Omohundro Institute


Simon P. Newman

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

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Thomas Thistlewood Papers, James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library.15

Scholars have shown, often in chilling detail, the full extent of slave- holders’ attempts to terrorize the enslaved into compliance. Some of the enslaved did engage in minor resistance and occasionally rebellion, but resistance and escape were both difficult and dangerous.16

While relatively few enslaved Jamaicans attempted anything other than brief periods of petit marronage, as many as 2 percent of the enslaved at any given point were absent as longer-term or persistent runaways. Flight at that scale did not fundamentally threaten the slave system, but if in 1788 2 percent of Jamaica’s enslaved were absent, they would have numbered more than 4,500 runaways, a number almost equal to the island’s entire population of free people of color (4,829) and corresponding to more than one runaway per square mile.17 A database of one thousand runaways in Jamaica who eloped from 1775 to 1823 demonstrates that at least 67 (6.7 percent) of the runaways in this sample were absent for 12 months or longer, a further 68 (6.8 percent) for 6–12 months, and 135 (13.5 percent) for 1–6 months.18

          15 Thomas Thistlewood grew up in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. This regional accent was relatively “stable” between the mid-eighteenth and the second half of the twentieth century. Ihalainen, “Dialects of England since 1776,” 205 (quotation), 207– 12, 219–22. See also [William Humphrey] Marshall, The Rural Economy of Yorkshire. . . . , 2 vols. (London, 1788). For other white comments on these grisly roadside displays, see Matthew Gregory Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor. . . . (London, 1834), 181–82; Wright, Lady Nugent’s Journal, 215. For further discussion, see Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), 130–36.

          16 Vincent Brown, “Spiritual Terror and Sacred Authority in Jamaican Slave Society,” Slavery and Abolition 24, no. 1 (April 2003): 24–53, esp. 26; Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2004), 195, 178; Burnard, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820 (Chicago, 2015), 265.

          17 The figure of 2 percent is based on Richard S. Dunn’s data for Mesopotamia Plantation in Jamaica. Dunn contends that these were long-term and sometimes persistent runaways. See Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), 337–42, 430, and data provided by Prof. Dunn to the author. Other data confirm 2 percent as a reasonable figure; see Michael Craton and James Walvin, A Jamaican Plantation: The History of Worthy Park, 1670–1970 (Toronto, 1970), 144. The Jamaican population in 1788 included 226,432 enslaved people; 2 percent of this figure is 4,529. See “Return of the numbers of White Inhabitants,” November 1788, CO 137/87, 173, NA. Jamaica is approximately 4,400 square miles in size.

          18 The essay will utilize information regarding enslaved people whose escape was documented in runaway advertisements published in the Cornwall Chronicle, and Jamaican General Advertiser (Montego Bay), July 22, 1775–May 10, 1777, Feb. 28, 1781–Sept. 29, 1786, Feb. 12–Apr. 16, 1785, May 9, 1792–June 14, 1795; Jamaica Mercury, And Kingston Weekly Advertiser (Kingston), Apr. 7, 1779–Mar. 31, 1780; Jamaica Gazette (Kingston), July 2–Nov. 22, 1788; Daily Advertiser (Kingston), Jan. 1–Dec. 26,

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Newspaper advertisements confirmed that each year some long-term runaways remained at large, gradually disappearing from plantation records and thus no longer recorded as runaways yet still present on the island as a cohort of long-term escapees. Checking each and every black person on the roads or around plantations and in towns was all but impossible, and Jamaican laws aimed against runaways voiced white aspiration rather than reality.19

How were runaways able to remain free for extended periods? Put simply, many hid themselves in plain sight, concealed amid Jamaica’s large population of enslaved people and free people of color. They took advantage of what whites did and did not see in the Jamaican social and physical landscape.

To help illuminate a white gaze that might not see certain kinds of black freedom, this article will feature an imagined journey of a real person, Dr. John Quier, traveling from his home in Lluidas Vale, Saint John Parish, to Spanish Town and then on to Kingston in the early 1780s. A well-educated and highly regarded physician who treated white patients as well as the enslaved and free people of color, Quier lived in Lluidas Vale from his arrival in Jamaica in 1767 until his death in 1822. The article is not about Quier, but by imagining how white men like him perceived Jamaica and its people, we see more of the enslaved runaways who navigated toward long-term freedom.20

On a journey to Kingston, Quier would have seen a great many enslaved people and free people of color on and between plantations and pens, on

1791; Gazette of Saint Jago de la Vega (Spanish Town), Feb. 22, 1781–Oct. 10, 1782; Royal Gazette (Kingston), Apr. 8, 1780–Dec. 29, 1781, Jan. 1, 1791–Jan. 12, 1792, Aug. 3–17, 1816, May 12–19, 1821, Feb. 9–Oct. 12, 1822, Mar. 8–Sept. 20, 1823. Length of time at liberty can be ascertained either from an advertiser stating how long a runaway had been free or by calculating the length of time between absconding and the final advertisement, which might appear many months later. However, some of the advertisements in this sample come at the end of a run, and for some there is no information available about how often they were repeated. Therefore the numbers of long-term absentees were probably higher.

          19 In an 1801 consolidation of early laws, the Assembly of Jamaica defined as rebellious runaways any enslaved people who were absent for ten days or longer or who were found eight miles or more from their place of residence and were working without the permission of their owner. See “An Act to repeal the several acts, and clauses of acts, respecting slaves, therein mentioned; and for the better order and government of slaves; and other purposes,” Mar. 15, 1801, in The Laws of Jamaica: Comprehending All the Acts in Force, Passed between the Fortieth Year of the Reign of George the Third, and the Forty Fourth Year of the Reign of George the Third, inclusive. . . . , 2d ed. (St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, 1805), vol. 3, p. 215, para. 22, p. 218, para. 34, p. 223, paras. 48–49. See also Robert Worthington Smith, “The Legal Status of Jamaican Slaves Before the Anti-Slavery Movement,” Journal of Negro History 30, no. 3 (1945): 293–303.

          20 For more biographical details on Dr. John Quier, see Michael Craton with the assistance of Garry Greenland, Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 259–64; Craton, “Dr. John Quier, 1739–1822,” Jamaica Journal 8, no. 4 (1979): 44–47.

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roads and rivers, and working in towns and harbors, and among these were concealed runaways. Among all of the runaways referenced in the article, I shall focus in particular on about three dozen people who escaped from or were seen near locations on Quier’s route: approximately half of these escaped at or about the time of Quier’s journey, with others eloping in 1788 and 1791. (See 6.) These runaways will serve as examples of the enslaved Jamaicans who were sometimes able to remain at liberty in the heart of the plantation complex.21 Reading traditional sources skeptically and using adaptations of primary sources, newly developed visual materials, and sources from the more recent past will enable us to move closer not just to an understanding of what whites saw but more crucially to a better sense of how enslaved Jamaicans— and especially those who sought long-term escape—were able to take advantage of what whites failed to see in order to remain at liberty in plain sight.











Taylors Caymanas



Ferry Female

Ferry Male


Map showing location of runaways along Quier’s route, with integrated runaway advertisements. Runaway icons are positioned adjacent to the places mentioned in the runaway advertisements. Click on the icons to reveal runaway advertisements. Map based on James Robertson, To His Royal Highness the Duke of York, This Map of the County of Middlesex, in the Island of Jamaica. . . . (London, 1804); Robertson, To His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, This Map of the County of Surrey, in the Island of Jamaica. . . . (London, 1804). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Additional artwork, including stylized period effect runaway advertisements, created by Anthony King.

          21 White residents of and white visitors to Jamaica have left many descriptions of the island that enable historians to reconstruct their world as they experienced it. By contrast we have very little firsthand testimony by the enslaved, and we must make use of other sources—many by whites, such as the runaway advertisements themselves—in order to reconstruct how enslaved and free Jamaicans of color saw and navigated this society. For models reconstructing how the enslaved perceived and experienced what Walter Johnson terms “The Carceral Landscape,” see Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass., 2013); Marisa J. Fuentes,

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Quier spent almost his entire adult life in an overwhelmingly black society. In 1788 Saint John, Saint Catherine, and Saint Andrew Parishes’ combined population of 1,411 white people and 1,191 free people of color was heavily outnumbered by 20,567 enslaved men, women, and children. After he reached Kingston’s thoroughly urban environs, the ratios were somewhat less imbalanced: 16,659 enslaved people lived and worked there among 6,539 white people and 3,280 free people of color. In 1788 there were approximately 226,400 enslaved people in Jamaica, and some 287,870 enslaved Africans had been brought to and forced to remain on the island during the preceding four decades. The constant arrival of Africans meant that creolization involved Africanization as much as if not more than Anglicization, albeit through the creation of a society and culture based upon quite varied West and West-Central African roots. There would have been many days when Quier saw few if any whites and when the voices he overheard were all speaking heavily accented English or West African languages. A present-day speaker of the Kromanti language, Isaac Bernard, gives a sense of at least some aspects of how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jamaican Kromanti may have sounded.22

Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016). “The Carceral Landscape” is the title of Johnson’s chapter 8; see Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 209.

          22 “Return of the numbers of White Inhabitants,” November 1788, CO 137/87, 173, NA; B. W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834 (1976; repr., Mona, Jamaica, 1995), table 6 (p. 53). For the 1,270 known transatlantic slave-trading voyages to Jamaica from 1748 to 1787, which deposited at least 337,439 enslaved Africans on the island, see Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, accessed Apr. 9, 2018, Even allowing for the fact that perhaps 15 percent of new arrivals were immediately shipped on for sale elsewhere, approximately 287,870 newly arrived enslaved Africans remained in Jamaica during this forty-year period. For estimates of the shipment of newly arrived Africans away from Jamaica, see Gregory E. O’Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619–1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2014), 364–66. Edward Long noted, “The Africans speak their respective dialects, with some mixture of broken English. The language of the Creoles is bad English, larded with the Guiney dialect, owing to their adopting the African words, in order to make themselves understood by the imported slaves; which they find much easier than teaching these strangers to learn English.” [Long], The History of Jamaica. Or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island. . . . (London, 1774), 2: 426 (quotation). For creolization, see Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (Oxford, 1971); Mervyn C. Alleyne, Roots of Jamaican Culture (London, 1988); James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441– 1770 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003); Sarah Quesada, “An Inclusive ‘Black Atlantic’: Revisiting Historical Creole Formations,” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 10, no. 2 (2015): 226–46.

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William Berryman, Old Harbour Market, Ponsie’s Tavern, Jamaica (1808–16). Library of Congress.

The Kromanti Language of the Jamaican Maroons

Recording of Isaac Bernard speaking a mixture of Akan-based Kromanti (Twi-Asante) and an archaic form of English-lexicon creole. “The Kromanti Language of the Jamaican Maroons,” recorded in September 2009 by Prof. Hubert Devonish and the Jamaican Language Unit, Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy, University of the West Indies, Mona, available at Caribbean Indigenous and Endangered Languages, Used by permission of Prof. Devonish.23

Thus, while Quier might have sung or hummed the tunes and hymns of his native land, most of the singing he heard was African or creole, from nocturnal funeral assemblies to the digging songs of gangs of enslaved workers. It was black people, their sounds, and their activities that Quier would have seen and heard around his home and during his trip.

          23 Though not an accurate representation of the very different forms of language and expression utilized by enslaved people, this recording effectively communicates how a mixture of African and English linguistic forms was often largely inaccessible to whites such as Quier. The enslaved likely lowered their voices in the presence of whites or spoke English patois, but whites would sometimes have overheard enslaved men, women, and children in full voice.

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