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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


A photo of a letter to rebellious slaves, Jamaica, 1832

Slave rebellion, Jamaica, 1832

Public Record Office, London (CO 137/181).

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.

Reading the rebels: currents of slave resistance in the eighteenth-century British West Indies

Natalie Zacek, School of History and Classics, University of Manchester

Introduction: 'To Take the Island for Themselves'

In the summer and autumn of 1725, tensions were running high in the British West Indian island of Nevis. This island, one of four which constituted the federated colony of the Leeward Islands (the others being Antigua, Montserrat, and St. Kitts), was home to approximately 1500 white and 6000 black people, of whom almost all of the latter were slaves of the former. During these months, masters and bondspeople alike looked daily to the skies, hoping for rainfall which would end the drought under which the island suffered. As Governor John Hart informed imperial authorities in London, Nevis was 'in a most deplorable Condition from the Dry weather'. Local planters had been obliged to import drinking water from the nearby islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe 'which was Sold at fifteen Shillings a Hogshead which has occasioned the loss of many of the Cattle and Negroes'. (1) As planters agonized over the threat that the dry weather posed to their sugar crops, their slaves' already difficult lives became still harsher, as they laboured beneath the blazing sun and struggled to survive on ever-decreasing amounts of food and water. By September, at least some of them appear to have reached their breaking point, and apparently conspired to 'cut off all the whites, and take the island for themselves'. (2) Upon being informed of this turn of events, Governor Hart left his base at Antigua, the capital of the Leewards, and made his way to Nevis, where, after he had jailed ten of the alleged conspirators and sentenced two others to be burnt to death, he pronounced the 'Negroes' to be 'sufficiently terrified' that they no longer constituted a threat to the island's security. (3)

The Nevis slave conspiracy might initially appear as a minor footnote within the history of the smallest and least politically and economically significant of the Leeward Islands, a British sugar plantation colony which itself has generally been regarded by historians as a marginal place in comparison with larger Caribbean islands such as Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba. After all, the rebels' plans were never put into action, and, indeed, it is difficult to discern whether or not the plot had actually existed. As Brian Dyde has noted, 'the main evidence came from a slave informing his owner of overhearing talk among his fellows of a rising, and of their appointment of leaders'. From this accusation, the tangled trail of hearsay led to a white woman named Sarah Lytton, who, on 29 September 1725, claimed that she had heard a man named Samuel Bayley 'Say that he heard his brother John Bayley Say that a Negro Man named Tom Cleverly belonging to Collonel Jorey knew as much or more of the matter meaning the Riseing of the Negroes, than the Negroes that were already Brought in upon that Account', and to Mary Combs, wife of a tailor, who made a deposition that she had overheard a slave named Soco inform his owner, Mrs Symonds, that, when passing one evening by the hut inhabited by the slaves Johnny and Sambo, he had heard these men respond in the affirmative to an unknown guest's asking if 'all you Negroes [are] agoing to Rise upon the White Men'. (4) But none of those slaves imprisoned or executed confessed to the existence of a plot, let alone their own involvement in it, and it is impossible to discern whether this conspiracy had actually been organized, and might have succeeded had a single slave not chosen to tell his master about it, or whether it was simply an instance of slaves' wishful thinking, or of planters' deepest anxieties; a question which has been raised in relation to a number of alleged slave conspiracies in the slave societies of the Americas. (5) It is entirely possible that the Nevis plot of 1725 existed only in the paranoid mind-set of slaveholders, or in their bondspeople's dreams of revenge and liberty.

One of the great frustrations inherent in the study of the experiences and emotions of enslaved people is the almost complete lack of textual sources produced by the slaves themselves, rather than by their owners or by anti-slavery advocates. We can learn about slaves' thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires from the written productions of only of a few, highly-exceptional individuals, such as Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, all of whom became literate, seized or purchased their freedom, and attracted white patrons who encouraged and financially supported them in the writing and publication of their autobiographies, or of prodigies such as Phillis Wheatley, whose well-educated owners were captivated by their young slave girl's quick intellect and relieved her of her household duties in order that she might devote herself to writing the verses which brought her—and them—celebrity. Of the daily life of the average slave we know very little, and even if slaves had been allowed to become literate, it is extremely unlikely that they would have committed to paper their plans to rebel. But an examination of the legislative records of the Leeward Islands in the decades following the alleged 1725 plot, supplemented by plantation records from those islands, makes it clear that, whether or not slaves had plotted together to end their servitude, a surprisingly large number did engage in individual acts of overt resistance to slavery and white dominance. Although many of them paid with their lives for these displays of independence, and would have known that such rebellious acts were guaranteed to result in harsh punishment, what emerges from the generally brief and dry accounts of individual slaves' crimes and punishments is a strong sense that both slaves and masters were playing a high-stakes game, 'living on their nerves', and were equally and respectively committed to resisting and to upholding the system of plantation slavery by any means necessary. (6)

'Slaves Who Stole Themselves'

White residents of, and visitors to, the Leewards had since the late-seventeenth century noted that the islands' slaves were prone to running away and to 'committing depredations' against the plantations. In 1686, a Captain Carden was 'authorized to pursue & capture or kill 40 or 50 runaway slaves in the Mountains', referring to the steep and heavily forested Shekerley Hills in the south of Antigua, and when the physician and naturalist Hans Sloane, later founder of the British Museum, visited Nevis in the late 1680s he noted that 'the Ground is cleared almost to the top of the Hill, where yet remains some Wood, and where are Run-away Negroes that harbour themselves in it'. (7) In 1723 the Assembly of Antigua passed an act for the 'better government' of the 'great numbers of slaves' who had taken advantage of the apparent 'lenity of the laws & fled to the mountains, whence they issued in armed bands to damage the plantations'. The ring-leaders were attainted of felony, and the Assembly announced that it would pay a reward of £3 to any white man who killed a runaway, and £6 should he take one alive. Moreover, although slaves would continue to be granted their customary three days' holiday at Christmas, during that time the island would be placed under martial law, 'on account of the usual riotous behaviour of the blacks'. (8) In September 1724, a planter informed the Nevis Assembly that there were 'Severall Negroes in this Island Run Away who Dayly Commit Thefts and Robberys' and that 'Incouragement [should be] given to the Publick to such Persons who shall take and apprehend the said Negroes', which encouraged Chief Justice John Dasent to suggest that the considerable sum of two pistoles be given to anyone who apprehended one of these practitioners of marronage. (9) But the number of individual acts of slave rebellion in the Leewards seems to have risen dramatically in the half-century following the aborted Nevis plot, although it is difficult to discern whether slaves had actually become more committed to overt resistance, or whether the Leewards' legislative records are simply more complete for this period than for the earlier one.

As noted above, the islands' assemblies rewarded white residents more generously for taking runaways alive than for killing them upon their apprehension. This divergence might initially seem surprising; if runaways were so destructive and disruptive to the peace and prosperity of the islands, would not killing them on sight provide an immediate solution to the problem? But Leeward whites, like those elsewhere in the slave-based societies of the West Indies and the American South, were keen to strike fear into slaves' hearts through the use of exemplary punishments, such as public executions, often by burning. Bringing a runaway back in chains, placing him in jail, trying him in court, and then publicly executing him created a scripted drama of crime and punishment which aimed to teach the condemned man or woman's fellow slaves that resistance was futile and would almost certainly end in a painful death. (10) One of the many paradoxes upon which Atlantic slavery was based was the idea that a slave was not merely a person possessed, like a Russian serf or a medieval European peasant, of fewer freedoms than his social superiors, but was actually a chattel-living property. Thus, when a slave ran away from his master, he was not only depriving his owner of labour value, but was actually stealing his property. Runaways were 'slaves who stole themselves'. (11) And because a slave, particularly one young and strong enough to feel confident that he might be able to evade surveillance and survive in the harsh, wild hills of Nevis or Antigua, was a highly valuable piece of property, such 'stealing' was a felony, not an act of petty theft, and had to be punished accordingly.

According to the legislative records of St. Kitts, between February 1740 and June 1746, thirty-eight slaves were executed for felony. They included one woman and a number of men whose African names, such as Cudjoe, Quashie, and Cadenda, may have indicated that they had been born free and had been enslaved and brought to the West Indies as children or young men. (12) From the amounts of sugar awarded to the owners of these executed St. Kitts slaves as compensation for the loss of their labourers, we can infer that the majority of the runaways were exactly the sorts of strong younger men who would be most likely to take their chances as fugitives, and whose absence would not merely display their defiance of their masters, but would represent a significant loss to the latter's productive endeavours. Of the thirty-five executed slaves whose values were given, all but two were appraised at 3000 or more pounds of sugar, and fifteen at 4500 or more. (13) In Nevis, owners of executed slaves were reimbursed with cash rather than sugar; in the early 1730s, the average allowance per slave was £30, and twenty years later it had risen to just over £70. (14) In the former period, the average price of a West Indian slave was approximately £25, and in the latter £40, so clearly these slaves were of average to high value to their owners. (15)

In only one case, that of Simon, does the entry explain what action on the slave's part had been adjudged a felony and caused him to be condemned to death. In February 1742 he was executed for 'absenting himself for 6 months from his Master's Service'. But when we compare these records with those of Nevis in the same period, we find that only those executed slaves who had committed crimes directly against individual whites had these acts described in the records, and it is logical to assume that those whose offences were not specifically recounted were indeed runaways. These Nevis records depict slaves as rebelling against white authority in a variety of ways. In 1734, a slave named Limerick, the property of James Emra, 'Committed a Barbarous Murder on the Body of John Wattis'. Emra's neighbour, John Brodbelt, was paid ten pistoles for recovering Limerick, but the slave 'Laid Violent hands on himself' and cheated the executioner. In the following year, John Huggins was reimbursed by the Assembly for thirty pounds in relation to the execution of his unnamed 'Negroe Woman', who had allegedly poisoned a white woman, and in 1738 George Webbe was granted seventy pounds for a male slave who had burnt down the house of Elizabeth Neal. (16) William Smith, a Cambridge graduate who spent most of the 1730s as the rector of St. John's parish, Nevis, recorded in his Natural History of Nevis that 'a Parishioner of mine, baptized a Black Woman, and had her well instructed in our Religion here in England, but she had not long been arrived at Nevis, before she poisoned four White Persons, and was executed for so doing'. (17) In St. Kitts just before Christmas 1753, a female slave named Baby was executed for having murdered her owner, Thomas Barnaby, and in the summer of 1760 Elizabeth Morgan's slave Francois 'Barbarously Murdered a White Man and a Negro Slave and Wounded another White man'. The Assembly reported grimly that Francois 'has not been brought to Justice for his said Crimes... [and] still continues upon this Island', and offered the sizeable reward of £150 to anyone who might apprehend him. (18) In the following month, mariner Joshua Brown informed the St. Kitts Assembly that he had been awakened during the night of 18 January to find that 'Some Negroes had just then Stole away his Boat on which your Petitioner immediately went on Board his Schooner and followed them'. Brown was proud to report that 'with some difficulty and at the Risque of his life [he] took them and brought Six of the Negroes back again who have since been tried for the Fact and convicted'. By this pursuit, Brown claimed, he had done 'a real Service to the Publick', for which he would have been very gratified to receive a cash reward.

Rebels on the Plantation

The legislative records of the Leeward Islands do not present the full picture of the varied ways in which slaves continued to resist bondage, as they deal only with breaches of the island's laws. Plantation records, however, offer a more individualized sense of the patterns of life and labour on the estates which generated such wealth for masters and such misery for slaves. For example, the letters which circulated between the absentee Nevis planter William Stapleton and his several managers and overseers in the 1720s and 1730s provide additional insights into the lives of the enslaved. In the summer of 1731 Joseph Herbert, the estate manager, informed Sir William that two newly-purchased slaves, William and Daniel, had hanged themselves. Some months later Charles Pym, a neighbour who had purchased that consignment of slaves, claimed that 'the two negroes hanging themselves surprised me when I heard it', as 'when I bought I thought them the finest parcel that I had ever seen and everybody that saw them said the same'. Pym went on to attribute the suicides to the captives' African ethnicity, asserting that 'such accidents frequently happen from negroes of that country and notwithstanding every planter is found of buying them', because these Coromantines, from the Gold Coast, were supposedly able to survive 'vast Heats' and 'scarcity of Provisions', circumstances they were likely to encounter on West Indian sugar plantations. (19) Keith Mason has argued that Daniel and Will, men who had been born free on the African coast, might have shared a belief common within the various ethnic cultures of west Africa, that when they died their souls would fly back to their homeland. Lacking any further information about these men, however, we cannot know their precise motivations for killing themselves, but whether or not they believed that death would bring them home, they no doubt would have appreciated any means of escaping the daily hardship and misery into which they had suddenly been thrust. (20)

The Stapleton plantation records also show the many less dramatic ways in which slaves rebelled against overseers, masters, and the whole system of plantation slavery. Although slaves themselves were, in legal terms, property, they frequently undercut the claims of their owners and other planters to the sanctity of property by stealing or destroying their goods. In May 1723, overseer Timothy Tyrrel informed Stapleton that 'the still house by the camp is burnt down and suppos'd to be burnt on purpose, by Wells's negroes', referring to the slaves of a neighbouring planter. (21) Another Stapleton slave, Pompey, 'was cut to pieces stealing corn' from a nearby estate, and Marcellus stole a piece of pork from a neighbouring plantation. These actions may seem rather trivial, but for slaves to leave their quarters, enter the grounds of another estate, and make off with even small amounts of a white man's property actually represented considerable risk. (22) That slaves were willing to risk severe punishment or even execution for such small gains adds another dimension to the more overt forms of resistance represented by those who ran away or who killed themselves or others.

A further form of resistance which the Stapleton correspondence illuminates is so-called petit marronage, the process by which some slaves ran away from plantations not in hope of permanently escaping bondage, but simply seeking a respite from unremitting work or a temporary escape from particularly onerous task, a time of poor rations, an anticipated punishment, or a quarrel with a fellow slave. As Keith Mason has noted, 'fleeing the plantation...required a great deal of courage, initiative and planning...it meant cutting oneself off from family, kin and friends', the relationships which were an individual slave's greatest source of happiness and a haven from the harshness of daily life. (23) The Stapleton plantation accounts from 1725 to 1736 list twenty-six slaves as having run away, one in eight of the estate's labourers. All but one were returned to the plantation, either because they chose to return to reunite with loved ones or could not find subsistence in the hills, or because they were captured and, as they had not been long absent nor committed any crime against the person or property of a white man or woman, were brought back to their owner rather than executed. But their absence, however long it persisted, resulted in the plantation being under-staffed and its productive capacity undercut. A number of these runaways, unusually, were women, who were valued as a source of reproductive as well as productive labour, or came from the ranks of more experienced labourers, whose absence was particularly damaging. (24)

A Zero-Sum Game

From these examples, we can, I believe, come to a deeper understanding of the zero-sum game which slaves and masters played, of the 'mutual mistrust at the heart of the slave regime'. (25) Clearly, it was with the slaveholders that the advantage lay: they made the rules under which their bondspeople lived and died, and enforced those rules with the power both of law and of brute force. Theirs were the whips and the guns, the horses and the ships, and all of the authority of state, church, and credit. It was they who enforced draconian punishment for any show of resistance, who decreed that 'if [a slave] strikes a White Man, the Law condemns him to loose the Hand that he strikes with; and if he should happen to draw Blood, he must die for it', while at the same time holding that 'If a White Man kills a Black one, he is not tried for his Life', but merely was expected to make financial restitution to his victim's owner. Yet these rules can be seen as stemming not from a sense on the part of Leeward slaveowners of power and confidence, but of striking vulnerability. As the Nevis clergyman William Smith addressed his readers, 'You will say, that these Proceedings are very despotick; But if you consider, that we have near Ten Blacks to one White Person, you must own them to be absolutely necessary'. (26)

As much as white islanders tried to convince themselves that their slaves were either slow-witted or childlike, no one who had spent any time in these plantation societies could maintain these beliefs in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, where anxious gossip circulated tales of slaves who stole whites' property, burned their houses and sugar works, or undercut both their agricultural success and their façade of absolute control by removing their labour, temporarily or permanently, through desertion or self-murder. Even a slave who over many years had proved himself so skilled and so apparently trustworthy that he was placed in a position of authority over his fellow slaves and rewarded with better living conditions might, at any moment, decide to strike for freedom-as happened on the Stapleton plantation in the case of Frank, who by 1729 had become both the estate's driver and its distiller of rum from sugar cane. The first intimations that Frank might be other than entirely loyal to his masters came in the course of the investigation of the 1725 conspiracy, when Mary Combs claimed that she had heard Soco tell Mrs Symonds that 'Frank (Meaning a Negro Man formerly belonging to the Lady Stapleton Deceasd) is to be our Captain'. (27) Unwilling to believe that Frank had indeed been connected with the plot, the overseer Joseph Herbert and other whites testified to his excellent character and unimpeachable loyalty and secured his release, then sent him on to England because they believed reports that several white islanders, convinced that Frank was indeed guilty, had promised to administer their own justice by killing him. Herbert and his friends continued to lobby the Leewards' governor for an official pardon for Frank, which was granted in 1729, two years after Frank's return to Nevis. Yet within two years, overseer David Stalker reported to Stapleton that 'Frank is run away', and Herbert added that this 'great rogue' was likely bound for England. Although Frank was apparently spotted in St. Kitts and then in Jamaica, he was never recaptured. If a man such as Frank, who was tied to the Stapleton plantation not only by a position of relative authority and respect but by a wife and, perhaps, children, and who had so impressed his white supervisors with his apparent loyalty to the extent that they discounted evidence that he was at the heart of a dangerous plot, could rebel, then could white islanders feel confident about the trustworthiness of any slave, or of their own ability to understand the people who literally surrounded them, and who so greatly outnumbered them? Equally alarming would have been the incident, recounted by Reverend Smith, in which a female slave who had been baptized and had allegedly embraced the Christian religion in England had, soon after her arrival on Nevis, poisoned four white people. We can speculate that this unnamed woman may have been angered by the fact that her religious conversion had not altered her enslaved status, or perhaps that she had opted to adopt Christianity as a strategy to gain the trust of white people which would allow her to infiltrate their lives and homes and bring about their deaths. But whatever the case, it is easy to imagine that the fact that the poisoner was a person who appeared to have accepted white values to a degree far greater than the average slave would have been a source of shock and horror to the Nevisian public, and that it would have become one of the many stories of slave resistance which circulated by gossip and hearsay throughout the islands and across the decades as a constant reminder of the apparently inherent rebelliousness and untrustworthiness of the bondspeople who every year increased their numbers in relation to the white population of the West Indies. (28)

In the later decades of the eighteenth century, West Indian planters attempted to stem the growing tide of European anti-slavery sentiment by reframing slavery in paternalist terms, claiming that masters bound their slaves with ties of affection rather than of force, and that their relationship was that of a firm but loving father over children who benefited from his guidance. In at least some instances, individual planters seem, from the evidence of their private writings, to have succeeded in convincing themselves that slavery was not an inherently brutal system of labour organization. But from the evidence discussed above, we can observe the prominence of force in maintenance of the slave system, particularly in small islands in which the black population so dramatically outnumbered the white. That slaves continue to rebel, individually or communally, shows the strength of their spirits within a system designed to crush them; that planters had to respond so brutally to any sign of resistance displays the fragility of their dominance.

  1. V. L. Oliver, The History of the Island of Antigua (London, 1894), i. xcvi. Back to (1)
  2. K. Mason, 'The World an Absentee Planter and His Slaves Made: Sir William Stapleton and His Nevis Sugar Estate, 1722–1740', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 75 (1993), 129. Back to (2)
  3. Hart to Board of Trade, January 1726, in London, National Archives of Great Britain, CO 152/15/1 (Board of Trade: Original Correspondence, Leeward Islands, 1725–1727). Back to (3)
  4. B. Dyde, Out of the Crowded Vagueness: A History of the Islands of St Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla (Oxford, 2005), 104; Deposition of Sarah Lytton, 29 September 1725, CO 186/1, and deposition of Mary Combs, CO 186/1 (Nevis Council and Assembly Minutes, 1721–1730). Back to (4)
  5. See, for example, D. B. Gaspar, Bondmen and Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua (Baltimore, 1985). Back to (5)
  6. Gaspar, Bondmen, 173. For a more detailed discussion of issues of slave agency in the eighteenth-century Leeward Islands, see N. Zacek, 'Voices and Silences: The Problem of Slave Testimony in the English West Indian Law Court', Slavery and Abolition, 24 (2003), 24–39. Back to (6)
  7. Oliver, History of Antigua, i. lxvi; H. Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London, 1707), i. 42. Back to (7)
  8. Oliver, History of Antigua, i. xcv, cii. Back to (8)
  9. Parris to Nevis Assembly, 10 September 1724, CO 186/1. The term marronage refers to the formation of communities of runaway slaves who might survive on the fringes of the plantation world for months, years, or even centuries; see Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, ed. R. Price (Baltimore, 1979). Back to (9)
  10. On the relationship between slavery, law, and punishment in the eighteenth-century English West Indies, see D. Paton, No Bond But the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780–1870 (Durham, N.C, 2004), and V. Brown, 'Spiritual Terror and Sacred Authority in Jamaican Slave Society', Slavery and Abolition, 24 (2003) 24–53. Back to (10)
  11. P. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, 1974), 239. Back to (11)
  12. On the convention of naming of slaves, see T. Burnard, 'Slave Naming Patterns: Onomastics and the Taxonomy of Race in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica', Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 31 (2001), 325–46. Back to (12)
  13. Entries taken from throughout CO 241/5. Back to (13)
  14. Entries taken from throughout CO 186/1, CO 186/2, and CO 186/3. Back to (14)
  15. D. Eltis, F. Lewis, and D. Richardson, 'Slave Prices, the African Slave Trade, and Productivity in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina: A Reassessment', Journal of Economic History, 66 (2006), 1057. Back to (15)
  16. Petition of Catherine Emra, 23 May 1734, John Brodbelt, 27 May 1734, and John Huggins, 21 June 1735, CO 186/1; petition of George Webbe, 24 March 1738, CO 186/3. Back to (16)
  17. Smith, A Natural History of Nevis, and the rest of the English Leeward Charibee Islands in America (Cambridge, 1745), 230. Back to (17)
  18. Assembly meeting minutes of 7 December 1753, CO 186/3; Assembly message to Council, 29 July 1760, CO 241/8. Back to (18)
  19. Herbert to Stapleton, 21 July 1731, and Pym to Stapleton, 3 December 1731, in E. F. Gay, 'Letters from a Sugar Plantation in Nevis, 1723–1732', Journal of Economic and Business History, 1 (1928), 168, 169. Back to (19)
  20. Mason, 'World', 123. Back to (20)
  21. Tyrrel to Stapleton, 30 May 1723, in Gay, 'Letters', 154. Back to (21)
  22. Joseph Herbert to Stapleton, 25 August 1731, in Gay, 'Letters', 158; Mason, 'World', 127. Back to (22)
  23. Mason, 'World', 129. Back to (23)
  24. Mason, 'World', 128. Back to (24)
  25. Mason, 'World', 130. Back to (25)
  26. Smith, Natural History, 234. Back to (26)
  27. Deposition of Mary Combs, CO 186/1. Back to (27)
  28. Smith, Natural History, 230. Back to (28)

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