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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With runaways escaping into the island’s population of enslaved and free people, masters often sought the assistance of enslaved people, hoping for information about runaways’ movements and destinations or even for their help in capturing those who had eloped. However, “it rarely happened that the slaves betrayed the confidence of a runaway, except he were base enough to rob their provision grounds, or insult their women; in either of these cases protection was withdrawn, and often, information given which led to his capture.” Had the island’s enslaved population actively supported masters in identifying and capturing runaways, far fewer escapees could have remained at liberty for extended periods. Escape and longer-term freedom depended upon networks of trust and complicity among the enslaved, despite the efforts of slaveholders to disrupt them.57

The presence on the roads of so many enslaved people sent out by their masters with letters, messages, and papers provided cover for some runaways. Jack, a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old “of the Congo country,” was sent by his master to Spanish Town in order to collect “some Papers of Consequence.” However, having received the papers, Jack seized his opportunity to elope, and his master was convinced that “as he may have such papers about him, he may expect to pass unmolested on that account.” Some tickets and passes were genuine but repurposed: Galloway, a thirty-five-year-old Coromantee enslaved man, had “a ticket to go to Kingston,” but his master had “forgot to limit the time of his returning,” which gave Galloway the opportunity to travel freely on the roads as he made his escape. Similarly, Polydore, an African-born carpenter and “a most artful villain,” made use “of a letter he received from the overseer at Stewart-Castle the time of his elopement, directed to ‘Mr. McGibbon at Windsor by Polydore.’” Polydore was adept at escaping and remaining free; four years earlier he had eloped for twenty months, during which time he had lived and worked in Kingston under the name John Brown. The letter provided Polydore with the opportunity to escape again. Edward, “a runaway cooper, belonging to Shrewsbury estate,” went to the owner of another plantation and asked for a paper to enable him to return to his master. However, once possessed of this pass, Edward “gave up all idea of returning to the estate . . . and whenever his proceedings were enquired into by the magistrates, he stated himself to be on the road to his trustee, and produced my letter as a proof of it.” Nineteen-year-old Dinah, who had escaped from an advertiser six months earlier, “informs any person meeting her that I have given her a ticket to work out, which is false.”58

          57 B. J. Vernon, Early Recollections of Jamaica, with the Particulars of an Eventful Passage Home via New York and Halifax, at the Commencement of the American War in 1812. . . . (London, 1848), 28 (quotation).

          58 “Run Away from the Subscriber . . . Jack,” Jamaica Mercury, supplement, May 8, 1779, 20 (“Congo country”); “Ran Away . . . Galloway,” Gazette of Saint Jago, May 23, 1782, 2 (“go to Kingston”); “Run away, from Stewart-Castle Estate . . . Polydore,” Cornwall Chronicle, May 24, 1786, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 117 (“artful villain”), UFDC; Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, 236 (“runaway coo-

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William Berryman, Maroon. Buckra Reading Their Pass (1808–15). Library of Congress.

Should Quier have bothered to challenge anyone like Jack, Dinah, or Polydore and inquired as to their business on the roads, he would likely have accepted the papers they carried as evidence that they were about their masters’ business. A seemingly legitimate document was a passport to travel freely on Jamaica’s roads: there were no official forms, simply small pieces of paper written by a wide range of people with varying skills, and so falsifying papers was not difficult for anyone who was literate. When Sarah Warren was taken up as a suspected runaway, she carried a manumission document that she eventually admitted was “written by her father John Warren, of Morant-Bay, for the purpose of passing her about free of molestation.” Warren’s father demonstrates how some whites and free people might choose to aid runaways: most likely a white man, he had been recorded a decade earlier as the owner of an African-born man named Bob who was branded with Warren’s initials and incarcerated in the Morant Bay Workhouse. Masters offered large rewards for evidence of such illegal activity, yet there are virtually no examples of successful prosecution of white abettors of enslaved runaways.59 

The largest concentration of people on the road between Spanish Town and Kingston would have been at the Ferry, the primary hub on the road

per”); “Nightingale Grove Pen, St. Andrew’s, Jan. 26 1791. Ran away . . . Dinah,” Daily Advertiser, Jan. 27, 1791, 3 (“informs”).

          59 “Sarah Warren (formerly named Rose),” Royal Gazette, Feb. 9, 1822, 8 (quotation); “Bob, a Moco, to John Warren,” Morant Bay Workhouse, Cornwall Chronicle, Jan. 23, 1813, in Douglas B. Chambers, ed., “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” vol. 2, “Nineteenth Century,” February 2013, p. 25, UFDC, http://ufdc.ufl.edu /AA00021144/00002.

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between the island’s two largest towns. There was an inn at the crossing of the Fresh or Ferry River, and most people traveling between the towns passed here. As such the Ferry was both a transit point and a destination for runaways. When Paul, a “horse ferrier or negro doctor,” escaped from Kingston, his owner indicated that Paul was likely “harboured about the Ferry.” Similarly, “a young negro” named Phebe escaped from the estate of her recently deceased owner, located just north of Spanish Town, and allegedly made her way to her partner’s “Grass Piece,” or hay field, near the Ferry. (See Paul/ Ferry and Phebe/Ferry on 6.) Like most whites on the island’s roads, Quier would have had neither the time nor the inclination to check the papers of each and every enslaved person he saw at busy hubs such as the Ferry. Moreover, Jamaican law provided exemptions from the standard restrictions on the public movement of enslaved people for those charged with “going, with firewood, grass, fruit, provisions, or small stock and other goods, which they may lawfully sell.”60

As Quier rode east from the Ferry toward the island’s most populous city, the roads grew even busier. Kingston was Jamaica’s largest market town as well as a financial and mercantile center, and it was the hub for free and enslaved people, white and black. The proximity of Port Royal, especially when a Royal Navy fleet was docked, and the presence of soldiers, sailors, and shore workers all made the area busier still. Each day thousands of people clogged the avenues into Kingston and Port Royal as well as the former’s major thoroughfares. Surely Quier would have seen quite a few people such as Hope and Present, two newly arrived Nago women with country marks on their faces, making their way westward out of Kingston to cut and gather firewood. The women had been in Jamaica only three or four months, but they seized their opportunity to escape. They were last seen on the Spanish Town road near Kaylet’s Pen. Out on this busy road they appeared to be two among many enslaved women carrying the firewood that Kingston needed, blending into the human scenery and counting on the fact that Quier and men like him did not notice them.61 Quier also passed by men, women, and children working on the pens that ringed the city, including Ford’s, Maxwell’s, Edwards’s, and Manby’s north of the Spanish Town road. With a mind full of the work and social engagements awaiting him in Kingston, Quier might barely have noticed someone like Joe, a boy who had escaped from Kingston and taken refuge at Ford’s Pen, “where he passes for free.” (See Hope and Present/Kaylet and Joe/Ford on 6.) And once Quier entered

 

          60 “Run-away . . . Paul,” Jamaica Gazette, Oct. 8, 1788, 6 (“horse ferrier”; reprinted six times over a month); “Run Away . . . Phebe,” Royal Gazette, supplement, July 22, 1780, 436 (“young”); “Consolidated Slave Act of Jamaica,” Mar. 2, 1792, repr. in Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of The British Colonies in the West Indies (London, 1793), 2: 165 (“firewood”).

          61 “Run-away . . . Hope and Present,” Jamaica Gazette, July 26, 1788, 2.

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Kingston, the colors and sounds of the Jamaican countryside would have given way to the chaos and confusion of a bustling urban center of between two and three thousand buildings.62

(iv) Kingston

As he passed through the outskirts of Kingston and Port Royal, Quier’s attention likely shifted to the ever-closer waters of Hunt’s Bay and the Caribbean beyond.

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F. Cary, View of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour in the Island of Jamaica, London, November 1782. Library of Congress.

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A View of the Town and Harbour of Montego Bay, in the Parish of St. James’s, Jamaica, taken from the Road leading to St. Anns, 1770. Library of Congress.

Quier would have seen many more people and far more activity than is suggested by these images. The large ocean-going craft around and in Kingston and Port Royal harbors—and, if a naval fleet was present, a host of warships—would have dominated the ocean vista. Some runaways, almost all of them young and male, were able to take advantage of ship captains’ constant need for labor, and despite legal prohibitions and a system designed to prevent escape off the island, a few runaways were able to leave Jamaica rather than seeking to remain free of their masters while still living on the island.63 White European sailors were always in evidence on Kingston’s larger

          62 “Ran Away . . . Joe,” Royal Gazette, Mar. 17, 1781, 174 (quotation). This advertisement was printed four times over the course of one month. See also [Long], History of Jamaica, 2: 103.

          63 Thus, eighteen-year-old Daniel, a runaway carpenter, was “seen on board his Majesty’s ship the Diana at Port Royal,” while Richard Bennett supposed that Cromwell, a twenty-six-year-old Coromantee, “will pass as a free man, with intent to get off this island as steward of a ship to New-York, where he has a wife and children.” “Whereas on Friday night . . . a runaway mulatto boy named Daniel,” Royal Gazette, Nov. 11, 1791, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 139–40 (“seen on board,” 1: 140), UFDC; “Run Away . . . Cromwell,” Royal Gazette, May 13, 1780, supplement, 

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ships, but there were also black ocean-going sailors, some of them enslaved, such as Olaudah Equiano.64 Drawing closer to the water as Kingston’s harbor opened to his right, Quier witnessed a host of small craft, including fishing boats and droggers, ferrying people and goods around the island, as well as people working on or near the waterfront.

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Waterfront activity in Jamaica in the 1760s. Detail from Tho[ma]s Craskell and Ja[me]s Simpson, To the Right Honorable George Grenville . . . This Map of the County of Surrey, in the Island of Jamaica. . . . , London, 1763. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

This would have been an almost entirely black scene, with virtually all small craft manned by enslaved men and free men of color, and as Quier drew closer to the ocean he would have been able to see and hear them more closely, along with all manner of dock laborers and ancillary workers such as sailmakers, riggers, and washerwomen. Again, however, artistic representations tend to privilege white men and marginalize if not eliminate the black population who dominated the bustling, crowded waterfront. And some of these people would have been long-term runaways. Will, a thirty-seven-year-old creole, was “a sailmaker by trade.” It seems likely that Will was used to hiring himself out, and, since he had been absent for three months, his owner suspected that the escapee was now working for himself. After Kent

2 (“pass as a free man”). “An act to prevent the captains. . . . ,” Dec. 23, 1784, in The Laws of Jamaica: Comprehending All the Acts in Force, Passed between the First Year of the Reign of King George the Third, and the Thirty-Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third, Inclusive. . . . , 2d ed. (St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica, 1802), 2: 356.

          64 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1789), 1: 93–179.

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