Barbadian women and slavery

Barbadian Women and Slavery

Amerindian women helped, married and had children for the new settlers. In her book Love Child, L.S. Salazar concludes that because the earliest baptismal (British) registered only the fathers name: “What can therefore be concluded is that their mothers were Native American or African-Amerindian, because when the mother is European her Christian name and surname is given whether she is married or not.”

She also writes that a German mercenary who had been exiled to the island in 1652 for the part he had played in the Battle of Worcester described the inhabitants of the island as being sallow in complexion, an example of mixed-breeding.

After 1628 the Dutch Governor in Main (the southern continent) married an Amerindian and before 1657 an Indian woman found a British sailor who had gone to the Main (the southern continent) to search for food and was under attack by Indians. She hid, sheltered, fed and nursed him back to health; she fell in love with him and returned to Barbados with him where he sold her as a slave and she was force to work amongst servants. There is a pond called Yarico’s Pond in the South where they say her cries can still be heard but most likely was where she gave birth to a child by the old Indian custom of birthing near water and then jumping in with the newborn in the arms.

Less than one percent of the colonist who arrived in 1635 were women and Dorothy Simmons is the only woman amongst about eight hundred men recorded in the first census of the next year to own more than ten acres of land. The first woman named in business is Joan Fullers. She was owned a tavern called the Bridge where the planters went to eat fish. Woman hucksters sold vegetables, crabs and homemade goods. There is not much information written about women of any colour in Barbados before the 18th century. Phoebe Forde ran a small shop after she was freed and managed to raise the money to purchase her slave-children.

The contemporary historian of the University of the West Indies, Dr. Pedro Welch, in his books and articles used a freewomen, Susannah Ostreham, a 18th Century whore house keeper and her contemporary madames, to ask if these females were revolutionaries and the country’s first female liberation fighters. He calls them “strategists seeking liberation” and suggested that prostitution is a Machiavellian way to achieve the goal of freedom “by any means necessary.” Prostitution he suggested can be a weapon of empowerment.

His heroine Susannah, with whom he is in love, appeared suddenly as the owner of one property; four years later she owned two more; five years later six properties and at her death she owned six properties worth nearly four thousand pounds, ten female slaves, one male slave, horses and two chaises. She freed eight slaves but used their own money.

Dr. George Pinckard who writes in 1790 about these local taverns said that slave girls were treated in the most cruel manner by these madames, who tried to earn as much money as possible out of them while they adopted the life style of the wealthy whites - in well-appointed houses, horse and carriages while the rest of the coloured community lived in poverty:

The hostess of the tavern, usually a black or mulatto woman, who has been the favoured enamorat of some backra (white man) from whom she has obtained her freedom, and perhaps two or three slaves to assist her in carrying on the business of the house, where she now indulges in indolence, and the good things of life, grows fat, and feels herself of importance in society ... It is to her advantage that the female attendants of her family should be as handsome as she can procure them. Being slaves, the only recompense of their services, is the food they eat, the hard bed they sleep on, and the few loose clothes, which are hung upon them. One privilege, indeed, is allowed them, which is that of tenderly disposing of their person; and this offers the only hope they have of procuring a sum of money, where with to purchase their freedom.”

The taverns were called after the person who kept them. The most frequented at Bridgetown, were “Nancy Clarke” and “Mary Bella Green.” The title Mrs. was reserved for white women. Bed was half a dollar a night, or three dollars per week; and, for an additional sum the choice of an attendant.

Nor can they fail to amass large fortunes, as their houses are generally filled with strangers, who must submit to the most exorbitant charges for every article of eating, drinking, as well as for the accommodation of lodging and washing. These taverns are besides houses of debauchery, a number of young women of colour being always procurable in them for the purpose of prostitution.” Dr Walker, and Englishman who visited Barbados in 1802 -1803.

In London, the Bishop of Bath at that time owned many whorehouses and by Welch’s logic he who buys a house and packs it with whores is really doing social serve; maybe that is why Sir Robert Peel, after the first police on the river Thames police was formed about this time, by the West India Trading Company to protect their docks and part of the river,did not worry about the brothel whores but just tried to move the whores off the street. Another big person who just died in prison is Gottie in America; he was a big Madame, nobody had as many brothels as he had. So far I can find no woman, at that time, of similar revolutionary fervour in England.

Claude Levy wrote in the 17th century that slave prostitution in Barbados was “an occupation which was more common at Bridgetown than in any other city in the British West Indies.”

In the last three decades of the 18th Century Bridgetown was at its peak as a colonial port with 480 ships per annum and 4000 movements. The estimated annual value of the cargo imported exceeded £700,000.00. These figures did not include inter island shipping. Business boomed: trading opportunities abound and in the hustle and bustle of port life freedmen, women, slaves and whites interacted in a varied and variety of new and less inhibited situations. A small group of freedmen and freed women began to make money, own businesses, and buy property.

In 1792, sixty-six freemen and 72 freedwomen owned property with a value in excess of £500.00. A. Handler writes about a number of successful free coloured women owners of “who acquired property and slaves.”

With this increase in maritime traffic some freewomen prospered by opening taverns and inns. These women appeared suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century as small property holders and as a mistress to white men and then suddenly their worth increased quickly as they expanded into taverns as houses of prostitution

Rachel Pringle, a big, fat, mulatto, mistress of a naval officer, is the most well known. She was set up in a hotel called the Royal Naval Hotel by her paramour. When she died in 1791 she left an estate of nineteen slaves, and an estate worth £2,936 9s. 4p. Then there was Hannah Lewis, mulatto and archrival to mulatto Betsy Austin whose hotel offered the best in “mental and corporeal entertainment”, though at exorbitant rates. Hannah died in 1815 leaving £1,984.00 3s. 1p. worth of material goods. Caroline Lee was another. She was Betsy Austin’s petite mulatto sister after whom a Barbadian yellow sweet potato is named. Sabina Brade was an old fat black woman. Nancy Clarke a black, Mary Bella Green a mulatto woman.

In 1644 the Antiguan planters passed a law that outlawed sex between white Christians on one hand and African demons and Indian heathens on the other but Barbadians had no such prohibition. Barbadian planters, kept female slaves for sex from the very beginning. Young white males practiced sex on domestic slaves. Slave women were brought into the household for that purpose. The Barbadian planters considered this a privilege and their legitimate right. All criticism was renounced. Plantations estate owners, managers, and white labourers took easy, cheap sex from the large numbers of slave females. Lack of legal protection made sexual dominance (frequent rapes, sexual coercion, sexual harassment) an integral part of the order. The master picked off the cleanest, handsomest, prettiest slave girls for he and his friends.

Slave mistresses were more popular in the main port Bridgetown because during the “hard season”between crops the estate owners began to “let them “out” as prostitutes for cash in ever-increasing numbers to the ever-growing number of taverns in the ever-expanding maritime trade. The planters found easy, convenient money. It was more profitable than using these wenches as breeding stock. These slave girls were sent to the soldiers’ barracks just outside of town for the commission officers and the soldiers.

By 1790-91 the question of slave prostitution was raised before the House of Commons Inquiry into the slave trade and all evidence was heard. In 1837 when Sturge and Harvey carried out their “emancipation tour of the British West Indies, most hotels and taverns in Bridgetown were still considered “house of debaucheryand full of prostitutes. A man called Cooper from the abolitionist lobby said the slave population did not achieve positive growth because of the prevalence of prostitution among young females - on the estates as well as in town

A. Horton writes that sharpened by a keen sense of a male dominated society they “pro-activelypursued prostitution. Edward Long, a defender of slavery stated that black women were born for it; that they were highly efficient performing sex machines without morals: “From their youth they are taught to be whores, and to expect their living to be derived from immoral earnings.” J. B. Moreton, in 1790, blamed their mothers who arranged the clients and received the money out of their daughters’ bodies.

The mulatto woman: brown, yellow, coloured, free or slave were the most desirable females on the island. They captivated Bayley along with the “hearts of English, Irish, and Scotch men on the island.” As he watched when they took their evening walks he wrote:

If I accord the palm of female beauty to the ladies of colour, I do not at the same time deteriorate the attractions of the fairer (white) creoles; the stately and graceful demeanour which calls upon us to admire the one, does not forbid us to be fascinated by the most loveliness of the other; yet I will acknowledge that I prefer the complexion that is tinged, if not too darkly, with the richness of the olive, to the face which, however fair in its paleness, can never look as lovely as when it wore the rose blush of beauty which has faded away.”

They were demanded by every social sector, the closer to white the higher the price. The more exclusive tavern and hotel owner encouraged these yellow-skinned women to their establishments. White women trafficked them to Europe as housekeepers - “married off for a certain time” for “a round sum.” White men kept them as mistresses from “an early age”. Black madames in the country used them as prostitutes with lesser whites and other blacks. Although some could be found as prostitutes they were more likely to be the mistress of a white man, freed or married to a coloured man. Male writers wrote odes to their beauty but vilified their characters. Thomas and Kimbal argued that coloured women were “taught to believe that it was more honourable and quite as virtuous to be kept mistresses of white gentlemen, than the lawfully wedded wives of coloured men.”

Bayley said that:

Generally speaking, they (coloured women) look down (and very unjustly) with a feeling of contempt on men of their own colour, who are, in rank, wealth, and situation in life, fairly on a level with themselves, and rather than live with them in a virtuous and inoffensive life, they prefer dwelling with a white man in a state of moral degradation: the man finding himself despised by women of his own colour is obliged to seek a companion among those of a darker hue; and he, in his turn, deeming her unworthy to be his wife, will only maintain her in the condition of a concubine. It is thus that profligacy and immorality beginning in the dwelling of the proprietor, descend to the hovel of the slave, and are everywhere practised though they are everywhere condemned.”

They were called “morally suspect” creatures, who used sex with white men to begin business ventures and were accused of forming a “treacherous collusion” with white males that excluded black and mulatto men. The freed ones held “dignity balls”, “quality balls and “routs to entertain sailors and naval and military officers were great frequenters. Poyer complained that only white men were invited.

Governor Ricketts arrived at Barbados in 1794 from Tobago in vogue with his mulatto mistress. He installed her in a small house in the yard at Pilgrim, the governor’s residence. The white plantocracy, who had their own wooden house enclosing their own dark mistresses, complained of the young lady’s privileges and character.

“She enjoyed all the privileges of a wife, except the honour of publicly presiding at his table. His Excellency’s extraordinary attachment to this sly, insidious, female was the greatest blemish in his character, and cast a baleful shade over the lustre of his administration….” Wrote John Poyer.

One John Perrott Devonish had five children with his free coloured mistress and in all likelihood had another relationship with a female slave belonging to a free coloured property owner.

In 1820 John Waller returned to his lodgings and found a mulatto woman, the “cherie amie of a dead military officer, with a child who was not covered by a manumission arrangement, and “was her slave left to her by will.” Since Waller had no female companion and the daughter was “very superior to the generality of women of colour and was attracted to him, the mother who wanted freedom for her child asked Waller to help. He was asked to buy the girl from her mother at £120.00 and arrange her manumission when he returned to England. The Anglican Church’s vestry would have to be paid £50.00 as in all the other manumissions.

Such deals were part of long-term strategies for eventual freedom. It was much cheaper to free a slave in England where the papers cost 10s. as opposed to £300.00 in Barbados. That is why ninety eight percent of the over 1,400 manumission between 1808 and 1816 were done in England.

The taverns/hotel services in the towns were by the late 18th century entirely owned and operated by free women and through their contact with white mariners - ship captains, ship surgeons, officers - who frequented their establishment opportunities arose. As the various ships plied the Barbados/London/Liverpool/Bristol route they became a source of manumission. Between 1806 and 1818 they executed forty-three manumissions. Two hundred and nine slaves were freed through the actions of these mariners from 1795 to 1816.

In 1811, the rector of the St. Michael parish church, commenting on the “very rapid increase in the number of its freed slave inhabitants since 1802, suggested that “out of every four at least three “were females who obtained that privilege by becoming favourites of white men.” He was supported in 1831 by Joseph Husbands who added:

By far the greater number of free coloured persons in Barbados have either obtained their freedom by their own prostitution, or claimed it under some of their female ancestors who in like manner obtained it and have transmitted it to the descendants.”

Old Mrs. E. Fenwick, an English schoolteacher who lived in Bridgetown during the 1810s saw it as slavery of a different sort all part and parcel of “a horrid and disgraceful system”. She wrote “Female slaves are really encouraged to prostitution, because their children are the property of the owners of the mothers. These children are reared by the ladies as pets, are frequently brought from negro houses to their chambers to feed and to sleep, and reared with every care and indulgence till grown up, when they are at once dismissed to labour and slave-like treatment.”

Sampson Wood of Newton Plantation in the late 18th century informed the estate owner in 1796 that most of the female domestic slaves “either have or had white husbands, that is, men who kept them.”

Thomas and Kimball merchants were advised, when they first came to Barbados, to engage “coloured females to live with them as housekeepers and mistresses.” It was not unusual for a man to have more than one. Bayley, Waller and Pinckard between 1790's and 1820's and wrote that white elite males kept white women as wives for formality, respectability and to look after the home. Coloured women for sex and socializing, and black women for sexual adventurism.

Colonel Hilton, a professional British soldier, saw a Creole white woman in the slave market examining the genitals of a slave. F.V. Bayley, and English travel writer of the 1820's wrote about slave prostitution in Bridgetown as a highly organized institution that white Barbadian males considered socially indispensable.

A very respectable matron, who had shown a kind of motherly affection for a young friend of mine who came over (from England) to settle here as a merchant, advised him in the most serious manner to look out for a young mulatto or Mustee girl for his housekeeper, urging that it would greatly increase his domestic comforts and diminish his expense; and, in the addition to this, she hinted very delicately, that, by being confined to one object, his health and reputation would be better secured, than by the promiscuous libertinism to which she seemed to consider every young man as habitually addicted.”

John Waller, in the 18th century, testifies:

In the family where I lodged, a respectable lady was regretting to the company at dinner, that a young female slave, whom she had let out for several months, was about to return, as she would loose twelve dollars a month, the price of her hire and besides, be at the expense of maintaince of her. After dinner, I made inquiry respecting the subject of hiring slaves, and learned that the one in question had been let out to an officer in the garrison, with whom she had been living as a mistress. I felt extremely shocked at the idea of so strange a traffic; but I found, a few days later, this very slave publicly advertised, in the “Bridgetown Gazette” in the following curious terms.”

To let, a seamstress, a well-looking mulatto girl, seventeen years-of-age, an excellent hand at the needle, etc. To prevent needless application - terms twelve dollars per month. Apply etc.’

I had previously noticed advertisements of this description, and I believe that few weeks passed without them; they are, however frequently intended only for the purposes literally expressed.”

Sarah Ann Bacon was the daughter of James and Mary Bascom of Barbados, born 30th November, baptised 5th December, 1770. She married Thomas Harris of Barbados on 28th February, 1780. The marriage was childless. The two were in France during the French Revolution and escaped the political turmoil and killings dressed as a peasant and a fruit seller. Thomas Harris died sometime in 1804 and his will was proved on 25th April 1804. He left all of his estate to his wife. Sarah Ann married John Humpley on 30th May 1805. Humpley was a wealthy planter and Bridgetown merchant born in England circa 1773. He owned a plantation with 477 acres, slaves and stock and property in the main city. A sale of some of his property in 1803 realized 17,664 pounds. The couple produced a son John Humprey on 13 June 1806. Sarah lived to the age of eighty. Out of her vast estate she left $160.00 for the use of the greatest charity in the 18th century, the charity she founded herself on 07th September 1825 along with the Governor’s wife and twenty four other rich wives who set themselves up as the conscience of the rich. Their husbands were the governors and owners of the slave society where only seven years before there was no crime in killing a slave. Where even then a non-white man was forbidden to walk on the pavement of the city street, and could not give evidence in the law courts against a white man. Their Lady Patroness was ordained to be the governor’s wife or the wife of the President of the Assembly in their constitution.

The Society gave assistance to the aged, destitute, indigent, and infirm. They began supplying 36 persons in the greatest need with a 2 cent daily meal, a small allowance of candles, sugar, clothing, medicine, wine and an allowance of a quarter dollar a week. They rented a house and hired a cook to prepare the meals. The ladies attended daily to see that the “greatest economy was observed” - that the diet was well cooked and “impartially distributed.” They begged their friends in business house for lumber, nails and hardware and repaired the worst dilapidated houses of the unfortunate. They sought jobs for poor women, visited the poor and checked on their welfare. They got their doctors friends and acquaintances to give free consultation and treatment. They began, with much criticism from the Anglican Church, a fun-raising bazaar. They made repeated calls for ten years for a General hospital, which was finally opened in October 1839. They bought property and set up old persons home and called for homes for the indigent. Young, old, men, women, coloured, white, and black came. By 1838 they were feeding 98 people and had served thirty three thousand four hundred dinners at 2 cents each.

Meanwhile, the beautiful, never mentioned at all, Lydia Smith, a free coloured woman in St. Peter, was educating, nurturing and teaching her beloved son Samuel Jackman Prescod born in 1806. In 1829 Lydia’s son began agitating amongst the coloured elite for an end to their complacency. As a result free coloured people were admitted to the vote in 1831. He would become the first coloured man to be elected to represent a constituency in Barbados, Bridgetown on 06th June 1843.

The End