No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 / Edition 1

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Investigating the cultural, social, and political histories of punishment during ninety years surrounding the 1838 abolition of slavery in Jamaica, Diana Paton challenges standard historiographies of slavery and discipline. The abolition of slavery in Jamaica, as elsewhere, entailed the termination of slaveholders’ legal right to use violence—which they defined as “punishment”—against those they had held as slaves. Paton argues that, while slave emancipation involved major changes in the organization and representation of punishment, there was no straightforward transition from corporal punishment to the prison or from privately inflicted to state-controlled punishment. Contesting the dichotomous understanding of pre-modern and modern modes of power that currently dominates the historiography of punishment, she offers critical readings of influential theories of power and resistance, including those of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Ranajit Guha.

No Bond but the Law reveals the longstanding and intimate relationship between state formation and private punishment. The construction of a dense, state-organized system of prisons began not with emancipation but at the peak of slave-based wealth in Jamaica, in the 1780s. Jamaica provided the paradigmatic case for British observers imagining and evaluating the emancipation process. Paton’s analysis moves between imperial processes on the one hand and Jamaican specificities on the other, within a framework comparing developments regarding punishment in Jamaica with those in the U.S. South and elsewhere. Emphasizing the gendered nature of penal policy and practice throughout the emancipation period, Paton is attentive to the ways in which the actions of ordinary Jamaicans and, in particular, of women prisoners, shaped state decisions.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

No Bond but the Law is a model of research procedure and historical writing.”—Sidney Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

No Bond but the Law is one of the most interesting and intellectually ambitious works of scholarship to be published in the field of slave and emancipation studies in recent years. Diana Paton has written a book that takes several important conceptual matters and historiographies—emancipation, punishment, gender, and state formation—and puts them together in a remarkably compelling and original way.”—Steven Hahn, author of A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333982
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Series: Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Paton is a Lecturer in History at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. She is the editor of A Narrative of Events, since the First of August 1834, by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica, published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

No bond but the law

Punishment, race, and gender in Jamaican state formation, 1780-1870
By Diana Paton

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3398-8

Chapter One


In 1770 there were three penal institutions in Jamaica: the county gaols in Kingston, Spanish Town, and Savanna La Mar. By 1820 there were sixteen "houses of correction" (also known as "workhouses") spread in towns across the island, and many parishes had built their own gaols. Intense attention to prisons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is, at first sight, unsurprising. This period has, after all, been identified as the moment of the "birth of the prison." While the new houses of correction were built in Jamaica, prisons were being built or rebuilt across Europe and the United States. The wave of prison building in Jamaica was part of a movement taking place in much of the Atlantic world. Jamaica's status as a colony and as a slave society did not mean that it "lagged behind" the metropolis in this key aspect of the development of the state's means of repression.

And yet the new Jamaican prisons, because they were in a slave society, did not serve the same purpose as those in Britain, France, or the Northern United States. Their inmates were enslaved people who had managed to escape from the plantations or had been sent in for punishment on the private order of their masters or mistresses, and people convicted of crimes (often crimesthat by definition could only be committed by slaves, such as being an "incorrigible runaway"). The Jamaican prison population thus differed from that of a typical prison in a contemporary "free" society such as Britain in two important ways. First, it included large numbers of people committed without judicial procedures. Second, the majority of the prisoners were held for life at a time when the longest prison sentence in Britain was three years. The development of the prison in the industrializing world has been seen as a stage in a longer process in which state penal institutions over time displace other, private, forms of discipline that had been organized through structures such as the household, the church, the landed estate, or the kin group, and in which modern modes of disciplinary or governmental power displace earlier forms of sovereignty. In contrast, in Jamaica, state-operated penal and disciplinary mechanisms existed alongside "private" forms of punishment directed by slaveowners, while modern modes of punishment existed side by side with-indeed, were intertwined with-violent and spectacular modes of power and domination. Rather than standing in counterpoint to the supposedly premodern institution of slavery, Jamaican prisons were established precisely in order to protect that institution.

Studies of Caribbean slave societies have almost completely neglected the development of the prisons for at least two reasons. First, attention to direct violence inflicted on the bodies of enslaved people, especially by whipping, dominates discussions of coercion in slave societies. Planters' insistence, despite external pressure, on maintaining their legal power to use the whip in the fields and to whip enslaved women reveals that bodily violence was certainly central to the maintenance of slavery. Still, historians' emphasis on flogging at the expense of analyzing other forms of coercion reflects the influence of abolitionist propaganda's attention to whipping, as well as the practice's real significance. As David Brion Davis notes, the abolitionists' emphasis on the whip as the symbol of slavery meant that, "at a time when English industrialists were devising ingenious and more efficient substitutes for physical punishment, the slave system could symbolize a discredited form of authority that seemed to require the personal imposition of continuous pain." Historians' repeated reproduction of a view of slave society as utterly different from free society in its means of discipline and coercion perpetuates a common-sense view of slavery as divorced from modernity, despite the widespread acceptance of interpretations of the plantation as the prototype of modern industrial production.

Second, the historiography of slavery has to a large degree focused on planters as entrepreneurs, on relationships between slaveholders and enslaved people, and on the life of the "slave community." These approaches, frequently taking an individual plantation or set of plantations as the unit of study, differ substantially among themselves but share a lack of attention to the wider relationships of power in which planters and enslaved people were embedded, and in particular are uninterested in questions related to state formation and state power. Pioneering early work, such as that of Elsa Goveia on the West Indian slave codes, and of Edward (Kamau) Brathwaite on "creole society," which emphasized the importance of the planter class's domination of the colonial state, has not been developed in recent historiography. As a result, many aspects of Jamaican society during the period of slavery, prisons included, remain to be explored.

The use of publicly funded prisons for the capture of runaways and the privately authorized punishment of slaves was a common feature of slave societies. In the American South, Brazil, the French Caribbean, and the Cape Colony, states organized penal institutions that held captured runaways, enslaved people convicted of crimes, and slaves sent for punishment by order of their owners. This phenomenon has been noted, but little detailed attention has been paid to it. A closer examination of the development of penal institutions during slavery in Jamaica thus provides wider insights into power relations in Atlantic slave societies more generally.

The development of a substantial prison system in a slave society was full of contradictions. The prison as a form of punishment worked through the principle of "less eligibility," which held that the conditions of penal institutions (and other state institutions, such as workhouses for the poor) had to be worse than the conditions of the poorest person outside the institution; otherwise, poor people's rational choice would be deliberately to get themselves incarcerated to gain access to the better conditions inside. In a free-labor society, the very denial of autonomy involved in incarceration automatically introduced an element of "less eligibility": on this principle the British New Poor Law of 1834 denied "outdoor" poor relief to able-bodied adult males. English prisons thus stood in contrast to a free world beyond the prison walls, functioning as a symbol of unfreedom and demonstrating what happened if people did not use their freedom in authorized ways. This symbolic function of the prison did not work easily in an unfree society. A punishment whose premise was the deprivation of freedom faced problems in maintaining its reputation for severity when most of the people who suffered it were already unfree. The similarity between enslaved people's experience within and outside prison makes this clear. Prison inmates were forced to labor by flogging and the threat of flogging-very much as were enslaved people all over Jamaica. In addition, the idea of reforming the inmate's character or transforming his or her soul, which was becoming dominant in British prisons in this period, made little sense in a society that denied the personhood of the vast majority of people. In the context of slave society, reform and rehabilitation meant enslaved people's acceptance of their subjection.

And yet, as the persistence of escape from the prisons shows, enslaved people were no more likely to acquiesce to their domination within prisons than in plantation society more generally. Indeed, one consequence of the establishment of a large-scale prison system in Jamaica may have been the facilitation of communication among some of the most persistently oppositional slaves from different estates and areas by forcing them to spend time in the same space. It is much harder to find evidence of prisoners' actions, conversations, thoughts, and intentions than it is to locate the plans, goals, and acts of slaveholders and prison managers. As a result, it is easy to mistake prison managers' descriptions of prisons, which generally present an account of the prison as the manager thought it should run, for real accounts of the social dynamics of prison life. Nevertheless, the traces through which we can gain some knowledge of the prison from the point of view of the prisoners suggest that the new workhouses became sites for the exchange and development of knowledge and strategies of resistance, along with other forms of sociability. As they could in daily life outside the prisons, enslaved people in prison could twist and transform-but not completely overturn-technologies aimed at their domination.

The Establishment of the Workhouses

The rapid expansion of the state prison system in the late eighteenth century marked a break with the preceding colonial period. Jamaican legislators had passed an act authorizing workhouse building in 1683, but this did not lead to the establishment of penal institutions. Instead, during this period the colonial state delegated day-to-day authority over slaves to slaveholders, placing little constraint on their power to inflict violence. The British imperial state supported slaveholders' power through the naval and army regiments stationed permanently in the Caribbean, which fought the maroons and suppressed slave rebellions, as well as participating in intra-European wars of colonial conquest. Enslaved people could be tried for serious crimes in slave courts, which inflicted severe punishments, including death, mutilation, transportation (organized with minimal state support), and flogging. State agencies did not, however, take responsibility for imprisoning slaves; nor did they provide substantial resources for organizing their punishment or for facilitating their private punishment by masters. Until 1759 there was only one penal institution in the island: the Middlesex County Gaol in Spanish Town. Gaols for the counties of Surrey and Cornwall were built-in Kingston and Savanna La Mar, respectively-following the passage of legislation in that year. Edward Long noted with disapproval that the Middlesex gaol was "perfectly pestilential" and that its residents included both debtors and criminals; both whites and what he termed "the most bestial and profligate wretches of the Negroe race." With no systematic means of extracting labor from the prisoners, and no attempt made to categorize them, these gaols were similar to the British "unreformed" gaols of the period.

This essentially passive relationship between imperial state, local state, and slaveholder shifted dramatically in the last sixty years of slavery's existence. In the 1770s, the Jamaican Assembly passed a series of acts empowering parish authorities to build penal institutions: first parish gaols, then a workhouse or house of correction in Kingston, and in 1780 workhouses throughout the island. By 1780, the first year for which Jamaican newspapers are extant, there were at least eleven parish or county gaols, and there was a workhouse in Kingston. The workhouses rapidly became the heart of the new Jamaican penal system aimed at enslaved people, while the gaols generally confined free people imprisoned for debt.

The sequence in which workhouses were created across Jamaica provides an index to local processes of state formation and to the degree of planter class cohesion in the different parts of the colony. The earliest parishes to open workhouses were located in the major sugar growing areas. St. James, Trelawny, and St. Ann, the three wealthy sugar parishes in the center-north of Jamaica, all established workhouses within a year of the passage of the 1780 act empowering them to do so. By 1790 there were a further eight workhouses spread across Jamaica, leaving eight parishes without a workhouse (see Map). Gradually over the next decades, these other parishes established workhouses. By the 1820s, of those parishes that had no workhouse, St. John and St. Dorothy formed part of the "precinct" of St. Catherine, sharing the house of correction in Spanish Town, while St. David was served by the workhouse in Morant Bay, St. Thomas in the East. Thus, planters throughout Jamaica had access to houses of correction. In comparison with other Caribbean colonies at this time, Jamaica had a highly developed penal system.

WHY DID THIS rapid expansion of the Jamaican state penal system take place in this period? Why were workhouses attractive to parish authorities in the 1780s but not in the 1680s? One explanation would attribute Jamaican prison-building to diffusion or mimicry. The expansion of the Jamaican prison system coincided with a wave of prison construction in England and the United States. Many prisons, especially in the form of houses of correction or "bridewells," had been built from the late seventeenth century on, but the late eighteenth century saw an intensification of attention to and (re)construction of penal institutions. Forty-five new "reformed" prisons were built in England between 1775 and 1795. Perhaps Jamaican elites were simply following what was going on in Britain.

The British example surely had some impact but is unconvincing as the main explanation. Not all British developments were taken up in Jamaica, after all, so even if prison building spread from Britain to the empire, we would still need to explain why this British development was attractive to Jamaican elites while other developments were rejected. In addition, the Jamaican prisons did not directly follow their British counterparts. Unlike reformed British prisons, which occupied large, specially constructed buildings, Jamaican prisons were generally small and in the eighteenth century were not housed in specially designed buildings. Many were in buildings that had been converted from another use and so did not have architecturally integrated security features. In St. Ann, for instance, the vestry decided in February 1781 to rent the house of one John Ware for a workhouse, on the condition that he provide a fence around his yard, build a new kitchen, and provide "a proper Platform for the Negroes to sleep on." Thus, the workhouse was architecturally little different from an ordinary residence.

Those parishes that remained longer without a workhouse were more likely eventually to build a specifically designed institution. When the parish of Manchester was created in 1816, its vestry immediately invited tenders to build a combined workhouse and gaol, as well as a church, a parsonage, and a courthouse. The vestry drew up a plan specifying that it wanted a stone building, 38 by 28 feet, including two rooms for "Workhouse Negroes," a room for "Prisoners," and a piazza, as well as rooms for the gaoler. Similarly, when the parish vestry of St. David finally decided to build a workhouse in 1834, it commissioned a plan for the building and then advertised for builders to fill its precise requirements. These buildings used architectural designs that were not very different from contemporary residential buildings rather than adopting the radiating or pentagonal-style prison designs that were common in England from the late eighteenth century on. This may have been because of the need to build cheaply, but it also demonstrates that there were reasons internal to Jamaica for building prisons. The colonial authorities were not simply responding to external pressure or adopting ideas from outside the colony.

If Jamaican authorities were not simply importing ideas from elsewhere, they may well have been responding to similar pressures in similar ways. Explanations for the rise of the prison in other societies may thus help to explain what happened in Jamaica. Analysis of the Jamaican experience may also provide a way of assessing and revising other approaches to the history of the prison.

The two most powerful explanations for the rise of the prison have been developed by Marxist scholars on one hand, and by Foucault and his followers on the other. Marxists have connected the rise of the prison as a form of punishment to the needs of capitalism, defined as a system of production dominated by wage-labor relations. Starting with Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer in the 1930s, and pursued more recently by scholars such as Christopher Adamson, Alex Lichtenstein, and Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini, a powerful argument has been made that the growing prominence of the prison was intricately linked with the rise of capitalism. These scholars argue further that the variation in the form of prison punishment at different times (primarily deterrent at some points, primarily reformative at others; at some points attempting to mobilize the labor of prisoners for productive purposes, at other times enforcing unproductive labor) depended on the economic needs of capital at different points in time. A second strand of Marxist interpretation has connected the prison term to the ideological rather than the economic needs of capitalism, arguing that a punishment that works by depriving a subject of his or her time fits perfectly in the context of a society in which time has become commodified-that is, in a society of wage laborers- but makes little sense under other modes of production.


Excerpted from No bond but the law by Diana Paton Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Prison and plantation 19
2 Planters, magistrates, and apprentices 53
3 The treadmill and the whip 83
4 Penalty and politics in a "free" society 121
5 Justice and the Jamaican people 156
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