Prior to 1783, there were few African slaves in Trinidad. A plantation economy was virtually undeveloped here. Slavery, in fact, operated from a different perspective in early Spanish times in Trinidad. For it was from Trinidad that large quantities of tribal people (Arawaks and Caribs) were captured and transported to other islands, such as Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic), Jamaica and to various places on the South American continent.
Just a few people of African descent lived here along with the Spanish colonists and the dwindling Amerindian population. It has been remarked by chroniclers that the overall poverty that pervaded the island was such that there was hardly any difference between the Spaniards, their ‘mestizo’ and ‘zambo’ children and their slaves.
Plantations began with the arrival of the French and other catholic settlers in the 1780s. Sugar and cotton began to be grown in quantity and the need for African slave labour grew rapidly. Africans arrived with their owners from the other islands. They were considered ‘seasoned’: first, second or even third generation-born in the Caribbean, might have made them immune to some tropical diseases. They were French or Spanish-speaking and well assimilated into the estate life of master and servant. Many were highly regarded and considered ‘valuable’. Other slaves came increasingly out of Africa. They were often sick after the sea journy. Some were not used to labour, others pined and died.
Professor Bridget Brereton of the University of the West Indies writes in ‘Book of Trinidad’:
“African slavery and European colonisation in the Caribbean are inseparable. Africans and Spanish-born blacks arrived in the islands along with Columbus and the earliest Spanish settlers and enslaved Africans soon became the major work force for the mines, plantations and ranches established in the Hispanic Caribbean in the 16th century.”
By the end of the 18th century, African slave labour would become the basis of the social and economic structure of these islands. After the British conquest of 1797, there was a dramatic increase in the black population. At the time of the conquest there were some 10,000 slaves in Trinidad. By 1802, just five years later, there were 20,000. That year, the island was formally ceded to England and Trinidad’s first significant fortunes were made.
By 1806, the slave trade was prohibited in the British Empire. This resulted in a gradual decline in the slave population up until 1834, when slavery was abolished by the British altogether. In this period, Trinidad’s African-born population came from a variety of areas. They were brought out of Senegambia in western Africa, to northern Angola in the south, to central Congo. Some people were islamic Mandigoes from sub-Saharan Africa.
It has been suggested that as late as 1813 the majority of slaves were African-born. This was somewhat unlike older colonies like Tobago or Barbados, where slaves had been imported at a much earlier date and the slave population was already in their second or third generation.
In 1813, slaves from the Bight of Biafra formed the largest single group (about 39%) in Trinidad. After 1834, as the older Africans passed away, the balance shifted in favour of the Creoles, those born in Trinidad and in the other islands.
The relationship between masters and slaves was not always clear-cut. Many young Frenchmen with little prospects at home set out to make a fortune in the Caribbean. Taking advantage of the generous land grants and other encouragements being offered to them in the 1790s, they acquired slaves and cleared land and built the necessary infrastructure to set up sugar plantations. Hard work was the order of the day. Outnumbered by the slave population, the master had to depend on brute force and coercion on the one hand and on the other the real need to look after the health and upkeep of his most significant investment, his slaves. For land there was plenty of, but increasingly slaves were becoming a dwindling resource. Often plantations were bought up not for what they produced or for their acreage, but for their slave populations.
European women were also pretty scarce in those early years (1770s - 1790s). Many relationships were formed between master and female slave. It is only through the wills of these slavemasters that a true glimpse of the nature of these relationship may be gleaned.
Translation of the Will of Jean de Lampètre, a French planter who died at an early age on his estate at Marabella, 1821
“In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, etc. etc.
I, Jean-Amard Marie Alphonse de Lampètre, commend my soul to God.
I declare that I am the proprietor of the estate of Marabella in partnership with Mr. Charles Burlington, and the estate called Union in partnership with Governor Picton, also in the estate in Grenada called Thelsaide.
I wish that the Negro called Sampson and the two Negresses called Jeannette and Marguerite be given to Messrs. Alysen directing that they should sell the said slaves to the owner of best repute in the island or give them the opportunity of choosing their own Master.
I declare that I have two natural children by the Mulatress Luce living at present in my house. The boy was baptised in Guyana on the 3rd April, 1792, under the name of Charles Barclay and the girl was born in this island on the 26th November last and baptised under the name of Marie-Anne.
I declare that I give to my Mulatress Eliza her liberty and my wish is that she enjoy all that is possible after my decease; I give to her fifty pounds portuguesas.
I give to my Mulatress Magdelaine a negro named Jean Francis, at present employed on Union estate.
I give to the Mulatress Luce the sum of five hundred pounds portuguesas.
I give to my son Charles Barclay the sum of one thousand pounds portuguesas, which is to be paid to him on his majority and which is to be guaranteed by all my properties bearing interest at the rate of six percent for his upkeep and education.
I give to the girl Mulatress, Marie-Anne, his sister, the sum of three hundred portuguesas, which sum is to be paid to her at her majority and which is to be guaranteed by all my properties bearing interest at the rate of six percent for her upkeep and education.
I appoint for tutor to my above mentioned children M. Salvador Dominic, my neighbour and friend.
I give to Governor Picton a cask of Madeira wine and a cask of rum which are at present in my store with his mark.
I give to the Mulatress Luce all my clothes and household furniture which have been declared to belong to me by the district police.
(from ‘Book of Trinidad)
A note on the origins of slavery
The institution of slavery has been a part of the human condition from very early in recorded history. From biblical times it is recorded that the Egyptians made slaves of the Hebrews. The entire Greek civilisation was founded on economic leverage provided by slavery. At first, the Greeks mostly enslaved each other, but later, as their empire expanded into Asia, the Mediterranean basin and north Africa, their slave population became quite cosmopolitan.
Following the Greeks, the Romans too possessed a vast slave population, many of them Greeks. Educated and multi-talented, they often served to improve their masters. The Germans enslaved their neighbours of the Slavonic tribes, the ‘Slavs’ from whom the term ‘slave’ originated.
From the early 14th century, continuing almost to present times, considerable numbers of slaves were brought out of Africa across the Sahara to Muslim countries in North Africa, and from there to other Islamic states in the Middle East. Fr. Anthony de Verteuil notes in his book ‘Seven Slaves and Slavery’ that as late as the 1950s, there were over half a million slaves, mainly African, in Saudi Arabia.
Slavery assumed significance to us with the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Its origins in this context had to do with the Portuguese explorers, making their way along the west coast of the African continent, seeking routes to Asia. The first African slaves were brought back to Lisbon in 1441 by the navigator Gonzalves. They were a gift to the King. With this mindset in place, the European exploitation of an entire continent, its people and its primary resources was set in motion. This produced the most significant displacement of people against their will seen in modern history until Joseph Stalin did the same thing to various peoples in central Europe in the 1920s and 30s, sending millions to perish in slave camps in Siberia. Amongst those who suffered were the Slavic people - the ironies of history are very seldom lost.
As historian de Verteuil states:
“Between 1530 and 1600 an average of 13,000 slaves a year were shipped to the Americas. The number doubled in the 17th century, touched 70,000 a year during the course of the 18th century and soared to 135,000 per annum.”
It has been estimated that approximately 12,500,000 slaves were exported out of Africa. This does not take into consideration the numbers of those who died on the journey.
By the 1720s, the process had become more selective. Cargoes shipped from Ghana of 600 slaves were organised so that two thirds were males and one third females. Six seventh of each cargo had to be between 16 and 30 years of age, one seventh boys and girls of which none should be under 10 years of age.
The records show for Liverpool merchants in 1789 that slaves exported (that is, abducted) from Africa were as follows:
”Total exports for the year 74,000; the British 38,000; the French 20,000; the Portuguese 10,000; the Dutch 4,000 and the Danes 2,000.”
Subjects of African kingdoms became slaves in various ways in Africa itself too. Sometimes they were enslaved as a penalty for a crime or as recompense for a debt, sometimes travellers may have been caught by local warlords and sold. People in outlying districts were kidnapped. Great kings received thousands of slaves as tribute. Throughout west Africa, slavery existed. It was, however, as a result of tribal wars that the vast quantity of prisoners were sold as slaves to Muslim traders, who in turn sold them to the Europeans. These wars were often fought mainly for the capture of slaves.
In 1813, there were 11,633 slaves in Trinidad who were described as ‘Creole’, that is born in Trinidad or other West Indian territories. There were 13,984 slaves born in Africa and brought to Trinidad. Amongst these were 2,863 Ibo from Nigeria, 2,450 Congo, 2,240 Moco, 1,421 Mandingo, and 1,068 comprised of the peoples of Komantyn, Fanti and Ashanti. Other tribes such as Horuba, Haussa, Fulani (Peul), Rada and Susu made up the remainder in smaller numbers. In total, some 25,696 slaves made up Trinidad’s slave population in the decade before emancipation.
In the period following the establishment of the plantation system in Trinidad (1783) and especially after the dramatic and devastating events of the slave uprisings in Haiti, the planters grew increasingly afraid in Trinidad. Already, there had been the terrible effects of poisoning on many estates. Not only slaves had fallen victim of poisoners, but also overseers and sometimes the children of the master and one of his favourites.
Rumours of a planned uprising spread. A conspiracy was meant to wipe out the slave-owning population of Trinidad in one go. Over the years it has been suggested by some historians, however, that this was not so much a conspiracy halted ‘in the nick of time’, as much as it was a preemptive measure mounted by planters who were hysterically afraid for their lives and a British administration only too eager to impose authoritarian rule.
It would appear that some sort of plot was planned for Christmas day 1805. Historian E.L. Joseph in his ‘History of Trinidad’ (1838) calls attention to this plot and states that “the revolt was to have commenced on Shand’s Estate. It appeared to have originated among some French and African Negroes.”
In Fraser’s History, mention is also made of this terrible incident. He points out that the slave population was some 20,000, while the slave-owning, white and free coloured inhabitants were half that number.
History tells us that the authorites acted by declaring martial law and moved swiftly to apprehend those involved. As it turned out, the slaves had organised themselves into various societies. This was not unusual as in their African homelands there were many such secret groupings, denoting advancement into maturity and initiation into tribal rites.
In the context of Trinidad’s slave society, where members of various tribes were mixed and mingled on plantations for security reasons, these groupings or societies of Africans continued, but had assimilated European systems of order and designation. The slaves started to give themselves names such as ‘Major’ or ‘Captain’ and described their societies as ‘Regiments’.
By His Excellency Thomas Hislop
Proclamation of Martial Law in Trinidad
(abridged from the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, February 1st, 1806)
“Whereas there are strong reasons to apprehend that this Colony is threatened with internal dangers from the nefarious machinations of ill-disposed negroes and slaves in this community: And His Majesty’s Council of the said Island having recommended me to adopt the masure of Martial Law.
All persons must suffer temporary and individual inconvenience for the general welfare of the community. Notice is hereby given that the several patrols will be ordered to take up all negro and other slaves, who shall be found in any of the streets of Port of Spain, after eight o’clock at night and to lodge them in security during the night. Such negro or other slave who may be found to have offeneded against any of the ordinances now in existence will be immediately punished with death, or otherwise, according to the regulations of the siad ordinances. All such negro or other slave attempting to escape from the patrols will be immediately shot. All persons concerned are therefore required to make the same known to their several slaves.”
Punishment of persons found guilty of conspiracy in contemplated insurrection of slaves
(abridged from the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, February 1st, 1806)
Roo - Colonel in the Cocorite Regiment to have both his ears cut off, to receive as severe a flogging as the Surgeon attending may think he can bear without injuring his life, and to be banished from the Colony, not to return to it under pain of death.
Bastian - Colonel in the Sans-Peur Regiment, Carenage, to receive one hundred lashes and to be returned to his owner, first having an iron ring of ten pounds weight affixed to one of their legs, to remain thereon for the space of two years.
Adelaide Dison - alias Buzotter, free woman - Queen of the Macaque Regiment, to work in chains for life, with an iron ring of ten pounds weight affixed to one of her legs.