Omohundro Institute

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: ESCAPED SLAVES IN LATE EIGHTEENTH- AND EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY JAMAICA

Simon P. Newman

artwork by Anthony King, maps by David Ely, and video and photography by Marenka Thompson-Odlum

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suggested that both “were harboured about the Negro-Market of Kingston.” Eleanor ran from Henry Hart in Saint Elizabeth, and six months later, he reported, she was “seen selling Soup in the Kingston Market.” Similarly, Frances, who had eloped in Kingston, was reported in an advertisement ten months later to have “been frequently seen in the Spanish Town Market.”85

Urban communities of enslaved and free people of color provided cover for a good number of children who ran away. Whym, “a new negro boy of the Moco country,” absconded from his Kingston master in April 1791 despite being able to speak “very little English.” Fanny, “a new negro Girl of the Congo country,” ran off after leaving her master’s house on King Street with a message, likely—her master suspected—because she feared punishment after being “detected with a small piece of paper’d gold in her pocket.” Munimia, a Mundingo, was only twelve or thirteen when she eloped, while thirteen-year-old Nancy, a Coromantee, also ran from Kingston and was seen “after her elopement” with a “negro” woman heading toward Vere.86 It cannot have been easy for recently arrived African children to escape and survive urban environments, but though some may have left towns, others may have found sanctuary and aid in urban black communities that included their countrymen and countrywomen and perhaps shipmates who might harbor them. And on occasion white people or free people of color might also shield runaway children from capture. Charles Nicholson of Port Royal was sure that a boy named Cudjoe was “encouraged in such elopement by a certain White Woman in this town.” When Jenny escaped in Kingston, her master reported that she had frequently been absent for weeks at a time over the previous year, and he suspected that “she is inveigled by some white person.” Lucy had been gone for three years when her mistress advertised that the runaway was being “harboured by some white person in Spanish Town.” With the assistance of the occasional white or free black and a thriving urban community of enslaved Africans, runaways could be anywhere— on the roads, in markets, at work sites, on boats, around the waterfront— and white Jamaicans such as Quier routinely saw them without recognizing their status.87

          85 “Absconded . . . Phoebe and Barbara,” Royal Gazette, Aug. 17, 1816, supplement, 14 (“Negro-Market”); “Ran Away . . . Eleanor,” Royal Gazette, June 29, 1822, postscript, 24 (“selling Soup”); “Ran Away . . . Frances,” Royal Gazette, Mar. 9, 1822, additional postscript, 26 (“Spanish Town Market”).

          86 “Absconded . . . Whym,” Daily Advertiser, Apr. 14, 1791, 3 (“Moco country”); “Ran Away . . . Fanny,” Daily Advertiser, Sept. 6, 1791, 3 (“Congo country”); “Run Away . . . Nancy,” Royal Gazette, Sept. 23, 1780, supplement, 563 (“after her elopement”); “Ran Away . . . Munimia,” Daily Advertiser, Sept. 9, 1791, 3.

          87Whereas a negro boy named Cudjoe,” Daily Advertiser, Nov. 12, 1791, 4 (“encouraged”); “Run Away . . . Jenny,” Daily Advertiser, May 5, 1791, 3 (“inveigled”); “Run away . . . Lucy,” Cornwall Chronicle, Aug. 27, 1782, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 68 (“Spanish Town”), UFDC.

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When Harriet Tubman first carried herself from the plantation societies of the American South to the nominally free soil of the North, she recalled experiencing the greatest euphoria of her life, which was all too quickly supplanted by the deepest despair. “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there.” We usually conceive of freedom for enslaved people in terms of their escape to a place in which their bondage ended. But Tubman’s lament reminds us that such places could be lonely and disorienting, and her experience underlines the importance of recognizing that freedom could also mean ending one’s enslavement while remaining in what had become one’s home and enjoying personal independence alongside family, friends, and neighbors. Though long-term Jamaican runaways rarely experienced Tubman’s elation at reaching “free soil,” they also did not necessarily experience her anguish at leaving behind homes and loved ones. Most Jamaican runaways did not remove themselves from plantation slave society; instead, they sought to achieve and sustain a degree of freedom in a liminal space within yet separate from slave society. Hidden from former masters, runaways often were close to the people who might aid them, and they lived amid others who, if not actively abetting their flight, at least provided camouflage. To run away in eighteenth-century Jamaica and then to remain at liberty was no easy task, and yet—as the runaway advertisements that filled Jamaican newspapers attest—many did elope, and some were able to remain at liberty for extended periods. However, although runaways had successfully challenged an individual owner’s mastery of their bodies, very few were able to fully escape the slaveocracy’s power over them. Although free, they remained enmeshed in a slave society.88

White Jamaican planters passing through familiar environments and seeing men, women, and children going about the myriad activities undertaken by the enslaved might not even notice the runaways present on or near plantations. When visiting towns, planters may have felt a greater sense of security amid a larger number of white people, while at the same time experiencing the sensory overload that accompanied immersion in the African and creolized black Jamaican sights and sounds of predominantly nonwhite urban populations. It is hardly surprising that so many of Jamaica’s runaways appear to have headed toward the chaos and confusion of towns, blending into populations of enslaved and free people. These men and women had run away from their own enslavement, but they had not run away from slavery and plantation society. Rather, they had changed

          88 Sarah H. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (Auburn, N.Y., 1869), 19–20 (“crossed the line,” 20).

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their status within it, seeking to pass either as the enslaved property of other people or as free people. If successful, they were able to quietly live their lives beyond the notice of their owners and the authorities. Such runaways were camouflaged rather than hidden, blending into the island’s huge black population. Some freedom seekers sought to escape to a free society, as some in North America did, but there were also enslaved men, women, and children in Jamaica and elsewhere who ran away from slavery but not from slave society. Such people did not challenge plantation slavery in the manner of maroons or rebels, instead seeking to secure a measure of long-term or even permanent self-determination and personal liberty deep within the heart of Britain’s leading slave labor colony.

 

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