Slavery and Science (1500-1888)

In the eyes of the European conquerors and settlers of the sixteenth century, potential wealth seemed to be everywhere in colonial Latin America. Vast deposits of gold and silver, New World biota, and a climate and soil well suited for growing cash-crops all promised to make a fortune overnight for Iberian settlers. Yet who would mine the ore and harvest the sugar? There were not enough European laborers to extract the latent riches of the Americas (and many of them were unwilling to do manual labor), so slaves, both African and Native American, were pressed to toil for wealth that they would never share. Throughout Latin America, a pattern developed where a profitable commodity would be discovered that was fit for exploitation by slave labor. Shortly thereafter, slave labor would become seen as so necessary to the continued production of that product that the region would develop into a slave society, one in which the social structure, economy, and everyday life were totally dependent on slaves.

The first slaves to the European colonial system were Native Americans, yet opposition to this practice quickly developed among Spaniards like Bartolome de las Casas, who argued successfully that Indians did indeed have souls and were capable of being Christians. Such arguments led the Crown to forbid the enslavement of Indians in the mid sixteenth century (although it did persist in many areas of Latin America). Spaniards thus developed a new system for exploiting Indian labor, the encomienda, a system in which local Indians owed labor to an elite Spaniard (an encomiendero) as tribute and payment for their protection. Economic historian Timothy J. Yeager noted how the Spanish Crown preferred encomienda to outright slavery in the sixteenth-century because it provided a structure for imperial expansion and Christianizing the indigenous peoples. Yet this system of coerced labor was not suited for exploiting new sources of wealth; the Indians in this relationship were not obliged to travel in order to fulfill their tribute and, as new mines and cash-crops were constantly being discovered, elite Iberians needed a mobile labor force (Yeager 1995). Slaves could reproduce (thus creating new transferable property), be sent anywhere, sold, traded, inherited, and forced to work under horrible conditions with minimal rest, attributes perfect for a capitalist in search of reliable labor at minimal long-term cost.

In the mid sixteenth century, settlers turned increasingly to imported Africans to do their work for them. All told, approximately 5 million of the 14 million Africans sold into slavery died during their transportation or soon after their arrival in the New World. Those who lived to work on American plantations (sugar, indigo, tobacco, cotton, coffee, cacao, rice, etc.) or in mines faced a new kind of hell; work days lasted about eighteen hours, living conditions were squalid, diets were poor, and their treatment was often wicked. The horrors of the so called "black legend," the idea that Spanish colonists were crueler than their Anglo-American counterparts, actually describe both British and Iberian slave societies. British sugar islands like Barbados and Jamaica were renowned for high death rates and savage forms of punishment (see the extract from Olaudah Equiano's autobiography in this topic's sources). Despite intense efforts to dehumanize Africans on board slave ships and in plantations, Africans brought culture, technology, and genetic gifts with them to the New World. African heritage and humanity survived its enslavement and the diverse racial and cultural blends of Latin America and the Caribbean are a testament to their endurance.

Of all African slaves brought to North and South America, about two-thirds were set to work on sugar plantations, like the one shown in De Bry's engraving from 1595. The sugar revolution (c. 1630-40) of the British Caribbean was the impetus for much technological, economic, and agricultural innovation. Technology even came to play a part in the punishment of slaves. According to Diana Paton, technocrats in Jamaica considered flogging to be an unproductive form of punishment and began forcing slaves to "dance" on vertical treadmills because it was both excruciating and productive (Paton 2004). Although sugar was not exclusively responsible for bringing slavery to New World plantations, where cacao, tobacco, cotton, and indigo also created slave societies, the prevalence of sugar plantations and their exceptionally harsh conditions make it the quintessential catalyst of African-American slavery.

Slavery is the dark side of the technological, mineralogical, and agricultural achievements that made the Americas a source of riches for European empires. The application of mercury to silver mining to increase production, improved agriculture for New World products like cacao, and empirically tested cultivation of existing cash crops like sugar served to create slave societies almost instantly. Slave ships themselves, like the two portrayed in the sources, were advanced pieces of technology, and the plantation system of importing slaves and exporting sugar, metals, or coffee would not have been possible without it.

Significantly, it was ideological changes, not technological improvements, which disintegrated slavery in the Americas. Using technology to be more productive, such as new sugar refinement techniques, the cotton gin, or improving crop strains, only fed the monster of American slavery. It is a stark reminder that technological advancement often precludes social progress.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Which advancement of the early modern period--technological, scientific, agricultural, etc.--was most responsible for instigating American slavery? Was the relevant advancement or contemporary ideology more important?

2. In what ways were slave ships technologies that advanced plantation slavery in the New World? Consider both the more concrete effects (demography, economy, etc.) as well as the less tangible results (psychological, cultural, social, etc.).

3. Compare the two images of sugar plantations, De Bry's 1595 engraving and the 1749 "Art of Making Sugar." How had sugar plantations changed in the 150 years between these two images? How had the manner of depicting them changed (e.g., what elements did the artist chose to emphasize and why)?

4. How did science-based attitudes towards slaves change with the abolition of Afro-Latin slaves? How did they stay the same? See other topics, inlcuding Eugenics, Criminology, and Darwin.

5. Compare European attitudes towards Africans with their attitudes towards Indians. How did science influence or reflect the discrepancies in Europe's racial perceptions? Some possible sciences to consider are (you may focus on one or more): geography, anthropology, pharmacology, climatology, mineralogy, botany, ethnology, physiology, medicine, agriculture, criminology, navigation, and empirical science.

Further Reading:

Bryant, Sherwin K. "Finding Gold, Forming Slavery: The Creation of a Classic Slave Society, Popayan, 1600-1700." The Americas. 63: 1 (July 2006): 81-112.

Cuello, Jose. "The Persistence of Indian Slavery and Encomienda in the Northeast of Colonial Mexico, 1577-1723. Journal of Social History. 21: 4 (Summer 1988): 683-700.

Galloway, J.H. "Agricultural Reform and the Enlightenment in Late Colonial Brazil." Agricultural History. 53: 4 (October 1979): 763-779.

Higman, B.W. "The Sugar Revolution." The Economic History Review, New Series. 53: 2 (May 2000): 213-236.

Menard, Russell R. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Paton, Diana. No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London: Viking Press, 2007.

Yeager, Timothy J. "Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown's Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America." The Journal of Economic History. 55: 4 (December 1995): 842-859.

Art of Making Sugar

Date: 1749
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images

This 1749 drawing depicts the essential facets of a sugar plantation: the cane plants, reaping the cane, crushing the cane, boiling and refining, and, of course, white men forcing black men to work. Although the basic processes of sugar-making had not changed much since the sixteenth century (see De Bry's 1595 drawing of a sugar plantation), the refinement process was much improved by new technologies. By the eighteenth century, refiners had switched from using a single kettle to a "train" system like the one pictured here. This technique allowed different temperatures to be applied during various stages of refinement, a process that resulted in purer sugar crystals.

Eighteenth century modernizers struggled to reconcile their desire to add scientific expertise to the sugar industry while retaining the traditional hierarchies of slave societies. In Cuba, would be modernizers emphasized scientific education among whites in charge of large refineries, but the concept of "science" on the whole came to connote little more than sugar-related chemistry. "Enlightened" men in Portugal and Brazil also promoted agricultural reforms that would make slavery more efficient without giving blacks any new freedoms. Just as many progress-minded Latin Americans looked to Europe as a paradigm of modernity, so too did agricultural reformers use the British Caribbean for examples of how new technologies could be employed without social change.

Unfortunately, technological innovations in sugar refinements did serve to perpetuate the profitability of slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean in much the same way that the cotton gin re-entrenched slavery in the southern United States. Although technology may have offered a way to continue monocrop production without slave labor, elites feared the effects of social change and, instead, used technology to keep blacks fettered.

References: Galloway, J.H. "Agricultural Reform and the Enlightenment in Late Colonial Brazil." In Agricultural History, Vol. 53, no. 4 (Oct., 1979), p. 763-779.

Portuando, Maria M. "Plantation Factories: Science and Technology in Late Eighteenth Century Cuba." In Technology and Culture, Vol. 44 (Apr. 2003), p. 231-257.


CITATION: John Hinton. "A representation of the sugar-cane and the art of making sugar." 1749. 1 print: engraving, hand-colored. Illus. from: The universal magazine of knowledge and pleasure .... London : Published ... according to Act of Parliament, for John Hinton, 1749. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. ID: LC-USZ62-7841. Original Image Number: 3a10477.

DIGITAL ID: 3709

Coffee

Date: 1685
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images

CITATION: The Coffee Tree. The Instrument. In Dufour, Philippe Sylvestre, 1622-1687. The manner of making of coffee, tea, and chocolate : as it is used in most parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America : with their vertues / newly done out of French and Spanish.  London : W. Crook, 1685. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: UvL12 C6 685.

DIGITAL ID: 13069

 

Early Sugar Plantation

Date: 1595
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images

 

This 1595 engraving by Theodore de Bry is one of the earliest portrayals of African slaves in the Americas and shows just how interconnected slave labor was with the agricultural and technological processes involved in making sugar, the most important and profitable crop in the Americas. Several machines were created to facilitate sugar production, some of which, like the boilers, demanded that slaves be highly skilled. Sugar cane had to be processed within one or two days after it was cut, thus work during the harvest period, or zafra, was even more intense than slaves' typically Sisyphusian labors.

This image shows the toil and technologies of every step of the production process. The cane was cut by hand (top right) before being bundled and carried to a press. This plantation has both a waterwheel (in the distance) and a human-powered press that were used to crush the cane and extract the raw juice. The juice was then boiled to create either molasses or crystalline sugar before being poured into vessels and, eventually, exported.

The Caribbean and Brazil were monocrop sugar societies, and thus slavery was most rampant and most harsh in these two areas. Sugar was central to Brazilian society by the late sixteenth century and, by the nineteenth century, slaves constituted half of Brazil's total population. Approximately two-thirds of all black slaves in the Americas worked to grow and process sugar, an agricultural industry that reshaped demographics, the economy, human health, social structures, and natural ecosystems throughout the Atlantic. The burgeoning industrial age and large-scale enslavement combined in the New World to power a thriving, though essentially barbaric, colonial system.

Reference: Higman, B.W. "The Sugar Revolution." In The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 53, no. 2 (May, 2000), p. 213-236.

CITATION: De Bry, Theodore. Nigritae exhaustis venis metallicis consciendo saccharo operam dare debent. In Americae pars quinta nobilis & admiratione plena Hieronymi Bezoni Mediolanensis secundae setionos Hispanorum.... Accession no. 34724. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


DIGITAL ID: 13070

 

Indians Mining Gold

Date: 1535
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images

 

This woodcut is based on the observations of the Spanish naturalist Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, one of the first Europeans to apply the tenets of empiricism to American nature and peoples. It shows three Indians using technology (a hoe and sifting pans) to mine for gold in a river and, considering the harsh conditions of Amerindian slavery, it is hardly surprising that the man in the middle looks decidedly unhappy. Oviedo also depicts how Indians grew corn in individual mounds.

For early European conquistadores, entrepreneurs, and settlers who sought wealth in the New World, Indians were the most obvious source of labor. Indeed, Europeans began enslaving Indians as early as the late fifteenth century, when Columbus established the first small colonies in the Caribbean. The earliest Indian slaves, like those pictured here, were put to work mining precious metals, the quickest and most desired source of American wealth. Spanish scientific developments in mining techniques and metallurgy, such as using mercury to extract silver, were crucial to ensuring a steady production of mineral wealth, but such innovations would not have generated the desired profit without Indian miners.

Indian slavery was criticized by the Spanish Crown and the Church, thus new systems of coerced labor like the encomienda were developed to ensure that Indians could still be exploited to make Europeans rich. This kind of tribute labor, however, did not have the same economic potential as chattel slavery. Thus the Iberians looked to Africa for a new source of slaves. The Crown and Catholic authorities were less concerned with the souls and salvation of Africans, a people they considered even lower in the "hierarchy of being" than Indians. This hierarchy was fundamental to sixteenth century anthropology; it was a system of "scientific" classification that used Aristotelian ideas to justify European dominance and the subjugation of "lesser" races. By the late sixteenth century, blacks had replaced Indians as the main source of labor in Brazil and the Caribbean, and had become a significant part of the work force in Peru and Mexico.

Reference: Hodgen, Margaret T. Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1964.


CITATION: Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, Gonzalo. La Historia General de las Indias. 1535. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Taylor 75 folio LXVI r.

DIGITAL ID: 13066

 

Middle Passage

Date: 1789
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images

 

This English broadside from 1789 illustrates how Africans were packed into ships as efficiently as possible, chained together in rows with no space between them. Although Iberians were the earliest Atlantic slave traders, British and American ships came to dominant the traffic of Africans in the eighteenth century, and they were responsible for transporting over 40% of all slaves during the eighteenth century, the vast majority of which were sent to sugar plantations.

The terrible conditions during the middle passage and the rest of the enslavement process led to an almost absurd mortality rate: out of the 12.4 million slaves loaded onto ships, 1.8 million died en route. This figure, however, does not bear witness to the total deaths resulting from the process of enslavement. Approximately 14 million Africans were sold into slavery, but the horrors of slave marches, the middle passage, and the first year of slavery killed close to 5 million of these people. They died from diseases that thrived in the ubiquitous filth of the slave holds, dehydration, starvation, abuse, and despair. Death rates during the enslavement process were higher than those of many of history's worst demographic disasters, including the European Black Death epidemic and the post-contact decimation of Native American peoples.

Take time to read the caption below this bleak diagram. The author was obviously opposed to the slave trade (a form of abolitionism that preceded the demand for full emancipation by several years) and some of the assertions may be exaggerated, but it is nevertheless a valuable and moving description of conditions during the middle passage, a voyage that could take over one hundred days to complete.

Although slavery was an attempt to dehumanize and comodify Africans, Europeans were never fully able to realize this malicious goal. Enslaved Africans brought knowledge, culture, and scientific practices that survived and blended with those of other Latin American and Caribbean peoples.

Reference: Klein, Herbert S., Stanley L. Engerman, Robin Haines, and Ralph Shlomowitz. "Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave trade in Comparative Perspective." In The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (Jan., 2001), pp. 93-118.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London: Viking Press, 2007.


CITATION: Description of a slave ship. London: Printed by James Phillips, George-yard, Lombard-street, 1789. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Folio BrSides By6 1789.

DIGITAL ID: 13068

 

Olaudah Equiano

Date: 1797
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images

 

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797) was a slave, a mariner, an early abolitionist, and one of the very few blacks to write about the experience of slave life in the Caribbean. After buying his freedom in 1766, he eventually moved to England where he was an active advocate on behalf of blacks and helped promulgate a sense of African identity at a time when that concept was still in its infancy. Although some recent scholarship has presented evidence that key parts of Equiano's autobiography (like the fact he was born in Africa) might have been fabricated by the author, his Interesting Narrative would nevertheless have been based on a common African Atlantic experience.

Equiano mastered the technology of writing, a skill that very few slaves were lucky enough to learn. In the selection presented here (chapter five of his Interesting Narrative), Equiano described slavery on the Caribbean island of Montserrat from 1763 to 1766. Equiano's book is a testament to the fact that although technology was usually used to coerce and subjugate blacks, it could--in the form of language--act as a means of fighting the institution of slavery itself. His book was widely read during his own time and was one of the most important abolitionist writings of the eighteenth century.


CITATION: Equiano, Olaudah, b. 1745. Frontispiece of The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African / written by himself.
. Dublin : Printed for, and sold by, the author. Sold also at the Dublin Chronicle Office, by W. Sleater, no. 28, Dame-Street, and the other booksellers in Dublin, 1791. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: JWJ Zan Eq51 789Je.

DIGITAL ID: 13067

 

Slave Ship

Date: 1831
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images

 

This British image was made in 1831, after Britain had abolished its own slave trade and was idealistically pressing for its end worldwide. It is a diagram of the slave ships used to send Africans to Brazil and, on this vessel, all the human cargo is shoved into a tiny middle deck in which they did not have room to either stand or lie down.

According to historian Marcus Rediker, slave ships were the fundamental technology enabling the existence of both the slave trade and the New World plantation system. These ships were sophisticated machines, advanced descendents of the caravels and galleons that first made American colonization possible in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Like the vessel depicted here, they typically had three masts, a rounded hull, and iron cannon, the weapons that allowed ships to serve as both transports and fortresses. Slave ships, however, had functions beyond those of other ships: they were a combination of a trading post and a prison. They were efficient trading stations that let merchants carry their cargo in their place of business and, for slaves, they were prisons in an era before such institutions existed on land.

Taken together, slave ships and plantations were the two codependent institutions that allowed each other to thrive in the early modern era. The technological innovations of each allowed for the further entrenchment of the other and they created an economic, social, and demographic situation that impacted cultures, people, and ecosystems on all four Atlantic continents.

Reference: Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London: Viking Press, 2007.


CITATION: Sections of a Slave Ship. In Walsh, Robert. Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829...Vol. II. Boston: Richardson, 1831. Accession no. 05835. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

DIGITAL ID: 13071

 

Source References

Web Sites

The African Presence in the Americas: 1492-1992 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Lest We Forget (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Understanding Slavery (Understanding Slavery Initiative)

Captive Passage (The Mariners' Museum)

Africa's Legacy in Mexico (Smithsonian Education)

Publications

Bergad, Laird W. Slavery and the Demographic and Economic History of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1720-1888. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Bryant, Sherwin K. "Finding Gold, Forming Slavery: The Creation of a Classic Slave Society, Popayan, 1600-1700." The Americas. 63: 1 (July 2006): 81-112.

Chomsky, Aviva and Aldo Lauria-Santiago. Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State: The Laboring Peoples of Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500-1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Cuello, Jose. "The Persistence of Indian Slavery and Encomienda in the Northeast of Colonial Mexico, 1577-1723. In Journal of Social History. 21: 4 (Summer 1988): 683-700.

Dasalles, Pierre. Sugar and Slavery, Family and Race: The Letters and Diary of Pierre Dessalles, Planter in Martinique, 1808-1856. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. 

Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Ferry, Robert J. "Encomienda, African Slavery, and Agriculture in Seventeenth Century Caracas." The Hispanic American Historical Review. 61: 4 (November 1981): 609-635.

Figueroa, Luis A. Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Galloway, J.H. "Agricultural Reform and the Enlightenment in Late Colonial Brazil." Agricultural History. 53: 4 (October 1979): 763-779.

Hall, Michael R. Sugar and Power in the Dominican Republic: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Trujillos. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Haskett, Robert S. "'Our Suffering with the Taxco Tribute': Involuntary Mine Labor and Indigenous Society in Central New Spain." The Hispanic American Historical Review. 71: 3 (August 1991): 447-475.

Higman, B.W. "The Sugar Revolution." The Economic History Review. 53: 2, New Series (May 2000): 213-236.

Higman, B.W. Slave Populations of the British Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2002.

Keith, Robert. Conquest and Agrarian Change: The Emergence of the Hacienda System on the Peruvian Coast. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Lai, Walton Look. Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Menard, Russell R. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Paton, Diana. No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Portuando, Maria M. "Plantation Factories: Science and Technology in Late Eighteenth Century Cuba." Technology and Culture. 44 (April 2003): 231-257.

Proctor, Frank T. III. "Afro-Mexican Slave Labor in the Obraje de Panos of New Spain, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." The Americas. 60: 1 (July 2003): 33-58.

Sandiford, Keith. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Solow, Barbara Lewis. British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Stein, Stanley J. Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 

Topik, Steven and Zephyr Frank and Carlos Marichal. From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Wild, Antony. Coffee: A Dark History. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2005.

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Williams, Eric. From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Williams, James. A Narrative of Events, since the First of August, 1834. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. 

Yeager, Timothy J. "Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown's Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America." The Journal of Economic History. 55: 4 (December 1995): 842-859.  

Films and Videos

Brazil: An Inconvenient History (BBC Video, 2000)

Commodities: White Gold (First Run Features, 1986)

El Otro Francisco (undefined, 1975)

La Ultima Cena (undefined, 1976)

Quilombo (New Yorker Films, 1984)

Treadmill Scene in Jamaica

Date: 1837
Owner: Duke University Press
Source Type: Images

 

The treadmill was a common feature in Jamaican prisons in the first half of the nineteenth century, an attempt to make punishment both corporal and efficient that was, in reality, a new technology of torture. Prison treadmills, invented in 1818, became common in the 1820s and reached their peak during the "apprenticeship" era (1834-1838), a period in which Britain was trying to wean Jamaica off of slavery before full abolition. The mill operated by having several prisoners (both male and female) continuously stepping up to turn the primary gear while they held on to (or were chained to) a bar over their heads. In an improbable euphemism, the prisoners were said to "dance" the treadmill, usually for periods of fifteen minutes at a time.

Perhaps surprisingly, prison treadmills were advocated by many abolitionists who saw them as a civilized form of punishment. With the slow death of slavery, the responsibility to punish blacks was transferred from individual masters to the state, and although the state continued to see corporal punishment as necessary, it hoped to make it efficient and non-degrading. For technocratic liberals opposed to slavery, the treadmill was a modern achievement that was both more humane and far more useful than traditional punishments like flogging.

In this picture, black overseers are whipping the "dancers" and one woman (on the bottom right) has passed out from exhaustion. Such images of women being forced to tread did generate some public outcry, but contemporary attacks against treadmills tended to criticize only faulty ones on which people were often injured, not the technology itself. Just as science helped engender American slavery in the early colonial period, so too did new technologies help perpetuate colonial era social hierarchies into the nineteenth century and beyond.

Reference: Paton, Diana. No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

CITATION: Paton, Diana. No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. pg. 107. 

DIGITAL ID: 12101