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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eloped from a pen near Spanish Town, a runaway advertisement suggested that “he has been seen lately on the wharfs in Kingston, assisting the seamen,” while fourteen-year-old John “was seen at Port-Royal, in the King’s Yard, on Thursday and Friday last.”65

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Map of the land and water around Kingston and Port Royal. Richard Jones, A Correct Draught of the Harbours of Port Royal and Kingston . . . by Mr: Richd: Jones, Engineer (London, 1756?). Library of Congress.

In and around Kingston, Quier would have seen many different groups of enslaved men, women, and children, along with smaller communities of free people of color, all providing potential refuge for runaways whose true status was hidden to whites such as Quier. The large community of fishermen was one such group. Johnny was “supposed to be harboured about the Bay by some of the fishermen,” and Edward was “supposed to be harboured by some of the fishermen at Old-Harbour.” Apollo’s master had utilized the enslaved man as a carpenter, but he was “also a good fisherman, at which business it is supposed he employs himself, as he has been seen lately at the east end of Kingston with fish.” Harry was one of a group of three enslaved men who escaped in July 1784, and when his master advertised for the runaways seven months later he reported that Harry “is frequently seen at Orange Cove fishing, and at Lucea Bay selling fish.”66

 

          65 “Ran away . . . Will,” Royal Gazette, May 12, 1791, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 135 (“sailmaker”), UFDC; “Run Away . . . Kent,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Aug. 30, 1781, 2 (“on the wharfs”); “Runaway . . . John,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Dec. 19, 1782, 3 (“Port-Royal”).

          66 “Run away . . . Johnny,” Cornwall Chronicle, Apr. 8, 1777, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 20–21 (“about the Bay,” 1: 20), UFDC; “Ran Away . . . Edward,” Royal Gazette, June 1, 1822, postscript, 20 (“Old-Harbour”); “Run away . . . 

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Women, too, might find work or refuge with partners in the dock and shore communities. Prue, “a creole Negro . . . with a downcast look,” was reported by her master to have been seen “in the King’s Yard at Port Royal, and is supposed to be harboured by the sailors or caulkers in said yard.” After Sukey eloped with her seamstress mother, Cuba, their owner reported that the young woman had “often been caught on board sundry vessels” in the Kingston and Port Royal harbor. Fanny had been absent for six weeks when her master advertised for her, announcing that she “has been seen several times at Port-Royal in the King’s Yard, with a Sailor’s Jacket on.”67

The militia, provincial troops, and British army regulars provided further opportunities for escaping slaves. There were both black and white soldiers in Spanish Town and in forts scattered all over the island, with a particularly heavy concentration around the harbor between Kingston and Port Royal. Their numbers were enhanced by the civilian auxiliaries who gathered around all early modern armies. These included many black people, such as Pioneers, enslaved workers hired out or conscripted to help with manual labor such as baggage carrying and construction, as well as free black and enslaved women who formed relationships with soldiers. Consequently, the communities of people associated with British military posts included many enslaved black people engaged in a variety of different tasks, and runaways could disappear into this large and chaotic scene. It was not surprising, therefore, that when Casandra escaped from her master in Kingston, he reported that she was “supposed to be harboured in or about Stoney Hill Barracks.” Similarly, Abba ran in the summer of 1790, and a year later her master advertised that she had “been lately seen at Stoney Hill Barracks, at which place it is supposed her husband is a pioneer.”68 Sixteen-year-old Brandom, better known as Brandy, had been “some time a waiting boy to an officer of the guards at New-York” before being brought to Jamaica and then sold. Brandy’s owner thought it likely that the young man preferred serving military officers to the lot of a typical enslaved Jamaican and that “he may attempt to impose on some gentlemen of the army here.”69

Apollo,” Jamaica Mercury, June 16, 1779, [issue of June 19, 1779, supplement, 94], in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 28 (“good fisherman”), UFDC; “Twenty Dollars Reward. Run away . . . Harry,” Cornwall Chronicle, Feb. 12, 1785, in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 102–3 (“Orange Cove,” 1: 103), UFDC.

          67 “Run away . . . Prue,” Jamaica Mercury, Dec. 18, 1779, [issue of Dec. 25, 1779, 426], in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 43 (“downcast look”), UFDC; “Run Away . . . Cuba . . . and Sukey, her daughter,” Jamaica Mercury, Nov. 20, 1779, [issue of Nov. 27, 1779, 380], in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 38–39 (“caught on board,” 1: 39), UFDC; “Run Away . . . Fanny,” Gazette of Saint Jago, Dec. 13, 1781, 3 (“several times”).

          68 “Run Away . . . Casandra,” Daily Advertiser, Mar. 9, 1791, 3 (“supposed to be harboured”); “Ran away . . . Abba,” Daily Advertiser, June 29, 1791, 3 (“lately seen”).

          69 “Absented himself . . . Brandom,” Royal Gazette, July 1, 1780, 392.

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Some enslaved men escaped in order to join the military themselves. James Baxter, a carpenter who “sometimes calls himself Alexander McCrea,” had been escaped for eleven years when he was retaken in 1779, having recently arrived in Spanish Town passing as a free man serving “as a soldier in the St. Ann’s Foot” militia. Once taken up, he was deployed as an enslaved carpenter on new defensive works around Kingston Harbor, but soon he escaped again. American-born John Russell “was formerly very fond of playing the fife, but has lately commenced preacher.” He had escaped once before and joined the Pioneers, and his master suspected that Russell “will attempt to pass as a free person . . . and may attempt to enlist into his Majesty’s service.” Similarly, a “creole Negro fellow” had already, his owner stated, “attempted to enlist in the new raised Corps, by the name of James Moore.” Jack, a twenty-year-old Congo escapee, did not just try to enlist. Despite having his owner’s initials branded upon his shoulder, he joined up under the name of John Murray and went “down to the Musquito-Shore” to participate in the British capture of Omoa from the Spanish in October 1779. Slave owners sought to regain runaways who joined the British military and to punish those who recruited or employed them, as when Captain Samuel Barton was convicted in May 1783 of “enlisting and detaining two negro slaves, the property of Mr. Henry Markall.” These runaways “had imposed themselves upon the defendant as free persons,” but because Barton had failed to identify them as runaways and then refused to surrender them to Markall, he was convicted and fined.70

With dusk falling there may have been more soldiers and sailors and fewer enslaved people associated with plantations on the road, but Quier might still have witnessed a funeral taking place in the “Negro Burying Ground,” which was located on the western edge of Kingston, a couple of blocks south of the road.

 

          70 “Run Away . . . James Baxter,” Jamaica Mercury, Sept. 27, 1779, [issue of Oct. 2, 1779, supplement, 283], in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 35 (“calls himself”), UFDC; “Fifty Dollars Reward . . . John Russell,” Royal Gazette, Aug. 3, 1816, 7 (“very fond”); “Run away . . . James Moore,” Jamaica Mercury, Dec. 4, 1779, [supplement, 395], in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 42 (“creole”), UFDC; “Run Away . . . Jack,” Jamaica Mercury, Jan. 15, 1780, 26 (“Musquito-Shore”); “West India Intelligence, St. Jago de la Vega,” [London] Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, Aug. 26, 1783, 3 (“enlisting”). Barton served in Major Lewis’s battalion of Jamaica Rangers, the first permanent free black unit of the British army.

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Map of Kingston in ca. 1745. Mich[ael] Hay, To His Excellency Edward Trelawny Esqr . . . This Plan of Kingston is Humbly Dedicated. . . . (Kingston, [1745?]). Library of Congress.

Although the enslaved may well have moderated their funerary practices because of the proximity of whites, the sights and sounds of the ceremony would nonetheless have struck Quier as being rather more African than European. A decade earlier, Equiano had witnessed such a ceremony, most likely in the Kingston burial yard, noting that the enslaved “still retain most of their native customs: they bury their dead, and put victuals, pipes and tobacco, and other things, in the grave with the corps, in the same manner as in Africa.” And then a decade after Quier’s journey, William Beckford reported that “when the body is carried to the grave, they accompany the procession with a song; and when the earth is scattered over it, they send forth a shrill and noisy howl, which is no sooner re-ecchoed, in some cases, than forgotten.” Following interment in the grave, “the face of sorrow becomes at once the emblem of joy. The instruments resound, the dancers are prepared; the day sets in cheerfulness, and the night resounds with the chorus of contentment.”71

          71 Equiano, Interesting Narrative, 2: 101 (“still retain”); Beckford, Descriptive Account, 2: 389–90 (“body,” 2: 389, “face of sorrow,” 2: 389–90). For more on funerary rites, see Brown, Reaper’s Garden; Vincent Brown, “The Reaper’s Garden: Last Rites and First Principles in Jamaican Slave Society” (paper presented at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, September 2007, cited by permission of the author). For a colorful, somewhat problematic, yet revealing description of Jamaican funeral rites, as practiced in the early twentieth century but bearing a striking resemblance to those of the eighteenth century, see Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938; repr., New York, 2009).

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Burial rites might have combined African and some European Christian elements, but even after two decades in Jamaica Quier may still have found himself unnerved by the sound of call-and-response singing; the shouts, screams, and music; and the sight of those present “running, leaping, and jumping, accompanied with many violent, and frantic gestures and contortions.”72 Kumina music resonates with the sounds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Jamaican music. Increasingly uncommon in modern Jamaica, this Kumina song recorded in the mid-twentieth century carries echoes of funerary music dating back to the slavery era.

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Kumina “Country” Song, track 3, side 1, Folk Music of Jamaica, recorded ca. 1956 by Edward Seaga, Folkways Records FW04453/FE 4453, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings/1956 Folkways Records. Used by permission.73

Though funerals on the outskirts of Kingston may have been somewhat more muted than those that took place out of sight in rural areas, the African practices of Jamaica’s black population still shaped them. Musicians were of central importance and were highly valued by the community for their skill. Might Dick, who, since escaping from Smith’s plantation along Quier’s route, had been earning “his maintenance” as a musician, have been one of those performing at the graveside in the fading light? Or did the musicians include somebody like the “famous Banjaw-man” Vulcan, who had eloped from a plantation in southwestern Jamaica a couple of years earlier? To Quier, they would have been simply two more musicians among a crowd involved in the funeral, which to him and other whites was a strange mélange of sights and sounds.74

          72 Robert Renny, An History of Jamaica: With Observations on the Climate, Scenery, Trade, Productions, Negroes, Slave Trade, Diseases of Europeans, Customs, Manners, and Dispositions of the Inhabitants. . . . (London, 1807), 169.

          73 Though it is unlikely that this piece was performed at eighteenth-century Jamaican funerals, it was described by its performers as a spiritual Kumina “country” song, performed in “country” or in “language” using many identifiably West-Central African (Congo) words. These rituals and traditions were first brought to Jamaica by enslaved people before being substantially reinforced by emigrants during the postemancipation era. It is used here to give a sense of spiritual musical performance. See Edward Seaga, sleeve notes to Folk Music of Jamaica (quotations); Hurston, Tell My Horse, 51–56.

          74 “Run Away from the Subscriber in November last,” Gazette of Saint Jago, May 3, 1781, 3 (“maintenance”); “Ran away, from Canaan Estate . . . Vulcan,” Cornwall Chronicle, May 10, 1777 (“famous”), in Chambers, “Runaway Slaves in Jamaica,” 1: 24, UFDC. See also “Kumina,” Jamaica Journal 10, no. 1 (1976): 6–7, esp. 6; Elizabeth

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