"Unhappy and Afflicted Women?":
Free Colored Women in Barbados:
Pedro L.V. Welch
On August 24, 1804, Charlotte Belgrave, a free colored woman, wrote a letter to Governor Seaforth.1 The letter petitioned the governor for the release of her husband, Jacob Belgrave, from the local prison. Belgrave had been imprisoned following an altercation with a white merchant. Apparently, he had accused the latter, a Mr. Gittens, with having overcharged on an item which he had purchased. Gittens had responded by striking Belgrave and he had struck back in self-defense. That action led to the local authorities binding him over to stand trial at the 'Sessions.' Interesting as the encounter between the two men is, what is particularly important, from an historiographic point of view, is the opportunity which the petition offers of accessing the world of the free colored woman in a struggle against the racism and oppression of a slave society. Indeed, although there have been some attempts in recent times to engage women's activities in the slave societies of the Caribbean, the emphasis has been on black slave women, and white women, with the free colored woman running an uncompetitive third.
The research carried out by Lucille Mathurin-Mair and Sheena Boa represents some departure from this general pattern. For example, Mathurin Mair's pioneering Ph.D. acknowledges that the dynamism of town life helped to shape the image of the free 'brown' woman as an "image of someone economically active and viable."2 Other contributions have followed on this more positive image. Hilary Beckles notes that "large numbers of colored women successfully fashioned their socio-ideological vision around the need to entertain white males in return for betterment."3 While the white male figures prominently in this analysis and there is considerable evidence that free colored women manipulated such men to their own benefit, it is important to note that relationships with free colored males were also cultivated.
More recently, the contributions of David Geggus, Susan Socolow and Virginia Gould have opened up some possibilities for a major revision of the place of the free colored woman in Caribbean slave society.4 In the case of St. Domingue, for example, Socolow notes that while many free colored women lived "precarious economic lives," "notary transactions suggest that many played important roles in the local economy, acting independently unlike white women who were rarely visible acting on their own."5
Notwithstanding these important contributions, Caribbean historiography is not entirely out of the woods in its portrayal of the free colored woman. There is still a residual tendency to understate the free colored women's pro-active response to the constraints that pressured them. Thus, for example, Sheena Boa observes that "for freedwomen to prosper in the white man's slave society, they had to adopt many negative characteristics. Their attitudes toward race, class and slaves had to conform to the retrogressive ideology of the white slave owner."6 In fairness to Boa, she does go on to point out that "some women, however, chose to combat white racism through self respect…."7 It is with these observations in mind that this article seeks to explore the ways in which free colored women identified room-to-maneuver options-options through which they could mitigate the restraints of a society predicated on notions of white racial superiority. Moreover, it seeks to explore the ways in which the actions of free colored women in interpreting their options are expressed in displays of self-conscious assertion.
In discussing the characteristics of the free colored population, it is important to note how the terms 'free colored' and 'colored' are used in this article. The former term lacks precision in the documentary sources used in this article. In the Barbadian situation, the term was applied to persons of wide racial differentiation. In the St. Michael Vestry Levy Books (the tax records for Bridgetown, the chief port and capital city), for example, there are several instances of persons being labeled as free colored (fc) in one year's assessment, free mulatto (fm) in another and even free negro (fn) or free black in yet another assessment. In this paper, however, the terms 'free colored' 'colored,' 'freedwoman/man,' and so on, will be used as convenient labels to avoid the difficulties of phenotypic identification which arise in the data base. In this usage the terms will include all freedwomen who might be further classified as above. Where necessary, the term mulatto will be applied to indicate a person whose mixed ancestry is clearly identified.
Identifying the Resource Base
In the Caribbean context, the orientation of most colonial towns/cities was distinctly maritime. In part, this orientation was due to the mercantilist framework within which these centers operated, and to the geography of the island units which have markedly high ratios of coastline to land area. Bridgetown, at the peak of its development as a colonial port, was, perhaps, the premier link in the British Atlantic trading system. Over the period 1788-1834, ship arrivals averaged 480 ships per annum with a movement of over 4,000 transients into the urban space each year.8 The estimated annual value of the cargo imported exceeded £700,000.9 These figures do not include those for inter-colonial shipping. The volume of shipping and the value of trade identified, serve to describe the milieu in which free colored women operated. The demand for services engendered by the trading activity created business activities in several areas, including tavern-keeping, the hotel/lodging house sector, transportation and prostitution services. In addition, there was a differentiation of services which led to an increased specialization and monetarization of such activities. The demand for services, coupled with a shortage of white labor, created an environment in which freedwomen, slaves, and whites could, at times, interact in conditions of "near equality."
Within this urban scene, free colored women rose to rival their menfolk in the area of property ownership. Table 1, as outlined below, shows that freedwomen and freedmen were acquiring property resources of considerable value in the town. The statistics presented acquire greater significance when it is realized that the adult free colored population at the turn of the nineteenth century consisted of just over 1,000 persons.
In 1802, for example, the population listed 1,155 adults made up of 393 men and 762 women.10 In
Table 1, the 66 men and 72 women who owned property with a value in excess of £500 in 1804, represent, therefore, in numerical terms, a significant proportion of the free colored population.
The values and distribution of property in the sample reveal a rapid growth in the property holding of freed persons over the survey period. When it is understood that this relates to rateable property and does not include other real estate and property rented and owned by the urban-based free coloreds, the picture of growth is widened. Other data, obtained from inventories, show that free coloreds owned considerable resources, including slaves.
Among the several prominent freedwomen represented in the statistical record above, we may list Sussanah Ostrehan as a 'visible' example of the property accumulation which was beginning to catch the attention of the local white elite. She appears rather suddenly in the Levy Books of 1779, as the owner of a small property in Back Church Street valued at about £400. Prior to this date, there is simply no record of her origins. An exhaustive search of the St. Michael vestry records does not record the date of her emancipation. However, there is the possibility that she had been the slave of a joiner, Thomas Ostrehan, Jr., who owned land in the Church Street area. Thomas's father, Thomas Ostrehan Sr., had owned a small estate in the Fontabelle area in addition to the property in Church Street.11 Sussanah's appearance for the first time as a tax payer, in 1779, indicates a manumission prior to this period.
In 1779, Sussanah was listed as owning property subject to a tax of £5 in the Back Church Street area.12 By 1783, she had increased her property holdings, owning a property rated at £6 per annum in George Street, and one other in Reed Street, tax rated at £40 per annum.13 Although the Levy Book for 1783 does not indicate that the Reed Street property was made up of several small 'tenements,' the 1788 Levy shows that she owned six properties there rated at £26, 6, 6, 8,, 6, and 12, respectively.14 By 1793, she appears to have liquidated some of the property holdings in Reed Street and Back Church Street. In this year, she is listed as owning four properties, rated at £31 per annum in tax rates. However, she had also acquired property in Cheapside, the principal street, appraised of a tax value of £50.15
A review of several deeds of conveyance which Sussanah and some of her contemporaries consummated reveals some of the strategies which freedwomen used to effect their own socioeconomic emancipation, and to promote the emancipation of slaves. It also reveals that alliances with white merchants and other influential whites were critical in achieving any success in these ventures. Perhaps the monetarization of services in the port economy was influencing the nature of relationships between whites and their social inferiors. The financial accumulation which accompanied the entry of freedmen and freedwomen into the small services sector might well be the factor which was attracting the attention of wealthy urbanites. They might be unwilling to host a free colored in their homes and in their social gatherings, but a simple business transaction carried with it less social risk. After all, the money itself was color blind.
The acquisition of the Cheapside property did not mark the end of property acquisition by this free colored entrepreneur. In her inventory, lodged in the local registry on February 23, 1809, her holdings included a house in Cumberland Street, valued in real terms at £1,750. She also owned another house valued at £1,100. This was located in Cheapside where the Levy Book of 1806 had recorded a tax rate of £150. The Cumberland Street holdings also included a 'Chaise House.' The total inventoried property value in 1809 was £3,956-11-3.16 This value compares with that of Rachael Pringle's inventoried estate, in 1791, of £2,936-9-4, and that of Hannah Gill whose 1815 inventory lists a property value of £1,984-3-1.17 These values compared well with the wealthier propertied whites. However, they might not quite match the property holdings of Amaryllis Collymore.
In 1780, Amaryllis Collymore was sold as a slave to her white lover, Robert Collymore, owner of a substantial estate known as Haggat Hall, of properties in Bridgetown, and father of her four children.18 She was manumitted in 1784. Curiously, the manumission was effected through her resale to Robert's friend James Scuffield.19 Scuffield manumitted Amaryllis and her family in 1784.20 By 1805, she is listed as a property owner in Bridgetown where she sells a property valued at £800 in Roebuck Street.21 In 1824, she was bequeathed an estate called Lightfoots and several slaves by Robert.22 In her own will of 1826, Amaryllis left 67 slaves to various relatives, with an estimated value of £3,000. This was but a small portion of her property value. She also left several silverware items, furniture, houses and lands at Haggat Hall and Bridgetown, valued in excess of £7,000.23
Another free colored woman, Elizabeth Swayne Bannister, whose freedom was secured by Sussanah Ostrehan, acting in collaboration with a mariner, Captain James White, also exhibited the proverbial "rags to riches" story. Manumitted in 1806, her will of 1828 leaves property in Berbice, British Guiana, £3,000 "to be applied to the maintenance, education and support of my daughter Jane Fraser who is at present at school in Glasgow." Another £2,400 was left to other relatives.24 Such growth clearly sent a message. If some free colored women could, within a few years of manumission, accumulate enough economic resources to rival those of wealthier whites, then others could achieve similar success.
The various tax records and the inventory identified for Sussanah Ostrehan do not give details of her occupation. However, several listings in her inventory provide some insights into the entrepreneurial activity which underlies her property acquisition. In the first place, her 1809 inventory lists, among other things, the following: 9 bedsteads with curtains; 5 feather beds; 7 straw beds; 3 bedsteads; 8 chamber tables; 14 rush bottomed chairs; 10 mahogany chairs with chintz covered bottoms; 21 cherry tree chairs; 15 green painted chairs. These items were listed along with 11 slaves, ten of them female.25 They suggest that, like her contemporaries, Rachael Pringle, Nancy Clarke, Hannah Gill and Sarah Ryan, she was involved in the "hotel" trade. Further confirmation of this was obtained in a chance reading of a deed involving the sale of land in 1816 by Matthew King of Guadeloupe to a free colored woman, Mary Nicholls. The land, valued at £1,000, was located in Crown Alley "on a street leading to Sussanah Ostrehan's Hotel."26
Explaining the accumulation of property as exhibited in these case studies requires a firm understanding of the socioeconomic constraints and possibilities which operated in the urban community. Like their white sisters, colored women functioned in a socioeconomic environment which subordinated their "freedom" to the dictates of a patriarchal economy. Moreover, these disabilities were compounded by the factor of racial inferiority. Their choices were generally limited to those areas that were considered economically unattractive and socially undesirable by most white males. Additionally, freedwomen were forced into areas of economic activity shunned by most white women, within a social system that sought to insulate white women from the taint of slavery. Free colored women discovered opportunities for autonomous entrepreneurial activity in the maritime business environment, and in alliances with white mariners and merchants who were driven by that basic tenet of trade, profit maximization. These considerations help to explain why in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the hotel/tavern services appear to be almost exclusively in the hands of colored women. Free colored women, along with female slaves were also to be found in the small trades sector involved in provisioning ships and acting as retail agents for ships' captains trading on their account. Their success in these ventures was significant enough for the authorities to complain in 1774 of the "inconvenience" stemming from "the traffic of Free Mulattoes [and] Free Negroes…who go on board vessels arriving here, and purchase live stock to revend…."27
The maritime trade contributed to the growth of the so-called "tippling and crimping" houses. The ownership of these taverns by free colored women brought them into direct competition with those who considered them as their social and racial inferiors. On November 10, 1801, a petition of Bridgetown merchants to the House of Assembly stated that "the number of tipling and Crimping houses dispersed over the town is highly injurious to the mercantile Body of this Island."28 The petitioners were concerned that the local taverns were pulling white seaman labor away from the wharves, leaving them to discharge cargoes at "a heavy expense by hired negroes." There is the strong suggestion also that free colored owners of these institutions were not averse to seizing the opportunity of garnishing extra income by contracting out the services of the very deserters they were accused of encouraging. The merchants complained that:
…Such is the ascendancy which the owners of these houses acquire over the [seamen] that your Petitioners have no other means of getting furnished, but thro' the Crimps, their Landlords, and are forced to submit to the most unreasonable and extravagant demands rather than forego altogether the profits of the voyage….29
The impact of the interaction between the crimps and their seaman market appears to be the basis of legislation passed in the mid-eighteenth century and still in force at the time of the 1801 petition. A fine was to be levied on any "evil disposed person…harboring or concealing any seaman or mariner."30 In addition, a fine of £10 was the punishment for any person who permitted a seaman to "remain in his or her home…after eight of the clock at night."31 In a specific reference to the tavern keepers, a penalty of "forfeiture of license for selling an retailing strong liquors" was to be imposed. They were to pay a security of £25 and to give a bond that "she or they will not harbor and conceal nor be aiding and assisting in the harboring and concealing [of] any seaman or mariner."32
Another cause for the local authorities' concern may have been the competition which was posed by the taverns to the white importers of "spirits." Indeed, a survey of 1804 shows that importers could have, at times, considerable stocks of alcoholic beverages. In March of that year the stock according to a report made to Governor Seaforth was made up of 12,610 gallons of brandy and 2,260 gallons of gin.33 There were other large stocks of porter. The local taverns usually served the local rum "neat" or in rum punches. Thus, they were in direct competition with the petitioners for the seaman market. It is not surprising, therefore, that the complainers would "most humbly pray your Honorable House…to limit the number of the said Houses (taverns) and adopt such other measures for their good conduct."34
The analysis reveals a cadre of self-confident females who were engaging white opposition on its own terms. Within the context of a slave society, freedwomen's ownership of property and their entrepreneurial activity posed a dilemma to the maintenance of social distance between the races. Perhaps nowhere is that reality so apparent as in the financial institutions through which freedwomen could gain access to the capitalization which they needed for business activities. In the local court records, there are frequent references to "confessions of judgement" which describe a legal procedure in which loan transactions between borrowers and lenders were recorded by the court. In most cases, the borrower was required to enter into a surety to repay the sum in a specified time. Failure to meet the time stipulation usually meant that double the amount secured as a loan was to be paid as a penalty. The documentary record shows that several free colored women were making use of the local capital market to access considerable funds.
For example, over the period 1816 to 1821, some 54 freedwomen were recorded as borrowing over £24,187 from 55 persons. The latter group of lenders comprised 4 free black males, 3 freedwomen, 4 white women and 44 white males.35 The sums ranged from the £10,277 which Elizabeth Butler borrowed from three white merchants, William, Howard and John Bovell, to the £25 borrowed by Jessey Welch from John Cutting. Some freedwomen, like Charlotte Piggott were recorded as borrowing several sums of money from various benefactors over the period. In this case, she had borrowed variously sums of £25, £63, £161, £53, and £80. Thus, over a five-year period, her cumulative borrowing totaled some £394. The very existence of this legal record is testimony to the way in which freedwomen had successfully earned the right to be treated as "significant others." While there may have been occasions when the money lent represented a gift cloaked in legal disguise, the documentary record provides some evidence of the recognition of free colored women as persons before the law.
Protecting the Resources
Property transactions in which freedwomen were involved provide testimony to the self-perception and to the extent to which they were interpreting the "room to maneuver" options of the society. For example, there is a general use of "trust" arrangements to ensure that hard-won gains were not to be eroded. The experiences of Mary Bellah Green, Hannah Gill, Catherine Sutherland, and Jessebah Bonnet help to illustrate this point.
On July 20, 1792, Mary Bellah Green, like Hannah Gill a "hotelier," executed a deed of conveyance with William Williams, a white "gentleman" and John Wright, a sailmaker. Williams paid the sum of ten shillings on Green's behalf for the conveyance of a house and land "in trust to the use and behoof of George William Hogshard natural son of the said Mary Bellah Green together of the Body of Joseph Morrison Hogshard a free mulatto man."36 There is no indication of the reason behind the involvement of Williams in the transaction. However, other deeds consummated in this period suggest that the "trust" arrangement was a protective measure used to ensure that free colored ownership of the property did not come into question. (The case of Hannah Gill that follows helps to consolidate this point.) If George Hogshard died without issue, the property was to be held "in trust" for "they Bellah Green and any their heirs." If this failed, the property was to be held for Green's two sisters "share and share alike."37 The transaction represents a clear perception of the legal conventions of the time by Green and her advisors.
In 1803, Hannah Gill conveyed a house on 1,340 square feet of land to a white carpenter, Philip Hacket, for 10 shillings.38 The small sum involved, as in tahe case of Mary Bellah Green, should alert us that there were considerations outside of the simple transference of land that motivated the transaction. Indeed, a careful reading of the deed reveals a free colored entrepreneur who had found ways of asserting her persona. In the deed, the land is conveyed to Hacket "in trust." The use of the term "in trust" immediately introduces another element into the conveyance. Clearly, Hacket is intended, only, to be the nominal owner. The terms and conditions of the "trust" are that Hacket was to "permit and suffer the said Hannah Gill and her assigns to hold and enjoy the said land, Buildings, House, and Premises and take and receive the rents and profits…for and during the term of her natural life…."39 The terms of this legal arrangement raise the question: Why did Gill enter into such an arrangement if effective control of the property still remained in her hands?
The relevance of the question is clearer when we recognize that the deed also specified that when Hannah died the property was to be held "in trust for the use of such child or children ("begotten of her body") to be equally divided between them if more than one share and share alike to them and their Heirs respectively…."40 If there were no other children the property was to be held "in trust" for her free colored daughter Leonora Mashart and in the event of the latter's death, for Leonora's father, John Mashart. Mashart senior's possession would be validated providing:
…He the said John Mashart his Heirs and Assigns finding allowing and providing for the Mother of her the said Hannah Gill if she shall then be living, good and wholesome meat, drink, washing, lodging, apparel and all other sufficient necessaries…. Provided always and it is the true intent and measure of these presents and of all the parties to the same…that it shall and may be lawful to and for the said Hannah Gill at any time hereafter at her will and pleasure to cancel revoke or make void these presents and everything herein contained….41
A partial answer to the question raised may be offered by recognizing that the period in which the deed was executed was characterized by intense pressure on the local colonial authority to curtail the property rights of free coloreds. This threat is portrayed in a letter sent by John Poyer of Barbados to Governor Seaforth on June 22, 1801.42 In his letter, Poyer undertook to remind the Governor that "two grand distinctions" characterized the Barbadian society. These distinctions existed, "firstly between the white inhabitants and free people of color, and secondly between masters and slaves." Moreover, "nature had strongly defined the difference not only in complexion, but in the mental, intellectual, and corporeal faculties of the different species."43 These distinctions, Poyer asserted, were recognized and adopted in the legal and political system. Poyer's diatribe must also be viewed against the background of an expanding debate on abolition taking place in the metropole.
Seafort's arrival from England was tied, in the minds of Creole whites, to this debate and it was known that his instructions required him to deal with such issues as the penalty to be imposed for the willful murder of a slave. Thus, it seemed appropriate for Poyer and his backers to declare their position on the social state of the island. It is to be noted also that Poyer's opposition to the free colored community owed its origin, quite apart from his ideological position as a slave owner, to his personal animosity to people of color. As a teenager, he had had to deal with the psychological trauma of the murder of a female infant relative by a slave.44
Poyer was particularly incensed at the possibility of the growth of a propertied free colored class with the capacity to challenge the social and economic hegemony of whites. Alluding to a law passed in England, and banning property ownership by aliens, he suggested that "upon a similar principle of National Policy the colonial law may properly...prevent the acquisition of real estate in the possession of free Negroes and Mulattoes."45
Apart from his concern over the growth of a propertied free colored community, Poyer reserved some of his bitterest attacks on the free colored female. He accused some of the leading citizens of the island of being intimately involved with freedwomen. Such involvement was "an encouragement to the vicious and impolitic of the colored tribe" and had under-mined the criminal justice system. His sentiments are well represented in the statement that:
The man who callous to the compunctions visitings of conscience and shame, regardless of decorum, scorning the restraints of religion and morality, lives in an open fornication or Adultery with a negro or mulatto prostitute, must possess too great a degeneracy of soul to be capable of exercising with dignity and propriety the function of Lawyer or Magistrate… We should, therefore, cautiously guard gainst the pernicious effects of the ascendancy acquired by these artful, venal, vulgar creatures over their misguided paramours.46
The complex legal arrangement constructed by Hannah Gill and her legal advisors is a masterful response to this attempt to further marginalize the coloreds. Her action represents a self-confident assertion of her ability to manipulate the legal parameters of her existence, to ensure her stake in the society and economy. Catharine Sutherland's deed of 1812 is similar to that of Hannah Gill.47 In Jessebah (also called Sarah) Bonnet's deed, executed on June 2, 1820, she conveyed to Joseph Collymore, a free colored man, a "certain boarded and shingled Messuage or Dwelling House…the same to be upon trust for the use Benefit and Behoof or Mary, Sarah, and Frances the children of Nanny, all slaves of the said Sarah Bonnet, until they shall be manumitted…."48 The rest of her property was to be held "in trust" for John Springer, "free man of Color, the reputed husband of the said Sarah Bonnet otherwise called Jessebah Bonnet." In this case Bonnet was expressing her control of property resources not only in favor of freed persons, but also in favor of the enslaved.49
Another freedwoman, Philadelphia Birney, expresses her control over property resources in another way. In her will, dated November 29, 1812, shenoted that she had made an arrangement with one John Hannibal Edwards to free his daughter, a female slave called Kitty Emiliar. Apparently, the arrangement involved Edwards finding a suitable replacement. However, as the transaction was "not done according to my wish" Birney required her son and heir, William Lewis Moore, "to proceed against the said John Hannibal Edwards or his yeares [sic: heirs] according to law as his property."50
In some cases, freedwomen used the services of their contemporaries, who they perceived as having important connections in the influential white community, to invest money and otherwise to act on their behalf. For example, on September 5, 1811, Ann Clarke, identified as a free mulatto (a prominent "hotelier") entered into a deed with John Bascom, a white "cordwainer." The deal involved the purchase of a house and land from Bascom for £200.51 Later the deed specified that Ann Clarke had purchased the property "for and in behalf of Mary Babb," another free mulatto. This type of arrangement was not unique and is to be found several times in the deeds records. Indeed, arrangements in which female slaves used the services of freedwomen may also be found. On December 3, 1801, Sussanah Ostrehan received a deed of conveyance transferring a female slave from a Bridgetown merchant to her. The deed specified that the money used to effect the purchase of the slave was "the proper money of the said mulatto woman named Mary Ann…and I (Sussanah) do acknowledge that I have no claim, or demand whatsoever over the said Mulatto woman…as a slave."52
In her will made in 1815, Sarah Depeiza, a free mulatto, left property in land and slaves to her sister Rachael in trust that her "reputed child" Sarah Rebecca would benefit from the sale or services of such slaves and land.53 Sarah Rebecca was to come into possession at the age of eighteen. If she died before that age, the property was to be divided, half to Rachael, a quarter to another sister Esther, and the remaining quarter was "for the use and benefit of [her] reputed niece Susan Boyle the reputed child of the said Esther…."54 Sarah stated that she was "satisfied that she [Rachael] will invest the said monies [derived from the services of the slaves and rental of land] in some other property more lucrative to the interest of my child."55 Such transactions serve to illustrate the piont that some of the contemporaries of these free colored women saw in the entrepreneurial success of their propertied sisters a barometer of their own possibilities. In many of the cases identified so far, an important linchpin of the success of these women was their manipulation of white males.
Manipulating the "Room to Maneuver Options"
One aspect of the freedwomen's success in asserting themselves appears in their use of prostitution services. The case of Betsy Lemon serves to introduce this aspect of maritime life in colonial Bridgetown. Betsy Lemon's story was related by a visitor to Barbados, Dr. George Pinckard, in 1792.56 Pinckard often lodged at one of the local taverns/hotels while on shore leave. He noted that the barmaids and attendants at these institutions were more often than not engaged in prostitution. He relates that "one privilege, indeed, is allowed them, which…is that of tenderly disposing of their persons and this offers the only hope they have of procuring the sum of money, wherewith to purchase their freedom."57
In one encounter, Pinckard remarked of one mulatto attendant (Betsy Lemon), that "her whole deportment bespoke a degree of delicacy and refinement." Further, she had exhibited "a degree of understanding and ability which claim respect." Given his earlier observation of the provision of prostitution services by such attendants, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that he was witnessing the art of courtesan at its best. This mulatto slave took Pinckard into her confidence, bemoaning her poverty which had locked her into her status with little hope of escape. In a letter written to a correspondent, to whom he had related this encounter, Pinckard later reported: "You will recollect the name of Betsy Lemon whom I formerly mentioned to you…she has opened a new tavern at Bridgetown where we have made a party of encouragement to take a dinner, and drink to the success of the hostess."58 Not only did Pinckard exult in Betsy's success, remarkable enough in itself, but he also encouraged his correspondent to patronize her services. He noted, "and from the accommo-dations we met with, I may add that should any more of your friends follow us to Barbados, you may assure them of attention and good treatment at the house of Betsy Lemon."59
Given Pinckard's excitement, it is not hard to assume that he might well have contributed to her success. Another contributor must have been a white mariner, Joseph Winus, who as Betsy's owner, and hirer of her services to Mary Bellah Green, the tavern owner, manumitted her.60
The deed of manumission, issued from Surinam with the assistance of a local attorney, states that it was issued "for and in consideration of the true and faithful services of his mulatto woman slave, named Betsy Lemon."61 Moreover, Winus had paid the large sum of £300 as a manumission fee to the churchwarden of St. Michael's parish, Barbados. Some freedwomen owed their manumission to such encounters and on receipt of manumission continued in the profession on which their success was based.
The experience of John Augustine Waller, who stayed in Bridgetown for a short time in 1820, shows how freedwomen attempted to manipulate transient males (perhaps not fully tainted by local prejudices) into their pro-emancipationist activities. Waller returned to his Bridgetown lodgings after a local trip to find a mulatto woman waiting for him. She had been the "cherie amie" of a military officer who had died leaving her with a child who was not covered by the manumission arrangements and "was her slave left to her by will." It was her desire to secure the girl's freedom that led her to seek Waller's help.62
Waller was informed that "as [he] was not yet provided with what is here considered an essential part of the establishment of every married man [he] ought not to let slip the opportunity of possessing a girl who was greatly attached to [him], and whose person was very superior to the generality of women of color."63 He had, apparently, encountered the girl on several occasions without recognizing her to be of mixed ancestry. The proposed arrangement was that Waller purchase the daughter from her mother for £120 and that he should free her on his departure from Barbados. There is no indication of the outcome of this tête-a-tête. However, the sum involved and the fact that Waller was not informed that he would have to pay a manumission fee of £50 suggest that pecuniary considerations were at least as important as the question of manumission itself.64
The market for prostitution services must have been expanding in a port town which was attracting at least 2,500 transients per annum in the 1780s and in excess of 5,000 by the mid-1830s.65 While it is difficult to quantify the potential earnings from this trade, the rates charged for the hire of a female seamstress (often a euphemism for a prostitute) coupled with this influx of transients suggest a relatively large potential. During the late eighteenth century the wages for an ordinary seaman were about 25 shillings per month. During wartime, this could go up to 65 shillings. The general practice was to pay half of the wages on arrival in a foreign port. Since in the Caribbean wages were tendered in West Indian currency, the tendency was for seamen to spend this money in the foreign port as the purchasing power might be further diminished on arrival in England. It would seem, therefore, that by the 1820s, the time of Waller's visit, a "guesstimate" of £6,200 as the annual potential of this market might be appropriate.66 Whatever the potential for earnings, prostitution as a service industry tended to commodify customer-client relations and to blur the social distinctions imposed by local white society. The self-confidence exhibited by colored women, slave and free, in procuring the assistance of white males is engendered within this context. The alliances between freedwomen, mariners and local merchants, which are discussed in the following section, extend this analysis.
Manipulating the Resources
The business activities of some freedwomen put them into intimate contact with white and colored males who could further their own ambitions. The experiences of Rachael Pringle, Nancy Clarke, Sussanah Ostrehan and countless other females make fascinating reading of how these entrepreneurs successfully used such contacts to challenge the system which sought to denigrate their existence.
Rachael Pringle apparently owed her initial start in the "hotel" business to the attentions of an officer of the Royal Navy, Captain Pringle.67 In 1779, she first appears as the owner of a single property in Back Church Street. By 1783, she was listed as owner of two properties, including a "boarded house" in Canary Street. The Levy Book of 1788 reveals that her holdings had increased to five properties valued at a tax rate of £10, £15, £15, £50, and £25, respectively. There was also a small property in Pinfold Street valued at a tax rate of £2-10s. In 1791, the property holdings were listed as "a large house, 2 side houses, 5 tenements in a yard, formerly Mary Ann Bellamy's and 2 houses."68 The "large house" was probably the "Royal Naval Hotel," which was well known to visitors in Barbados in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, not only for its lodging facilities, but also as a brothel.
When Rachael died in 1792, her property was left to Nancy Clarke.69 Nancy's story is an intriguing one. Under her management, the "hotel" was one of the "most frequented" in Bridgetown. She continued to run the business until 1807, when she retired and passed it on to a friend, Carolyn Barrow.70 Thereafter, Nancy dropped out of sight. The next reference shows that she had relocated to England, thereby achieving, by her entrepreneurial success, her social emancipation from the Barbados slave society. The reference appears in a certificate issued from the Lord Mayor of London on October 1, 1810. An affidavit is attached to this certificate which reads inter
I John Sherwood of Cushion Court, Broad Street, London, Gentleman, maketh oath that he was present and did see Ann Clarke heretofore called Nancy, otherwise Nancy Clarke, otherwise Nancy Collins of Barbados, free mulatto, but now residing in Duke Street, Saint James, in the kingdom of Great Britain….71
The certificate is also preceded by a deed in which "Nancy Clarke, free mulatto, but not residing in Duke Street…manumitted…a certain slave named Scipio, a negro man slave."72
Perhaps Nancy's movement to England was based on a perception that escape to that country offered the best avenue of self-emancipation. It is also probable that the "hotel" business put her in touch with whites who could be suborned by skillful manipulation into her emancipationist plans. What seems more likely, however, is that it was precipitated by questions raised by some of her white competitors concerning the legitimacy of her own manumission.
On February 3, 1812, John Ironmonger and Thoams Spencer, two prominent white merchants and "qualified executors" to the estate of Ann Clarke, filed a writ to have her property declared "not subject to escheat."73 The attorney general, John Beckles, in his written legal opinion declared that he had "seen the church warden's receipt for the manumission of Nancy Clarke and [was] of the opinon that there [was] no ground for escheating her property…."74 The naming of two white merchants in her will as executors, and her relocation to England, may well suggest that she perceived the security of her property as resting on an alliance with white power.
Another deed which records Nancy Clarke's activities in England reveals her perception of the socioeconomic possibilities inherent in a free colored-white alliance. After her death (1812), her white executors recorded the following in a deed dated May 25, 1813:
…Whereas Ann Clarke late of the parish of St. Michael and island aforesaid, free mulatto deceased being seized in fee and possession of a certain Mulatto girl slave named Satira some short time before her death…bequeathed unto her friends the said John Ironmonger the Elder, Thomas Spencer and George Ironmonger…the said Mulatto girl slave. Nevertheless [they] should at the expense of her estate as soon as possible after her death by a good and proper deed of conveyance grant and convey the said Mulatto girl…to any person resident in Kingdom of Great Britain and his heirs and assigns for the purpose of manumitting and setting free from slavery and bondage the said slave….75
After a lengthy preamble, the executors certify that they had complied with this request and had conveyed the slave, Satira, to a Liverpool surgeon, James West. This is followed by an affidavit and certificate confirming that "James West Practitioner in Physic and Surgery…shortly intending to sail to the island of Barbados…hath manumized, emancipated and made free the said Negro woman named Satira."76 Nancy Clarke had not only achieved her own escape, she had also used her "partners" to effect the emancipation of her female slave. Data obtained from various deeds in which the Ironmongers and Spencer disposed of property left by Nancy, to the benefit of her daughter Georgiana Brown, reveal that they adhered fully to her instructions. It is quite possible that they had recognized the importance of the free colored tavern owners to their business fortunes. They were shipping agents, and among the leading importers and exporters of alcoholic beverages in the island. The actions of other freedwomen contemporaries show that her actions were not novel.
Between 1801 and 1814, Sussanah Ostrehan was involved in a number of manumissions of mulatto slaves which illustrates the strategies which were possible. For example, on December 3, 1801, a Bridgetown merchant, Lawrence Mudie, sold a "colored slave" Mary Ann to Sussanah. The cost of the transfer was £150 in receipt of which Mudie declared that he "doth fully freely and absolutely grant bargain sell [Mary Ann] unto the said Sussanah and her heirs and assigns forever."77 This might well be viewed as a simple transfer of property in slaves were it not for a following deed of conveyance in which on this same date, Sussanah made it clear that the monies used originated from Mary Ann herself and that she was relinquishing any claim to this slave's person.78
It is unclear whether this deed would have met the legal requirements for manumission as enacted in Barbados at this time. Mary Ann might have enjoyed a de facto rather than a de jure freedom. However, it might simply have been a temporary arrangement pending the issuance of a deed of manumission in England at a later date.79 Other manumission arrangements made by Sussanah suggest that this might have been the case and that Mudie was only one among several other whites co-opted into her manumission program.
In another deed, this time dated September 1, 1814, Sussanah sold a "Mustee or Mulatto girl slave named Polly," to a merchant named Thomas Best "who was shortly intending to depart hence to the kingdom of Great Britain."80 In a deed issued in London later that year, the Lord Mayor issued a certificate of manumission for this slave.81 This followed an affidavit by Best that "…for diverse good causes and considerations me hereunto moving have manumitted, Enfranchised, set free and forever discharge…from all manner of slavery and servitude, my mulatto female slave named Polly, which slave is now resident in Barbados with Sussanah Ostrehan."82
The execution of a deed of manumission in England cost 10 shillings as against the £1300 fee required in Barbados under an 1801 statute. This fee was required for manumission of females with that of males set at £200. It was not until 1816 thtat the fee was reduced to its pre-1801 level of £50. The latter figure was beyond the reach of many white and colored persons. In fact, Jerome Handler notes that the raising of fees in Barbados was the single most important factor underlying the fact that 98 percent of the over 1,408 manumissions in Barbados between 1808 and 1816 were executed in Britain.83
Sussanah Ostrehan was involved in at least six other manumissions lodged in the Lord Mayor's office. These include that of her mother, Precilla Ostrehan, who, in Sussanah's will dated February 22, 1809, was bequeathed property "held in trust" by one Christian Blackman. This trust arrangement was to stand in place "until her manumission was expected [from England] in the Berwick [captained by] Captain William Welch."84 This manumission was successful, for Precilla's own will of 1810 refers to her as a "free woman of color." In two other cases, the route followed was through other Caribbean colonies where the manumission fees remained considerably below those of Barbados. Her sale of a mulatto slave named Rebecca to a free colored cordwainer of Dominica, Benjamin Alleyne, followed by Alleyne's deed of manumission in Dominica on September 18, 1805, fits into this mode. So,, too, does the sale of a female slave, Sally Kelly, to Tully Higgins of Essequibo, British Buiana, in October 1801.85
An examination of the deeds of conveyance recorded in the Levy Books shows that there was close collaboration between freedwomen entrepreneurs and captains of various ships that plied the Barbados-London-Liverpool-Bristol routes. Perhaps the heavy reliance of the merchant navy on the local "crimps/hoteliers" for seaman labor facilitated some shared interest. John Gillespie (or Gilespy), "master mariner," and captain of the ship Baron, trading between Liverpool and Bridgetown, was involved in 43 transactions involving manumissions between 1806 and 1818. Other ships' captains involved in the manumission of slaves on the behalf of free coloreds and others include William Williams, who was involved in 17 such transactions over a similar period; John Devonish trading to Bristol, and Walter Allen Meriton, each recording 6 deeds of manumission; Captain George Keyzar 9 deeds; William Wilson, master of the ship Concord trading between Bristol and Barbados, 16 transactions; Edward Wason 8 deeds.86 Another mariner who figured prominently in such arrangements with freedwomen was James West, a ship's surgeon, who was involved in 25 deeds.87 While most mariners issued the deed of manumission from London or Liverpool, several deeds were issued in Dublin, Ireland, and in the Caribbean, on the island of Antigua. In some cases, the names of mariners appear as witnesses in the deeds of others, executed in Britain. So far, this research has identified 47 mariners who were involved in the manumission of some 400 slaves in the period 1795-1830.88
The data introduced above indicate a well-developed network of relationships that linked a wide cross section of the freedwoman community, slaves, and mariners. It is likely that free colored women had carefully read the possibilities inherent in cultivating the friendship of these maritime business partners. In the case of John Perrott Devonish, his involvement suggests that, in some cases, the relationships were more than platonic. Devonish had a free colored mistress, from whom he had five children.89 There is also the possibility that he had a relationship with a female slave belonging to Ann Nicchols, a free colored property owner of Bridgetown.90 His connection with the pro-emancipationist activity of free colored women is also revealed in his acting as witness in manumission deeds transacted by Thomas West.91
Typically, the "master mariner" participating in the manumission network would enter into a deed of conveyance with free colored or white slave owners. The sums involved in such transactions were generally so low as to suggest that pecuniary interest was not the major fulcrum on which the conveyance rested. However, in a few cases quite large sums were involved, which raises the possibility that the small sums recorded were to satisfy public scrutiny only, while other transfers of cash took place behind closed doors. Whatever the motivation, the extract below represents the norm for the kind of transaction involved:
For and in consideration of the sum of Five shillings of Good and Lawful Money of this island to her in Hand at and before the Ensealing…of these Presents well and truly paid by William Welch, Master Mariner and Commander of the ship or vessel called the Berwick trading between the Port of London and this island (Barbados)…I Sarah Hartle, free negroe…Doth grant, bargain, and sell…unto the said William Welch…a certain negro man slave named Michael.92
On Welch's arrival in England two months and three weeks later, Michael was freed "for and in consideration of the sum of 10 shillings" paid to him representing, perhaps, the cost of the manumission deed in England at that time.93 Throughout the transaction, Michael remained in Barbados, a practice which is also typical of the manumissions carried out by the captains involved.
Free colored women also co-opted other transients into their pro-emancipationist plans. On July 6, 1815, Lieutenant John White of "her Majesty's Navy" was listed in the deeds register as buying a slave from a Maria Johnson. Just over a year later, he freed this slave, Nanny, "in testimony of his satisfaction with her conduct and as a reward for her faithful services."94 If John White's experience fits into that of John Waller, it is possible that he was the willing "victim" of a cleverly crafted emancipationist scheme. Such experiences as those recited above, placed alongside others which have been described, assist in identifying the Barbadian free colored women within a context of self-confidence.
The contexts identified above permit us to widen the scope with which we began. In our reference to the letter written by Charlotte Belgrave to Governor Seaforth, it was stated that the importance of the letter lies in the insights which it offers of the responses of free colored women to their social and economic situation. Like other free colored contemporaries, Charlotte must have developed considerable self-confidence in dealing with white males. She begins her letter with a clear recognition of the importance of the Governor. "Forgive the Intrusion of an unhappy and afflicted woman." However, it seems clear that she is also prepared to use the prevailing gender conventions as a weapon in her armory, with which the Governor, like other expatriates of his class, would have sympathized. She accuses Gittens, the white accuser of her husband, of total disregard for her position as a woman and mother. She states: "is it the Daily sight of my five infants and I so far advanced in a state of Pregnancy rendered me unable to labor for them Drew no compassion from him; it only helped to give him opportunity to the more tyrannize over my distressed feelings…."95 Moreover, she drew the Governor's attention to the fact that a number of white witnesses had sworn in the lower court that Gittens had struck the first blow.
In calling attention to her sex, Charlotte was not unmindful of the realities of the racist social order that existed in the island. She promised the Governor that if he should judge favorably in her husband's case, "forever after himself nor none of his family ever will to the lowest descriptions of white persons stand in self defense not even if appearance of being murdered…." Moreover, if her case should prove false, she was "fully content to patiently bear her afflictions." The letter represents a masterful attempt to pull the Governor, as representative of the imperial authority, into what was a local situation. In that it presumes to question the fairness of the local judicial system and to challenge one of the elite members of the local white establishment on the grounds of his dishonesty and disrespect for the "gentler sex," it deserves our attention. It is unclear whether Charlotte was privy to the Governor's orders or not. However, Seaforth had been commissioned by his superiors in England to seek a fairer deal for the free colored population, and she could hardly have chosen a more fitting person to whom she could present her case.
What, then, are the lessons to be drawn from the encounters recorded in this paper? Clearly, there is some evidence that free colored women actively sought, and discerned, "room-to-maneuver" options in alliances with white male power. In some cases these options required some freedwomen to sell their bodies, or those of others in order to exploit the available possibilities. However, while some elements of "treacherous collusion" with white racist interests might be present, the strategic use of sexual power is also to be identified. Moreover, there is evidence of a self-confident, pro-active approach to social relationships with significant others in the Barbados slave society. Free colored women spent their own money and that of others, and in so doing expanded their property holdings as well as their sphere of operations. The evidence is strong enough for us to state that freedwomen like Sussanah Ostrehan and Charlotte Belgrave understood and analyzed the dialectics of their social and economic environment, and found enough space to effect some mitigation of their socioeconomic conditions.
1Petition of Charlotte Belgrave to Governor Seaforth of Barbados, in the Seaforth Muniments GD46/17/5 Mfm. Barbados Department of Archives.
2Lucille Mathurin-Mair, "A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica from 1655-1844," Ph.D. thesis, University of the West Indies, Mona, 1974. See also Sheena Boa, "Free Black and Coloured Women in a White Man's Slave Society, Jamaica 1760-1834," M.Phil thesis, 1985. More recently Lorna Simmonds (1996) has completed a Ph.D. thesis on urban slavery in Jamaica. She has paid special attention to the role of the free coloreds in the urban environment.
3Hilary Beckles, Natural Rebels, 146.
4 See the following articles (all in Gaspar and Hine, eds., More Than Chattel): David P. Geggus, "Slave and Free Colored Women in Saint Domingue," 259-78; Susan Socolow, "Economic Roles of the Free Women of Color of Cap Français," 279-97; L. Virginia Gould, "Urban Slavery-Urban Freedom: The Manumission of Jacqueline Lemelle," 298-314.
5Socolow, "Economic Roles," 292-3.
6Boa, "Free Black and Colored Women," 236.
8R.M. Martin, History of the British Colonies of the British Empire (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1967), 68.
10J. Handler, The Unappropriated People, 20-1.
11Deed RB3/42/404-405 (BDA).
12St. Michael (Bridgetown) Vestry Levy Book, 1779.
13St. Michael Vestry Levy Book, 1783.
14St. Michael Vestry Levy Book, 1788.
15St. Michael Vestry Levy Book, 1793.
16Inventory of Sussanah Ostrehan, 1809; St. Michael Vestry Levy Book, 1806.
17Inventories of Rachael Pringle, 1791, and Hannah Gill, 1815 (BDA).
18Deed RB1/150/447 (BDA).
22Original will of Robert Collymore, 1824 (BDA).
23Original will of Amaryllis Collymore, 1826.
24Original will of Elizabeth Swayne Bannister, 1828.
25Inventory of Sussanah Ostrehan, 1809.
27An Act the Better to…Remedy the Mischiefs and Inconveniences Arising to the Inhabitants of this Island from the Traffic of Huckster Slaves, Free Mulattoes and Free Negroes," quoted in Samuel Moore, Public Acts in Force (London: Luke Hansard, 1801), 166.
28Petition of Merchants of Bridgetown to the Barbados House of Assembly, 10 November, 1801. Minutes of the Barbados House of Assembly, 10 November, 1801 (Transcript, BDA).
30Act cited in RB1/216/244-254 (BDA).
33Seaforth Muniments. Returns of Merchants to Governor Seaforth of Barbados, 1804(Microfilm GD 46/17/80), BDA.
35Confessions of Judgement, St. Michael Precinct Court Records, Barbados Department of Archives.
42See "John Poyer's Letter to Governor Seaforth," Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Vol. 4.8 (August 1941), 150-65.
43"Poyer's Letter," 163.
44"Poyer's Letter," 164.
56George Pinckard, Notes on the West Indies (3 vols)(London: Longman, 1806), Vol. 2, 245-7.
59Martin, op. cit., 68.
60Deed RB3/41/92; Deed RB3/41/94.
62John A. Waller, A Voyage in the West Indies (London: Sir Richard Phillips, 1820), 6.
64Warren Alleyne, Historic Bridgetown (Bridgetown, Barbados: The National Trust, 1978), 71.
65Martin, op. cit., 68.
66The monthly rental of a servant in the early nineteenth century was about 12 dollars (local currency). Useful discussions on the wages and conditions of British seamen in the merchant navy are found in Ruth Bourne, Queen Anne's Navy in the West Indies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939), 86-90. See also N.A.M. Rogers, ed., The Naval Miscellany, Vol. 5 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984), 245-7, and R. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 62-104.
67Various accounts of Rachael Pringle's life are found in: Neville Connell, "Prince William Henry's Visits to Barbados in 1776 and 1789," Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society (J.B.M.H.S.) 24.4 (1958): 160. See also Sir Algernon Aspinall, "Rachael Pringle of Barbados," J.B.M.H.S. 9.3 (1942): 112-9, and J. Handler, "Joseph Rachel and Rachael Pringle-Polgreen: Petty Entrepreneurs," in David G. Sweet and GaryB. Nash, eds., Struggle and Survival in Colonial America (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1981), 376-91.
68Inventory of Rachael Pringle, 1791.
69Alleyne, op. cit.
79Between 1801 And 1816, manumission fees were sharply increased. Some freedmen and women were forced to turn to the Lords Mayor Offices in the various cities of Britain. In Britain, the manumission fees were 15 shillings, falling later to 10 shillings. See also Handler, The Unappropriated People, 41-7.
80 Deed RB1/259/16.
83See Note 79.
84Original will of Precilla Ostrehan, 1810 (BDA).
85See Deeds RB1/229/90 and RB1/220/322.
86The Deeds recording the transactions of Gillespie and his contemporaries are recorded in RB1/251-269 and RB1/229-248. In addition, some Deeds are recorded in the RB3/vollumes of the BDA.
89Deeds RB1/255/10, RB1/241/18, RB1/231/277.
90Deed RB1/249/73-74 lists slave children belonging to a free colored woman, Ann Nicchols. The slaves in question were John Perrott Walrond (a boy) and Christian Rachael Devonish (a girl).
95Petition of Charlotte Belgrave to Governor Seaforth of Barbados, in the Seaforth Muniments GD46/17/5 Mfm. Barbados Department of Archives.