How St Helena’s Slaves Gained their Freedom Part 2

Twenty nine of the slaves mentioned their country of origin and this raises the question of the ethnicity of the St Helena slave population at this time.  Two came from Africa (Mozambique), nineteen from different parts of India (including one from Ceylon [Sri Lanka]), seven from Sumatra and one from the West Indies. This is a very small number to be statistically significant but bears some resemblance to the import of slaves into the Cape where roughly equal numbers came from Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia (which includes Sumatra).  The names of the slaves give no indication of their country of origin.   India : Bailey, Caesar, Charles (x2), Dick, Dublin, Ellick, Francisco, Franswa, George (x2), John, Juliet, Mercury, Pompey (x2), Tom, Toney;   Sumatra: Cato, Doss, Harry, Hector, Jack, January, London;  Sri Lanka: Tom;  Mozambique: Basto, Toby;  West Indies: March.  Whatever had been their original name they were given new ones by their owners. Giving slaves classical names – Caesar, Mercury, Hector or names of the month – January, March – was typical. 

In 1815 Napoleon arrived on the island – This is not important to my story in itself. However, it did mark a change to the Governance of the island and that did have an impact.  In April 1816 Hudson Lowe arrived and despite all the bad press he has received, he seems to have had progressive views regarding slavery: It is said that when he took his family to church, He would lean on his pew door, and he would never sit down till he had everyone – slaves and all – were accommodated with seats. If he saw a barefoot man – a slave without a seat, he would beckon to him and see him seated.? 
There is little doubt that he was keen on reform and was helped in this by a change to the membership of the Governing Council on the island. The Consultations mention that proposals to abolish slavery went back to the time of Governor Beatson 1808-1813 but had been vetoed by the other members of the Council who maintained a hard line against any changes. More recently Mr Leech, a strong supporter of the status quo had died and Mr Doveton, a man much influenced by Leech had resigned. Their places had been taken provisionally by Sir George Bingham, Commander of the forces on the Island; a man who held strong antislavery views. The balance of power on the Council swung very decisively towards a reforming agenda. The only remaining member of the old Council was Thomas Brooke, a long time East India Company employee who held more traditionalist views. He was not however against change.

A secret letter (secret as they wanted the Directors views before going public) was sent to the Court in London outlining their thoughts. They made a number of points:   There should be a set a date for the start the process;  That the slaves would have to work for their owners for a fixed number of years before being emancipated to defray the cost of their upbringing;  They expressed their deep concern over the present generation of slaves not having their minds prepared for freedom and they were worried that slaves would lose all restraint if there was a general emancipation. Therefore this should be avoided;  That it should be mandatory for young slaves to receive religious and moral instruction so that they would be ready for freedom when they reached a suitable age.  They then went on to make three specific proposals.  First, all slaves born after 31st Dec 1818 be free but apprenticed to their master until they were 18 years (16 for girls); second that owners could emancipate their slaves at any time and be exempt for the 37th article of the slaves laws (£160 surety payment); third, aged and infirm slaves would be looked after by the Company.  These latter two proposals would act as a counterweight to the financial loss the owners would suffer by freeing the children because firstly they would be relieved of the requirement to look after their old and infirm slaves and secondly they could free their slaves without putting up a £160 bond to cover any cost of care if the freed slave became incapacitated.

By good fortune, just after the letter was sent, the 11th report of African Institution fell into Governor’s hands. In it there was a report concerning the Governor of Ceylon – Sir Alexander Johnston.  For many years, Sir Alexander had urged the Dutch inhabitants to adopt some means for the gradual, but effectual abolition of domestic slavery. In consequence of his suggestion the proprietors of domestic slaves came to a resolution, that all children born of their slaves after the 13th of August 1816′, should be free thereby putting an end to domestic slavery, which had prevailed in Ceylon for three centuries.  Lowe must have rubbed his hands with glee. This was a huge lever – surely the good English Christian people of St Helena would not like to be outdone by the Dutch. Without waiting for a response from the Directors he convened a meeting of slave owners. What he said to them is not known but the outcome was just as he hoped. He wrote again to the Directors: “ . . we have the honour to inform you of the unanimous voice of the inhabitants for preventing the perpetuity of slavery on this island”.  He further requested the construction of “a house of correction” and a “hospital for Black and other indigent persons”

It was not until the dynamic General Sir Alexander Walker arrived in 1823 that further steps were taken on the road to the amelioration and abolishment of slavery.  In 1824 he introduced the treadmill for minor misdemeanours to replace the lash.  Interestingly during this year, six slaves took their owners to Court – mostly for ill treatment. The owners were admonished and fined a few shillings – no treadmill for them.  In 1825 General Walker addressed the Horticultural and Agricultural Society and invited them to consider ways and means of abolishing slavery. The idea of the company supporting the aged and infirm seemed to have gone out of the window so the owners were soon going to have the face a situation when the free born children would end their apprenticeships and become truly free and the older slaves would be come an increasing burden on the owners. Slave families would be split into ‘them and us’ with jealousies bound to occur and there would be general discontent all round and life and the universe would go to pot.  These weren’t his actual words but this was the message.

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