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