Authors: Andrea Stuart
The historian Richard Pares described these early colonists as “
tough guys”: rough, unschooled, physically robust men, given to neither self-doubt nor rumination. They did not make a good impression on visitors to the island: “
This Island is the Dunghill whereupon England doth cast forth its rubbish,” wrote Henry Whistler, “rogues and whores and such like people are those which are generally brought here.” He concluded, “A rogue in England will hardly make a cheater here.”
The islanders’ lack of moral restraint was attributed by one historian to “the weak conditions of the Church” in the colony. In spite of the scriptural writings that justified the colonial project overall, religion had not been established as the centre of life in Barbados, as it was for the Puritans who settled in New England. Many of the islanders neglected their religious commitments, failing to attend church and observe regular prayers. One prominent planter, typically more interested in money than his immortal soul, excused these lapses by declaring wryly that “
it is enough to believe that there is a God, and that Jesus Christ died for us.” In 1652, the Assembly of Barbados, in the hope of generating greater religiosity in the unruly islanders, took special measures to clamp down on anti-social behaviour on the Sabbath, such as rioting, drunkenness, swearing, whoring, shooting at marks, gaming, quarrelling, “and many other vicious and ungodly courses.” But the problem was not solved and, five years later, a proclamation by the governor blamed “the continual abounding of cursing and drunkenness, as the root and foundacion of many other crimes and offenses and the disabling and overthrow of divers manual tradesmen, labourers or workmen and the impoverishing (if not ruine) of many families, together with public disorder.”
Many felt moved to admonish the island’s inhabitants about their unruly behaviour. In a diatribe against the immorality of its white inhabitants, John Rous attacked the inhabitants of Barbados “
who live in pride, drunkenesse, covetousnesse, oppression and deceitful dealings.” The Quaker Richard Pinder wrote a tract entitled “A Loving Invitation (to Repentance and Amendments of Life) unto all the inhabitants of the island Barbados.” In it he labelled the island’s whites as “sinners” and criticized their “cruel usage” of their indentured servants and slaves, reminding them that “they are of the same blood and mould you are off.” He also bitingly condemned their behaviour and a way of life “given to the lusts and pleasures of this evil world.”
The colonists’ rowdy conduct often masked profound unhappiness. For what these men had not fully anticipated, and had little skills to cope with, were the feelings of loneliness, homesickness and fear that overwhelmed them on arrival in the Caribbean; feelings only exacerbated by the deprived conditions in which they lived. According to Ligon:
The hard labour and want of victuals had so much depress’d their spirits, as they were come to a declining and yielding condition. Nor can this be called slothfulness or sluggishness in them, as some will have it, but a decay of their spirits, by long and tedious hard labour, slight feeding, and ill lodging, which is able to wear out and quell the best spirit of the world.
The human price paid in colonizing the Caribbean was breathtaking: historian Carl Bridenbaugh calculates that around half of the white men who settled the colonies died in the undertaking. Richard Ligon was shocked to learn upon his arrival that in a decade and a half each island had undergone an almost total turnover in population: most of the Barbadians were “
new men, for few or none of them that first set foot there, were now living.”
But George Ashby beat the odds: he not only survived, he adapted. And he also managed to find a wife. We cannot be sure he did not arrive with her, but it is extremely unlikely—cases of married couples travelling
to the island in these early years were very rare. To get married in Barbados was also an achievement: the earliest passenger lists in 1627 show no women at all, and only 8 per cent of the servants arriving in the years up to 1640 were female. By the late 1650s, the proportion had risen to just over 25 per cent.
Since women were scarce, they were highly sought after. Colonies across the Americas faced the same problem in the nascent days of settlement. In some parts of North America, colonial promoters formed joint-stock companies to send “
girls for sale to the planters as wives.” In places where there was no official strategy to recruit female migrants, planters sometimes resorted to contracting for wives, pre-paying their passage and giving their family a sum of money as a sort of dowry. But most brides were selected from the small pool of women who had completed their indentures.
Many of these women had been recruited from whorehouses and prisons. In 1656, for example, the Venetian envoy to Britain, Francesco Giavarina, claimed that “
The soldiers of the London garrison visited various brothels and other places of entertainment where they forcibly laid hands on over 400 women of loose life, whom they compelled to sail for the Barbados islands.” Richard Ligon, en route to Barbados, recalled travelling with such a group: when an attempt was made to assault them at a stop in the Cape Verde islands, the women easily repelled their attackers, being “better natur’d than to suffer such violence.” Hundreds of women (including the fictional Manon Lescaut of Abbé Prévost’s classic novel) were also dispatched from the
, a notorious Parisian prison, to the French colonies. These were throwaway women with rough lives. Some were prostitutes, some were criminals, some were mentally ill, some were just victimized or unlucky—but mad or bad, virtuous or fallen, once these girls arrived in the New World they were in demand. Despite their colourful reputation, the real defining characteristic of these women’s lives was not their immorality but their powerlessness. Many were desperate—discarded by family, abandoned by husbands, broken by poverty and abuse.
My first known female ancestor would have shared many of the terrifying and transformative experiences as George Ashby. Virtually the only thing I know about her is a name: Deborah. But some of the rest is possible to surmise. By working backwards from the birth of her
children, she must have married George Ashby in the early 1640s, and therefore was born in the Old World. In all likelihood, she too would have been assigned a steerage berth on one of the transatlantic ships that sailed from Britain to the Americas almost daily. She would have staked out her tiny piece of territory between decks with her meagre pile of possessions, amid a sorority of indentured, disgraced or disposable women. On disembarking in Barbados, many of the women were hired as domestic servants in the larger plantation households, but some were expected to work the land alongside the men. Unsurprisingly, in these placements the women were vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and had little redress under the law. It was only once her term of indenture was finished that Deborah would have been able to contemplate a future of her own.
One of the few positive aspects of migration for women like Deborah was the opportunity it provided to reinvent themselves. As Henry Whistler acerbically noted, after his brief visit to the island in 1655: “
a Baud brought ouer puts on a demur comportment, a whore if handsome makes a wife for sume rich planter.” Despite Whistler’s disapproval, in this respect the women were no different from their men. They too had crossed an ocean with dreams of beginning again. This was the opportunity this untamed world offered them all, a chance to carve a new life out of the wilderness.
And so my forefather made preparations for his wedding. Alongside tending the tobacco crop, the vegetable garden and the stock, he needed to build a house fit for a bride. Together with his servant, and with the customary help of neighbours, he constructed a simple wooden cottage with two rooms and dirt floors. Here the newly married couple settled down to begin their family. Richard Ligon, who had a great interest in architecture, felt that the houses of planters, particularly those of “a meaner sort” like George Ashby, were poorly adapted to local conditions. Their small timber houses had “
roofs so low, as for the most part of them I could hardly stand upright with my hat on, and no cellars at all.” In an effort to keep rain from driving through the windows, the houses were typically designed to be closed on the east and open to the west. But since the breezes blew the other way, this effectively prevented
“the cooling flow of wind” that would give them “the greatest comfort.” As a result, the rooms were “like Stoves, or heated Ovens.” Richard Ligon concluded that the reason the houses were designed like this was not ignorance but poverty; the colonists couldn’t afford glass or shutters to keep out the driving rain.
The interior of the house was probably furnished only with the bare essentials. A 1643 inventory of the possessions of John Higgingbotham, a blacksmith like George, mentions only “sieves, lamps, pewter platters, tubs, trays, two runlets” and some “smythes tooles.” For the ordinary planter, life was primitive; it took very hard labour merely to survive.
Starting a family was a fraught enterprise in many parts of early colonial America. It was not only adults who tended to have the short and brutish lives in Barbados; the infant mortality rate was devastating. So it is almost inevitable that George and Deborah would have suffered the grief of losing a child. In the end there were three surviving offspring: the eldest, christened George after his father, a middle child called William, and a daughter named Deborah after her mother. Their childhood, despite its difficulties and discomforts, would have had an entirely different texture from that of their parents: savouring the sweet tangy taste of pink-fleshed guavas; feeling the darting surprise of tiny shoals of mercurial fish that flashed silver past their feet as they swam in the clear Caribbean water. At dusk they watched the molten sunsets, chased fireflies and fell asleep to the sound of the cicadas and tree frogs whose symphony accompanied the day’s descent into darkness.
In 1647, when George’s family was still young, Barbados was decimated by “plague”—more likely an epidemic of yellow fever, a disease that was poorly understood by the early planters. According to Ligon, the outbreak—which spread swiftly throughout the region—was well under way when he arrived in September of that year and it raged for several months. Whether the contagion arrived from abroad or was brought on by the islanders themselves because of “the
ill dyet they keep, and drinking strong waters,” the “sickness,” according to Ligon, “raign’d so extremely, as the living could hardly bury the dead.”
Richard Vines, a landowner in St. Michael, saw the plague as an admonishment from a vengeful God: “
We have felt his heavy hand in wrath, and yet I feare are not sensible of it, for here is little amendment or notice taken of his great punishments. The sickness was an absolute plague; very infectious and destroying, in so much that in our parish there were buried 20 in a weeke, and many weekes together, 15 or 16.” The outbreak surprised Vine, because “It first seized on the ablest men both for account and ability of body. Many who had begun and almost finished greater sugar works, who dandled themselves in their hopes but were suddenly laid in the dust, and their estates left to strangers.” During the epidemic, the capital, Bridgetown, was transformed into a charnel house, with bodies piled up in all available buildings and corpses littering the roadside. By its end the outbreak claimed the lives of an estimated 6,000 people (some put the figure as high as 10,000). Hard on the heels of the epidemic came famine, since the sick planters had fatally neglected the subsistence crops that they depended on for sustenance, which pushed the death toll even higher.
The two years that followed were hard. Food shortages continued, further undermining the health and morale of an already vulnerable community. Unsurprisingly, the worst affected were the poorest, and in 1649 the island had its first recorded rebellion. Ligon’s description of the event is dramatic:
Their sufferings being grown to a great height, and their daily complainings being to one another (of the intolerable burdens they labour’d under) being spread throughout the Island; at the last, some amongst them, whose spirits were not able to endure such slavery, resolved to break through it, or dye in the act; and so conspired with some others … to fall upon their Masters, and cut all their throats, and by that means, to make themselves [not] only free men, but Masters of the Island.
The reality was more prosaic. This first uprising, an uneasy partnership between enslaved Africans and indentured labourers, was, according to another historian, a “small-scale affair,” more of a food riot born out of hunger and desperation. It was nonetheless put down with some ferocity. As Ligon reported: “the greatest part of the plotters were put to death” as an example “to the rest.” Though the rebellion was
unsuccessful, it was a harbinger of things to come; over the centuries the island’s slave society would continue to resist their enslavement on both an individual and a collective level, provoking a growing mistrust in their masters which often led to terrible excesses of brutality.
In 1650 George Ashby officially stepped into the island’s history. There he is in that year’s census, the first held on the island. In this he was typical of most of his peers on the island; men and women whose past before their arrival on the island is shadowy and elusive, and whose story only begins to be documented when they arrive in the New World and gain a foothold on the economic ladder. The census lists George among the returns for the parish of St. Philip. Comprised of 12,158 acres, St. Philip was—along with the neighbouring parish of St. George—one of the most populous areas on the island. Most of the white population of the parish were categorized as smallholders, possessing ten to twenty acres. Their lives were in striking contrast to those of the great planters of the same parish: men like the aristocratic Christopher Codrington, who had 618 acres in 1679, and Jon Pearse, the largest landholder on the island, who is credited with owning 1,000 acres in 1673.