The Plantation

The plantation, pre-eminently the sugar estate, is both the first man-made alteration of the Caribbean landscape and the institution which has shaped the demography and the social and cultural relations of the region long after sugar has ceased to be the dominant feature of the region’s economies. The fact that there are still sugar plantations that have been in continuous production since the days of slavery makes for what Naipaul has described as a trapdoor to the most painful awareness of the past. The fact that a country such as Trinidad has abandoned sugar production has profoundly changed the vistas of centuries.

Economically the plantation fixed the Caribbean in a pattern of the export of raw materials, prevented the emergence of a large-scale peasant farming sector, relied on the import of food and manufactured goods and held captive a workforce whose employment, with exceptions, was seasonal and underskilled.

The legacy of the plantation is a mode of production which entails a rigid hierarchy of command, an association between land and slavishness, and work which condemned large sections of the population to exclusion from skills, to underemployment and physical work which was life-shortening and perceived as degrading.

The plantation’s hierarchy, a racial and cultural pyramid, was made visible in its social geography and its architecture. With the transplanted European culture of the master/manager at its pinnacle; the expatriate overseers (later replaced by locals, often of mixed racial origins) just below; the array of house-slaves who, on the surface at least, imitated their master’s ways (though the interaction went in both directions in creolising those of the Europeans who put down any Caribbean roots); the drivers who were recruited from amongst the slaves and whose position depended on their willingness to brutally discipline their fellow slaves; and the mass of field slaves at its base, the sugar estate is still a microcosm for the colour/class stratifications of Caribbean society, though new local masters have occupied the Great House (quite literally, as in the case of the late Forbes Burnham in Guyana).

This hierarchy was encoded in the plantation’s spacial arrangements, which survived in Guyana well into the 1950s with the Great House with its balcony from which idling labourers could be seen with a spy-glass, and whose grounds labourers only entered as gardeners or for some demeaning Christmas act of patronage where children fought for coins tossed town by the Missie (see Monar’s ‘Cent and Jill’ in Backdam People and Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy), a senior staff compound of spacious houses, a junior staff compound of the local overseers’ cottages and the logies (barracks) of the workers with mud floors and no real privacy. ‘The mules were housed better than we’, an older Indian worker told me. Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation gives a vivid visual portrayal of the appearance of a sugar estate and its social relations in the 1950s. When June Lehall is sent for to come and play with the lonely daughter of the white manager, she enters a world otherwise wholly out of bounds and strange in its spaciousness and glossy surfaces. In her later novella, Chinese Women (2010), Shinebourne portrays an Indian Muslim family made intensely miserable by their attempts to maintain status when the father is promoted to the junior staff: they are despised as uncultured coolies the Europeans and as traitors by the Indian workers who lose no opportunity to humiliate them.

Culturally, the plantation has contributed to the Caribbean’s heritage of authoritarian structures in government, in organs of social control such as in schools and the family. Whilst physical punishments had long been outlawed, older workers on Guyana’s estates spoke repeatedly of overseers who were very free with their boots (and of the fact that the mules were often better housed than the workers), and even the best run estates employed a paternalistic style that placed workers in a position of humble dependency.

As a subject for fiction, the sugar estate under slavery is the focus of both Kevyn Arthur’s The View from Belmont (set in Trinidad during the last decade of slavery), Carl Jackson’s Nor the Battle to the Strong, set in Barbados, Andrew Lindsay’s Illustrious Exile, set in Jamaica and Guyana, around the fictional character of Robert Burns, David Dabydeen’s The Counting House and Johnson’s Dictionary, both set in Guyana, sections of Kevin Baldeosingh’s Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar, the first third of Diana McCaulay’s novel, Hurucan, and James Carnegie’s Wages Paid, both set in Jamaica. These novels show variant models of the slave regime on the plantation (which have historical authenticity), ranging from self-enlightened paternalism backed by force to the unwavering and sadistic enforcement of brutal discipline to estates where the production of sugar seems secondary to the desire to abuse other human bodies. They also answer slightly different questions about the nature of the sugar estate community. Jackson asks how slaves endured, survived, and turned their face on revenge and moved on after slavery ended. Arthur asks how, despite itself, a community of sorts could be created which at some level achieved the compliance, loyalty even, of many of the slaves. It is no accident that the plantation is run by a young widow who, miraculously, manages to hold onto her humanity. When Kano is offered the opportunity of freedom in England, he refuses, oppressed by the idea of the weather and the food – and you believe him.

Andrew Lindsay’s “what if” novel about the career of a fictive Robert Burns who goes to work as an overseer in Jamaica (as Burns was planning to do) and then in Demerara in 1786 conveys a particularly vivid sense of the interrelationship between the man-madeness of the sugar estate and the natural landscape on which it was imposed. On the Jamaican estate, there has been the creation of the illusion of civility, order and rational productivity with the uniformity of well-tended acres, neatly arranged housing and the imitation of gentility in the great house. On the estate in Demerara the rational masks of apparent order over the greed, exploitation and cruelty are missing, and a hostile nature threatens both the productive project and images the darkness of the lusts for gain and the opportunities for sadistic cruelty.

Both David Dabydeen’s Johnson’s Dictionary and James Carnegie’s Wages Paid, portray the social world of the enslaved existing out of sight of the masters and overseers, and achieving a degree of independence from it. Johnson’s Dictionary reads back into the context of the sugar estate all the intellectual, artistic and linguistic capacities that the contemporary historian Edward Long was so incapable of acknowledging in the career of the poetic Jamaican slave, Francis Williams. (Other novels that explore the historical estate include Orlando Patterson’s Die the Long Day (to be republished in the Peepal Tree Caribbean Modern Classics series and Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge).

The continuity of the culture of the estate after emancipation is portrayed in Carl Jackson’s Nor the Battle to the Strong, which in following the lives of four generations of an African Barbadian family and their connections to a sugar estate and the white family who own it, shows both the persistence of power and oppression long after slavery ended (the way for instance resistant workers could be turned out of their chattel houses because they had no leasehold), and also the ways in which each small space that is opened up by acts of rebellion, resistance or simple endurance, is filled by an enlargement of the families’ sense of their humanity.

Anthony Kellman’s poetic epic, Limestone, has a similar historical sweep in conveying the continuity of the oppressive constriction of the sugar estate on African Barbadian lives from the period of slavery, through abolition and right up the 1930s when popular mass demonstrations began to persuade white Barbados and the colonial office that some accommodation with Black discontent and ambition for change would have to be met. Throughout, what Kellman focuses on is the claustrophobic intimacy of the estate, where during the slave period there are everywhere listening ears prepared to betray, though for betrayers there were also no places to hide. As with Carl Jackson’s characters, after slavery, the Kellman’s workers discover that though they and their foreparents may have fed the estate’s soil with their blood, they have no rights to the land on which they have built their houses, which have to be pulled down and transported away to be rebuilt off the estate.

Apart from the Edward Jenkins’ contemporary campaigning novel, Lutchmee and Dilloo (1877), there is little fictional focus on the plantation in the Indian indenture period except for David Dabydeen’s The Counting House (1996) and Cyril Dabydeen’s story, ‘Go Tell Crosbie’ (Berbice Crossing) which is an elliptical, poetic evocation of a triangle involving an part Indian woman, her African lover and the sexually harassing white overseer set on a sugar estate in the 19th century. Set in the earliest days of Indian arrival in British Guiana, David Dabydeen’s The Counting House portrays indenture as very much grown in slavery’s stale soil, as the new labourers move into the former slave huts on the Gladstone estate, are beaten at the same whipping post and make the same weary journey to the fields. Here, too, the estate is the site of the tensely ambivalent encounter between recently freed Africans and the Indian arrivants, each with their own agendas. In the decades that follow, Dale Bisnauth’s historical study, The Settlement of Indians in Guyana, gives some sense of the transformation of personal lives, from the Indian village ‘kamin’ into an industrial wage labourer, and he weighs both the psychic costs in terms of the loss of wholeness experienced as a result of this process and acknowledges that for some the process brought release from the lifelong bondage of fixed and lowly positions within the Indian caste system. Bisnauth also examines the specific impact of estate residence (patterns of housing, occupation and authority structure) on the way Indian estate residents married, established familes, performed rites of passage, expressed their religious beliefs and began to relate to the Afro-Guyanese who also worked on the estate. Verene Shepherd’s From Transients to Settlers provides a detailed account of the experience of estate residence and work of Indians in Jamaica, looking at the nature of task work, estate housing, medical care, the legal and extra-legal forms of control exerted by the estate management over estate workers and the forms of resistance and accommodation employed by the workers themselves.

There is a good deal of more recent fiction concerned with the twentieth century sugar estate (particularly in Guyana where resident estate communities existed until the 1950s, whereas in Trinidad most sugar workers lived in independent villages and peasant cane-farming played a much greater role).  The dominant image of the sugar estate, until the emergence of writing by authors who had actually grown up on one, is uniformly negative. The estate communities are seen as both servile in bowing to the estate’s authority structure and as drunken, violent and immoral ‘low nation’ people. The ‘Greenvale’ chapter in V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas is an example of such a perspective, as is Sheik Sadeek’s Guyanese novel, Song of the Sugarcane. Austin C. Clarke’s pungent novel of sugar estate life in Barbados in the 1930s, The Survivors of the Crossing (1964, 2011) is markedly ambivalent in its portrayal of the workers involved in an attempted strike. Their desire for justice and determination is unquestioned, but the culture of gesture and play-acting that marks the workers’ revolt and their naievety and ignorance condemn the strike to absurdity and defeat.

By contrast, while the short stories in Monar’s Backdam People (1985) also portray the plantation as a rigidly controlled space where social as well as work lives come under Big Manja’s ultimate control, where there is a constant tension between worker solidarity and the taking of individual advantage, they also show people who are constantly struggling to maintain their sense of who they are and are engaged in daily acts of resistance. These stories set on the East Coast Demerara, Lusignan estate in the 1930s and 1940s, show clearly its oppressive social structure, the physical squalor of the workers’ housing and the difficulty of escaping to a different life. As the estate schoolmaster says, ‘Dull or brilliant, they all end in the sugar-cane field’. But Monar also shows people engaged in a constant struggle to maintain their selfhood, sometime with an anancyish ingenuity and often with true courage. Indeed, as Monar suggests in a later collection, High House and Radio, when the former estate people look back on their plantation lives after they move to a village off the estate to their own separate houses, they feel something valuable has gone, that they no longer ‘live like family’.

Some of the same ambivalence between outer ‘slavishness’ and the inner closeness of community in the spaces the estate residents made for themselves is to be found in Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy. (1960, 2002). For Lilboy, Jiggertoe and Obee, all that is wrong with the estate they live on is school and attendance at the Manager’s wife’s Christmas party. Otherwise there are the pleasures of shrimping expeditions with his grandparents, Saturday night films and the satisfactions of harvesting rice on the plot his father rents from the estate. But as Lilboy reaches his teens, another life beyond the estate beckons and he can see it only as a place of circumscribed lives and an unchanging future that he must leave behind.

The view of the plantation as located in the past is reflected in Sam Selvon’s two plays, ‘Turn Again Tiger’ and ‘Harvest in Wilderness’ in Highway in the Sun. In the play based upon the novel of that title, Selvon explores Tiger’s decision to take an apparent step backwards in his life to work on a sugar estate along with his domineering father and under a white manager. In the process a number of ghosts from the collective Indian past are laid. In ‘Harvest in Wilderness’ (based on the novel, The Plains of Caroni) Selvon dramatises the conflict between Balgobin who locates his identity in the traditional canecutting world of the plantation, and his creolised nephew who is associated with the introduction of the technology which will make his uncle’s world redundant.

Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation is clear that the old world must go with the ramshackle insanitary estate logies, but like Monar she also sees that something valuable has gone. With the demolition of the Old Dam settlement there is a separation of African and Indian workers and dreams of individual ambition begin to separate worker from worker. In this novel, the last years of the old colonial order are witnessed by 12-year old June Lehall when the turbulence of a strike, the arrival of British troops, the fatal shooting of a woman worker and the imprisonment of a former schoolfriend expose the tensions between old and new sources of influence and power within the estate community. What has been a world of its own is now exposed to the political currents and conflicts which are about to engulf the entire society. Her story “Harold” in The Godmother and Other Stories, counterpoints the illusion of triumph in the larger world as Jagan and the PPP win the election against the continuing reality of the daily humiliations of estate life. Shinebourne’s novel touches on the still male-centred nature of leadership amongst the workers, though it is a woman worker who pays with her life when troops fire on the strikers. This is a much more explicit theme in Ryhaan Shah’s A Silent Life.

Here when the leading character Aliyah probes the secret of her grandmother’s silence, she discovers that Nani has once had a great deal to say as a younger woman inspired by the call of revolutionary politics brought to Guyana in the late 1940s. But though Nani is eloquent and alive with ideas, she is a woman and her volubility shames her husband in the eyes of his fellow workers, with truly tragic consequences.

Rooplall Monar is one of the very few writers to look at the estate as a physical entity that can be seen to have some visual beauty. In the poems of Koker, Monar explores the physical landscape of the estate, the colliding punts, tarred bridges, watch-houses, kokers and greenheart culverts, but there are also the canefields themselves, infested with white scorpions as metaphors for the tensions he probes in his Indo-Guyanese heritage. The poems are in a constant state of recoil from the plantation as the location of past oppressions but also of tentative movement towards embracing the unique cultural identity which has been created there.

Yet it is evident from two recent novels that the legacy of the sugar estate is far from exhausted. Harischandra Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance is in part set on a coconut estate where the British have long gone, but there are new masters in Aritya (a simulacrum of the “corruperative” socialist republic of Guyana), the corrupt bureaucrats of the ruling party. If there are no longer foreign owners demanding increased production and profitability from the workers’ sweat, there is a ruling party demanding the meeting of irrational targets with absurd consequences for Binday Coconut Enterprises and its workers. The old estate hierarchy now has an array of new bureaucratic titles, but supervisors are still trapped between workers and management, and the workers are still exploited. And young women are no more safe from the sexual assaults of the new bosses than were women in slavery and indenture days.

The continuing attraction of the plantation as a source of understanding postcolonial life is suggested in Karen King-Aribisala’s novel, The Hangman’s Game. Through the device of the character who is writing a novel about the 1831 Demerara rebellion, who marriage takes to Nigeria at the height of the 1980s military dictatorship, the novel explores with imaginative vision the parallels of absolute power, inhumanity and the fate of rebellion. Metafiction is rooted in the historical exactness with which King-Aribisala recreates the physicality of the Guyanese sugar estate, its buildings, its relationships and its psychology at the end of the period of slavery. Whilst the contemporary context is Nigeria, it is very evident that contemporary Guyana is implicated in the novel’s exploration of undesirable continuities.