"Shovel blacks", slaves in Guyana

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  • Negroes digging a canal.


  • Plan of the Savane Jappé house in the Montsinery district. Guyana.

  • Map of Cayenne Island and neighboring rivers by d'Anville.

  • Letter from Victor Hugues, government commissioner in Guyana, to the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies.

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Title: Negroes digging a canal.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 33 - Width 27.5

Technique and other indications: Watercolor, Late XVIIIe century - Early XIXe century

Storage location: Aquitaine Museum website

Contact copyright: © Bordeaux City Hall - Photo JM Arnaud

Picture reference: inv. 2003.4.306

Negroes digging a canal.

© Bordeaux City Hall - Photo JM Arnaud

To close

Title: Plan of the Savane Jappé house in the Montsinery district. Guyana.

Author :

Creation date : 1746

Date shown: 1746

Dimensions: Height 45 - Width 28.5

Technique and other indications: Cayenne terrier court, registration of the survey reports drawn up by Molinier, royal surveyor.

Storage location: Departmental Archives of Guyana

Contact copyright: © Departmental Archives of Guyana

Picture reference: AD973 / B

Plan of the Savane Jappé house in the Montsinery district. Guyana.

© Departmental Archives of Guyana

To close

Title: Map of Cayenne Island and neighboring rivers by d'Anville.

Author :

Creation date : 1729

Date shown: 1729

Dimensions: Height 38 - Width 50

Storage location: Historic Center of the National Archives website

Contact copyright: © Historic Center of the National Archives - Photography workshop

Picture reference: NIII / Guyana 1

Map of Cayenne Island and neighboring rivers by d'Anville.

© Historic Center of the National Archives - Photography workshop

To close

Title: Letter from Victor Hugues, government commissioner in Guyana, to the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies.

Author :

Creation date : 1803

Date shown: 08 December 1803

Dimensions: Height 28 - Width 18.5

Storage location: Overseas Archives Center website

Contact copyright: © Center des Archives d'Outre-Mer

Picture reference: CAOM / C14 / 82 - (N ° 270)

Letter from Victor Hugues, government commissioner in Guyana, to the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies.

© Center des Archives d'Outre-Mer

Publication date: December 2006


"Shovel blacks", slaves in Guyana


Historical context

Canals, communication arteries in Guyana

In Guyana, slave labor is largely mobilized for the creation of agricultural production units, housing, vast areas of several hundred hectares reclaimed from the forest by clearing, as well as for land use planning. From Cayenne, the only seaport open to transatlantic links, the colonization movement stretches along estuaries and in marshy regions, where land transport is impractical.

Canals complete the river network for the flow of production. Slaves of the king, property of the administration and slaves of private dwellings are requisitioned for the construction and maintenance of these waterways. The development of canals, useful for drainage and navigation, takes on a new dimension and allows the lowlands of the country to be exploited.

Image Analysis

The "shovel blacks"

In full labor, the slaves are here dressed in a simple loincloth. The "shovel blacks" specifically used for the most arduous work such as earthworks, constitute the most disadvantaged category of slaves. The gnarled limbs, the bent back and the painful gaze reflect the daily suffering of these men, the unique work force to carry out and maintain large-scale developments that nature constantly calls into question. It was in the region of the Appouague, where the administration had developed its most ambitious land reclamation project, that in December 1790, a major armed revolt of some 40 slaves took place.

Slaves are much less numerous in Guyana than in the French islands of the Antilles or in the neighboring Dutch and English colonies. Their living conditions in the dwellings are regulated by the workshop police who only require masters to provide once a year a few pieces of fabric, as well as a shirt and a skirt for women, a shirt, long breeches and a hat for men. The slaves themselves produce a large part of their food by growing their giblets.

The master's house, a traditional Creole frame house with overhanging roof and front gallery, retains a very rustic character in Guyana. In lowland farms, it is located near the canal which facilitates access. The search for good ventilation, a major concern to protect against insects and limit the effects of an unhealthy climate, often justifies the construction of a floor.

The large, more basic wooden buildings in the background probably house industrial equipment (sugar refinery, mills, warehouses, etc.). On the right, the smaller ones correspond to the slave boxes. Palisades generally delimit stockyards.
The main agricultural products for export consisted of cotton, annatto, coffee, spices and cocoa until the end of the 18th century. The tall green stems, near which two slaves work the soil, evoke sugar cane, the development of which in the lowlands ensured relative prosperity to the colony from the first half of the 19th century.

A large tree, in the shade of which perhaps stands the commander charged by the master to supervise all the work, has a trunk which rests on buttress roots; Guyanese soil, very thin, is quickly exhausted by intensive cultivation. On the other hand, the region is rich in species of Amazonian palm trees which provide part of the food resources of the dwelling.

The Savane Jappé residence in the Montsinery district.

The plan shows the general organization of a farm. The concession includes areas not yet cleared (large standing timber) or impracticable (drowned savanna), areas put into exploitation and planted with annatto, a dye plant intended for export, and others allocated to slaves to cultivate their food there (cassava giblets). The degrad or landing stage connects the house to the river leading to Cayenne. The neighboring master's house with an elegant garden, facing the "black huts" lined up under his gaze. A "small leaf" tree serving as a marker is also represented: at all times, the giants of the Guyanese forest have served as a landmark.

The space colonized in the 18th century

In a limited territory between the Mahury and Kourou rivers appear the different components of the Guyanese society of the 18th century: Cayenne, capital of the colony and port where the slave ships land, together with the dense network of dwellings, the space of life of slaves. In addition to the types of crops practiced, the map also mentions the opening of a communication channel by building a small river ("cove"), between the rivers of Montsinery and Macouria.

This neighboring colonial universe with Amerindian villages ("Carbet d'Indiens nouragues"), sometimes identified by the name of a famous character ("carbet d'Apolimbo, famous piaye") or grouped together as part of a Jesuit mission (Mission of Father Lombard where the Galibis, Arouas and other Indians are gathered). Finally, at the margins, "black or fugitive negroes" are reported in an area that is not yet inhabited.

Lowland development

The idea of ​​developing lowlands on the model of Surinam has been formulated since the beginning of the 18th century but comes up against the lack of means of the local government as well as of the colonists. Victor Hugues' letter reflects the difficulty of mobilizing useful skills and the essential labor force. It does not say anything about the hardship of the company: 200 men opened, in 4 months, in a marsh area, a first section of canal 3.5 kilometers long, 12 meters wide and 2 deep, as well as 'a second section 2.7 kilometers long and 6 meters wide.


Until 1848, the physical labor of slaves was the only energy mobilized for the accomplishment of the works of colonization and economic development. The housing system disappeared after the abolition. On the other hand, the canal equipments, won over a hostile nature by force of arms, remain present in the landscape and are still visible from the plane despite the invasion of the vegetation.

  • colonial history
  • slavery
  • Guyana
  • overseas
  • channel
  • Black


Marie POLDERMANFrench Guiana, 1676-1763: Establishment and evolution of colonial society, tensions and interbreedingMatoury, Ibis rouge éditions, 2004.Serge MAM LAM FOUCKFrench Guiana in the days of slaveryage, gold and francization (1802-1946)Petit-Bourg, Ibis rouge editions, 1999.Guide to the sources of the slave trade, slavery and their abolitionDirectorate of Archives de France, La documentation française, Paris, 2007.

To cite this article

Françoise LEMAIRE, "" Black shovels ", slaves in Guyana"

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