Enslavement and the Environment

A case study: eighteenth-century Dominica

Environmental conditions on Dominica made large-scale sugar production a short-lived venture, leaving behind abandoned prime farm land, ruined infrastructure, such as this sugar mill, and enslaved people.


Adapted from Mapping Water in Dominica: Enslavement and Environment under Colonialism by Mark W. Hauser. Copyright © 2021 by the University of Washington Press. Published by the University of Washington Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

In 1817, a legal dispute arose over a comparatively small estate in a much-overlooked corner of an island at the edge of the British Empire. The party claiming ownership sued the property’s residents to recover rent and proceeds from the estate, which the complainants alleged was wickedly neglected. The probate that accompanied the suit included a detailed description of the property, documenting enslaved laborers, buildings, furniture, animals, equipment, and the disposition of the land. The estate in question was in the southwestern quarter of the island of Dominica in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

Rainer Lesniewski/Shutterstock
In their description, the document’s authors stated that the buildings were “slight and can only answer a temporary purpose.” Of the slaves, the authors agreed that all 120 were generally healthy and able-bodied in the minds of the attorneys. Aside from a few smallholders who were squatting on the property, most of the coffee fields had been left to nature. One parcel was “totally abandoned and [became] a common for cattle.” Perhaps the most interesting comment was the one made about the cane fields: “One remark that has forcibly struck us is that the cutting down of the Galba fences where the canes are now planted was highly injurious, in a situation so much exposed to the wind and must prove extremely injurious to the canes.” These fields were in the process of being abandoned. The probate ends with these damning words, “We deem it necessary to remark—under all the circumstances of this property, that on demanding of the present manager . . . what salary he was allowed . . . he stated it be 100 joes [a large sum in 1817] per annum.”

The account describes a Dickensian situation: a ramshackle estate with a few settlers and over one hundred slaves of all ages and origins, who use former coffee lands to graze their cattle and livestock, run by an incompetent manager living in a rotting estate house. The account is interesting in that it describes abandonment of prime land. The probate’s authors’ disdain for the defendants is evident in the formers’ account of the owners’ misuse of the estate—converting prime coffee lands into cane fields and hiring a manager whose ignorance was richly rewarded. The account is important because it describes a property and the people who lived on it in the wake of Dominica’s sugar revolution, a short-lived effort that coincided with Britain’s annexation of the island in 1763. By all accounts, the revolution failed. The lives and livelihoods of the people are not clearly spelled out in the document. From the ways that parcels were named, we can infer that free people squatted on the land. It also tells us that enslaved laborers remained attached to the land even when their labor was no longer needed. Finally, it suggests that these people, living on the margins of empire, had to resolve problems that were not of their own making. An absence in the account is water and its role in the everyday life of those left to live on the estate. Water animated the landscape; it brought life to the soil. Its absence speaks to how much the people writing the account took it for granted as part of their everyday life. Its absence is also noteworthy for those who had to rely on available sources to drink, cook, wash, and water their animals.

The predicaments faced by the enslaved people mentioned were not unique. The sugar revolution put into direct competition ordinary people’s daily needs to access soil and water with the manufacturing demands of goods destined for distant markets. It was not the first political economic transformation in the Americas that centered around local and elite tensions over soil and water. Hydrological manipulation and agricultural intensification, as well as their social control, are very much part of the story of states in the Andes, the Maya region, and central Mexico.

However, the sugar revolution put into motion something the Americas had yet to see. Monoculture supplanted agricultural practices in which farmers had cultivated different species as climate and soil conditions demanded. Sugar was the first botanical commodity exploited in the Caribbean that came from another part of the world. Whereas cotton, tobacco, and cacao were indigenous crops in the Americas, sugar originated in Southeast Asia and migrated through a long passage, in which its value and the social relationships attached to it evolved. The revolution introduced into agriculture a high level of organization, a mobility and interchangeability of labor, a fixation on how much time it took to do tasks related to production, and, most important, separation of workers from the product of their labor and production from consumption. At the same time, enslaved Caribbean people who had become experts on the land aspired to many forms of freedom: freedom from the legal status that defined them as property, freedom from the physical violence that accompanied slavery’s legal and labor regimes, and freedom from the slow violence that emerged through very simple but long-lasting competition between production of commodities and reproduction of lives and livelihoods.

Enslavement is forced labor extracted under the threat of violence, wherein people are compelled to solve problems not of their own making. To be enslaved is to face those problems as everyday predicaments surrounding security, mobility, and belonging. Because labor was extracted under constant threats of violence, people were forced to move about the land in ways contrary to their captivity. Since the possession of captives was critical to cultural politics in slave society, those deemed property struggled to forge networks of community through different idioms of belonging.

These predicaments were not natural states; they were the consequence of plans written down in distant places of power and materialized locally. While the ancestors of the indigenous Kalinago people of the Caribbean (originally known as Caribs) took captives from neighboring islands and more distant shores, it was only in the 1700s that people in Dominica started facing the predicaments described above. It was then that colonists and slaves from neighboring Martinique and Guadeloupe began to establish agricultural concerns on the island. Amid entrenched slavery and its violence, anxieties over security, mobility, and belonging intensified in 1763, when English and French planters pursued economic progress promised by colonization and undersigned by the cultivation of sugar. Archaeological and textual evidence provides clues about how enslaved people of African descent resolved everyday concerns. Forced to realize the plans of English-speaking elites, enslaved workers shaped the landscape by modifying traditional ways of doing things. Enslaved Dominicans also engaged in the global economy in novel ways. Unexpected economies emerged that formed a social and political infrastructure, bringing maroons (people who fled to the hills to escape slavery), enslaved, and Kalinago in daily face-to-face interaction. People formed communities that frustrated imperial categories of difference based on skin color and dispossession, and households formed associations around both kin and nonkin.

In 1763, the plans of English-speaking elites described Dominica as an island of latent potential that could be realized only through the capacity of slavery and markets. Subscribers to these discourses invested their fortunes and the labor of others, only to find that cultivation of sugar was a failed project. In 1965, the Dominica Tourist Board branded the colony as “the Nature Island” to promote travel of “holidaymakers” from Europe. “Nature’s Island” also alludes to a historical process, as Dominica was the last quarry in Europe’s eighteenth-century land grab for growing sugar and implanting subjects in the Caribbean. The “nature” of the island changed in relationship to slavery and markets, and capital ambitions on the island failed when nature would not yield. “Nature’s Island” also signals the boundary work of eighteenth-century colonial accounts, in which slippages between “nature” and “culture” rendered indigenous people invisible and enslaved Africans governable. All who stood in relation to slavery felt the consequences of these imperial ambitions, but those who were legally categorized as property bore the most significant cost of their reproduction and resolution.

One of the three freshwater lakes in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site on Dominica


These plans recognized that some people would pay more dearly for cultivating new Caribbean colonies than others. Some provided financial outlays to accumulate land, build factories, and commission infrastructure. In the historical record, little acknowledgment is given to costs for those whose labor was pressed into service to improve the land, work the factories, and ply the roads. Landowners needed workers for the commercial crops that increasingly blanketed the eastern Caribbean: cotton, tobacco, coffee, indigo, and sugar cane. People of African descent were pressed into service to work these plants into commodities. For them, the landscape in which they labored was one of limited options. The slave trade inserted them into provinces or countries in which mobility required language skills and connections they were not expected to possess. Nor were they intended to move off the land where they labored to find a home somewhere else, because the laws had prohibited such movement as a capital offense. Some did run away and join communities of maroons living in the island’s highlands, but such moves did not guarantee that their lives became free of servitude. Their labor bore much of the costs unaccounted for in colonizing discourses. As land was made available for the cultivation of commodities such as sugar, coffee, and cotton, people living in slave settlements were often challenged to locate and improve water and soil to meet basic needs.

More than three decades ago, Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter described Caribbean history as a competition between two priorities. One priority, that of the cane field, was framed in the idiom of property and improvement. Colonization of Dominica was a process where humans were transformed into labor “and nature to land.” People from sub-Saharan Africa were taken captive and brought to the Eastern Caribbean—between 1763 and 1807 nearly 100,000 people were brought to Dominica alone. The relationship between those people and the earth was dramatically changed, reshaping the social relationships people had with each other and with the environment. A second priority, that of the provision ground, was framed by idioms of reunion and cultivation. In provision grounds—land unsuitable for sugar cane cultivation that was allotted to the enslaved to supplement meager rations provided by planters—Africans reunited with the earth through growing food. In so doing, they cultivated relationships on “the plot of folk culture,” which became another foundation of social existence--one which allowed enslaved laborers, Kalinago, and maroons to interact, engage in commerce and define relationships on their own terms.

Portrait of Kalinago Head Carvings


One way to examine these priorities between people and the earth is to focus on an often-overlooked—given the nature of Dominica—is water. It is a myth that on an island barely larger than Chicago, with 365 rivers, nature was abundant, and its elements, such as earth, air, water, and fuel, were virtually free. To mirror Wynter’s framing, farms, as an assemblage of plants, people, technologies, and animals, became increasingly valued for their global relations, rather than more intimate ones. Sugar cane, chief among the crops valued for their ability to accumulate wealth, created particular predicaments for those forced to work the land. Gardens cultivated by the enslaved became a local articulation of alternative geographies. Bringing all these relationships into sharp focus advances one account of how engagements with these elements emerged for residents of Dominica.

The formation of slavery’s material record has been a central concern in archaeology. As one piece of archaeological evidence that might provide novel insight into the problem of slavery, human remains can reveal the origins of people, their conditions of labor, and, through associated goods, what the community thought of them. Human remains related to Atlantic slavery have shown the effects of the slow violence of malnutrition, repeated trauma, captivity, and intense and repetitive labor. Unfortunately, mortuary practices remain the most elusive archaeological phenomenon in the Caribbean. In comparison to the estimated 4.1 million bodies inserted into the island chain, the number of human burials uncovered is relatively small. Archaeologists, not for want of looking, have only been able to document less than a couple of hundred skeletons of deceased slaves among the islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, and St. Martin. In Dominica, no human remains have been found in archaeological contexts associated with slave life. A large body of scholarship, however, in history, sociology, and anthropology suggests that provision grounds, located in the spaces in between plantations, were important places in the social lives of the enslaved. This literature has shown that slaves developed expertise in agronomy, financial planning, and capital management in these provision grounds. Decisions regarding the feasibility and conditions required to grow certain plants, which crops might produce the most surplus to sell in the local market, and what to do with the cash obtained from such sales, required a mastery of local soils and crops, strategies of management, and anticipation of demand. Other ecological details, such as the amount of rain, the presence of vermin, and the steepness of slopes, also shaped the lives and livelihoods of marginalized people in Dominica.

The highlands of Dominica—with four 4,000-ft. peaks—are covered by multi-layered rain forest.

There was a crisis of slave subsistence in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. As the Windward Islands were divided into, more or less, two groups—one French, the other British—they did not simply coexist side by side. Their residents were linked through a shared predicament, since the prosperity of some depended on food they could obtain from others. Colonial residents obtained food in three ways: rations purchased through merchants and chandlers in Atlantic port towns, an internal economy supported by slaves’ part-time food cultivation, or some combination of the two. This predicament was uncomfortable for colonial administrators because it cut across colonial boundaries, prompted interaction between colonies, and provided infrastructure to forge belonging between people—although the predicament was dangerous for those who crossed the waters illegally.

The plans of the ruling elite stressed economies of scale and efficiency in production in plantation colonies. While a ration system inhibited the accumulation of capital, it linked technical efficiency with the amount of land and labor devoted to commodity cultivation. Planters provided clothes, household goods, and rations grown and processed for the express purpose of outfitting slaves. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, for example, planters were obliged to provide two pounds of salt beef or twenty-three pounds of fish, and six pounds of cassava flour or seven and a half pounds of cassava. Yearly, enslaved laborers would receive two changes of clothes. Planters allocated land and time for enslaved laborers to cultivate crops, raise animals, harvest fish, and hunt for food. The enslaved would be expected to purchase household goods by selling surplus agricultural goods through legally sanctioned Sunday markets. The time allocated to working provision grounds varied. In most cases, these approaches were not mutually exclusive. In Jamaica, Sunday and every other Saturday were considered “free time,” but less time was allowed during peak labor periods, such as harvesting sugar or weeding fields. Reducing the cost of providing for enslaved laborers and curtailing the flow of capital to neighboring colonies enabled some colonies to prosper. Between 1700 and 1800, the number of slaves increased dramatically as more land was devoted to sugar cultivation. Enslaved people developed multiple strategies, including hiring out their labor on Sundays (mostly men) and growing provisions to sell on the street market. In Dominica, they supplied a significant quantity of food staples consumed in the port towns of Portsmouth and Roseau.

In 1779, when the Dominica Assembly renewed the Slave Act of 1775, a commentary written by the president of the Assembly accompanied the act when it was presented to the British Parliament. Enslaved laborers, it explained, grew “abundant quantities of yams, plantains, bananas, cassava or manioc, eddoes, potatoes, occraes, Indian corn, cale, pigeon pease, and several species of beans, and pine apples” in provision grounds in mountain woodlands. Many of these are fairly resilient crops that are relatively easy to grow. According to the governor, produce from these gardens would allow the enslaved to “purchase hogs, goats, and fowls, from the produce of their gardens.” Evidence from other islands suggests that food was not limited to these starches. In Dominica, the most popular starches were root crops and cereals, such as guinea corn, Indian corn, and “mountain rice.”

Market Square, c.1910, in Dominica’s capital, Roseau

public domain

In addition to provision ground produce, workers grew “many kinds of European garden stuff, such as cabbages, carrots, turnips, beet root, lettuce, asparagus, artichoke, radish, cucumber, celery, and herbs of all sorts, besides tropical fruits in gardens near their houses.” These crops required much greater care and fetched a premium on Dominican street markets.


Environmental anthropologists have begun to recognize the value of examining slavery’s environmental subjects, noting the “devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor.” One of the key predicaments faced by households in colonial Dominica was the scarcity of water. Household assemblages provide insights into Dominica’s waterways, created by the enslaved to resolve the issue of scarcity they had to negotiate to live. Enslaved men and women salvaged usable water out of dirt, soaked gourds in it to fashion vessels, and sought refuge from its floods. Households of Dominica also nestled against rainstorms and withstanding, or not, winds and landslides. Water was a danger in its abundance, too. Ultimately, the relationships with and through water were forged to meet these predicaments. --MWH

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