Posts tagged ‘Jamaica’

August 20, 2018

Tartan Slaves


Oh, thought I, how interesting when I learnt that some Caribbean slave owners dressed their slaves in tartan but looking into it further I discovered that tartan cloth was a fabric like any other so my initial wonder more or less fizzled out. This is what I discovered.

tartan (1)

Plantation owners were obliged to supply clothing or fabric annually to their slaves; primarily for reasons of modesty and also for health. Much of the cloth bought in came from factories in Europe which was shipped out to the colonies and could be striped, checked or plain, sometimes dyed and sometimes not. The colour or design might represent a plantation – a means of identifying human property with a particular plantation – or master’s house  – but as for surprise that slaves were ever attired in tartan, well, these were designs woven into fabrics and not so different from any others chosen by other slave owners.

Slaves were people kidnapped and forced to work for someone till death without pay, kept in the meanest of circumstances – not so different from domestic stock on a farm. Children of slaves were enslaved at birth – every opportunity that life offered other people removed from them with their first breath. They were owned. They were property. Property with a value.

Having property that was potentially mobile, might try to escape, meant clothing could have another function – to identify where an escapee should be returned to if caught; the uniform or livery specific to a plantation.

The livery of house slaves was of better quality than that supplied to field workers for the house slave was visible to family and guests so in a sense represented the household. Plantation slaves were provided with most basic cheap clothing but something that was expected to last until it was replaced the following year. If someone’s clothing wore out within the year and it did because the quality was so poor then the person was reduced to covering up as best they could with the rags remaining. Quality of the cloth also varied according to the skill of the recipient and men, women and children were allocated different amounts of cloth or clothing. Women were provided with less clothing than the men they worked alongside but could be given extra if they had children – providing the estate owner with extra hands. They might also get additional clothing for providing those in charge with ‘sexual favours’ i.e. allowed themselves to be raped or sexually exploited.

The uniform of a male house slaves might consist of a coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirts, cravats, hose and shoes, mostly made up into garments whereas female slaves were often expected to make their own clothes from lengths of cloth supplied to them. House slaves might be given cast-offs by members of the family to save on the expense of clothing.  Women field slaves were dressed in skirts or dresses and men in breeches and shirts while children were given only a short gown until nearly grown. These garments could be made from all kinds of materials, fine and coarse: wool, linen, cotton, calico – patterned such as plaid (tartan) or plain and unbleached such as Osnaburg, a rough linen, like sacking, naturally brownish and produced in Osnabrück in present-day Germany or something similar manufactured in Virginia in America. On the subject of America there were sumptuary laws in some areas which prohibited people from dressing above their station which meant slaves were always supplied with the roughest fabrics available. Another rough fabric, a coarse heavy woollen material called Pennystone was imported from England. 

Many Scots became plantation owners in the West Indies and parts of America and made huge fortunes from what was basically farming, something most of them were familiar with, only without the nuisance of paying for the help. Britain was industrialising and the demand for products to trade around the world and feed the growing population in the UK was huge. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea plantations – whatever the product worked by slave labour mainly supplied from West Africa but also closer to their own homes guaranteed easy and immense profits. A surprising number of Scots in the Caribbean did not choose the life but had it imposed on them – transported there  because of decisions of Scottish and English courts. Some were criminals (crimes were pretty wide-ranging then) or political and religious rebels whose death sentences had been commuted to transportation. Nearly 1,000 Jacobites who weren’t butchered were rounded up and shipped out as plantation slaves. Yet more Scots were kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The case of Peter Williamson, kidnapped along with a large number of children in Aberdeen is well-documented and this kind of human trafficking went on throughout Scotland, certainly the northern part. Some children and adults were sold to estate owners as indentured servants – forced into slavery for a specified time then freed sometimes with a small land holding – a better future than African slaves were given. Against this barbarity the dressing of a plantation owner’s property in his clan tartan is small beer.

tartan (2)Governments working hand-in-glove with plantation owners – they were often the same people or at least members of the same families who used whatever means at their disposal to pull in labour – all the better for them that they didn’t have to pay, other than the cost of shipping to the West Indies or America.

The West Indies became a home-from-home for Scots, enforced and otherwise, when native place names were replaced with ones more familiar to them e.g. in Jamaica and Montego Bay these included Aberdeen, Alva, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Dundee, Dunrobin, Elderslie, Elgin Town, Farquhar’s Beach, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnoch (sic), Perth Town, Roxborough (sic), Sterling Castle (sic), Stewart Town, Tweedside and Culloden – a stark reminder of how men and boys were separated from family and exported like meat carcasses.

‘The Highlander was an object of hatred to his Saxon neighbours…a filthy abject savage, a slave, a Papist, a cutthroat, and a thief.’ They were also vilified by Lowland Scots. A Highlander taken before a court stood little chance of judicial leniency. England post-Culloden, it was reported, hated Highlanders with a passion and were out for vengeance. Slaughter on the battlefield was followed by slaughter in homes across the Highlands and on the scaffold, proscription of a way of life and confiscation of land and the humble tartan on the streets of London led to outbursts of angry reaction for long after the ’45 and presumably tartan was not produced for long after then.  

Check or plaid material, tartan, if you like, was later manufactured in India for export to the West Indies. A red and white check or plaid also came to be made in Britain. It was called Bandana or Madras cloth and used in dresses, blouses and women’s head wraps – Bandanas. Checked material became commonly distributed for clothing so it is perhaps not surprising that Scottish plantation owners would decide to have checks that matched their own clans’ plaid not least to register their all-powerful state against the utterly powerless impoverished chattel. Likewise in other estates the uniform might not be of tartan or plaid, it might have no colour whatsoever yet be distinctly part of a plantation’s identity. Where clothing was not very different from other estates an owner’s initials sewn onto field clothes was used to mark his property or his men, women and children might be forced to wear a lead tag inscribed with the owner’s name around their necks. These were variations on a theme of marking human beings as marketable property.

There we have it then some slaves were dressed in tartan while others were dressed in plainer cloth which might be shipped out from Scottish mills (Wilson & Son of Bannockburn was one), Irish, Welsh, English, German or perhaps American. Huge quantities of cloth was imported annually to plantations, some was imported straight off the loom as broadcloth and some made up into clothing – breeches, jackets, skirts, hose, shirts etc but no shoes for field workers.

Meaner slave owners recycled old sheets and curtains to clothe their slaves or cut them up for patching and mending. Such was the experience of Robert Craig, an indentured weaver from Scotland bought by Londoner, Colonel Joseph Ball, a slaver who emigrated to Virginia in 1661 who thoughtfully left named slaves to members of his family on his death.  

The estates’ head driver who oversaw field work with liberal applications of his polished staff with its pronged end and his whip should raise far greater condemnation than the choice of decorative garb allocated to the poor souls worked into their graves by this monstrous system of exploitation.

Innovative engineering companies such as McKinnon’s in Aberdeen made fortunes exporting machinery to the colonies to better exploit the raw materials, crops and natural resources required for Britain and for export around the world. Interestingly that while machinery for processing mono-crop cultures imposed on colonies such as sugar, coffee, rice etc were essential tools in the profitability of slave plantations the enterprise and invention behind them offers a buffer to their association with human exploitation that went with the territory of slaves in tartan cloth.