Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/March 1893/White Slaves and Bond Servants in the Plantations

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 March 1893  (1893) 
White Slaves and Bond Servants in the Plantations
By Alfred Burdon Ellis
By Colonel A. B. ELLIS,

FEW but readers of old colonial state papers and records are aware that between the years 1649 and 1690 a lively trade was carried on between England and the "plantations," as the colonies were then termed, in political prisoners, who were sentenced to banishment in the former country and shipped to the colonies, where they were sold by auction to the colonists for various terms of years, sometimes for life, as slaves.

The government of the Commonwealth appears to have been the first to adopt this convenient if unjustifiable method of disposing of troublesome adversaries; and in Cromwell's proclamation to the Irish people, dated Youghal, January, 1649, and written in answer to the declaration of the Irish prelates at Clonmacnoise, we find the following: "The question is of the destruction of life, or of that which is but little inferior to it—to wit, of banishment. Now, first, I shall not willingly take or suffer to be taken away the life of any man not in arms, but by the trial to which the people of the nation are subject by law for offences against the same; and, secondly, as for the banishment, it hath not hitherto been inflicted on any but such who, being in arms, might justly upon the terms they were taken under have been put to death, as might those who are instanced in your declaration to be 'sent to the Tobacco Islands.'" And in a dispatch from Cromwell to the "Hon. William Lenthall, Esq., Speaker of the Parliament of England," dated September 17, 1649, and describing the storming of Drogheda, we find with reference to those men who, contrary to the custom of war, had continued their resistance after the place had been carried and quarter given: "When they submitted, these officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed; and the rest shipped for the Barbadoes."

Banishment, however, was not a punishment reserved for the Irish taken in arms against the Commonwealth, for the same measure was meted out to Englishmen and Scotchmen who incurred the displeasure of the Protector; and the "Tobacco Islands"—namely, St. Christopher, Nevis, and Barbadoes—did not enjoy a monopoly of this traffic, for prisoners were sent in large numbers to the New England colonies, and, after the capture of Jamaica from the Spaniards, to that island. Of the ten thousand Scottish prisoners who were taken at the battle of Dunbar, five thousand were dismissed on account of sickness and other causes, and the remainder marched to Durham and shipped for North America and the West Indies. How those who reached the former country were disposed of we learn from Hutchinson's Papers relative to the History of Massachusetts (Boston, 1769), in which is a letter from the Rev. John Cotton to Oliver Cromwell, as follows: "The Scots whom God delivered into your hands at Dunbar, and whereof sundry were sent hither, we have been desirous as we could to make their yoke easy. Such as were sick of the scurvy or other disease have not wanted physic and chirurgery. They have not been sold for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for six or seven or eight years, as we do our own; and he that bought the most of them, I hear, buildeth houses for them, for every four a house, and layeth some acres of ground thereto, which he giveth them as their own, requiring them three days in the week to work for him by turns and four days for themselves, and promiseth as soon as they can repay him the money he laid out for them, he will set them at liberty."

The lot of these unfortunate Scots was pitiable enough, but it seems they were treated with far more consideration than their follow-sufferers in the West Indies. In Massachusetts, too, to judge from the foregoing letter, the purchaser could terminate the period of slavery when he wished; but in the West Indies the banished were sentenced to specific terms of servitude which could not be shortened; and where no term was mentioned the slavery was, before the law of 1681 (33 Charles II), for life. There is still in existence in Jamaica a deed executed in the secretary's office in November, 1671, between Robert Nelson and Thomas Pitts, by which the former, in consideration of the sum of £10, conveys to the latter and his heirs forever one white servant named Stephen Ayliff.

As we have said, Englishmen were likewise banished, and a great many of the royalist party who took part in the abortive rising of Wagstaff and Penruddock at Salisbury in March, 1655, were sent to Jamaica and Barbadoes, with reference to whom Carlyle says: "A terrible Protector this. . . . He dislikes shedding blood, but is very apt to 'barbadoes' an unruly man—has sent hundreds and hundreds to Barbadoes, so that we have made an active verb of it, 'barbadoes you.'"

After the Restoration, Charles II did not scruple to use against his political opponents a weapon which they had employed so effectually against his party. The House of Commons which was returned by the general election of 1661 revived the old ecclesiastical policy and recommenced the persecution of Nonconformists, a series of penal statutes against them being passed and assented to by the king, in spite of the promises he had publicly made, both before and after his restoration, to grant liberty of conscience to all men. It was made a crime to attend a Dissenting place of worship. A single justice of the peace might convict without a jury, and might, for the third offense, pass sentence of transportation beyond the seas for seven years. With refined cruelty it was provided that the offender should not be transported to New England, where he was likely to find sympathizing friends. If he returned to his own country before the expiration of his term of exile, he was liable to capital punishment.[1]

Charles II made Jamaica one of the places of banishment for the Quakers, who would take no oaths either abjuring papacy, acknowledging the supremacy of the king, or swearing allegiance to him, all which omissions were considered to be treasonable offenses, and hundreds of them were sentenced as convicts and sent out. These were soon followed by the conspirators of the Whig and Rye House Plots in 1683, and in 1684 the Jamaica House of Assembly passed by command an act entitled "An act for ascertaining the servitude of the rebels lately sent from England, and to prevent all clandestine releasements and buying out their time, to the end, that after so great a mitigation" (as reprieve from hanging) "their punishment might yet in some measure be answerable to their crime." The author of the Annals of Jamaica informs us that these poor wretches were sentenced to ten years' servitude, and adds that few lived to its expiration, as may be readily believed when we remember that they were employed as "field hands" in a climate that at that time was notoriously unhealthy for Europeans, were insufficiently fed, badly housed, and hard worked.

In the reign of James II this inhuman practice was still continued. More than three hundred persons who took part in, or were suspected of being connected with, the rising in Argyleshire, were transported to the West Indies, many of them having first been subjected to mutilation; and several women were banished, after being branded on the cheek with a hot iron. The prisoners taken at the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and persons otherwise implicated in the rebellion of Monmouth, who were all technically liable to suffer death, were granted in batches to the members of the court, who sent them out to the colonies to be sold as slaves. The number of prisoners transported by the notorious Judge Jeffreys was eight hundred and forty-one. They were divided into gangs and granted to court favorites, the conditions of the grant being that the convicts should be carried beyond the sea as slaves, that they should not be emancipated till after ten years, and that the place of their banishment should be the West Indies. This last condition was studiously framed for the purpose of aggravating the misery of the exiles, for it was thought that in New England they would have found a population kindly disposed toward them. The stipulation, however, that the place of banishment should be a West India island was not in every case complied with, for some of the exiles certainly found their way to Virginia; and a letter addressed to the government of Virginia on the subject of the convicts says: "Take all care that they continue to serve for ten years at least, and that they be not permitted in any manner to redeem themselves by money or otherwise until that term be fully expired. Prepare a bill for the Assembly of our colony with such clauses as shall be requisite for this purpose." Less compliant than the Jamaica Legislature, which, as we have seen, had passed by command a similar act the year before, the Virginia Legislature appears never to have passed the measure sought to be forced on it, and at the accession of William and Mary all the exiles were set free.

Such was the condition of the slave market at this time that the convicts, notwithstanding the high rate of mortality during this, the earliest "middle passage," were very valuable in England. From a letter addressed to James II by Judge Jeffreys, protesting against the sycophants of the court sweeping up all the spoil, we learn that they were considered worth £15 apiece. He says: "I beseech your Majesty that I may inform you that each prisoner will be worth £10, if not £15, apiece; and, sir, if your Majesty orders these, as you have already designed, persons that have not suffered in the service will run away with the booty." The royal party in Somerset and the western counties pointed out that by the losses they had sustained during the rebellion, and by their exertions in its suppression, they had earned a right to share in this profitable speculation; but the king turned a deaf ear to their expostulations, and the court favorites remained victorious. The queen did not disdain to share in the profits of this inhuman business; and, instead of endeavoring to save even one single victim from this most frightful proscription, the only request that she is known to have preferred touching the rebels was that a hundred of those who had been sentenced to transportation might be given her. Macaulay declares that the profit which she cleared on the cargo, after making large allowance for those who died during the passage, can not be estimated at less than a thousand guineas. Of the horrors of the passage itself he says: "The misery of the exiles fully equaled that of the negroes who are now carried from Congo to Brazil. It appears from the best information which is at present accessible, that more than one fifth of those who were shipped were flung to the sharks before the end of the voyage. The human cargoes were stowed close in the holds of small vessels. So little space was allowed that the wretches, many of whom were still tormented by unhealed wounds, could not all lie down at once without lying on one another. They were never suffered to go on deck. The hatchway was constantly watched by sentinels armed with hangers and blunderbusses. In the dungeon below all was darkness, stench, lamentation, disease, and death. Of ninety-nine convicts who were carried out in one vessel, twenty-two died before they reached Jamaica, although the voyage was performed with unusual speed. The survivors when they arrived at their home of bondage were mere skeletons. During some weeks coarse biscuit and fetid water had been doled out to them in such scanty measure that any one of them could easily have consumed the ration which was assigned to five. They were therefore in such a state that the merchant to whom they were consigned found it expedient to fatten them before selling them."

John Coad, an honest carpenter, who joined the rebellion under Monmouth, was badly wounded in the skirmish at Philip's Norton, and tried by Jeffreys and sent to Jamaica, where he appears to have fared better than most of his fellow-exiles, has left us a narrative from which the reader may gather many curious particulars. He and those who were shipped with him were consigned to a Mr. Christopher Hicks, of Port Royal, Jamaica, who at first, having some Nonconformist leanings, refused to sell them; but on its being represented that if he declined that office it would only be filled by some one else, and that he might be instrumental in getting them good places, he consented to put them up to auction. The hour at which the market opened for the sale of the convicts was announced by the firing of a gun, and John Coad, more fortunate than some of his fellow-sufferers, passed into the hands of a humane planter with whom he was secure from ill-treatment, and in whose service he passed five years of his servitude. Immediately after the Revolution, and the elevation to the throne of William and Mary, a new governor, the Earl of Inchiquin, was sent to Jamaica, with instructions to release from their bondage and send to England such of the exiles as were still alive. This news spread rapidly among the convicts, and some of them went to the Governor to inquire about their freedom. The earl, who appears not to have read his instructions, and to have been of a choleric and hasty temper, had the deputation flogged and sent away; but was astonished to find, a few days later, that the men he had thus ill-treated were those who were specially recommended for kind treatment. He accordingly summoned the Council and proclaimed the freedom of all the exiles, who, after some little delay, were finally shipped home.

The participators in Monmouth's rebellion were the last who were ever sold into bondage beyond the seas and consigned to slavery, and the reception met with by those who went to interview the Governor will give us some idea of the manner in which exiles were usually treated. In most cases, in the West Indies, they were herded with the negro slaves, insufficiently fed, ill-clad, compelled to sleep without beds on the earthen floors of the hovels that were provided for them, driven out to work daily under a tropical sun, and flogged for the most trivial offenses. Scores of them succumbed to this treatment, and it must be remembered that these men were not malefactors, nor indeed criminal at all, except in a political sense. Most of them were men of blameless lives, and, as says Macaulay, they were regarded by themselves, and by a large proportion of the people of England, not as wrongdoers, but as martyrs who sealed with their blood the truth of the Protestant religion.

So much for the white slaves; we now turn to the bond-servants—that is, persons who engaged themselves as servants in the colonies for a certain number of years, and whose condition was little better than that of the convict-slaves. It is true that the bond-servant came to the colonies voluntarily, in theory at least, for in fact he was often a poor wretch who had been kidnapped in some English seaport and hurried on board a vessel, while the convict was banished; but, once in the colonies, there was little distinction made between them. Indeed, their position in most of the colonies was such that it is incredible that any persons should knowingly have engaged themselves; and we are forced to conclude that they were not informed of the conditions of their servitude, and were misled by false representations made by the agents of the colonists in England.

Each colony appears to have had its own law on the subject of bond-servants. That of Jamaica provided that bond-servants might be of either sex, and those who had not entered into contracts or agreements in England were compelled, after arriving in the island, to serve seven years if they were under eighteen years of age, and four years if they were above that age. The clause of the act ran thus: "All servants shall have according to their contract and indenture; and where there is no contract and indenture servants under eighteen years of age, at their arrival in this island shall serve seven years, and above eighteen years, shall serve four years, and all convicted felons, for the time of their banishment; and at the expiration of the terms aforesaid, shall receive from their last master, mistress, or employer, forty shillings, and a certificate of freedom on demand; and whosoever shall refuse, without just cause, to give such certificate to servant, certifier, or labourer, whose time is expired, shall forfeit forty shillings for every such refusal." The words "certificate of freedom" smack rather of slavery, and the bracketing together of convicted felons with bond-servants, as if they were much the same kind of persons, gives us a hint at the social position of the latter. In fact, the bond-servant was little better than a slave. No person was allowed to employ a servant who was not possessed of a certificate of freedom from his last employer, or to buy from or to sell to any servant any kind of article whatever, without the consent of the master or mistress, under penalty of forfeiting to the owner treble the value of the article bought or sold, and £10 of the island currency. Any servant who offered violence to his or her employer was compelled to serve an additional twelve months, without wages, for each offense; and if a servant stole, made away with, or wasted any of his employer's property to the extent of over forty shillings, he was to serve two additional years without wages. For each day of absence from work the servant was to serve a week, but additional services on this ground were not to exceed a total of three years.

Any man-servant who married without the consent of his employer was to serve two additional years for the offense, but if a free man married a servant he was to pay the employer £20 and the servant was free. If a free man had an illegitimate child by a servant, he was to pay £20 to the employer, and to provide for the maintenance of the servant and child, or, in default, was to serve the employer double the time the servant had still to serve; while if one servant had a child by another, the man-servant, after serving his own time, had to serve double the time the woman had to serve when the offense was committed.

If any one knowingly entertained a servant, he was liable to a fine of £5 for each day and night; if it was done without knowledge the fine was £1. If one servant was guilty of entertaining another servant, he was to forfeit a year's service, or receive thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, at the option of the party injured. Any person who forged a certificate of freedom was to be subjected to the punishment of the pillory, and to the loss of his ears. Any servant who permitted any one to ride his master's horse, or use his cart, was to serve an additional three months for each offense.

These were the clauses of the act framed for the protection of the employers of bond-servants; those designed for the protection of the servants were much fewer, and their purport was as follows: Should a servant fall sick, he or she was to be provided for, under a penalty of £20; but if the servant's sickness arose from misconduct, or from indiscretion, or if it was the yaws or a broken limb, he or she was to serve double the time lost. No servant was to be flogged naked without a justice's order, under a penalty of £5; and no servant could be buried until the body had been seen by a justice, constable, or tithingman, or by two neighbors. This last provision was framed to prevent servants, who had been murdered or who had died from the effects of ill-treatment, being buried quietly and the matter hushed up. The owner was bound, under a penalty of ten shillings, to provide each white servant weekly with four pounds of meat, or four pounds of fish, with such vegetables "as may be sufficient." Owners were further bound to give yearly to each man-servant three shirts, three pairs of drawers, three pairs of shoes, three pairs of stockings, and one cap, and to a woman-servant in proportion.

Such was the law governing the relations between bond-servants and their employers in the island of Jamaica, and so far from being exceptional it compares favorably with others. The object of the law was clearly the prolongation of bond-service, most offenses being punishable by additional terms of servitude; and the master consequently had an interest in their committal, and not infrequently provoked the servant to commit them. It can scarcely be believed that any one should knowingly have expatriated himself to serve under such conditions as these in a country which then bore a very unenviable reputation for unhealthiness; and it is fairly certain that those who came voluntarily must have been ignorant of the law; but a very large proportion of the bond-servants were carried off from England by force, and such kidnapped laborers are those who are referred to in the act as persons arriving without a contract or indenture. In 1682 large numbers of laborers were seized in England and shipped to Jamaica, and the fact was so notorious that an order in Council was issued regarding it. In 1685 kidnapping had become very common in Bristol, and young persons, guilty of no offense, were seized, hurried across the Atlantic, and sold for money. Even the city magistrates dabbled in this kind of traffic. At that time many offenses which are now considered very trivial were punishable with death, and it was the practice of the mayor and justices to intimidate persons brought before them, and to induce them, under fear of being hanged, to pray for transportation; the profits of the business being divided among the members of the magistrate's court. In connection with this scandalous abuse, Judge Jeffreys appears for once in a light which is quite novel to most readers of history—viz., as the champion of the liberty of the subject, and a redressor of grievances; for, chancing accidentally, when at Bristol, to discover the proceedings of the mayor, he, when sitting as judge, took the opportunity of denouncing him, and compelled him to plead for mercy at the bar.

Kidnapping was not limited to England, as we learn from the pages of Esquimeling, servant of Morgan, the notorious buccaneer, and author of the History of the Buccaneers, who had himself been a bond-servant and bad twice been sold. He tells us that the bond-servants were usually treated worse than the negro slaves, for, as the latter were the actual property of their masters, they took some care to preserve them. After describing the situation of the bond-servants in the islands belonging to France, and saying that he has seen bond-servants beaten to death in the French portion of Hispaniola, now Hayti, he thus continues: "The planters that inhabit the Cariby Islands are rather worse and more cruel to their servants than the precedent. In the Isle of St. Christopher dwelleth one, whose name is Bettesa, very well known among the Dutch merchants, who hath killed above an hundred of his servants with blows and stripes. The English do the same with their servants, and the mildest cruelty they exercise towards them is that, when they have served six years of their time (the years they are bound for among the English being seven complete), they use them with such cruel hardship as forceth them to beg of their masters to sell them unto others, although it be to begin another servitude of seven years, or, at least, three or four. I have known many who, after this manner, served fifteen and twenty years before they could obtain their freedom. . . . To advance this trade, some persons there are who go purposely to France (the same happeneth in England and other countries), and, travelling through the cities, towns, and villages, endeavour to pick up young men or boys, whom they transport, by making them great promises. These having once allured and conveyed them into the islands I speak of, they force to work like horses, the toil they impose upon them being much harder than what they usually enjoin unto the negroes their slaves."

A terrible indictment of seventeenth-century planters this, and on the whole, except perhaps in the actual number killed by the Dutchman Bettesa, not an exaggerated one, for we find General Brayne, who arrived in Jamaica as governor in December, 1656, urging Cromwell to have negro slaves imported from Africa, on the ground that, as the planters would have to pay for them, they would have an interest in the preservation of their lives, which was wanting in the case of bond-servants, numbers of whom were killed by overwork and cruel treatment.


The little village of Payerne, near the Lake of Neubourg, Switzerland, possesses a unique curiosity in the shape of the saddle of Queen Bertha, who founded the Abbey of the Benedictines at Neubourg, now converted into an educational establishment, in a. d. 901. The saddle is of marked antique shape, and has an opening on the pommel, which was intended to hold the lady's distaff; for the good queen would not lose a moment of her time, and set a profitable example to her subjects by busying herself with spinning while she was on horseback.
  1. Macaulay.