It would be impossible in such a short space as this to describe all of the characteristics of slavery as a means of production, which can be learned through a number of sources. The intention here, however, is to focus on one of the central aspects of slavery. Among all of the characteristics that can be listed, the practice of separating slaves from their families and others with whom they had relationships was, perhaps, one of the most notorious and disastrous consequences of slavery in the Caribbean.

Beginning in the 16th century, when the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean began to become constant and important, a process also began of conceptualizing the figure of the slave. In a gradual but relentless manner, from Western Europe arose the idea of a slave not as a human being, but as merchandise subject to the laws covering consumer goods and economic production.

As part of this process, it was important for those who tried to justify the system to present the slave as a thing and not as a living being that had forged family and social relationships. Similarly, this “thing” should remain distanced and separated from his own kind in the new Caribbean regions. For that reason, in the plantation economy, one of the most commonly used control mechanisms was the fragmentation or separation of slaves, a practice that eventually led to separation of entire families.

The slave’s roots that represented his ancestry and his cultural background were symbolically taken away. Stripped of the past and facing an uncertain future, the person subjected to this mode of production was dressed with a new identity that, although it was intended to be absolute, never took shape. An example of all of the above can be seen in the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, and particularly in those of Olaudah Equiano, a slave in Barbados during the 18th century, and in the tales of Esteban Montejo, a slave who later escaped in Cuba in the 19th century.

The narratives of both Equiano and Montejo openly defy the process of tearing apart slave families that the writers were subject to. Their defiance consisted of reconstructing their past through memories. Equiano had the opportunity to tell his story and experiences to members of his family before he became a slave as a result of being kidnapped in Western Africa.

Montejo, who was born a slave, never knew his parents. What he knew of them was what others told him. The reconstruction of his family history, however, although it involved a thousand obstacles, had to be the starting point for his narration of their experiences as slaves. Despite everything, each of them knew that, whether in Africa or among the descendants of Africans in the Caribbean, to be able to affirm themselves as persons it was necessary to know their ancestry. Their ancestors were certainly their reason for being in the present and their projection into the future.

Author: Dr. José Alberto Cabán Torres
Published: December 20, 2011.

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