“Mashing Ants”: Surviving the Economic Crisis after 1846
This chapter investigates the successive and severe setbacks to black working people’s progress between the late 1840s and mid-1850s. The Sugar Duties Act of 1846 that gradually eliminated protection for British Caribbean sugar in the English market depressed sugar prices and precipitated a financial crisis for all classes, especially for freedpeople. A series of disadvantageous events further exacerbated their distress, including a hurricane, the termination of state funding for education, and the importation of Portuguese Madeirans as labor competition. Amid such dire circumstances, black working people employed a variety of legal and extralegal strategies to maintain livelihoods both within and without the sugar industry. Setting cane fires, practicing obeah, and committing petty theft—though deemed criminal by authorities and white elites—appear to have had more economic and political significance than their detractors recognized. These illicit actions represent freedpeople’s protest against the retraction of the all-too-brief benefits they had gained during the early 1840s.