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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foothills between the Lluidas River and the Mountain River in Saint John. He would have seen hundreds of enslaved people working in plantation gangs, with smaller groups and individuals engaged in a wide range of activities. A short distance south of his route was Robert Dillon’s plantation, and if Quier had caught sight of one among many creole woman near the slave quarters, he would likely have assumed she was charged with food preparation, care of young children, or another plantation activity. But the woman might have been Fanny, enslaved by a Kingston attorney. (See Fanny/ Dillon on 6.) Six weeks after her escape, the attorney advertised for Fanny, describing her as “sickly looking,” and he noted that her previous home had been at Dillon’s plantation, to which she might well have returned. Fanny would have known where to conceal herself on the plantation and when it was safe to walk around while drivers and overseers were occupied in the fields. Walking confidently between huts in the slave quarters occupied by her friends and family, Fanny would have looked at home. To passersby such as Quier, she would have been all but invisible, and a month later she may have still been free.37

As he drew closer to Spanish Town, Jamaica’s capital and second-largest town, Quier would have noticed increased traffic on the roads amid a more densely populated landscape. As well as enslaved people bearing goods and messages to and from Spanish Town, the roads often teemed with field workers and craftsmen. Carpenters, masons, and others walked bearing their tools, plantation hands made their way to different parts of plantations and provision grounds with hoes and bills, and other enslaved workers carried grass, animal feed, fish, and fowl. Quier likely saw a number of carpenters such as Andrew and Scotland, apparently walking toward their work with their tools or working on buildings on plantations and in towns, often under the supervision of white craftsmen. Andrew and Scotland had worked as enslaved carpenters in Kingston and Spanish Town respectively before being purchased by Bennett Smith and moved to a property just west of Spanish Town. The two men promptly escaped and likely moved around presenting themselves either as free men or as enslaved craftsmen authorized by their owners to hire themselves out. (See Andrew, Scotland, et al./Smith on 6.) They traveled a good distance: Smith believed Andrew had returned to Kingston, where he had formerly been enslaved, while Scotland had taken refuge in the mountains of Saint Catherine. Should Quier have encountered carpenters and craftsmen, he might have stopped and chatted with their white supervisor. If Andrew, Scotland, and other runaways were among the group, were they nervous? Even if they were, it was hardly unusual for enslaved men, women, and children to appear uneasy before white

 

          37 “From the Subscriber . . . a Sambo woman slave named Fanny,” Jamaica Gazette, Nov. 1, 1788, 6. The advertisement was repeated each week for a month.

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men. Apparently, Scotland was able to master such fears, for he remained at liberty for at least one year and perhaps longer. Working alongside other craftsmen and laborers repairing or constructing buildings, Scotland would have appeared to Quier and other white men to be exactly what he was: one of many skilled men working within Jamaica’s expanding economy.38

Perhaps not surprisingly, highly skilled and valuable plantation workers appear regularly in runaway advertisements. The elopements of carpenters, stone masons, sugar boilers, and the like were more likely to prompt their owners to advertise than were the elopements of field hands. Though some of these skilled workers may have abandoned their crafts, others—much to their owners’ chagrin—continued to do such jobs. African-born Titus and Peter were described by their master as, respectively, “a good boiler” and “an extraordinary good boiler.” Their value was enhanced by the fact that Titus “can turn his hand to almost anything on a sugar estate” while Peter was a “compleat sawyer.” The runaway advertisement describing them appeared nearly ten months after their elopement, and their master noted the men “took with them very good cloaths, and it is supposed pass for free people.” They had been seen on the Barrack Road in Westmoreland and on the road to Little Bogue in Saint James, and their owner thought it possible that they were traveling about the island hiring themselves out.39 Likewise, May was a plantation carpenter who eloped with four other people, including his wife, Lettice. It is possible that May had run away before, given that he was branded on both cheeks and one of his ears had been cropped, “which he endeavours to hide with a handkerchief.” The runaways were well known in Sixteen Mile Walk and Spanish Town, and their master “suspected there are white people privy to their being run away,” a frequent problem that enraged the owners of plantations near Quier’s path.40

Though Quier (and other white Jamaicans) would have encountered many enslaved people on the roads, he would have seen a great many more on and around the plantations and pens that he rode through and past. He might regularly have heard gangs of slaves singing “digging songs,” using the rhythm of call-and-response to regulate their work rate, and somewhat modernized versions of such songs have survived to the present, as is evident in this recording of “Half a Whole.”

          38 “Run Away from the Subscriber in November last,” Gazette of Saint Jago, May 3, 1781, 3. This advertisement and two subsequent ones were reprinted regularly for more than a year; the last known advertisement appeared on Jan. 3, 1782.

          39 “Run away . . . Titus and Peter,” Cornwall Chronicle, Dec. 11, 1781, in Douglas B. Chambers, ed., “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” vol. 1, “Eighteenth Century,” February 2013, p. 62, University of Florida Digital Collections (UFDC), George A. Smathers Libraries, http://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00021144/00001.

          40 “Run away . . . May . . . John . . . Cuffee . . . Cudjoe . . . Lettice,” Royal Gazette, Apr. 8, 1780, supplement, 218 (quotations); “Run Away in May 1779 . . . Cromwell,” Royal Gazette, July 15, 1780, 418; “Run away, from Industry Estate . . . Jemmy,” Cornwall Chronicle, Feb. 28, 1781, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 53, UFDC.

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(16)

“Digging Song: Half a Whole,” by field workers in Maryland, Saint Andrew’s Parish, track 4 from John Crow Say . . . : Jamaican Music of Faith, Work and Play, Folkways Records FW04228/FE 4228, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/1981 Folkways Records. Used by permission.

Quier would have thought little of seeing black Jamaicans engaged in routine and familiar activities, but among this large and seemingly legitimately industrious population were concealed runaways. Many advertisements, in fact, indicated that runaways were likely sheltered on or near plantations by partners, family, friends, African “countrymen,” or Middle Passage shipmates.41

A stone’s throw from Quier’s route, a field hand named Cuffee, a wainman named Dick, and a waiting boy named Fortune escaped from Smith’s plantation outside Spanish Town at much the same time as the carpenters Andrew and Scotland, and they too were able to remain at liberty for some time. (See Andrew, Scotland, et al./Smith on 6.) Their owner thought that Cuffee and Dick were being harbored a few miles to the north in Saint Thomas in the Vale while Fortune was concealed closer by, in or around Governor’s Mountain in Saint Catherine. Probably dressed as field workers, both men were at risk when away from plantations, particularly if they ventured as far as Smith suspected: perhaps they carried goods with them so they would appear to men such as Quier to be on assignment for their masters, or perhaps they simply traveled at night. Advertisements for Smith’s runaways continued for about three months until he published a new one indicating that Cuffee, Scotland, Fortune, and Dick were still at liberty along with a driver named Quamina, Dick’s brother, who had escaped some time before. Unusually, this new advertisement indicated that Dick, Quamina, Scotland, and Cuffee “have been out a sufficient time to come under the law of the island to punish them with Death,” yet it balanced this threat with a promise to forgive any of these runaways who returned within the month. The reprinting of this advertisement for a further three months suggests that Smith’s combined threat of punishment and offer of forgiveness had failed.42

 

          41 Edward Long, “Music,” Materials on the History of Jamaica in the Edward Long Papers, Add. Ms. 12403, MF reel 3, no. 422, p. 335, British Library, London. For more on Jamaican digging songs, see Walter Jekyll, Jamaican Song and Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes, and Dancing Tunes (London, 1907), 157–89; Helen H. Roberts, “A Study of Folk Song Variants Based on Field Work in Jamaica,” Journal of American Folklore 38, no. 148 (April–June 1925): 149–216; Jean D’Costa, “Oral Literature, Formal Literature: The Formation of Genre in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27, no. 4 (Summer 1994): 663–76.

          42 “Run Away from Bennett Smith,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Oct. 11, 1781, 3 (quotation). Dick, Cuffee, and Scotland were listed in “Run Away from the Subscriber, in

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Their freedom was possible in part because of the complicity—whether intentional or not—of free people and whites who benefited from the labor or goods provided by runaways. Twelve-year-old John Coromantee was believed by his master to be harbored by “one Webly,” the overseer on a pen in the Walks. Bacchus, a thirteen-year-old Chamba boy, was “supposed to be harboured by a Mr. J.W.” Meanwhile, Dickey “was taken up, and harboured by one John Demerlin who lived upon Good Hope Estate”; allegedly, Dickey had abandoned plantation work and was now waiting on Demerlin as a personal servant. White complicity was on occasion directly in evidence, as when John William Harris left his post as bookkeeper on Eden Estate and “enticed away with him a Mulatto Boy named Henry Buckley, 16 years of age.”43

Enslaved Jamaicans might also harbor runaways, and this regularly happened following the death of a planter or pen owner. Though some properties passed quickly into the hands of a new owner with little disruption to the lives and families of the enslaved, others went into administration, resulting in the sale of land, equipment, and people. Whether from fear of such disruption or eagerness to take advantage of a relative vacuum in leadership, some enslaved people contrived to escape shortly after their masters died. George and Will, for example, escaped from Peter Ramsay’s plantation, which was immediately adjacent to Quier’s route along the road into Spanish Town. (See George and Will/Ramsay on 6.) It had been the work of seventeen-year-old George “to attend and wait on” the late Ramsay. He eloped at about the same time as Will, and for about four months he was able to remain free in Port Royal and Kingston. Several months later he escaped again.44

Following Ramsay’s death eighteen-year-old Will was allowed by Ramsay’s executor to hire himself out. The written permission he had from the executor enabled Will to move freely between his home, Spanish Town, Port

November last,” Gazette of Saint Jago, May 3, 1781, 3. Dick, Scotland, and Fortune were listed in “Run Away from Bennett Smith,” Gazette of Saint Jago, July 5, 1781, 2, which was reprinted until at least Oct. 4, 1781. Dick, Cuffee, Scotland, Fortune, and Quamina were listed in a subsequent advertisement that appeared weekly from Oct. 11, 1781, to at least Jan. 3, 1782; “Run Away from Bennett Smith,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Oct. 11, 1781, 3.

          43 “Runaways . . . a Boy Named John Coromantee,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Aug. 8, 1782, 3 (“Webly”); “Run away . . . Bacchus,” Cornwall Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1786, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 114 (“supposed”), UFDC; “Run away . . . Dickey,” Cornwall Chronicle, Apr. 14, 1783, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 76 (“taken up”), UFDC; “One Doubloon Reward. Whereas John William Harris . . . and . . . Henry Buckley,” Royal Gazette, Apr. 27, 1822, postscript, 27.

          44Five Pounds Reward. Run Away about three months ago . . . George,” Gazette of Saint Jago, May 23, 1782, 2 (quotation). This advertisement was reprinted weekly for one month. Then three months later a new advertisement appeared, stating that George had again escaped: “Five Pounds Reward, Runaway a few days ago . . . George,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Sept. 12, 1782, 3.

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Royal, and Kingston, and he might have been one of many such men and women seen on the roads by Quier and other white travelers. Will used this freedom of movement to escape. Had Quier stopped Will, the runaway might well have called upon the executor’s note to justify his presence on the roads or in town. According to a succession of advertisements, Will was regularly seen in and around Kingston and Port Royal, where he passed as free.45 He remained free for at least one month before being recaptured, but six months later he appeared in a new advertisement stating that he had once again escaped. This time he did not have permission to hire himself out, and the advertisement noted that he “is supposed to be harboured on board one of his Majesty’s ships of war at Port-Royal.” With a great many white sailors and soldiers succumbing to tropical diseases and Jamaica vulnerable to a Franco-Spanish invasion, recruiters were eager for any free black volunteers and may not have been particular about paperwork.46

As Quier got closer to Spanish Town and then the coast, he would have seen black and white seafarers and soldiers, and these might occasionally have included recent or longer-term escaped slaves such as Will. For example, a suspected runaway who “calls himself Jack Griffin” was taken up at one plantation “in company with two Sailors.” This advertisement does not make clear whether the sailors were white or black and, if the latter, whether they were free or enslaved. But given that enslaved men regularly worked both on smaller coastal and larger ocean-going vessels, it would not have been unusual to see such men in sailor’s garb traveling to and from their home towns and plantations.47

Either fear of punishment or actual punishment sometimes triggered escape. Just beyond the western outskirts of Spanish Town lay John Taws’s estate, from which August eloped despite being partially “lame” since birth. (See August/Taws on 6.) Escape was not new to August: twenty-three years of age, he had been newly branded with Taws’s initials “for a former defection and robbery.” Taws believed that August might have sought refuge with his uncle, an enslaved man in Kingston, or with two other runaways who accompanied him, both of whom had previously attempted to join the crews of Royal Navy vessels.48

          45Run Away, Some time ago, from the Estate of Peter Ramsay,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Dec. 20, 1781, 2. This advertisement ran weekly for one month and was also printed as “Run Away some time ago, from the Estate of Peter Ramsay,” Royal Gazette, Dec. 29, 1781, 815.

          46 “Run Away, about two months ago,” Gazette of Saint Jago, June 27, 1782, 2 (quotation). This new advertisement placed by W. Ramsay—which was reprinted once, a week later—stated that Will had secured “a permit” from William Mitchell and might subsequently have joined the navy; ibid.

          47 “Taken Up . . . Jack Griffin,” Royal Gazette, May 13, 1780, 295.

          48 “Run Away this day . . . August,” Royal Gazette, Oct. 7, 1780, 590. This advertisement was reprinted once, a week later.

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