the amherst lecture in philosophy
Lecture 9, 2014
周e Quest for Free Labor Elizabeth Anderson 28
cepted the planters’ complaint that the freed people of the West Indies only worked a half
hour per day to supply their needs. While this claim was absurd, it illustrates the inﬂuence of
racism on whites’ perceptions.
Even (white) abolitionists found the decline in work hours
on the Jamaican plantations “a serious embarrassment.”
Whites’ evaluations of blacks’ labor efforts were based on a racist double standard. No
free white person had ever been willing to labor at the intensity and continuity that blacks
had been forced to work under slavery. This was why planters had enslaved blacks. Least of
all were planters willing to labor for their own subsistence.
Black leaders did not only offer an alternative interpretation of the data. They gave an
epistemic critique of the dominant discussion, arguing that its conclusion would be unreli-
able if black voices were excluded. Pompée Valentin, Baron de Vastey, secretary to King
Henri Christophe of Haiti, objected to denigrating views of Haitian outcomes: “How can
they be competent to judge of our differences, if they hear only the clamor and declarations
of one party, without the reply and just complaints of the others?” Similarly, Frederick Doug-
lass, speaking of the conduct of the freed people in the United States, observed that “experi-
ence proves that it takes more than one class of people to tell the whole truth about matters
in which they are interested on opposite sides.”
Why, then, did the freed people dramatically reduce their labor on the plantations?
There were three main reasons. First, they shifted much of their labor from cash crops to
subsistence crops. For the freed people of the Caribbean, this was a matter of sheer survival.
Slaves were literally worked to death. In Saint-Domingue, slaves suffered a 5–10% annual
death rate from overwork, malnutrition, brutal treatment, and disease. Similar death rates
across the Caribbean and Brazil meant that these labor regimes could be sustained only with
continuous imports of new slaves from Africa. Vastey extolled Haiti’s new agricultural system
as “ﬁtted to our wants and worthy of a free people.”
He credited the Haitian people’s shift
to a more diversiﬁed crop mix, including corn, barley, oats, and potatoes grown for domestic
55 Holt, The Problem of Freedom,146; and Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, 7.
56 Foner, Nothing but Freedom,Kindle loc. 637.
57 Vastey, Political Remarks on Some French Works and Newspapers, Concerning Hayti,8; and Frederick
Douglass, “Address to the People of the United States,” 677.
58 Vastey, Political Remarks on Some French Works and Newspapers, Concerning Hayti, 54.