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Land, Labor, and Things: Surplus in a New West Indian Colony (1763–1807)

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Abstract

Surplus becomes a very interesting word when one considers slavery in the Caribbean. By asking the question how did people on the ground make surplus, we get a lot clearer picture of how slavery actually worked. Famous for the wealth of the planting class, the high mortality rates and low fertility rates of enslaved laborers, the complicated system of provisioning put in place to meet crises in population subsistence, plantation society in the British West Indies was anything but sustainable. Yet it did for nearly a century. Space plays a large role in that. The distance between cane field and teapot was large enough to ensure the person drinking the sweetened tea never thought about the enslaved African who cut the cane. I expand upon these issues by focusing on the colonial economies of the Eastern Caribbean. To map the intersecting interests born out of putative surplus, I look specifically at the commercial networks that emerged in relation to one island's intensification of export-oriented crop production. I then consider the material record of plantation life as one index of relational surplus and its uneven distribution across the island. Together these observations suggest that an institutional arrangement of people and things inverts traditional understandings of surplus in studies of slavery.

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