How St Helena’s Slaves Gained their Freedom Part 1

The Friends of St Helena are a charity with the twin objectives of providing information about the island St Helena, including its history, culture, environment and current affairs; andalso to provide practical support to the St Helenian community.

The Society held its Annual General Meeting on the 21st May 2011 at the end of which Dr Andy Pearson gave an update on archaeological discoveries at Lemon and Ruperts Valleys and Colin Fox, author of The Bennett Papers spoke about the events leading up to the emancipation, and the eventual freedom, of St Helena’s slaves between 1792-1840.

Colin Fox has put a complete version of his talk to the Society, where it can be read on their web site  The following is a shortened version of that talk (all contact details are listed at end of article): 

In most peoples’ minds as soon as the words ‘Slavery’ or ‘The slave trade’ are spoken, there is an almost automatic association made with Africa and the triangular trade to the Americas. The mind jumps to the pictures of black Africans working under the whip in sugar plantations and in the cotton fields.  However as far as St Helena is concerned, particularly during the period I am speaking of, this picture is entirely false.  Early imports of slaves, certainly in the late 17th century and early 18th century came predominantly from East Africa or Madagascar. As the 18th century progressed and the power and influence of the East India Company spread around the Indian Ocean rim the opportunity to acquire slaves from these areas grew proportionately. 

In the early 19th century there were estimated to be a million slaves in India alone. However the condition of slavery was very different to that experienced by slaves in America and the West Indies – far more akin to serfdom than life on a plantation. I believe that slavery on St Helena, with many of its East India Company servants spending their early lives in the east and with the continuing presence of East India ships calling at the island would have resulted in a slave population with a strong Asian presence and with lives more attuned to the east than to the traditional stereotypical condition of the African slave. 

The year 1792 marked the introduction of a new set of slave laws to the island.  Although these 42 Articles were predominantly concerned with the treatment of slaves by their owners within the confines of St Helena there was one Article that had more far reaching consequences. 
Article 39 said in effect ‘No new slaves to be imported; and every person harbouring or entertaining a new slave to pay fifty pounds, and also the expenses of sending him back to the place to which he belongs.?  This in effect put a stop to the any new slaves being brought to the island and the slave population would only then continue from children born into the condition; a child following the status of the mother.

1807 was of course the year when the momentous bill passed through Parliament that banned the Slave trade throughout the British Empire. As far as St Helena was concerned it had no real impact – the trade to the island having already been abolished 15 years earlier. However, 1807 also marked the date for the formation of the African Institution – an influential group of peers and leading members of society who came together as a pressure group to continue the work of abolishing slavery completely.  The institution published annual reports and one was to have a profound effect on St Helena as I will mention later. 

In 1814, Governor Mark Wilks inaugurated the Benevolent Society.  It was set up to rescue from the trammels of ignorance and vice, the children of slaves, free blacks and the poorer classes of the community.  By 1818 two hundred and twenty one slave children and two hundred and seven free blacks were being educated at six schools.   I believe that this represents about 75% of the black children on the island.  In July 1815, sixty one slaves made a claim for freedom based on a rumour that a slave had been improperly brought to the island 40 years previously.  The Lieutenant Governor John Skelton and a committee investigated these claims over a three month period.  49 claims were rejected because the slave arrived on the island previous to the importation of Slaves having been prohibited; eight claimed freedom because that had been to England. These claims were submitted to Board for legal opinion and the outcome is not known; four claims were upheld and the  slaves were freed 

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