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Home » About » Blog » Enslavement, Refuge, and Black Life Beyond the Caribbean’s “Merchantable” Space

Guest post by Patrick T. Barker, Clements Library 2019 Price Fellow

Across the late 1760s and early 1770s ‒ in a series of what, at first, may have seemed unconnected acts ‒ enslaved women, men, and children fled southward in number from the then-British Caribbean colony of Carriacou in the southeastern Caribbean. The fugitives, wrote the British Windward Islands’ governor William Leybourne in the summer of 1773, “escape from us in boats to some of the nearest Spanish settlements,” lured by “unknown agents” who had instilled in the escapees “notions of freedom.” Despite “repeated applications” to Spanish officials in Trinidad de Barlovento, Isla de Margarita, and Caracas, Leybourne explained in the island’s survey, that “no redress [could] be procured” even as British Carriacou’s planters actively sought the Spanish government’s re-enslavement of the fugitives.[1] Many – if not most – of these fugitives would make landfall in Spanish Trinidad de Barlovento, where sanctuary policies in place since 1680 theoretically offered freedom from slavery in exchange for Catholic conversion and allegiance to the Spanish crown.[2]

Map detail c. 1810

This detail, from a ca.1810 map of the West Indies, shows the proximity of Grenada/ Tobago/ Carriacou, and the Spanish Coast at Caracas.[3]

The Carriacou fugitives’ undeniably daring acts of escape, in effect, led them from slavery toward a kind of freedom that Spanish sanctuary in a non-plantation space might offer. The fugitives had learned of Spanish sanctuary, Leybourne alleged, through information shared by “unknown agents” visiting the island. These figures, “unknown” to the British Windward Islands’ government, were apparently known and trusted by Carriacou’s fugitives. Their identities remain unknown to this day. But these unnamed itinerant figures were almost certainly representative of a highly mobile “masterless” class of men and women, who Julius S. Scott has shown moved between and beyond spaces of plantation cultivation in the late eighteenth century Caribbean, inspiring fugitivity and sometimes rebellion.[4] These masterless itinerants probably had knowledge of Spanish law because they were either Spaniards themselves – or as sailors and fugitives, they had managed to survive in the region precisely because of their ability to know, and then transgress imperial law and evade surveillance.

Adding weight to the latter possibility, in the same survey series that contained the brief story of the Carriacou fugitives’ escape, Leybourne complained that Carriacou’s neighbor to the South, Grenada, had become notorious for contraband trading. British merchants purchased Spanish cattle and mules from smugglers sailing from the southern mainland. In Grenada, planters sought animal labor and power for the island’s sugar mills.[5] In exchange, Grenada’s merchants were known to sell Spanish smugglers significant volumes of British manufactured goods. Such contraband networks, Leybourne claimed, had proven difficult to suppress.[6] Carriacou’s residents also carried on a sizeable contraband trade with smugglers from the south, and as Leybourne noted, the “smugglers who visit it are well acquainted with its bays and harbours.”[7]

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, then, to suggest that such “unknown agents” ‒ through smuggling and maritime travel, knew a great deal about the region’s island and mainland geographies, further to its laws. To remain undetected and uncaptured by government officials, they too will have understood well the timing and volume of imperial patrols policing certain maritime routes. And they will have almost certainly known the most navigable oceanic currents linking Carriacou to the non-plantation space of Trinidad de Barlovento. It is precisely these kinds of figures who would have been well positioned to provide enslaved would-be fugitives with the maritime and geographical knowledge necessary for their successful escape.

Carriacou’s fugitives had left a confined plantation space where around 2,700 enslaved people labored, primarily on cotton plantations, under the supervision of just one hundred white settlers.[8] They escaped to an island that no one in 1773 could have truthfully described as plantation colony. With few European settlers and more than two thousand indigenous people constituting its demographic majority (of which most were settled throughout Trinidad de Barlovento’s Spanish missions) “Trinidadia,” Leybourne wrote, was a “fruitful well watered extensive island” with “no merchantable produce…allowed to be planted.”[9] The island, according to Leybourne, was occupied by only a Spanish governor and around fifteen loyal Spanish soldiers in 1773.[10] With little doubt, Leybourne exaggerated imperial Spain’s absence on the island. But it is true that Trinidad de Barlovento was one of an ever-diminishing number of Caribbean islands where colonial society had yet to be fully organized around the cultivation of so-called “merchantable produce” such as slave-cultivated sugar, cotton, cacao, coffee, and timber for export. Leybourne, much like his contemporaries throughout Britain and the Americas, had come to understand this form of racialized commodity production as “natural” to the Caribbean by 1773 – and so Trinidad de Barlovento existed as something of an anomaly – something unnatural – to high imperial officials like Leybourne.[11]

From the vantage point of over fifty years later, had the fugitives – or Leybourne, for that matter – been alive, they would have almost certainly viewed Trinidad de Barlovento, now British Trinidad, in a radically different way. Nestled in the African American History Collection at the Clements Library, a short but remarkable document – a neatly folded overseer’s report from the Brechin Castle plantation dated to 1827 – is one of several demonstrating the transformative events which had transpired in Trinidad since 1773. In the late summer of 1827, preparations had begun for the 1828 sugar harvest on Brechin Castle, a medium-sized estate in the geographical center of Western Trinidad’s sugar zones. The report lays bare the brutal toll of sugar cultivation on the daily lives of the enslaved.

At the end of August 1827, Brechin Castle’s overseer Mr. Philan wrote in his monthly report that the “cultivation of canes looks well.” But economic success for the plantation owner and its managerial class had come at great cost to the health of the estate’s enslaved workers. Of fifty-five enslaved laborers on the estate, fourteen people had been waylaid in Brechin Castle’s hospital that month – some eleven men and three women. Heavy rain had apparently made working conditions worse, but illness had spread throughout the plantation’s captive workforce. “Clarissa has had the dysentery but is now well” wrote Philan. “Teddy,” an elderly man, had been “since June last in the hospital.” The doctor, Philan wrote, could find “nothing the matter with him” but Teddy had apparently insisted he was unable to work. The other captive workers “who were in the hospital were low and slight fevers” he wrote. They would all recover – at least to the extent that Philan believed they could perform their tasks – and would soon be “on their work” to produce and process a “large crop”, with 80 acres of cane under cultivation on the estate.[12]

Brechin Castle Report 1827, 2 pages

Brechin Castle Estates Journal, [Trinidad] Partially Printed Document, August 1827 (Images 1/3 of 4 pages total). Accessible online.

I came to the William L. Clements Library as a Jacob M. Price Fellow in an effort to better understand the relationships between enslaved politics, expanding imperial regimes of plantation agriculture, and political ecology in the southeastern Caribbean across the late eighteenth through early nineteenth century. Viewed panoramically, in the long wake of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), European empires repeatedly struggled over territorial claims in the southeastern Caribbean, nurturing wide-scale projects of capital investment, indigenous removal and suppression, white settlement, slave-trading, and slave labor in their relentless attempts to accumulate financial gains from establishing and governing plantation colonies in the region. The diverse array of Caribbean-related manuscripts held at the Clements Library – from the aforementioned Henry Strachey Papers and the African American History Collection, to the George Macartney Papers, Maréchal de Castries Papers and the Alexander Wedderburn Papers – contain a wealth of material pertaining to the political and socioeconomic transformations that so profoundly marked the region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, across both the inter-imperial South American mainland and the cluster of French, British, and Spanish colonies on islands to its north.

Patrick Barker working at the Clements

Patrick Barker at work in the Avenir Foundation Reading Room at the Clements Library, August 2019.

Read against the grain, these collections offer opportunities to reimagine the histories of a region – which like the Greater Caribbean more broadly – can only be partially understood when told from the perspectives of imperial administrators and planters. In doing so, we might notice the futures unrealized by those who left behind little or no paper trail as much as the paths taken by the planters and their allies in the region. Those who labored in the cane fields, cotton rows, and cacao walks of empires’ riches rarely failed to contest the violent boundaries enforced upon their lives, developing myriad strategies to endure, undermine, contest, and flee the conditions forced upon them.

Patrick T. Barker

Jacob M. Price Fellow


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[1] Query’s related to his majesty’s island. Carriacou. Vol. 2., Henry Strachey Papers, The William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan, 230-231.

[2] On Spanish sanctuary policies in Trinidad, see Bram Hoonhout and Thomas Mareite, “Freedom at the fringes? Slave flight and empire-building in the early modern Spanish Borderlands of Essequibo-Venezuela and Louisiana-Texas,” Slavery & Abolition, 40:1, 62.

[3] Detail from The West Indies exhibiting the English, French, Spanish, Dutch & Danish settlements with the adjacent parts of North & South America, ca.1810. See also Thomas Jefferys, The Coast of Caracas, Cumana, Paria and the Mouths of Rio Orinoco with the Islands, 1801.

[4] See Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind. Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, (London: Verso, 2018), 7.

[5] Query’s related to his majesty’s island. Grenada. Vol. 2., Henry Strachey Papers, The William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan, 188.

[6] Ibid, 220.

[7] Query’s related to his majesty’s island, Carriacou. Ibid, 230.

[8] Ibid, 229.

[9] Query’s related to his majesty’s island, Grenada, Ibid, 191.

[10] Ibid, 191.

[11] On “natural produce” see Query’s related to his majesty’s island, Grenada, Ibid, 189; See also Tobago. Answers to Lord Dartmouth’s Query’s, Ibid, 278.

[12] Brechin Castle Estate Journal, August 1827; Box 2: African American History Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, M-454, 2.