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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 . . . and all seem to be going to their employments.”29 For the remainder of his journey, Quier would ride through and experience what he perceived as an exceptionally beautiful natural environment peopled by a large number of humans, mostly black and enslaved, engaged in a wide variety of tasks and occupations on plantations and pens, in towns, and on the roads that connected them. Many people used Jamaica’s roadways, most of them black and the majority of these enslaved. To be sure, Quier would have seen white people on the roads—planters and overseers visiting other plantations, soldiers and militia moving between posts, clerks and doctors conducting business—and many of those would have been accompanied by black people. Small groups of maroons also traveled the island’s roads with impunity, often bearing arms. Free people of color, many owning or working for small businesses, might travel in order to take goods and supplies home or to urban markets, or to visit friends and family.

Most of the people Quier would have encountered, however, were enslaved. He might hardly have noticed yet another middle-aged African-born woman, for the island’s roads were full of enslaved women carrying goods to and from neighboring plantations or further afield to towns and urban markets. Carrying messages and goods such as food and textiles, enslaved women trudged across Jamaica. Betty carried a large bundle of cloth, and her journey from a plantation a couple of miles east of Quier’s home may well have meant that she shared part of the doctor’s route to Spanish Town. Had they passed one another, Betty would likely have lowered her eyes deferentially and walked purposefully on, hoping to appear like the many other women authorized by masters to carry goods between plantations or to market. Or, given that Quier and Betty may have been in the forested areas surrounding Lluidas Vale, perhaps she would have simply taken cover when she heard Quier’s horse approaching, for she had in fact escaped from Stanhope’s Plantation near the head of the Black River. (See Betty/Stanhope on 6.) African-born and about thirty years of age, Betty bore the initials of her owner branded on her right shoulder. But because she looked like so many other enslaved women and men sent out on errands or to work as higglers, Betty blended into the island’s population and remained free for months.30

Enslaved people were regularly sent out on errands, carrying messages and goods back and forth, and thus were a constant presence on island roads. Thistlewood’s detailed diary records that he constantly sent and received all manner of items via enslaved women and men.

 

          29 Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, 112–13 (quotation).

          30 “Ran Away, about five weeks since, a negro woman named Betty,” advertisement placed by Alexander Stanhope, Gazette of Saint Jago, Aug. 29, 1782, 4. The advertisement was reprinted twice in September.

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(14)

William Berryman, At Lindos Gate, Looking to Kingston (1808–15). Library of Congress.

Recording of excerpts from Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, read by Prof. Matthew Strickland, May 2017. Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, vol. 21, Aug. 26, 1770, p. 142, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079831, vol. 29, Jan. 3, 25, 1778, pp. 7, 18, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079870, vol. 30, Mar. 9, Oct. 5, 1779, p. 38/163, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079876, all accessed Aug. 17, 2016.

Recording of excerpts from Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, read by Prof. Matthew Strickland, May 2017. Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, vol. 21, Aug. 26, 1770, p. 142, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079831, vol. 29, Jan. 3, 25, 1778, pp. 7, 18, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079870, vol. 30, Mar. 9, Oct. 5, 1779, p. 38/163, http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079876, all accessed Aug. 17, 2016.

Enslaved people provided communication between whites who often lived miles apart, and because much of this exchange was casual, local, and small-scale, it was informal and without proper documentation. While still in or close to Lluidas Vale, Quier might well have recognized many of the people he encountered on the road going about such business, but as he ventured farther from home he would have known few if any of the enslaved people he saw. Well used to sending and receiving messages and goods in this manner, he would likely have assumed that Betty and others like her were acting on the instructions of their masters.

Occasionally, runaways spotted on the roads were not taken up because it was unclear to observers that they had escaped. Four months after Quaw ran away, his master placed a new runaway advertisement for the creole man, stating that Quaw had been seen on the road by the Banbury Estate 

 

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“on his way to the Magotty.” Toney, a “stout young Creole Negro Man . . .was seen by several Gentlemen” in the much-traveled Sixteen Mile Walk as the runaway made his way toward Spanish Town, yet he was not taken up. Also spotted on the Sixteen Mile Walk, some six months after his escape, was eighteen-year-old Caesar, who was seen carrying tobacco and therefore likely appeared to be going about legitimate business—as did a Coromantee named Roe, who had been at liberty for more than four months when he was twice seen on the road by the Barbican Estate, once “with a load of Pines, and at another time with Grass.”31

Quier and other white Jamaicans thus expected to see enslaved and free people of color on Jamaica’s roads. Foremost among these were the higglers. Moving between plantations and towns and between provision grounds and markets, they developed extensive knowledge of the island’s roadways. Some higglers were engaged in full-time commercial activity, while others undertook this as a secondary task beyond their usual plantation duties; the output from larger plantations sometimes warranted full-time higglers. Slave owners, especially urban white women and free women of color, found higgling to be a lucrative occupation for some of the people they owned.32 Higglers and people on the roads carrying produce were a popular subject for white artists, as shown by William Berryman’s portrayal of a man bearing plantains.

(15)

William Berryman, Negro Man Carrying Plantains on Pole (1808– 15). Library of Congress.

Like many such people on the Jamaican roads, this man is all but anonymous, his face unseen, and he and his labor are subsumed by the commodity he carries. In art and life, individuals faded into a world of linens, 

 

          31 “Run Away from Peter Peeke . . . Jack and Quaw,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Oct. 11, 1781, 2 (“on his way”); “Run Away from Orange Grove . . . Toney,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Oct. 18, 1781, 3 (“stout”); “Ran Away . . . Roe,” Royal Gazette, Oct. 12, 1822, postscript, 22 (“load of Pines”); “Run Away . . . Caesar,” Royal Gazette, July 15, 1780, 418.

          32 Sidney W. Mintz and Douglas Hall, “The Origins of the Jamaican Internal Marketing System,” Yale University Publications in Anthropology no. 57 (1960), in Papers in Caribbean Anthropology, comp. Mintz (New Haven, Conn., 1960), 7–8.

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fruit, and other commodities, and on his journey to Kingston Quier would have seen hundreds of higglers who likely appeared to him as faceless purveyors of the foodstuffs and other goods consumed by white and black Jamaicans alike. The majority of higglers were women who found that it gave them a freedom of action and movement rivaled only by that of skilled male artisans permitted to hire themselves out. Small wonder that female runaways found higgling such an attractive option.33

Quier would surely have seen a great many higglers, among whom were concealed some runaways. In January 1791, for example, an advertisement for two enslaved women who had escaped noted that both were “used to higling” and thus were “well known almost all over the Island.” The first was Phillis, a forty-year-old Mundingo woman with “her country marks in her face” who eloped with her baby, Lucy. The second was another Mundingo higgler named Amy, who had escaped with a small child six months earlier and who was “well known about the island.” This advertisement was reprinted thirty-eight times over four months, after which Phillis and Amy may have been recaptured or their owner may have tired of the expense of advertising for them.34 Though masters and owners believed that enslaved people’s higgling meant that they would be well-known and recognizable— and thus vulnerable to recapture—it was also true that this activity gave enslaved people intimate knowledge of the island’s roads and plantations, a network of family and friends, and the expertise necessary to remain at liberty, providing for themselves and their families. Castile had been absent

          33 Mark W. Hauser asserts that “everybody in Jamaica was dependent on the internal economy,” and higglers played a vital role in facilitating this economy. Hauser, “Linstead Market before Linstead? Eighteenth-Century Yabbas and the Internal Market System of Jamaica,” Caribbean Quarterly 55, no. 2 (June 2009): 89–111 (quotation, 90). Michael Mullin noticed that many female runaways became higglers: see Mullin, “Women, and the Comparative Study of American Negro Slavery,” Slavery and Abolition 6, no. 1 (1985): 25–40, esp. 34–35. For more on Jamaican higglers, see Sidney W. Mintz, “The Jamaican Internal Marketing Pattern: Some Notes and Hypotheses,” Social and Economic Studies 4, no. 1 (March 1955): 95–103; Mintz and Hall, “Origins of the Jamaican Internal Marketing System,” 3–25; Lorna Simmonds, “Slave Higglering in Jamaica, 1780–1834,” Jamaica Journal 20, no. 1 (February–April 1987): 31–38; Sheena Boa, “Urban Free Black and Coloured Women: Jamaica, 1760–1834,” Jamaican Historical Review 18 (1993): 1–6; Roderick A. McDonald, The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana (Baton Rouge, La., 1993), 29–31; Lorna Elaine Simmonds, “The Afro-Jamaican and the Internal Marketing System: Kingston, 1780–1834,” in Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture, ed. Kathleen E. A. Monteith and Glen Richards (Kingston, 2002), 274–90; Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Higglers in Kingston: Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica (Nashville, Tenn., 2011); Shauna Sweeney, “A Free Enterprise: Market Women, Insurgent Economies, and the Making of Atlantic World Freedom, 1790–1880” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2015).

          34 “Run Away . . . Phillis,” Daily Advertiser, Jan. 4, 1791, 4 (quotations). The advertisement was reprinted several times each week until Thurs., May 5, 1791.

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for nineteen months when her master advertised that “she is supposed to be higgling from Saltponds to Spanish Town,” a supposition that points to how higgling could provide long-term support for runaways, especially women. In fact higgling may well be the primary reason why women comprised almost one-quarter of runaways in Jamaica, a significantly higher proportion than in North America. Susanna had been gone for three years when she was highlighted in a runaway advertisement, but despite knowing that “she passes as an Higgler, and is supposed to be harboured about Golden-Valley or Mount-Pleasant, Blue Mountains,” her master struggled to recapture her. Such references to long-term runaways higgling were fairly common.35

Higglers were based in towns as well as the countryside, and the owners of urban runaways sometimes indicated that they believed escaped slaves might be in towns and on roads while engaged in this ubiquitous occupation. Nelly, a creole washerwoman and seamstress in Kingston, escaped from her owner in June 1790, and a year later he advertised that she “goes about higgling, frequently to Westward, and comes down to the Plantain Boats” to purchase fruit and then sell it around the island. Tom, a twenty-five-year-old Chamba with country marks, escaped from his Kingston owner in December 1791. Tom had previously worked in a canoe between Kingston and Port Royal but, since eloping, “is well known in Kingston of late as a higgler, and in Port-Royal where he is at present supposed to be harboured.” The fact that so many owners indicated in advertisements where runaways had been seen or were suspected to be higgling suggests that although whites and maroons might at any time challenge and take into custody anyone they suspected of crimes or of escaping, runaways were often working with relative impunity on the Jamaican roads that Quier traveled.36

(ii) The road to Spanish Town: plantations from the limestone plateau to the coastal plains

As he left behind the forested high ground surrounding Lluidas Vale, Quier would have begun passing through a cluster of plantations and pens in the

          35 “Ran Away . . . Castile,” Daily Advertiser, July 22, 1791, 3 (“Saltponds”); “Forty Shillings Reward . . . Susanna,” Royal Gazette, Feb. 23, 1822, postscript, 20 (“passes as an Higgler”). Women constituted 231 (24 percent) of the runaways in this sample whose gender was identifiable. By way of contrast, Billy G. Smith demonstrates that women constituted approximately 16 percent of runaways in the area between New York and Georgia (1,212 out of 7,369 runaways). Material drawn from Table 2, “Gender of Runaway Slaves,” in Billy G. Smith, “Black Women Who Stole Themselves in Eighteenth-Century America,” in Inequality in Early America, ed. Carla Gardina Pestana and Sharon V. Salinger (Hanover, N.H., 1999), 134–59, esp. 138.

          36 “Absconded . . . A Creole Negro Woman named Nelly,” Daily Advertiser, June 13, 1791, 1 (“goes about higgling”); “Ran away . . . Tom,” Daily Advertiser, Dec. 23, 1791, 2 (“well known”).

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