prisoner of the system of slavery as much as the slave is - a far more comfortable prisoner - but a prisoner none the less. A prisoner who is dependent upon the institution for his own livelihood.

His progressive liberal tendencies are further frayed when he tries to justify keeping the slaves rather than freeing them all there and then. He points out that he has certain obligations to the slaves - especially the elderly and lame who would not survive being churned out onto the streets without anyone to look after them. Besides, he intended to be an enlightened slave owner who would provide a new hospital for them, improve their rations and the number of holidays they had (from one a year to four a year). You can almost feel the liberal angst in his writings as he tries to justify to himself why it is more humane to keep the slaves than release them to the wilds of capitalism and all the dangers that lurked there for any freed slaves. Again, this is evidence of how slavery could corrupt the most well intentioned of its participants.

Master Lewis liked to blame most of the worst aspects of slavery on the system of absentee landlordism - if only the slave owner knew what was being done by over eager employees then the worst excesses would be removed. There may have been a germ of truth in this thesis, but again it just points to how bad the whole institution of slavery was. Most right minded landlords probably did feel uncomfortable living amongst hundreds of slaves who would probably like to murder the landlord and his family in the hot and humid, disease ridden colony. It is not surprising then that the vast majority of these landlords paid others to run the brutal plantations for them and they just pocketed the profits back in England. Master Lewis himself points out the alarming frequency of poisonings towards Masters and people in authority as some slaves endeavoured to fight back against the system in such a relatively secretive way.

Master Lewis also fails to pick up on some of his own valuable insights into the hopes and aspirations of slaves. For example, he laments how Christian clergy had a hard time recruiting many of the slaves to a religion whose heaven is not in Africa. He comments that most slaves wished to rejoin their ancestors in Africa when freed from this earth by death. He points out how difficult it is to get freed slaves to go back to work on the plantations once they had gained their freedom - no matter what wage was offered. This should give some clue to the beastly nature of the work that was required of them. He points out how full the hospitals could be of shirkers and lazy workers as he called them. Again, this is good evidence for the ineffectiveness of slavery. What possible motivation did any slave have of doing a hard day's work if his reward is the same as the laziest of slaves - ie nothing. If anything Master Lewis should probably have been surprised to see as many people as he did working in the plantations.

The degradations of slavery were not confined to individual plantations. Master Lewis goes on to give examples of the judicial system's bias against the slaves. For example, negroes were not allowed to give evidence in court. Master Lewis explained how the murder of a slave by a white man that was only witnessed by other slaves could not even proceed to a court case. Whereas transportation and the death penalty were liberally used to keep troublesome slaves in their places.

Now for all that I have said about Master Lewis, it must be argued that he could write with considerable wit about some of the stranger incongruities of the slave system and life in Jamaica. He was genuinely interested in the people he met and the places he visited. His descriptions of the food and plants he came across are particularly interesting. You really get a flavour of what it was like to be a pioneer in that part of the world experimenting with what could or could not be eaten or grown. You can see the learning curve of this colony very much in action. It should also be pointed out that his descriptions of transportion by ship to and from Jamaica are particularly interesting and informative. Again, you get a feel for the dangers of moving around the world in the early Nineteenth Century.

Master Lewis is a product of his period and of his education. By early nineteenth centuries he was undoubtedly a forward thinking slave owner. He abhorred violence and the death penalty in particular and genuinely tried to come up with ways to discipline his slaves that did not rely on the whip if at all possible. And yet, he was a slave owner with all that that implied. He could not bring himself to free a slave who was granted freedom by his father until that slave could find a replacement for himself - after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 it was difficult to replace slaves as they could no longer be imported from Africa. Master Jones actually designed a system of rewards to 'breeding mothers' who could provide a steady stream of replacement slaves for his plantations. Master Lewis never really understood that he could not change slavery for the better - it could not be done as the work force fundamentally did not wish to be slaves no matter how well treated they were. He should have spotted this when he said that freed slaves would prefer to beg in the streets than work for cash in the plantations. That is the point of freedom - you are free to choose a lifestyle that you wish to live - not one chosen for you.

It is deeply ironic that the man who regaled against the absentee landlords should be struck down by a disease caught on his estates in Jamaica itself. The Yellow fever carried off yet one more victim of the system of slavery in 1817.

This is a period of history that must not be swept under the carpet - many of the things written in the book will (should) make uncomfortable reading to a twenty first century audience. And yet that is what makes it more important that people understand the institution of slavery and the role it played in the development of the Western World. This book provides an interesting look at slavery from the perspective of a humanitarian slave owner. This does provide an important piece of the jigsaw of understanding but it should later be followed up by reading the accounts of others involved in slavery - preferably of slaves themselves although these are necessarily few and far between or perhaps by those slave owners who were less 'humanitarian' than poor Master Lewis.

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by Stephen Luscombe