Monday 7 November 2011

Martial Law at Christmas

Christmas in the Caribbean slave societies was one where the uninhibited behaviour of the white population displayed a weakness and offered an opportunity for a revolt by the slaves.
One such revolt was planned for Christmas 1805. The revolt was organised to commence on an estate belonging to the Shand family in Diego Martin. From there, it was to spread through the island. It was meant to have been planned by some French and African slaves, and to have been masterminded by an African known as King Sampson, of a group describing itself as the “Regiment Macaque”. He had the appearance of an old man of Ibo descent, “but had a hidden reputation of a powerful obeah man”.
The planters, ever watchful especially after their Haitian experiences, were quick to foil the Christmas plot. The British, in whose hands the island was, acted with the thoroughness that was to characterise their colonial rule, and the first of several revolts of the black population was summarily and violently put down, resulting in the execution of several slaves.
It was against this backdrop that it became general practice to declare Martial Law at Christmas. One of the reasons given for this was to control abandon among the white inhabitants. In addition to the overall merrymaking, there was also the more serious problem of dueling. Excessive drink tended to arouse passions, in which words, often spoken out of turn, soon became a matter of honour between the aggrieved parties. This resulted sometimes in death, often in serious injury.
It would appear that the practice of dueling became quite widespread with not only the free coloureds taking it up, but also the slaves. Life in Port of Spain in the first decades of the 19th century, the 1800s, had many of the characteristics of a wild west town in the southern states. Men rode horses, most were armed, there were buggies, wagons and huge flat-trayed hand carts which were manhandled about the muddy streets.
Many trading companies were in the process of setting themselves up, some to last for generations, such as Wilson & Co., Charles Leoteaud & Co. John Boissière, in the absence of a bank, operated as a money lender, lending large sums on mortgage to estate proprietors. This operation was to continue well into the 1940s. There were slave importers, such as the Barry and Black, who were infamous for the importation of “poor cargoes”.
With the Woodford administration coming into place in 1813, every effort was made to impose order in the colony. Service in the militia was compulsory in the white and in the upper-class coloured community. Woodford was disgusted with the French Creoles of all hues and their habits of “easy love”, which produced an endless stream of coloured, illegitimate children.
Unlike his predecessors, Col. Thomas Picton and Don José Chacon, Woodford did not keep a black mistress, and unlike them did not leave a coloured family behind him when he died.
Sir Ralph Woodford was determined to stop Trinidadians from behaving in such a manner totally unbecoming of a British colony. John Crowley, historian and anthropologist, commented on Sir Ralph’s disgust for the French practice of dueling:
“Woodford determined to scourge Trinidad of this pernicious custom and used his own almost unlimited power and the severe enactments of the Spanish laws against duelists. The initial effect was to concentrated encounters at Christmas, when Civil Courts were closed. Woodford used the Court of Royal Audience (that remained open to him) to punish offenders.
According to Crowley, Martial Law during the Christmas season in 1820 should have ended on January 2, 1821. However, it was continued until the “Twelfth Night”, January 8, on which day the Board of the Illustrious Cabildo was sworn in, the companies of the West India regiment and the militia were inspected by the Governor, and a ball was held at the Governor’s house.
“By 1824, Woodford’s disciplinary measures had altered considerably the way in which Christmas was celebrated,” writes Crowley. “Contrasting past laxity with the present, the Trinidad Gazette commented: ‘The times since then have changed. The noise, the mirth, the revelry, and the inebriety are now found chiefly amongst the slaves and lower classes.’”
Christmas on the plantations, depended on the nature of the administrators’ relationship with their slaves. In one case, the owner’s wife was invited to a ball given by the slaves from St. Vincent, who had come to Trinidad from that island with herself and her husband in the 1830s. In her diary, the planter’s wife, Mrs. Carmichael, describes that the plantation house kitchen was given over to the slaves so that food may be prepared. Later, she visited the dance where the slaves paid great attention to proper dress and decorum. She was happy to report that there was no drinking or fighting. Music was provided by female singers, accompanied by a drum, with women playing chac-chacs. The dance was given by the slaves to welcome the new slaves who had been freshly acquired by the estate. There was much singing songs of their own composition, speeches and good wishes for a crop of sugar.
At Christmas, allowances and prizes were handed out to the slaves on estates. “A very merry scene” as Mrs. Carmichael described it. The slaves covered their faces with flour and put flour in their hair, calling out “Look at he white face and he white wig”. This form of role reversal is echoed with white people dressing as black gardeners, blackening their faces in the Carnival mask “Neg Jardin”.
The French philosopher and statesman of the 16th century Michel Chevalier wrote: “He who views the events of the past with the eyes of his time is very much exposed to a chance of error. Many a time it is a panorama in which the objects are dim, because one is placed beyond the point of view.”
This particularly so when attempting to understand the relationships between the white slave owners and the African slaves, especially so in that the history of these years were not taught to succeeding generations. Instead, the events of slavery were heavily politicised by the colonials on one hand, who tended to act as apologists - “Well, you know, slavery in Trinidad was short-lived. Slaves were expensive - would you destroy an expensive tractor because it would not start?” or “The French were not absentee owners. They had nowhere to return to because of the revolution and as such were paternalistic.” On the other hand, politicians upon independence, themselves the descendants of slaves, promoted the idea of terrifying, nightmarish conditions on the estates in which slaves were brutalised, murdered and raped out of hand.
The evidence, however, shows a mixture of conditions, reflective of the human condition and the nature of the times. The times themselves were brutal. Some slaves were dangerous, murderous men and women, whether in these islands or in Africa. Some performed heroic feats of bravery to save white people. Exactly the same yardstick may be applied to the Europeans, human nature being universal.
There was, however, one substantial difference, which was, of course, personal freedom. Lionel M. Fraser, historian of the late 19th century, reported the words of this song, perhaps dating from the 1790s and probably the first local song noted in history:
Pain nous ka mangé,
C’est viande beké
Di vin nous ka boué
C’est sang beké
Hé, St. Domingo,
Songé St. Domingo

(The bread we eat is the white man’s flesh,
The wine we drink is the white man’s blood,
He St. Domingo, remember St. Domingo.)

John Crowley remarks on this song: “For the ‘Supreme Tribunal’ the connection of these ‘allusions’ with a plot for insurrection was overwhelming, as was a ceremony held four times a year that was said to be ‘a profane and blasphemous parody of the Christian Sacrament’.”
The other song, perhaps the second ever noted by history, came from Mrs. Carmichael’s diary and dates from the 1830s. She writes:
“I heard some of the young negroes singing, as I thought, rather a singular song. I asked J. to sing it for me; he hesitated and said: ‘Misses, it no good son’. Why do you sing it, then? ‘Cause, misses, it a funny song, and me no mean bad by it’. At last I prevailed on J. not only to sing the song (which turned out to be an insurrectionary song), but to explain it. The words are these:
Fire in da mountain,
Nobody for out him,
Take me daddy’s bo tick (dandy stick)
And make a monkey out him.
Poor John! Nobody for out him, etc.
Go to de king’s gaol,
You’ll find a doubloon dey;
Go to de king’s gaol,
You’ll find a doubloon dey.
Poor John! Nobody for out him, etc.

The explanation of this song is, that when the bad negroes wanted to do evil, they made for a sign a fire on the hillsides, to burn down the canes. There is nobody up there to put out the fire; but as a sort of satire, the song goes on to say ‘take me daddy’s bo tick’ (daddy is a mere term of civility, take some one’s dandy stick, and tell the monkeys to help to put out the fire among the canes for John (meaning John Bull). The chorus means that poor John has nobody to put out the fire in the canes for him. Then when the canes are burning, go to the gaol and seize the money. The tune to which this is sung is said to be negro music; it is on a minor key, and singularly resembles an incorrect edition of an old Scotch tune, the name of which I do not recollect.”

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