The Driver’s Story
Labor and Power in the World of Atlantic SlaveryUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Early American Studies
The story of the driver is the story of Atlantic slavery. Starting in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, enslavers developed the driving system to solve their fundamental problem: how to extract labor from captive workers who had every reason to resist. In this system, enslaved Black drivers were tasked with supervising and punishing other enslaved laborers. In The Driver’s Story, Randy M. Browne illuminates the predicament and harrowing struggles of these men—and sometimes women—at the heart of the plantation world. What, Browne asks, did it mean to be trapped between the insatiable labor demands of white plantation authorities and the constant resistance of one’s fellow enslaved laborers?
In this insightful and unsettling account of slavery and racial capitalism, Browne shows that on plantations across the Americas, drivers were at the center of enslaved people’s working lives, social relationships, and struggles against slavery. Drivers enforced labor discipline and confronted the resistance of their fellow enslaved laborers, aiming to maintain a position that helped them survive in a world where enslaved people were treated as disposable. Drivers also protected the people they supervised, negotiating workloads and customary rights to essentials like food and rest with white authorities. Within the slave community, drivers helped other enslaved people create a sense of belonging, as husbands and fathers, as Big Men, and as leaders of diasporic African “nations.” Sometimes, drivers even organized rebellions, sabotaging the very system they were appointed to support.
Compelling and original, The Driver’s Story enriches our understanding of the never-ending war between enslavers and enslaved laborers by focusing on its front line. It also brings us face-to-face with the horror of capitalist labor exploitation.