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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a decade.7 The artwork of Hakewill, Clark, and others reveals how white Jamaicans and Britons chose to perceive and present Jamaica’s rural slave society. This article challenges readers to see and hear beyond these sources.

Images of Jamaican urban scenes are no more reliable than rural ones. When Hakewill sketched Kingston in 1820, the city was likely home to well over twenty-five thousand people, most of whom were enslaved or free people of color. These numbers were swelled by transient sailors and soldiers and by visitors from around the island and beyond. Hakewill presented the city’s widest and perhaps busiest street, just one block in from the piers and warehouses of Port Street, yet this painting imagines a sparsely populated scene of picturesque and well-maintained buildings, with a wide and largely empty street and intersection. Fewer than twenty Jamaicans can be seen clearly, half of them white and three of these British soldiers whose bright red jackets draw the viewer’s eye. The scene is genteel and as quiet as a small English market town, and the presence of a handful of black people, mostly women and children, barely hints that this was the cosmopolitan metropolis at the heart of Britain’s largest and most successful plantation slave society.

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James Hakewill, Harbour Street, Kingston, in A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, From Drawings Made in the Years 1820 and 1821 (London, 1825). Bridgeman Art Library. Additional artwork and video by Anthony King.

By contrast, this enhanced version of Hakewill’s quieted Kingston gives a sense of how Kingston was much more lively, crowded, and black than Hakewill’s idealized print suggests. By filling the urban scenes with

          7 For a discussion of the work of cane holeing, see Simon P. Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia, 2013), 204–8.

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representations of enslaved and free people of color based on paintings, prints, and sketches from the era, these enhanced images challenge the viewer’s unthinking assumptions about urban Jamaica based upon Hakewill’s presentation of fewer than twenty people—half of them white—in the heart of the city.8 But even a digitally enhanced version can only suggest so much. Kingston was more dirty, chaotic, and foul-smelling than this enhanced image reveals, with infirm and destitute people jostling with buyers and sellers of all manner of goods, white and black sailors, and others. Urban places could be overwhelming and even frightening for white people, and the cities’ soundscapes contributed mightily to their discomfort.9

The meaning and significance of sounds were shaped by the society and culture of those who heard them, and the aural landscape of eighteenth-century Jamaica helped define how inhabitants perceived and experienced their island home in ways that are scarcely comprehensible to us today. Indeed, Richard Cullen Rath has persuasively argued that during the early modern era sound had more import in relation to vision than is true today, and people “granted sound a power in which we no longer believe.” Conveying elements of the sensory experience of early modern Jamaica—albeit via recordings or representations created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—requires not just the ability to imagine how things sounded, smelled, or looked but, more significantly, a capacity to comprehend the elaborate social systems that governed the ways in which white and black Jamaicans processed and interpreted those sensory experiences.10

          8 Artist Anthony King based the added figures in (4), (17), (25), and (27) on images of enslaved and free people of color found in Agostino Brunias, The Fruit Market at St. Vincent, engraved print of painting published by John P. Thompson, London, 1804; W. E. Beastall and G. Testolini, Negroes Sunday-Market at Antigua, London, 1806; William Berryman, Negro Man Carrying Plantains on Pole (1808–15) and Negro Portraits, 16 Small Drawings with Notations (1808–16), Library of Congress; Brunias, The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl, engraved print of painting published by T. Palser, London, 1810; William Clark, Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in Which Are Represented the Process of Sugar Making, and the Employment of the Negroes . . . From Drawings Made by William Clark, during a Residence of Three Years in the West Indies (London, [1823]); James Hakewill, A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, from Drawings Made in the Years 1820 and 1821 (London, 1825); Richard Bridgens, West India Scenery . . . from Sketches Taken during a Voyage to, and Residence of Seven Years in . . . Trinidad (London, 1836); Isaac Mendes Belisario, Sketches of Character, in Illustration of the Habits, Occupation, and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica (Kingston, 1837–38); James M. Phillippo, Female Negro Peasant in her Sunday and Working Dress, in Jamaica: Its Past and Present State (London, 1843).

          9 The census in 1788 had recorded Kingston’s total population as 26,478. See “Return of the numbers of White Inhabitants Free People of Colour and Slaves in the Island of Jamaica,” November 1788, CO 137/87, 173, National Archives of the United Kingdom (NA), Kew.

          10 Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (Ithaca, N.Y., 2003), 11 (quotation); Mark M. Smith, Listening to Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, N.C.,

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In order to help us imagine and comprehend the early modern Jamaican soundscape, this article uses traditional Jamaican music, much of it from mid-twentieth-century Smithsonian Folkways recordings. For example, “See Dem Gyal a Molain” is a “jawbone” piece performed by musicians from the Moore Town Maroons, recorded in 1977–78. As such it is a modern recording, but the Moore Town Maroons have been an independent and relatively self-contained community since the mid-eighteenth century, one in which Kromanti traditions and cultural forms, including the jawbone songs for recreational dancing, persisted well into the modern era. Though a recording such as this cannot be considered a precise rendition of eighteenth-century musical performances, it can nonetheless communicate a sense of West African-inflected soundscapes that both black and white Jamaicans might have heard at night as enslaved people gathered to eat, sing, and dance.11 Similarly, the digging song “Half a Whole” features a road-digging crew participating in a West African-inspired call-and-response song melded with harmonization stemming—at least in part—from British church music. Thus it represents a more modern and transcultural form that differs from the earlier and perhaps more explicitly West African call-and-response musical forms used by the enslaved on plantations. Yet though it cannot exactly reproduce the work songs of the eighteenth century, a recording such as this one builds from those songs and can thus communicate a sense of this soundscape’s elements.12 This article also features modern readings of eighteenth-century sources, using modern regional accents (from both the British Isles and West Africa). These cannot replicate the sounds of speech two hundred and fifty years ago, but given the relationship between—for example—the Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire accents of then and now, the recordings can

2001), 7; Peter Charles Hoffer, Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore, 2003), 4–5, 14, 19, 133–50. A leading example of the use of recordings to present a historical aural landscape is Emily Thompson, The Roaring ’Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City, designed by Scott Mahoy, produced through multimedia journal Vectors 4, no. 1 (Fall 2013), http://vectorsdev.usc.edu /NYCsound/777b.html.

         11 Moore Town Maroons, “See Dem Gyal a Molain,” recorded 1977–78, track 6 (jawbone) on Drums of Defiance: Maroon Music from the Earliest Free Black Communities of Jamaica, recorded, compiled, and annotated by Kenneth Bilby, Smithsonian Folkways, Washington, D.C., 1992; Kenneth M. Bilby, “The Kromanti Dance of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica,” Nieuwe West-Indische Gids/New West Indian Guide 55, nos. 1/2 (August 1981): 52–101.

         12 Field Workers, “Digging Song: Half a Whole,” recorded by John Storm Roberts with Jane Roberts in Maryland, St. Andrew’s Parish, Jamaica, track 4 on John Crow Say . . . : Jamaican Music of Faith, Work and Play, Folkways Records, New York, 1981. See also Olive Lewin, “Rock It Come Over”: The Folk Music of Jamaica (Mona, Jamaica, 2000), 55–58.

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convey a sense of accent and dialogue.13 At the same time, hearing (rather than reading) eighteenth-century sources while simultaneously seeing maps and images may trigger subtly yet significantly different perceptions and understandings as readers experience source materials aurally and visually. In addition, this article deploys video and sound recordings of the Coronation Market in Kingston, Jamaica, combining modern sounds and images with historical descriptions and visual representations of the island’s marketplaces in order to enhance readers’ sense of how Jamaicans experienced congested urban spaces. Eighteenth-century Jamaican markets drew on African practices in a creolized Caribbean context, and of course there are significant differences between these and present-day markets. The purpose of these video recordings is to convey an impression of an overwhelmingly black Caribbean urban environment in which eighteenth-century whites’ senses might be overloaded by sounds, colors, and smells, no matter what sanitized images from the time might have suggested. European visitors to slave-era Jamaica were both fascinated and horrified by markets that were populated and shaped by the enslaved and, to a lesser extent, free people of color. In juxtaposition with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century written and artistic representations of historical markets and urban scenes, these videos of a present-day market can encourage the reader to imagine a very different kind of urban scene than the inherently problematic early modern source materials would suggest. Thus modern video and sound recordings together with enhanced eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and maps can enable readers to expand their sense of how the inhabitants of Jamaica’s slave society saw, heard, and experienced their environment. By giving the reader a sense of how Jamaica looked, sounded, and felt, this article will shed light on how enslaved people were able to escape and elude recapture for lengthy periods of time. Escape from slavery was both difficult and dangerous. Leaving the island was rarely an option, and the interior offered no sanctuary because the maroons were bound by treaty and liberally rewarded for capturing and returning runaways. The potential price of escape was plain to see, for the decaying heads and skulls of rebellious slaves were mounted on sharpened sticks and placed at crossroads or intersections all over the island. As Thomas Thistlewood’s diary entries make clear, white Jamaicans regarded the deployment of these grisly human

          13 Scholars have used a variety of historical sources to understand regional pronunciation and accents in the eighteenth-century British Isles; it seems likely that “no radical changes took place in English dialects in the post-1776 period until the second half of the twentieth century.” See Ossi Ihalainen, “The Dialects of England since 1776,” in The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 5, English in Britain and Overseas: Origins and Development, ed. Robert Burchfield (Cambridge, 1994), 197–274 (quotation, 205).

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remains as familiar and routine, but to the enslaved they must surely have served as a constant reminder of the potential fate awaiting those who resisted their bondage.14

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Joshua Bryant, Five of the Culprits in Chains, as they appeared on the 20th of September, 1823, in Bryant, Account of an Insurrection of the Negro Slaves in the Colony of Demerara. . . . (Demerara, 1824). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

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Pierre Eugène du Simitière, drawing of two executed enslaved people during the slave revolt of 1760–61, Kingston, 1760(?). Library Company of Philadelphia.

Recording of excerpts from Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, read by Prof. Matthew Strickland, May 2017. Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, vol. 1, Fri., May 18, 1750, p. 300, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vu- find/Record/3472441, vol. 2, Wed., Oct. 9, 1751, p. 234, http://brbl-dl. library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3472449, both accessed Aug. 15, 2016,

          14 Cuba was more than 90 miles to the north and Saint Domingue almost 125 miles to the east of Jamaica, and both smaller craft and oceangoing vessels were carefully monitored. A few advertisements indicate masters’ suspicions that runaways were endeavoring to reach Spanish colonies and secure freedom by asserting that they were converted Catholics who were unable to practice their religion in Jamaica, but only a very small fraction of runaways attempted to make their own way to Cuba or other islands. See Linda M. Rupert, “Marronage, Manumission and Maritime Trade in the Early Modern Caribbean,” Slavery and Abolition 30, no. 3 (September 2009): 361–82. I am grateful to Casey Schmitt for sharing evidence of late eighteenth-century Jamaican escapees reaching Cuba and of white masters trying to recover them. See for example “Correspondencia de los Capitanes Generales de Cuba,” 1767, Archivo General de Indias, Cuba, 1049, N.7; “Correspondencia dirigida al gobernador de Santiago de Cuba, Juan Antonio Ayans de Ureta,” 1774–76, Archivo General de Indias, Cuba, 1142. For the maroons’ obligation under treaties to return runaways, see “An Act for confirming the Articles executed by Colonel John Guthrie, Lieutenant Francis Sadler, and Cudjoe the Commander of the Rebels. . . . ,” and “An Act for confirming the Articles executed by Colonel Robert Bennett and Quao, the Commander of the Rebels. . . . ,” in Acts of Assembly Passed in the Island of Jamaica, From the Year 1681 to the Year 1768 Inclusive (Kingston, 1769), 1: 176–80, 182–85.

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