Tue | Sep 29, 2020

Ahmed Reid | Reckoning with legacies of slavery in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | July 12, 2020 | 12:21 AM
In this November 24, 2019, photo, latex figures made in the 1940s depicting daily life in Jamaica in the sugar cane fields displayed at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England.
In this November 24, 2019, photo, latex figures made in the 1940s depicting daily life in Jamaica in the sugar cane fields displayed at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England.

The Brutal killing of George Floyd has led many to call for an end to systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against people of African descent. Protesters across the globe have now toppled statues honouring mass murderers such as Christopher Columbus and King Leopold II of Belgium and enslavers such as Edward Colston and Richard Milligan, whose exploitation of enslaved Africans contributed to their criminal enrichment.

Today, there is a growing movement to confront the legacies of the past. My question, though, is to what extent have Jamaicans truly reckoned with the country’s slavery past? We have yet to explore the institutional legacies of slavery in Jamaica. How much do we know (or care to know) about the institutions and families with ties to our slavery past? British and American universities are now investigating their ties to slavery. It is a known fact that the profits generated from slavery funded leading universities such as Brown, Cambridge, Columbia, Emory, Georgetown, Glasgow, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Yale, among others. Trustees, college presidents, and students of these institutions have been listed as owners and beneficiaries of enslaved people. The Bank of England, and other United Kingdom High Street banks such as Lloyds, Barclays, Barings (now defunct), and the Royal Bank of Scotland, have all been linked to the trafficking in enslaved Africans and beneficiaries from the exploitation of black bodies.

The compensation claims (the £20 million granted to enslavers by the British government in 1834 for the loss of their enslaved “property”) shed light on the legacies of slavery in Jamaica. Not all enslavers were absentees living in Britain. In total, just over 16,000 claims were filed for enslaved people in Jamaica. Of that number, some 13,000 claims were filed by enslavers living in Jamaica. Some migrated later to England and other parts of the British Empire, but others stayed.

In October 1835, the commissioners (or trustees) of the Munro and Dickenson Charity submitted claims for 346 enslaved Africans on Knockpatrick Estate (Manchester) and Grosmond Pen (St Elizabeth) and received £6,831 in compensation. Both properties were owned by Caleb Dickenson, who, like his uncle before him, Robert Munro (himself an enslaver), had committed their profits from enslavement “to the endowment of a school to be erected and maintained in the said parish” (of St Elizabeth).

Though both died before 1834, the charity, which was run by six powerful and influential resident enslavers, remained. However, it was not until the promulgation of an Act of the Legislature in 1855 that the “monies arising from the proceeds of certain portions of the real estate that had been sold, and from the compensation monies received for the testator’s slaves, and certain monies [from the] personal estate of the said Caleb Dickenson, which had been restored to the said charity,” were used to “establish schools … and to carry out the object of the charitable devises and bequest of both Robert Munro and Caleb Dickenson”.

In 1856, a Free School for Boys was opened near Black River, and in early 1857, the premises at Potsdam, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, were purchased. In addition to the school for boys at Potsdam, a school for girls was started at Hampton. In 1855, the charity stood at £23,337 (or £17 million in today’s equivalent), with clear guidelines that the monies received should be invested in government funds locally and in the United Kingdom. Both Munro and Dickenson were inducted into the Munro College Old Boys’ Association Hall of Fame in 2013.


There were other institutional legacies as well. In 1710, Thomas Manning, an enslaver who owned property in Burnt Savannah, left property with which to endow a school in Westmoreland. In addition to land, Manning left more than 100 cattle and 13 enslaved people. Manning’s will stated that the labour of enslaved people, together with the produce (and profits) of his Burnt Savannah property “shall appropriate to the use and encouragement of a Tutor or Tutors and the keeping of a free school”.

It is suspected that one of Manning’s headmasters, Richard Combauld (1801-1823), owned 17 enslaved people on a property in St James. In 1730, Peter Beckford, one of Jamaica’s wealthiest planters and enslavers of 1,669 Africans (837 males and 832 females), owner of nine sugar estates, member, and later, Speaker of the Jamaica House of Assembly, provided for the endowment of a Free School in Spanish Town. Some 15 years later, the Legislature gave a corporate character to the trust.

In 1830, Francis Smith bequeathed £3,000 (£2.48 million in today’s equivalent) to the creation of a charity school. Smith’s charity school was later merged and became known as the Beckford and Smith School, now St Jago High School.

The legacies do not stop there. On May 21, 1729, John Wolmer, goldsmith, of Kingston, left the bulk of his property, £2,360 (£4.90 million today) to endow the Wolmer’s Free School. While the research into John Wolmer, and the trustees of Wolmer’s Free School, is ongoing, it is now established that some of the school’s headmasters were themselves enslavers. Chief among them was the Rev Thomas Pearce Williams, who was headmaster from 1813-1814. Williams claimed 10 enslaved people in 1834.

He was also a trustee of the Munro and Dickenson Charity and Archdeacon of the County of Cornwall. Ebenezer Reid (1815-1843) filed one claim and received compensation for five enslaved people. In addition to these, there are others that are strongly suspected of being slave owners, which is not yet confirmed. In Charles Drax’s will of 1721 (he was the owner of Drax Hall Estate in St Ann), the bequest was made to form a Free School, which was known as Drax’s Free School, which, after successive name changes, became known as Jamaica College from 1902 onwards.

In 1807, the Drax Free School was relocated to Walton Pen (Moneague), at which point it was referred to as the Jamaica Free School (there are references to Walton School as well) and again to Old Hope Road in 1885. The records highlight three headmasters who were enslavers. The first was the Rev Lewis Bowerbank (1816-1818), who filed two claims for 175 enslaved people (one claim for 162 was unsuccessful). The second was the Rev George Watson Askew (1826-1828), who was the joint owner of Springfield plantation in St Thomas-in-the-Vale (now St Catherine). Springfield was a small property with 44 enslaved people when it was registered to Askew in 1829. The third was the Rev John Henry Gegg (1829-1842), who received compensation for 15 enslaved people in St Ann.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that resident planters invested their compensation money in financial institutions, one of which survived into the 1990s. Many might not be aware that the Mutual Life Assurance Society (later Mutual life of Jamaica), which was formed in 1844, was linked to plantation slavery. The brain trust behind the formation of the company, William Wemyss Anderson, filed claims for 614 enslaved people, receiving £11,510 (£9.80 million today) in his capacity as trustee for several properties.

On Mutual Life’s board was Alexander Barclay, one of its founders and first chairman, who received compensation totalling £8,460 (£7.26 million today) for 419 enslaved people. Like Barclay, the company’s vice-chairman was the influential planter, John Vincent Purrier. In 1835, Purrier submitted six claims for 1,472 enslaved people, receiving £25,750 (£22.10 million today) in compensation. Mutual Life went on to become one of Jamaica’s most successful companies.

As we debate the removal of colonial statues and monuments from our landscape, the time is now opportune for us to begin to discuss, and acknowledge, how the legacies of plantation slavery have shaped, and continue to shape our society. For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to our historic realities. It is time for these institutions that were built on the backs of enslaved people to acknowledge their past and find some way to erect their own memorials to our ancestors.

Dr Ahmed Reid is an associate professor of history at the City University of New York and research fellow at the Centre for Reparation Research, The University of the West Indies.