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Freedom in the era of slavery: The case of the Barclay brothers in Jamaica
published: Sunday | February 24, 2008

Verene A. Shepherd, Contributor

The recent airing of the PBS documentary, African-American Lives 2, developed by Professor 'Skip' Gates from Harvard University, has prompted me to write this piece, especially as we observe Black History Month. African-American Lives 2 or "roots in a test tube" as Professor Gates puts it, is a four-hour documentary series that relies on cutting-edge DNA analysis to probe the ancestry of prominent African-Americans, including Maya Angelou, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman, Gates himself and Tina Turner.

Greater insight

By the end of the investigation, several of these personalities gained greater insight into their ethnic make-up, especially their African and European roots. So Maya Angelou now knows that she is most likely 'Mende', Morgan Freeman really has no Native American roots, and Chris Rock is heading for Cameroon. Professor Gates can trace his African roots to the Yoruba in Nigeria, even as he learns he is 50 per cent European and makes the trip to Ireland to explore that dimension of his heritage.

But the thread of the documentary that prompted this article was not the DNA results, fascinating as I found those, but the occasional reference by the participants to what historians refer to as 'gratuitous manumission' - the conferment of freedom on the enslaved by enslavers before the end of the slave system. Some of the ancestors of those interviewed by Gates were granted such freedom, even though in at least one case, that conferment of freedom was reversed by a subsequent enslaver.

There were several cases of gratutious manumission in Jamaica also during the period of African enslavement. Several proprietors' wills indicate that provisions were occasionally made for the freeing of 'special slaves' after their owners' death.

Instructions not followed

As in the case of the United States, these wishes were not always followed. For example, when Gilbert Caddell died, he left instructions that two of his 'brown children' employed on Bushy Park Pen should be manumitted if Mitchell, the owner of the pen, did not object. The attorney objected strongly, expressing the opinion that "... for my own part, I do think that these children are much better where they are now as there is no provision made for them after their freedom is obtained".

Arguably, the best account of gratuitious manumission on a Jamaican property is that of Unity Valley Pen in St. Ann. In 1795, all the enslaved people on that property were freed, when, according to the proprietor, David Barclay, "much dissatisfied in being a slave owner, I determined to try the experiment of liberating my slaves, firmly convinced, that the retaining of my fellow creatures in bondage was not only irreconcilable with the precepts of Christianity, but subversive of the rights of human nature ...."

Having arrived at this decision, David Barclay communicated his intention to his agent, Alexander McLeod of Spanish Town, who, though he applauded the principle, declined to "execute a measure which would be very unpopular in the island". He consented to freeing only two of the enslaved whom he thought most likely to be able to provide for themselves by working on the pen and receiving wages at the rate of 11. 7 per year with certain 'fringe benefits' - 30-year-old Hamlet and 30-year-old Prudence. After a year of freedom, however, McLeod accused these freed workers of having "relaxed in their labour", and, consequently, dismissed them. He did agree to pay them 13 11s. sterling per annum for life. Hamlet subsequently set himself up in business as a horse breeder and Prudence as a laundress.

When his brother John died, David Barclay, who then inherited the whole property, decided to free the remaining enslaved population and remove them to Philadelphia in the United States of America. For this purpose, he engaged William Holden to proceed to Jamaica and carry out his orders. Holden was to deliver the labourers to John Ashley, Barclay's agent in Philadelphia, who would turn the newly emancipated over to the care of the Society for Improving the Condition of Free Blacks.


Holden arrived in Jamaica in March 1795 to carry out Barclay's wishes. He was accompanied to Unity Valley by McLeod. On arrival, they ordered all the enslaved people to assemble for inspection. Holden, after inspecting them, explained to them the purpose of his visit. Apart from two who felt too old and infirm to make the journey, he provided all the others with clothes and provisions, and, "upon the strength of their unanimous consent to accept the offer of freedom I engaged a vessel to convey them to Philadelphia".

Arrangements were then made to convey the enslaved to Kingston from where they would embark for Philadelphia. On arrival in Kingston, however, the Africans refused to embark, saying they had changed their minds. One of their numbers, John, described as "one of the most sensible and intelligent," managed to persuade the others to get on the ship, which eventually sailed for Philadelphia, arriving there July 22, 1795.

In Philadelphia, the African-Jamaicans were at first temporarily accommodated in a meeting house procured from the African Methodists. They were afterwards put in the care of the 'committee of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society for Improving the Conditions of Free Blacks'. The members of this committee arranged for the children to be sent to school and for the adults to be apprenticed to various members of the society. Interestingly, although provision was made for their education in Philadelphia, the understanding was "that they be taught mechanic trades in preference to any other business." Those bonded to members of the abolition society were also taught servile trades, carpentry, nailing, chair-making, or domestic service. Both the exported African-Jamaicans and their fellow blacks enslaved in the United States eventually settled into a society warped by the evils of racism.

Professor Verene A. Shepherd is chairperson of the Jamaica National Bicentenary Committee.

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