On the Plantation

Slavery, they say, was abolished some time during the nineteenth century. We quibble about the date of its abolition, whether it was 1834 or 1838, but according to the history books, it’s been out of vogue for, oh, a hundred and seventy years. In The Bahamas, the plantation, which with we associate slavery for the most part, has been out-of-fashion for more time than that — two centuries, give or take some years. Or so the history books say.

I beg to differ with the history books. I’m going to argue that the plantation is alive and well in The Bahamas. I should know; I work on it.

There’s a tendency among Caribbean intellectuals to regard any monolithic agency-employer who reinforces the habits and attitudes of slavery as a reincarnation of the plantations. You see, people raised in the shadow of the plantation — in the shadow of slavery and all its implications — develop a set of characteristics that enable them to survive the inhumanity of their situation. And it takes a specific, structured effort to break the habits of generations.

In the Bahamas, the plantation is alive and well. Its most faithful replica: the Bahamian Civil Service.

I put it to you that the civil service functions just like a huge plantation. When you can’t get rid of your slaves, they are yours for life. You have to keep them alive, more or less, in the hope that perhaps they’ll do some work for you at some point in their lives. But you know they are not your loyal servants; and to buffer yourself, you practice divide-and-conquer among them. All slaves are not created equal. They may be house slaves, drivers, overseers, or field workers; and each group has its own system of rewards and punishments that sets its members against one another and never allows them to think about their servitude or the system as a whole.

Not all plantations were worked by slaves, moreover. In the sugar islands, after slavery was abolished, masters hired indentured servants, people who were engaged to work for a set period of time. While they were working with the master, there was little difference between the servant and the slave, except that when the servant came to the end of his servitude, he was given a pre-arranged gift — of money or of passage home — to send him on his way.

Sound familiar? Let me put it another way.

One. The plantation owned its people, whether slaves or indentured workers, for as long as they remained on it. Their every waking moment — and every sleeping one — belonged to the plantation and to the master. Now check General Orders today; read any government job description worth its salt. The first makes it quite clear that one’s time is the government’s. The second will always contain the clause and any other duty that the (insert appropriate overseer) requires.

Two. The plantation took care of its people. It may not have taken care of them well, or given them much autonomy in the process, but it ensured that its people wouldn’t starve, that its people had clothes to wear; if it didn’t, it failed. Now if you work for the Civil Service long enough (thirty years — most of your life), you get a pension; like the slaves, you will be clothed and fed until your death. If you serve for a set period of time (ten years), you’re given a gratuity when you leave, rather like indentured servants. And if you can’t make it that long, you leave, like those who died or escaped the plantation. The majority of plantation runaways were people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) buckle under the yoke; most of them chose death over servitude, and ran away, committed suicide, or were killed.

And three. The plantation took away its people’s minds. People who thought for themselves lived tortured lives, and died young. If you wanted to survive, you learned not to think only in small and twisted ways that hurt the institution as much as it liberated any slave. In the long run, you might bring the institution down; but in the short run, you learn only how to make it, but not how to live.

Consider this. To make it as a Civil Servant, you will wait upon directives. You’ll do just enough work to escape notice from people who are watching, but nowhere near enough to get a job done well; there’s no point in investing time and energy in excellence when none of the profit/credit/reward is yours. You maintain your spirits by seeking refuge in the kind of religion that engages your emotions but not your minds, for to think too much will be painful. And you seek to cultivate some ally within the institution who can protect you should the going get bad. Strategy, not merit, is what works; strategy, and scrambling, like crabs in a barrel, for the position that allows you the most power over your fellows.

Sound like an institution you know?

I’m going to argue (as I’ve done before) that when a free country maintains an institution that mirrors the most soul-destroying institution that humans could invent, and, worse, boosts it every five years or so by the importation of fresh meat, that country is not really free. When we consider that the Government is the largest employer in the nation, and that a Government job is a safe, sure job, we must realize that the civil service is the place where we train our citizens.

And so we have a choice. Either we keep the Civil Service as it is, a mirror of the plantation, and raise up a nation of slaves; or we seek to transform it. The plantation died, killed off by the slaves. If we are to survive as a people, we will have to put the habits of the plantation behind us. Civil Service reform must happen, and now; we must take it in our hands, and create it. We’ve waited too long already.