Authors: Andrea Stuart
A new plan by the legislature to control the Irish made it an offence to sell them firearms and decreed that any Irish servant found travelling without a pass could be conveyed by any English person to the nearest constable, who was empowered to whip him and return him to his plantation. Over the years, the government adopted wave after wave of measures to curb recalcitrant Irish servants who had caused “
great damage to their masters” by their “unruliness, obstinacy and refractoriness.” None of these measures was effective, and the Barbadian authorities’ fear of “that profligate race” would later prove justified after a number of Irish rebellions occurred, sometimes in partnership with African slaves.
It wasn’t only the Irish who inspired distrust, however. Servants of all nationalities caused alarm. Those who remained on the island after the completion of their indentureship were considered an especial threat to public order. Unable to afford land, many turned to crime, drink and disruptive behaviour. But the servants who did leave the island, whether in search of pastures new, on military expeditions or even to join the pirate “brotherhood,” were also a worry. Later, when the black slave population had increased, the haemorrhaging of white servants threatened to create an imbalance of black men over white, sparking paranoia in the planters, who feared the slaves would become so numerous they could not be controlled.
Wherever they came from, it is fair to say that indentured servants had no idea of the conditions under which they would live and work, or how vulnerable and powerless they would be. Although they had signed a contractual document—the indenture—that set out mutual obligations, the reality of bound service was a highly unequal power relationship. Servants found themselves constrained by repressive local
legislation that imposed severe punishments for the slightest infractions and provided them with very little redress under the law. If they stole, left their plantations without permission or did anything that impeded their ability to work—such as break a limb—they were penalized. Masters could corporally punish their servants, or trade them without consultation. Richard Ligon noted that it was common for planters to “
sell their servants to one another for the time they have to serve; and in exchange receive any commodities that are in their island.” Servants also found that their masters could extend their length of service if they misbehaved; some had their original term stretched into infinity, when a series of misadventures—often under the influence of rum—led them to wander off or become too drunk to find their way home.
There are few surviving accounts of the lives of indentured servants in Barbados. One of these rare reports was provided by Heinrich von Uchteritz, a German mercenary captured after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Motivated by “
the urge to try something noble” and seek his fortune, von Uchteritz “chose war as the most fitting means to achieve this.” He entered employment in the cavalry under the command of Count Ogilvy and was part of the Royalist army who dreamt of recapturing the kingdom taken by “the brutes and murderers” of Charles I. After the defeat at Worcester, he and his fellows were taken prisoner by Cromwell’s personal regiment. From there they went to London, where Cromwell himself sharply questioned them, remarking that “he had in mind to give us sugar to eat.” They were duly sent to Barbados, where von Uchteritz was sold, for 800 pounds of sugar, to an English planter who had a workforce of “one hundred Christians, one hundred Negroes and one hundred Indians.”
Von Uchteritz was put to work immediately, with no opportunity to recover from his journey. On the first day he spent his time “sweeping the plantation yard, on another day I fed the pigs.” Thereafter he had to do “the kind of work usually performed [by] the slaves.” The only possessions that unskilled indentured servants were provided with was a single change of ill-fitting clothes: linen shirt and drawers, a pair of shoes and a flat round Monmouth cap totally unsuited to labour in the tropics. When these were wet from the rain or soaked in perspiration, the servant had nothing else to wear.
In contrast to the plantation houses, which were made of cedar and
“located in beautiful meadows,” the servants lived in small huts dotted around the plantation yard. These, von Uchteritz related, were “made of inferior wood, looked almost like dog-houses,” and “were covered with the leaves of trees that they call plantain.” Their diet was limited and extremely poor, consisting only of roots: sweet potato and cassava. However, von Uchteritz acknowledged that even he was fortunate compared to the black slaves and Indians who worked alongside him. Their food was worse and they were not provided with anything to wear. “They go about completely naked except for a cloth tied around their privates.”
Von Uchteritz spent “sixteen to eighteen weeks of my miserable life in such difficult bondage that it is easy to see with what desire I longed for my beloved fatherland and for my precious freedom.” Believing that he would die in Barbados, he had all but lost hope when an influential relative intervened and had him freed. To his knowledge, he was the only one of his party to survive indentureship.
Historians have debated which indentured servants suffered the most: those bound to small planters like George Ashby, who were desperate to get the best out of their investment and were known to exploit them mercilessly; or those who laboured on larger plantations, where their masters regarded their workers as so many anonymous drones, and frequently inflicted terrible physical abuse. But it is clear that, whichever the type of master, an indentured servant led a terrible life. According to Ligon: “
Truly I have seen such cruelty there done to servants, as I did not think one Christian could do to another.”
Antoine Biet, a French priest who visited the island in 1654, was also disturbed by the treatment of the indentured servants. “
The masters are obliged to support them,” he wrote, “but God knows how they are maintained. All are very badly treated. When they work, the overseers, who act like those in charge of galley slaves, are always close by with a stick with which they often prod them when they do not work as fast as is desired.” Though the treatment was not dissimilar to that on the French islands, Biet concluded: “It is an unhappy state of things to treat with such great severity creatures for whom Jesus Christ shed his blood. It is true that one must keep these kinds of people obedient, but it is inhuman to treat them with so much harshness.”
Servants could only hope and pray that they would survive their
indenture and that, if they did, their “freedom fee” would be enough to buy them a small plot of land on the island. For most, this was a vain hope: as Barbados converted to sugar, land prices rose, and the freed servants were actively encouraged to leave the island. A broadsheet written by the Earl of Carlisle explained: “Each freeman who is unprovided of land and shall therefore desire to go from Barbados shall have a portion of land allotted to him in my islands of Nevis, Antigua, or any other island in my command.” Those who remained in Barbados would be lucky if the fee was sufficient to buy them a horse or set them up in trade. But many servants were too destroyed by their experiences of indentureship to be able to take advantage of even these little amenities after they were set free. Physically broken by the years of relentless labour and nutritional deprivation, and psychologically affected by depression, anxiety and despair, they were permanently damaged men.
As captive victims of their employers, the indentured servants may have suffered particular cruelty, but their treatment was also symptomatic of the wider culture of violence and disorder that characterized Barbados during these early years. In fact, dissent and conflict had permeated the island from the moment it was claimed in 1627. Charles I had issued not one but two patents for the island: one to Sir William Courteen, the head of a powerful syndicate, and another to James Hay, the Earl of Carlisle. So both men sent their own people to colonize the island, and for ten years the contesting claimants battled against each other on Barbados and in the English courts. Though it was Courteen who had financed the first settlement, it was Carlisle who eventually won out, in what would become known as “The Great Barbados Robbery,” leaving posterity to conclude that the island’s initial colonization was itself a crime.
Barbados was also destabilized by the constant tensions in neighbouring islands. The struggles between North American settlers and the Native Americans have been the most mythologized in the New World, but the Caribbean colonists also fought long and brutal battles to subdue indigenous peoples. In nearby Martinique, the early French colonists under the command of Guillaume d’Orange engaged in a long and bitter campaign against the island’s Caribs. Jamaica endured
a similar and equally bloody conflict. On St. Christopher, the first year of that island’s settlement was devoted to the genocide of its original inhabitants, the Kalingo. But the native people of the region did not succumb without a fight. Charles de Rochefort wrote of the Caribs before 1658, “there hardly passes a year but they make one or two irruptions, in the night time unto some one of the islands, and then, if it be not timely discovered and valiantly opposed they kill all the men they meet, ransack the Houses and burn them and carry off all the women and children with their booty.”
Amidst these contested beginnings and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the settlers nonetheless tried to establish some sense of order. When Charles I granted the charter to the Earl of Carlisle he gave him the power to make laws in Barbados, but only with the consent of the free men who settled the colony. The laws were to be “
agreeable, and not repugnant unto reason; nor against, but as convenient and agreeable as may be to the laws, statutes, customs, and rights, of our kingdom of England.” Carlisle delegated his authority to a governor, who was to act with a council, some of whom were elected from England and the rest provided by those on the island. The settlers agreed to pay Carlisle “
the twentieth part of all profits arising and accruing from the island”; and Barbados adopted the English model of government: a parliament in which the governor corresponded to the Crown, the Council to the House of Lords, and the House of Assembly (instituted in 1639) to the House of Commons.
But despite the colonists’ desire to transfer familiar institutions and traditions as quickly as possible, the early years of the colony were anarchic. New arrivals to Barbados in the 1630s entered a settlement where the rule of the strongest prevailed over the rule of law. This was epitomized by the men who governed the island. Working from the premise that only exceptionally rough men could be expected to control the island’s unruly colonists, the authorities employed a series of governors who were renowned for their viciousness and cruelty. Hawley, the man George had already encountered, ruled with an iron fist, but his successor was even more formidable. Henry Huncks was characterized by one of his contemporaries as “
a drunken, vindictive tyrant,” who was accused of raping a female colonist and threatened to make one of his opponents “shorter by the heade.” Far from being a solution
to the problems of these volatile early colonies, men like Huncks often contributed to their discord. Their aggressive and arbitrary behaviour drove some colonists to leave the islands while provoking others into violent resistance.
The situation was only worsened by the fact that heavy drinking was an intrinsic part of the social life of the colony. It was considered a mortal insult for a planter to visit a fellow without taking a glass. There was little else to do and the consumption was prodigious: indeed, one visitor described the settlers as “
such great drunkards” that they “will find the money to buy their drink all though they goe naked.” In this culture of excessive drinking it is likely that George Ashby too found himself imbibing more than he had previously. Certainly this was true of Henry Colt, who was no mean drinker at the best of times; he found his consumption of alchohol increased more than tenfold during his stay on the island.
Bridgetown was the centre of debauchery, with the highest concentration of the island’s “houses of entertainment.” It became so disorderly that for a time a curfew was imposed on visiting sailors. Brawling was a particular problem: the colonists were an explosive lot who resorted to violence with frightening speed, especially when they had been drinking. “
They settle their differences by fist fighting,” wrote the French priest Antoine Biet. “They give each other black eyes, scratch each other, tear each other’s hair, and do similar things. The onlookers let them do this and surround them so as to see who will be victorious. If they fall down they are picked up, and they fight until they can no longer do so and are forced to give up.”
Barbados was, in short, an illustration of what was happening right across the New World, from the French islands of Martinique and St. Dominique to the Dutch settlements in Surinam and Curaçao and the mainland colonies in Virginia or the Chesapeake. These early American societies were made up almost exclusively of young men. Of those who departed from London in 1635 for Barbados and St. Christopher, only 1 per cent were female, and only slightly more than 1 per cent were aged over thirty. Suddenly, these ill-educated youngsters found themselves in a frontier town, marooned together in an unfamiliar and threatening wilderness with a bizarre new selection of people of different national and cultural background, class, religious belief, skin colour
and language. There was plenty of alcohol, but none of the usual social norms and constraints. And, according to contemporaries, every kind of deviance was recorded: incest, bestiality, sodomy. The institutions that had ordered their societies of origin had also been left behind. The church was marginal, judicial systems in their infancy, and wives, parents and elders were absent. Theirs was a society of orphans, in which men became almost feral. They formed a new community that was volatile, transient, hyper-masculine, and intoxicated with its own mythology, that of a land where the young and fearless could build their own paradise.