Book review…Voices of the enslaved

Arts of Sunday

By James G Rose

(Trevor Burnard, Hearing Slaves Speak, UK : The Caribbean Press, 2010. – 194p.)

In accordance with the United Nations Declaration, Guyana has joined with the rest of the world in declaring 2011 as The International Year for People of African Descent.  An additional set of titles in the Guyana Classics Series edited by David Dabydeen has been released by the Caribbean Press, and one of the books is Hearing Slaves Speak, which has been dedicated to and specially published to mark this year.  We present an extensively edited review of this work by James G Rose, Guyana’s Director of Culture, who is a historian.

Hearing Slaves Speak, compiled by Trevor Burnard, is the latest in the line of books published by the Caribbean Press and is particularly launched to coincide with and as an integral part of the national commemoration programme to celebrate the International Year for People of African Descent.


A few years ago someone ‘unearthed’ a collection of complaints by enslaved Africans against plantation managers, overseers and not unexpectedly against each other. The records for Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo constitute 24 volumes kept at the National Archives, Kew, London. There are about 10,000 pages of information.  The book derives from a collection of these complaints. The author confessed that he was only able to sample a small collection of these complaints and to be more precise only from the Berbice records.
The complaints were made to the Fiscal, the highest law officer in the colony at the time. In addition to hearing the complaints about their mal/mis-treatment, the Fiscal monitored discipline on the sugar estates. He required the managers to provide a list of the kinds of offences committed, and how many were given floggings or placed on the stocks and for what period of time. Managers were also expected to list all punishments given to men and women separately,

These complaints, though constituting the core of the book do not constitute the book in its entirety.  The book contains an informative introduction by the author, an interesting section containing information such as the price of slaves; a summary of punishments in 1827–1828 and in 1832; and an estate by estate listing of how many punishments were given. The time period 1819-1832 is important, since it represents a time when the slave regime was in retreat and reluctantly but inevitably making concessions to a reformist metropolitan interest.

It is very difficult to hear the voice of the enslaved in Caribbean historiography. This comes as no surprise since, by and large, the enslaved were not considered human before the early decades of the nineteenth century.  They were not accorded leave for self-representation and because of linguistic constraints did not leave written records.

This period, following the end of the Atlantic trade in captive Africans, was marked by a supposed softening of the slave system and an increasing concern among metropolitan interest groups about the conditions of enslavement in the Caribbean. Even when the enslaved was English literate, as so few were, they were nevertheless constrained by being in close domestic supervision of masters, mistresses, managers, overseers and drivers all of whom were supported by the coercive powers of the slave state (slavocracy).

Nature of the complaints

The enslaved population welcomed the opportunity to put their case before a leading Crown official, even if their day in court more often than not left them without the redress they sought. This book presents 92 complaints. The enslaved complained about excessive punishment; about being moved against their will; about being demoted from trades to fieldwork; about master not taking into account their sickness and especially the sickness of children, several of whom died; about masters’ cultural insensitivity; and about food and clothing allowances being inadequate.

From the complaints a reasonable picture emerges of what the enslaved considered their due given the changing circumstances. They felt entitled not to be asked to work more than their strength allowed; to receive food and clothing sufficient to their needs; to have time off, especially on Sundays and public holidays, and not to be expected to work when they had time off; to be cared for when sick, and to have their legitimate claims to be sick listened to, and that they should not be punished when they accomplished their tasks, behaved according to the rules and were not insubordinate.


The complaints presented in this volume provide a rich, close to unparalleled, source of evidence about the experiences of enslaved people. They give us a good guide to the moral economy of enslaved people: what they considered their rights, what they thought they owed their owners and what their owners owed them.  This set of records helps us gain a rare insight into the world of the enslaved people, to their hopes and fears, and to the particular constraints and opportunities they encountered.

What is also important about the complaints is the fact that they reveal enslaved people as real persons, as individuals who shared similar aspirations and dreams about the lives they were prevented from fashioning for themselves.


What are we to make of this book? One way of viewing the various cases that are presented must be that they allow us to see the relationships between black and white within the context of negotiations between people with varying and shifting amounts of power, both of whom are trying to gain an advantage over each other and who are often, as in the cases coming before the Fiscal, attempting to place their position in the negotiating process before the bar of public opinion.

The enslaved are protesting about treatment they thought unfair and wanted to be able to remonstrate when they felt they had a grievance. Again, could this attitude/tendency be seen as comprising It is very difficult to hear the voice of the enslaved in Caribbean historiography. This comes as no surprise since, by and large, the enslaved were not considered human before the early decades of the nineteenth century resistance? The problem with accepting this new political construct is the implication that the enslaved did not accept enslavement in any of its forms and that they strove constantly to try and gain freedom or at least an advantage over their master in what amounted to a racial and class war.


The book offers a scholarly read and but for the absence of a table of contents and index is well put together.  As a new Classic we might be forgiven if we claim the right to expect a table of contents and an index, but I suppose the defender will point to an index of the cases presented in the book at pages 17-19.  The absence of a contents page is perhaps superfluous to the purpose except to the reviewer.

The real let-down in the book proper is the fact that the cases are presented as reported and not as first person testimonies.  This carries with it the weakness involved in the loss of inflection and nuance.  Just as the enslaved found the established lingua franca challenging and very often missed the meaning, so too did the European master class.  This was so current that it was not unusual for the enslaved to carry on a conversation about a member of the master class right in the very presence of the subject without him being any wiser.

The author

The author, Trevor Burnard, is currently Professor of History, University of Melbourne, but within the very recent past was Professor of the History of the Americas, History and Comparative American Studies, University of Warwick, 2007-11.He served briefly as a Lecturer at the University of the West Indies at Mona in 1987-89, and claims to be concerned with recreating the social and cultural world of slaves and masters in early Jamaica.  In 2002 Burnard published an essay Hearing Slave Voices: The Fiscal’s Reports of Berbice and Demerara-Essequebo, (with John Lean) in Archives 27, no 106.

Whatever our intellectual leaning, we have to admit that Professor Burnard  has made a significant contribution to the historiography of people of African descent and to people who have struggled to survive without shedding their humanity, and for this we are indebted to him.  It is a scholarly piece of work, an interesting read and a worthy relic for this the international Year for people of African descent. You owe it to yourself to own a copy of Hearing Slaves Speak at the earliest convenience.

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