Work was a central part of the daily life of enslaved children from the time they were small. Either because they had to adapt themselves to their parents’ work, or because they themselves had to work. Reports from the Danish West Indies from the middle of the 1700s relate that the enslaved women had their newborns with them when they worked in the sugar field. The very youngest children were normally attached to the mother’s back while she worked. The slightly older children of 1-1½ years slept or played at the edge of the field, where the adults could keep an eye on them.
Nursery for enslaved children
Later, in the beginning of the 1800s, it is reported that the small children on the plantations were instead left in the morning in a kind of day nursery. Here an older enslaved woman kept an eye on them and gave them food, or their mothers came by to nurse them in between the day’s work.
As soon as the children were big enough, they also had to work on the plantation. They were given tasks according to their age and strength. Either in the planter’s house or in the field. All enslaved laborers who worked in the field, children as well as adults, were divided according to their strength into work teams: “gangs”. The first gang consisted of the strongest adults of both genders, the second gang of youths ages 15-18, the third gang of children from ages 6 to 15 and finally there might be a fourth gang of children under age 6. Old and weak enslaved also worked with the gangs, all according to their strength.
The enslaved children’s work might consist of collecting dry sugar cane leaves (“trash” or “Bagasse”) to burn in the boiler house or to cut grass to feed the cattle on the plantation. But they could also be cattle herders and drive the mules home from the field loaded with sugar cane for pressing in the sugar mill. The latter job was something the half-grown boys and girls were particularly put to doing. It was no easy task at all, because the mules were stubborn and the load heavy.
In the house and as apprentice
Some enslaved children got an opportunity to work in the home of the overseer or the planter, or to apprentice as a craftsman. The work in the house was for both girls and boys, while only the boys could apprentice as craftsmen. These were very sought-after positions which gave the children an opportunity for a more secure existence and perhaps even freedom.
Not much is known about what the enslaved children did when they were not at work. They probably spent most of the time together with their families in the slave village on the plantation or in a household in town. Here there was also plenty to do with food preparation, repairs, collecting fodder for the animals, cultivating the kitchen garden, etc.
But despite everything, there was also time for play. One report says that the enslaved children were particularly fond of music and loved to sing. They also made their own instruments. Storytelling was also a pleasure that had great importance for both children and adults.
Games and sport
The enslaved laborers also played various games, for example, “kag”. It was a game of European origin which involved hitting a target by throwing stones. It might be, for example, the top stone in a stone heap or stakes stuck in the ground. Whether it was adults or children who played “kag” is not known, however. Another sport, which the enslaved boys especially participated in, was riding. As the boys were often put to work taking care of mules and horses, and sent as messengers between plantations and to town, it is not surprising that riding became a favorite sport among them – the faster, the better.
In addition to the leisure time after work on workdays, the enslaved also had time off on Sunday and at the end of the slave period on Saturday as well. Sunday was taken up in large part by church attendance, which the children also participated in.
In the last decade before the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies, public schools were established for the enslaved children. The first of these schools was opened on St. Croix in 1841. The youngest enslaved children from ages 4 to 8 were supposed to go to school here three hours each morning on all weekdays. The older children from ages 9 to 14 only went to school on Saturday morning. The reason was that the planters would only do without the small children’s labor, but not the older ones’. Reports tell that both the enslaved children and their parents were very excited about the school.
Arnold R. Highfield (ed.), Observations upon the State of Negro Slavery in the Island of Santa Cruz. The Principal of the Danish West India Colonies with Miscellaneous Remarks upon Subjects Relating to the West India Question and a Notice of Santa Cruz. Antilles Press, St. Croix, 1996. [original by Lieutenant Brady, London, Simpkin & Marshall & Longman Reid & Co., 1829]
George F. Tyson and Arnold R. Highfield (eds.), The Kamina Folk: Slavery and slave Life in the Danish West Indies. U.S Virgin Islands: Virgin Islands Humanities Council, 1994.
Johann Jakob Bossart, Arnold R Highfield, Vladimir Barac (eds.), C.G.A. Oldendorp’s History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Karoma Publishers Inc., 1987.
Neville A. T. Hall, Slave Society in the Danish West Indies. St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. (ed. B.W. Higman). The University of the West Indies Press, Jamaica, 1992.