January 23, 2018

End of the Plantation?

By Ravi Dev

It appears the days of the plantations, the raison d’etre for Guyana’s existence, are numbered. As one who grew up on one, I really do not mourn their passing, save for the callous way this administration has gone about the job. Surely, we cannot accept the neo-liberalism dogma that decisions rendering 10,000 persons jobless must be made by the “market”.
The plantation has been described by some as a “total institution” that acted to socialize, through force and other coercive methods, the workers into an organized “machine” for production. There is no question the planters had a clear picture of what the ideal plantation worker ought to be: docile, industrious, concerned about the plantation’s interests ahead of his own, and willing to follow orders. That the workers would have resisted this dehumanisation of their being was also not unexpected, and the plantations were structured to overcome this resistance.
The plantation, founded on slave labour, was predicated on violence backed by the always available State coercive institutions. The demands of the sugar plantations required comparatively large investments, which in turn demanded consistent and cheap production to deliver demanded high returns. Violence and coercion were integral features of the plantation economy, to discipline individuals into this new technology of production. The abolition of slavery, while a landmark change in the legal relations between planters and workers as owner and chattel, simply forced changes in the methodology of applying the violence to extract production during the indentureship period and after.
Workers were organised into “gangs” under the direct supervision of “drivers,” who were selected for the position by white overseers recruited from the underclasses of Scotland and Ireland. Drivers were men most willing and capable of obtaining the greatest amount of labour for the least amount of money from their fellow workers – by any means necessary. This arrangement was crucial, since the nature of sugar cultivation and harvesting created variable conditions necessitating daily bargaining over the content of the “task” that had to be completed for a day’s pay.
Drivers of women’s gangs, as well as the White overseers, were notorious for taking advantage of the women in their gangs. These two issues — wages and women — were at the heart of most of the “official” violence against the Indians during their sojourn on the plantations, when they protested the quotidian injustices. The managers had a tactic of initiating the issuance of summons for any infraction, with its withdrawal contingent on the worker agreeing to pay costs. Up the 1880s, the majority of drivers over Indian gangs were Africans, and there were many reports of these drivers assaulting Indians. The plantation discipline featured floggings, assaults etc. that helped to fix in the Indian mind the image of the African driver as a “bully”, which was not alleviated when the Police Force formed in 1839 was staffed overwhelmingly from that section of the population.
The attitude of the planters towards the sugar workers was exemplified by the planter William Russell, who agreed with the view of plantation managers that indentured workers should be “at work, in hospital, or in goal”. These locales defined the three institutions over which total control of discipline and domination could be exercised over the immigrant: the “overseer/driver” system to deal with the immigrant at work; and the medical and judicial systems to impose the planters’ wish and will over them within the “hospital and goal”.
In his indictment of the immigration system in 1869, Des Voux not only castigated the magistrates (who would typically have lunch with the local manager before presiding over his court that imposed criminal penalties on civil charges, and beside whom the manager would sit if charged by an immigrant) but the medical doctors who conspired to ensure that immigrants get back into the fields. The hospital became part of the system and surveillance of the immigrants to ensure that the ideal worker was available to the plantation.
In the one hundred years following the end of indentureship in 1917, not much has changed in social relations on the plantations that were now ironically dubbed “estates”, invoking the “estates” of the English nobility with their serfs. Even local managers became “nobility”!