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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Large group elopements were unusual but did occur. At least thirteen enslaved people escaped from March’s plantation just west of Spanish Town. (See Jack Pot et al./March on 6.) Jack Pot, Carthagene, and Quaw were middle-aged or older men; Friendship was an older woman; Jemmy, Joe, Toby, Quamin, Dick, Quaw, and the “new Negro man” Sampson were all younger men; and Sanga and Sappho, a “new Negro woman” who had recently been branded with her master’s initials, were young women. The runaways may have escaped en masse but they would not have traveled together on the roads, and this group split and headed in different directions. March believed that two of them were harbored near or around the Caymanas, a few miles past Spanish Town and just north of Quier’s route to Kingston, while most of the others had been seen or were suspected to be harbored in or around either Spanish Town or Kingston. Even the recently arrived African named Sampson had been seen carrying wood into Kingston. Riding along the roads into and out of Spanish Town and Kingston, Quier would hardly have noticed him.49

(iii) Spanish Town to Kingston: pens, plantations, and urban and seafaring workscapes on the coastal plains

Spanish Town would have been familiar to Quier as the seat of government and of island courts, yet he and most visitors regarded it as somewhat dilapidated and faded in comparison with the thriving and much-larger Kingston. The capital had “irregular and narrow” streets and buildings in varying states of disrepair, the majority of them inhabited by “free Negroes, Mulattoes, and slaves,” and white visitors were unimpressed by Spanish Town’s “air of gloom and melancholy.”50 Only the governmental buildings and open spaces at the town’s center hinted at the faded grandeur that led to James Hakewill’s imaginative representation, more evocative of Georgian England than Jamaica. Yet when the assembly and courts were not in session, there were even fewer white people in Spanish Town and it was easier for runaways to blend into an urban space dominated by enslaved black people and free people of color. This enhanced version of Hakewill’s image transforms the space by populating it with enslaved and free people of color and adding the sounds of a present-day Jamaican market. For all of the significant differences between then and now, modern sound recordings may still convey an auditory impression of the hustle and bustle of an overwhelmingly black urban space for commercial activity and socializing.

          49 “Jack Pot,” Royal Gazette, Apr. 5, 1791, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 133, UFDC.

          50 Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, 160 (“irregular,” “gloom”); [Long], History of Jamaica, 2: 3–4 (“free,” 2: 3).

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James Hakewill, King’s Square: St. Jago de la Vega, 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.

Sound recording of Coronation Market, Kingston, Jamaica, recorded by Marenka Thompson-Odlum, July 2017.51

It was an easy ride along the coastal plain road from Spanish Town to the Ferry and on to Kingston. The road passed through an area “covered with sugar estates, penns, negro settlements, &c.,” and the countryside was far more developed and populous and far less wooded than Quier’s home area. Here, and indeed throughout his journey, Quier would have heard the loud crack of whips, for these were used not only to coerce or punish enslaved workers but also as signals to the enslaved, calling them to meals or back to work. Though this was “a sound particularly disagreeable to a stranger’s ear,” to resident whites such as Quier “it may be justly stated that it is mere noise.”52 Nowhere on Jamaica were the roads and countryside more crowded than here, and runaways did not hesitate to seek cover amid the throng. As Quier rode eastward out of Spanish Town, he would have seen many people such as Barbary, a young enslaved woman who had escaped from Chaloner Arcedekne’s estate just east of Spanish Town. The plantation was under the management of the planter and sugar magnate Simon Taylor, who believed

          51 There are enormous differences between eighteenth-century and modern Jamaican markets, although the traditions of female higgling and marketeering persist and anthropologists and sociologists have established clear connections over time. Mintz, Social and Economic Studies 4: 95–103; Mintz and Hall, “Origins of the Jamaican Internal Marketing System”; Brown-Glaude, Higglers in Kingston.

          52 Wright, Lady Nugent’s Journal, 25 (“covered”); H. T. De La Beche, Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes in Jamaica (London, 1825), 18 (“sound”).

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that Barbary was seeking refuge in the capital with her aunt Bessy Byfield. No more than a mile from Arcedekne’s was Jacob Hill’s estate, and just a few months before Barbary’s escape Maria had eloped from Hill. African-born with country marks upon her face, Maria had Hill’s initials branded onto both of her shoulders. She had previously been owned by a Kingston merchant and might have made her way back to friends and a familiar way of life there, although Hill thought it more likely that she was living in the Red Hills, just north of Quier’s route from Spanish Town to Kingston. Hill believed that Maria was being harbored there by an enslaved man named Sharper, perhaps her partner. (See Barbary/Arcedekne and Maria/Hill on 6.) Enslaved women had much to fear from white men, but the crowds of people on the roads between Spanish Town and Kingston provided cover and protection.53

As he journeyed south and then east, Quier might well have seen some newly arrived Africans being led to the plantations and pens of their new masters by other enslaved people. After months of hellish incarceration on the West African coast and then in the bowels of slave ships, it is not surprising that some of these new arrivals seized their opportunity to escape. In the spring of 1780, for example, “A New Negro Man” ran away “on the Road, as he was conducting from Kingston, where he had been purchased about ten days before out of the Ann.” With no recorded name, age, or height, he could be identified only by the country markings on his temples, which were shared by thousands of African-born enslaved Jamaicans. Similarly, a young Eboe man who had apparently arrived on the ship Backhouse in July 1793 was “Lost” on his way to his new master’s property. Wearing no more than “a frock of very common oznaburgs,” he had begun the journey with a piece of card secured by ribbon around his neck bearing the name and address of his new owner.54

          53 “Run Away from Simon Taylor . . . Barbary,” Gazette of Saint Jago, July 12, 1781, 2; “Run Away . . . Maria,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Feb. 22, 1781, 3. The advertisement for Maria was reprinted twice, appearing over the course of three weeks in total. For more on Taylor, see R. B. Sheridan, “Simon Taylor, Sugar Tycoon of Jamaica, 1740–1813,” Agricultural History 45, no. 4 (October 1971): 285–96; Betty Wood, T. R. Clayton, and W. A. Speck, eds., “The Letters of Simon Taylor of Jamaica to Chaloner Arcedekne, 1765–1775,” Royal Historical Society Camden Fifth Series 19 (July 2002): 1–164.

          54 “Run Away on the Road,” Royal Gazette, May 13, 1780, supplement, 298 (“New”); “Lost,” Cornwall Chronicle, July 18, 1793, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 159 (“Lost”), UFDC. The sale of the enslaved Africans who had arrived in the Ann was advertised by Smith, Leigh, and Co.: see “For Sale . . . Four Hundred And Eighty Choice Windward Coast Slaves,” Jamaica Mercury, Mar. 18, 1780, supplement, 174. See also Ann, voyage ID no. 92474, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, accessed Aug. 12, 2016, http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/search; Backhouse, voyage ID no. 80416, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, accessed Aug. 12, 2016, http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/search. The African-born character of the Jamaican enslaved was reflected in the runaway population analyzed for this article: 43 percent were identified as being African-born.

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Representations of country marks: Richard Bridgens, Negro Heads, in Bridgens, West India Scenery . . . from Sketches Taken during a Voyage to, and Residence of Seven Years in . . . Trinidad (London, 1836). British Library.

If newly arrived Africans were to elope and then remain free for any length of time, most would have done their best to get out of towns and to avoid white people such as Quier on the island’s roads. The densely populated large plantations in the Caymanas area that Quier passed as he drew close to the Ferry were both sources of and targets for newly arrived, creolized, and Jamaican-born runaways. A “new negro man of the Congo country” who gave his name as John was taken into custody on one of the Caymanas estates in February 1780. John claimed that he had eloped following the death of his master. Philip, on the other hand, was a “new Negro man, of the Mundingo country” who escaped from Taylor’s Caymanas estate. Bearing a branded mark on his right shoulder and “a good many country marks on his face,” Philip was supposed by his owner to have headed toward Liguanea or Above Rocks north of Kingston. Daphney had been on the island for much longer than John and Philip. She was an elderly African-born Papaw woman who had escaped from John Nicholson in Kingston and been free for almost a year. He believed that she was passing as a free woman named Mary Dennest and that she had found refuge with or near her husband, Quashie, who was an enslaved boiler at Ellis Caymanas. From there, Nicholson believed, Dennest regularly traversed the 

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roads, perhaps passing as a free higgler. (See John/Caymanas, Philip/Taylor’s Caymanas, and Daphney/Ellis Caymanas on 6.)55

In addition to newly arrived Africans, many enslaved people were resold or moved between places of employment, resulting in constant traffic on the roads and opportunities to escape. Often masters’ first response to such elopements was to send other enslaved people out to search for the runaways. Thistlewood, for example, recorded in his diary that he sent Lincoln out in pursuit of runaways: “[Monday, July 2, and Tuesday, July 3, 1770] “Coobah runaway . . . Lincoln out looking [for] Coobah . . . [Monday, December 2, 1771] Lincoln out yet looking [for] Coobah, he has never Come home Since Thursday Morning, although Strictly Charged to Come home on Saturday Evening.” Given that masters tended to entrust “the most confidential people upon a plantation” with the pursuit of runaways, this strategy may have worked well, with those sent out in pursuit either forcing or persuading runaways to return. But the practice also provided some enslaved people with an opportunity either to escape or to pretend that they had been sent out by their owners in pursuit of other runaways. Thus, an advertisement for two runaways, Handel and Cuffy, described the latter as “a stout, young creole negro man” sent out “in quest of Handel, and has not returned.” Likewise, Tom had been absent for four months when his owner advertised for him as “a sensible fellow” who “pretends to be looking for a runaway Negro.” If Quier encountered a man named Sam on the roads near Spanish Town, the enslaved creole would have been able to produce written permission from Jacob Hill, who had sent Sam out in pursuit of a runaway named Preston. Quier would have had no reason to suspect that Sam had seized his opportunity and used the precious paper as cover for his own escape, making it easy for him to brazenly walk the island’s roads. (See Sam in pursuit of Maria/Hill on 6.)56

          55Taken Up . . . John,” Royal Gazette, Apr. 15, 1780, supplement, 235 (“Congo country”); “Run away . . . Philip,” Royal Gazette, Apr. 29, 1791, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 134–35 (“Mundingo country,” 1: 134–35, “country marks,” 1: 135), UFDC. John had been apprehended in February but had still not been claimed two months later. For Daphney/Mary Dennest, see “Ran Away, About eleven months ago . . . Daphney,” Jamaica Gazette, Aug. 27, 1788, 7 (advertisement was reprinted weekly for a month).

          56 Diary of Thomas Thistlewood, vol. 21, Mon., July 2, and Tues., July 3, 1770, pp. 106 (“Coobah runaway”), 108 (“Lincoln out looking”), accessed Aug. 15, 2016, https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/4079831, vol. 22, Mon., Dec. 2, 1771, pp. 216 (“Lincoln out yet”), 176, accessed Aug. 15, 2016, http://brbl-dl.library.yale. edu/vufind/Record/4079832; William Beckford, A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica. . . . (London, 1790), 1: 322 (“confidential”); “Absented the First of January 1781,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Mar. 22, 1781, 3 (“stout”); “Ran away . . . about Christmas last,” Cornwall Chronicle, Apr. 4, 1793, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 152 (“sensible”), UFDC; “Run Away from the Subscriber . . . Preston . . . Sam . . . Maria,” Royal Gazette, Feb. 17, 1781, 107.

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