The Economic History Review

The amelioration of British West Indian slavery: anthropometric evidence

Volume 71 Issue 4
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Pages: 1199-1226Authors: J. R. Ward
Published online: January 11, 2018DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12655

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Abstract An older view among historians, predominant until about 1970, held that British West Indian slave maintenance standards were significantly improved or ‘ameliorated’ from the later eighteenth century. Subsequent research has disputed this consensus, although uncertainty remains on key details of slave diet, labour, and demography. As an alternative welfare measure, this study examines the reported heights of detained runaway slaves and ex-slaves held between 1788 and 1838 at workhouses on Jamaica, the most important British West Indian colony. Analytical challenges arise through the limited age data. Also, a disproportionate share of the detainees had an urban background. However, these problems can be overcome with help from local estate records and from eastern Caribbean anthropometric evidence. The mean stature of Jamaica-born adult detainees clearly rose during the period, and they gained a widening height advantage relative to their Africa-born counterparts. This offers a useful indicator of trends for the enslaved population at large. The workhouse material confirms ‘old school’ judgements that substantive amelioration occurred, as a course of deliberate slaveholder policy.