Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library


1807 - 1808 Abolition of the Slave Trade, "The temper of the country".

[Transcription and notes in italics by Pieter Dickson]

[Although passed by Parliament, the act of Abolition is not due to become law in Jamaica until 1st January 1808. Anxiety, speculation, alarm and reaction in the interlude are magnified by fact and circumstance in the protracted war with the French.]

Jamaica, 7th January, 1807

[From Simon Taylor [1] to Thomas Hugham [2], London]

From the imprudence of some men in talking about Mr. Pitts, Foxes, Wilberforces and others speeches in Parliament, and the emissaries of the Methodists and other sects which are sent to this country the Negroes conceived that the Government of Britain will support them in making themselves free and look upon it that it would be highly grateful to the people at home that all the white inhabitants here should be exterminated.

[Jamaica. CO137/120]

[1] Hon. Simon Taylor - Assembly member for St. Thomas in the East. Lady Maria Nugent, wife of the Governor of Jamaica, describes Simon Taylor in her Journal in 1806 as "...by much the richest proprietor in the island, and in the habit of accumulating money so as to make his nephew and heir one of the most wealthy subjects of His Majesty. In strong opposition to Government at present and violent in his language against the King's Ministers, for their conduct towards Jamaica. He has great influence in the Assembly..."

[2]Thomas Hugham - Member of Parliament for East Repton, Nottinghamshire, England (1806 election)

Jamaica, 9th January, 1807

[From Governor Coote [1] to Windham [2]

I am concerned to have to notice the great degree of alarm which has existed, not without some cause, in the minds of the planters, from a spirit of disaffection and insurrection that has manifested itself among the Negroes, on some estates, in the parishes of Portland and St. George, during the Christmas Holydays. The trial of the offenders (who I am sorry to remark are almost all Creole Negroes) not yet having taken place, puts it out of my power to judge of the extent of the evil, but I should not be surprised if the origin of this bad and dangerous spirit was in the vicinity of the one parish to the island of St. Domingo[3], and in the great number of French negroes [4] settled in the other.

[Jamaica. CO137/118]

1] Lieut. General Sir Eyre-Coote, Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica

2] William Windham, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Feb. 1806 - March 1807

3] The fear of seditious ideas from this former French colony and, indeed, any ideas generated by Revolutionary and now Imperial France were ever a concern to British authorities during the long and unsettling war which affected stable governance and trade.

4] Former French slaves freed for assisting Britain in the war with the French.

Jamaica, 20th February, 1807

[From Governor Coote to Windham]

In Portland, I am sorry to say, owing to some flaw in the wording of the law, relating to the crime for which the rebellious negroes were tried, it was found necessary to acquit them. In Saint George, the trials were better arranged, the consequence of which was that two of the ringleaders were executed, and a third who had been sentenced to transportation for life, escaped custody (and committed suicide).

It however happened, from some cause or other unknown to me, that two negroes of notorious bad dispositions, and against whom the most conclusive evidence had appeared were acquitted.

Under such circumstances, and fully sensible of the danger to which the colony must be exposed, in critical times like these, from the propagation of such rebellious principles, I did not hesitate to adopt the strongest measures towards these two offenders, by having them apprehended, and brought to the seat of government, in order to their being transported.

[Jamaica. CO137/118]

Jamaica, 14th June, 1807

[From Governor Coote to Castlereagh,[1] Secret and Confidential]

I need not state to your Lordship that the abolition of the Slave Trade, a measure so intimately connected with the planting interest of this island has caused a very great sensation, and one very unfavourable towards Government. Under this impression many of the leading characters of the Assembly propose (as I understand from very good authority) to raise objections to the subsisting of the 3000 troops, for which the Colony stands pledged; and their motive for so acting will be that the money raised for the subsistence of that number of men was levied by an act 5_whereby a tax of £4 was imposed on the importation of every Negro, which tax can, of course, no longer exist when the Act of Abolition takes effect, on the 1st January 1808. the act for levying the afore-mentioned tax is an annual tax, and will expire on the 31st of next December.

The members I allude to, who will, I make no doubt, be extremely violent on this subject, further pretend that all their taxes, more or less, but particularly the land tax (as there will be an end to new settlements), will be affected by the abolition.

[Jamaica. CO 137/119]

[1] Robert, Viscount Castlereagh, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1807 - 1809

Jamaica, 27th June, 1807

[From Governor Coote to Castlereagh]

The island is, at the moment, perfectly tranquil, but from all the reports I receive from the country gentlemen, it concerns me much to state to Your Lordship that there is much to fear, the present calm will not be of long duration. The opinion of the most sensible men is that during the next Christmas Holydays, a period of unchecked riot among the Negroes, there will very probably be serious disturbances in the country it is with a view of preventing this evil, as much as in my power, that I have determined to assemble the Legislature earlier this year than usual, in order to enable members to return to their homes in good time before the Holydays. The ill-disposed Negroes have instilled into the minds of the ignorant ones that the measure of the Abolition of the Slave Trade is nothing less than their general emancipation, and with such notions in their heads everything is to be apprehended.

[Jamaica. CO137/119]

London, 17 July, 1807

[From Agent Lyon [1] to Castlereagh]

I lose no time in obeying the instructions of my constituents by stating to your Lordship that to avoid the calamitous consequences, which would follow from any sudden insurrection of the negroes in Jamaica a much larger military force is urgently necessary than that which is at present stationed in the island. It becomes a matter of the highest importance to adopt this precaution without delay, with the view of preventing those fatal consequences, which must otherwise inevitably result from the interpretation which the slaves will be disposed to put on the proceedings of the British Parliament, and who will not easily abandon the idea that the cessation of the Slave Trade and of slavery itself was intended to take effect at the same period.

[Jamaica. CO137/120]

[1] Edward P Lyon, Agent for the island in Great Britain; also a magistrate in St. Catherine when on the island.

Jamaica, 29th October, 1807

[Resolutions of the House of Assembly]

That the act of the Imperial Parliament for abolishing the slave trade is pregnant with evils to this island, militating not only against its general welfare and interest, but threatening its total destruction as a British West India Colony.

That the depriving this extensive, and yet unsettled island, of the means of a supply of labourers from Africa to cultivate the soil must be eventually ruinous to the proprietors and others interested in it.

The Committee forbear at present to animadvert further on the injustice and impolicy of that part of the act which relates to the abolition of the slave trade - The British Parliament have so enacted it! But the act contains clauses, foreign to the avowed purpose of the law, which are calculated to establish measures of internal regulation, subversive of local rights and legislative authority of this island, repugnant to its colonial laws, long existing and founded upon wise policy, and most humane considerations.

That the act blends two distinct objects, the one having an external operation upon our commerce and trade, which the object first professed by the partisans of the measure; the other, from the various alterations which the act has undergone, and in which the original principles were departed from, having an internal and unjust operation, by interfering with and being subversive of laws which are to regulate the internal government of the colony.

[Jamaica. CO137/119]

Jamaica, 29th October, 1807

[Governor Coote to Castlereagh]

Your Lordship will recollect my private letter of 14th June last, wherein I took upon myself to predict much violence and hasty spirit as likely to prevail in that body. Acting under this conviction I was careful in framing my speech at the opening of the session and I trust that it will be found particularly, and altogether well adapted to the circumstances of the times. The unanimous address voted upon it was to me a satisfactory proof that I had acted wisely upon the occasion.

The violence of several of the members, which originally went to nothing less than refusing all supplies for the troops, and the means employed by them to influence and gain over to their purpose the more moderate and thinking part of the House, caused me sincerely to regret that no answer had been received from Your Lordship to my letter of 14th June. A committee appointed to enquire into the effects of the Abolition Bill, presented a report, after much delay and difference of opinion, the object of which went to limit the subsistence of the 3000 troops, for which the island now stands pledged to the 31st May next and no longer. This proposition, meeting the objections of the moderate party half way, was more likely to succeed, and at one period I was extremely fearful, and not without just cause, that this measure would be carried. Indeed I should think myself highly culpable, were I to conceal from Your Lordship the principal, if not the only motive for its rejection, and the substitution in its stead of a resolution to continue the annual provision for the subsistence of His Majesty's troops. The person to whose exertions in this transaction I am under such peculiar obligation, and to whom I consider Government is equally indebted, is Mr. Shand [1]…a strictly honourable and independent member, and a true and staunch friend of Government in the Assembly.

From what I have stated Your Lordship will observe that I have been enabled to keep down the violent intentions of some of the members, and thereby to continue things in the accustomed way; but, having given you this account of our success, it is right for me to apprise Your Lordship that from what I have seen and heard, exclusive to the tenor of the Resolution upon the Abolition Bill, it is my firm belief that this next session will not pass by so easily or successfully; and from the temper of the country I judge that the subsistence of the troops will then be refused, unless something is done at home to ease the distress under which this island undoubtedly labors at present.

[Jamaica. CO137/119]

[1] John Shand, a member for St. John

Jamaica, 4th December, 1807

[From Governor Coote to Castlereagh]

From several unpleasant circumstances that have lately taken place in some parishes of this island, I have deemed it prudent to be more than usually vigilant during the approaching negro festivities. With this view I have issued secret instructions to the several colonies of militia corps, to make a strict search for arms in the towns and on the estates at that period, and to assemble such proportion of their regiments as shall be judged requisite. These measures of precaution which are highly proper and necessary will, I trust, prevent any insurrection or insubordination among the negroes, whose minds already elated by the abolition of the Slave Trade which few of them rightly understand, will be fully prepared and disposed for any mischief during the relaxed discipline of the Christmas Holydays.

Jamaica. CO 137/120]

London, 19th January, 1808

[From Castlereagh to Governor Manchester]

It is with much concern that His Majesty has observed the tone of the Resolutions, which have been lately entered into by the Assembly of Jamaica on the subject of the Law for the abolition of the Slave Trade; but He trusts they may be considered as merely temporary effusions of warmth upon a measure which they consider, however erroneously, destructive to their personal interests and not as deliberate Resolutions for their permanent conduct.

In this view of the proceeding of the Assembly it is not wished that any formal notice should be pointedly taken, which would make it necessary to enter into further discussion of the legislative right of control and superintendance of the Imperial Parliament in all cases where taxation is concerned. That superintendance will never be exercised but in cases conducive to the true liberties of the island, and for the increase of all the classes which inhabit it, and which are intitled in their several relations to the protecting care of the Mother Country.

At a time like the present, when it is found that by the too great increase of colonial produce, the markets of the world are overstocked, and the price proportionally reduced, an experiment for putting an end to a traffic, attended always with inhumanity and injustice, might be tried with the least possible damage to the interest of the colonies; it becomes in this case the interest of the West India planter to prevent the increase of cultivation and the breaking up of new lands. The existing stock of negro labourers being sufficient for a cultivation, found already too extensive, it naturally occurred that by due attention to management and morals the present number of slaves be kept up without further importation:- and it is known that on several estates the negro population increases, it is believed that by due management that increase may be made general. His Majesty therefore feels a just confidence that when the first moments of apprehension and alarm shall have subsided the subject will be considered in its true light, and as the Planter must see that a more extensive cultivation will merely tend still more to clog the markets and reduce the price of commodities they will be reconciled to a measure which excites them to a generous attention to their labourers as the surest means to maintain and increase their number.

This consideration leads me to exhort Your Grace to use all your influence for increasing the growth of provisions in the island. There have been instituted agricultural societies at Tobago and St. Vincent which are producing the most beneficial effects, and possibly an institution of a similar nature in Jamaica, if well modelled and confined to its true object, may lead to many plans of improvement.

I am also to direct Your Grace to recommend the utmost attention to the increase of marriages among the slaves and to the rearing of children. . .

It might also be attended with good effect if a premium were held out to the planter who, at the expiration of five years from the present time, should have the greatest number of children alive, which shall have been born within the period in proportion to the number of his slaves.

Under the pressure of a war which has been so long carried on with so short an interval of peace it was to be expected that every part of His Majesty's dominions should experience some inconvenience and distress; and Jamaica would naturally be exposed to a part of the evils which are the inevitable result of a state of hostilities; but altho' from the complaints which have arisen there is reason to believe that the profits of many individuals have been diminished, and that personal embarrassment has in many instances been great, yet from the increase of the exports of the island and the demand for slaves there is every reason to believe that its general prosperity has not suffered: and His Majesty feels assured that he shall never want the zeal and loyalty of His Subjects of Jamaica in assisting every exertion which may tend to bring to a successful termination the present arduous contest... nor find them less disposed to submit to those privations which the rest of his subjects are so ready to endure, should necessity demand the sacrifice.

That His Majesty has not been attentive to the interests of his subjects in Jamaica will I trust fully appear from the recent Orders in Council, and which it is trusted will entirely counteract that preference in the European markets which the enemy had endeavoured to establish for the produce of their colonies, and restore that just competition in foreign as well as that monopoly of the British market which it has been the continued policy of Great Britain to preserve.

[Jamaica. CO 137/121]

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