Friday, January 23, 2015

The Nottingham Free People, After the Sugar Death Camps

The following is reprinted directly from Maggie Koerth Baker's weekly newsletter, the Fellowship of Three Things, in which she reports briefly on three things that caught her attention during her year as a Niemann Fellow at Harvard.

The First Thing: The First Free Town

I went to the British Virgin Islands over my winter vacation and was shocked at the way history is presented to tourists in that overwhelmingly tourism-driven economy. Everywhere we went, "history" of the region began in 1493 or thereabouts, and then jumped immediately from European settlement to swashbuckling pirates to modern times.

The fact that the British Virgin Islands (and, really, the entire Caribbean) were once sugar plantations/death camps for African slaves was pretty much left out entirely. I don't use the term "death camp" flippantly here, either. Sugar manufacturing was extremely dangerous work and the people forced to do it died in droves. Here's an excerpt from Slavery, Smallholding, and Tourism by Michael O'Neal, a book I ran across in a coffee shop in Road Town, Tortola, and which was virtually the only mention of slavery that I saw during the trip.

At virtually every stage of the plantation productive process, the health of the slaves was in jeopardy: Setting off for work in the chilling predawn mists, the field slaves were alternately broiled and soaked with tropical sun and rain, with no protection save their hats of felt or straw or the flimsy shelters erected at the edge of the fields. Factory slaves were shielded from the rain, but the hellish heat and stink of the boiling, curing and distilling houses were scarcely more healthy than the fields. In all phases of work, pulmonary infections and fevers had ideal conditions in which to flourish and spread. Given such conditions, it should hardly be surprising that by the time they had attained the age of forty-five, most slaves, especially those involved in the productive process, were considered to have passed their prime ...
Sometimes, O'Neal writes, slaveowners would rid themselves of these "past their prime" slaves by accusing them of crimes like striking a white person or attempting to run away...crimes that were punishable by death, after which, the owner was refunded by the colonial government for the loss of the executed property.

But O'Neal's book is also where I learned about the Nottingham Free People – a community of freed slaves that is possibly the oldest free black community in the Western Hemisphere. Released from bondage en masse in 1776, the community initially consisted of 25 slaves who were granted not only their freedom, but also the land they had worked – 50 acres on the island of Tortola, the entirety of the former plantation of Long Look. (It's likely they weren't actually freed until about 1790, thanks to delays in communication and the legal upheaval the declaration caused when it finally reached the island.) By 1823, the community had grown to 43 and was successfully governing itself and providing for itself, despite a devastating hurricane and drought in the intervening years that ground agriculture on the island down to a near stand-still. That year, according to a recent story in The Virgin Islands News Online, a white man named John Dougan wrote a glowing report of the Free People:
So quiet and retired had these Persons lived there, that although I have been for many years residing in the Island, yet I derived no knowledge of the Situation and Circumstances regarding these People ... Not one of them is in debt, and their Property is free from all Encumbrance That 12 of the grown up Persons are admitted Members of the Wesleyan Methodist Society, and with their Children attend regularly the Methodist Chapel at the East End of the Island... since their Emancipation to the present Day none of them have been sued in Court, or brought before a Magistrate to answer a complaint against them. One of them once obtained a Warrant against a Person who had assaulted him, who begging his Pardon, He forgave Him."
Today, many descendants of the Nottingham Free People still live on and own the same land.


More on sugar and slavery.

Sign up for the Fellowship of Three Things here.

No comments: