Fear of revolt

An engraving showing a European beating a tied-up slave with a large stick

Punishments towards slaves were often brutal. Severe punishments included:

  • Nose slit
  • Loss of limb (a runaway - Antigua)
  • Whipping
  • Stocks
  • Death penalty for theft (of items worth more than 12 pence - Barbados)
  • Death penalty by burning (for striking a white person - Jamaica)

Historian David Olusoga examines instruments of torture used to punish slaves.

A slave, known as Gordon, displays the many scars on his back from being whipped
A slave, known as Gordon, displays scars on his back from being whipped

The long hours and exhausting work rate was largely achieved through punishment, principally whipping. This made economic sense when cheap replacement slaves were available. However this made control by fear a key feature of plantation relationships.

On the plantations African slaves easily outnumbered European planters. Punishing treatment acted as both a cause and effect on the behaviour of the enslaved, creating a vicious circle.

  • the masters’ fears led to excessive punishment
  • the excessive cruelty led to revolts, runaways, or other types of disobedience
  • disobedience led to further fear for the masters and retribution punishment

Revolt was prevented by a rigid application of the slave code.

Slave code

Rules for slaves: no unauthorised movement, large meetings, animals, weapons, violence against whites, sale of produce, unfit clothes, sticks unless lame, or freedom even for old or ill slaves.