Sailing to Freedom

TCI slave escapes in the early 1800s.

By Ben Stubenberg

The Caicos Sloop plays a defining role in the history and culture of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Few endeavors are more woven into the culture and history of the Turks & Caicos Islands than sailing. Ever since the Bermudians rediscovered TCI some 350 years ago and began collecting salt from the natural salinas, boats played a defining role. By day, fast and agile sloops called “lighters” brought sacks of the precious “white gold” from the shores of Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos to larger ships waiting in deep water for the voyage back to Bermuda. Larger sloops plied the turquoise waters between the scattered TCI settlements where Islanders welcomed their arrival for the passengers and cargo they carried and news they brought of separated kin and the world beyond.
At night, however, the vessels served a more daring, clandestine purpose. Under the cover of darkness, the salt raker slaves who had had enough secretly gathered on the beach where the boats bobbed in the sea. Quietly, they unfurled and raised the sails, let the warm wind fill the luffing canvass, and steered south by the stars splashed across a black Caribbean sky to freedom.

The rocky islets of Bermuda, where this story begins, lie some 750 miles (1200 km) due north of the TCI in the middle of the North Atlantic. Settlers from Scotland, England and Ireland first arrived on the 21 square mile archipelago in the early 1600s and tried to make a go at small scale agriculture. But when the soil depleted after a couple of generations, they looked for other ways to survive. Straddling the major shipping routes from Europe to the West Indies, as well as close proximity to the American colonies, Bermudians found a niche as an opportunistic seafaring outpost. The settlers and the African slaves they imported built boats with shallow drafts that also made them more maneuverable for negotiating tricky reefs. They also improved the four cornered trapezoid gaff rig so it could point the boats more closely into the wind and require fewer tacks.
In what became known and admired as the Bermudian Sloop, sailors gained a decisive advantage that translated into a measure of autonomy and a geographical reach well beyond their isolated islands. It also bred a brash, adventurous spirit in a dangerous, unforgiving world where pirates and warships roamed the same seas, jockeying for dominance and riches. Though nominally under British dominion, Bermudians often became pirates themselves and traded with any nation that could pay, including Britain’s enemies.
With these swift sloops, the Bermudians, black and white, explored the Bahamian Archipelago in search of shipwrecks with treasure and to hunt for turtles. During one of the voyages in the latter 1600s, they came across the then-uninhabited islands of TCI. A century before, the Taino and Lucayan Indians had all been killed by disease, slaughtered, or carried off as slaves forced to dive for pearls off the coast of Venezuela. (See “Diving Free,” Fall 2018 Times of the Islands.) The Bermudians took note of the salinas (salt ponds) of Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos that allowed in just enough ocean water to leave behind high quality salt around the edges after evaporation in the hot sun. Before refrigeration, salt preserved food, and was thus extremely valuable.
At first, the Bermudians dropped off white, indentured salt rakers in March at the beginning of the dry season and picked them up in November, along with the salt they had gathered. As demand for salt rose in New England, Newfoundland, and Labrador to keep cod from rotting (fishermen needed two pounds of salt for every pound of fish), Bermudian salt merchant slaveholders swapped the white salt rakers for slaves of African descent and established permanent settlements around the ponds.

Slavery’s harsh reality

This 1910 postcard shows workers in the salt ponds of Grand Turk.

The work and conditions were hard and brutal. (See “Toiling in the Salt Ponds,” Fall 2008 Times of the Islands.) We know in painful detail from a rare first-hand account of the plight of salt-raking slaves by Mary Prince, herself a slave from Bermuda who spent ten years on Grand Turk from 1802 to 1812. After being brought to London as a slave, she ran away from her “owner” and told her story to British abolitionist Thomas Pringle, who transcribed her words that became a best selling book.

“I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o’clock in the morning till nine. [I} worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone. We then shoveled up the salt in large heaps and sometimes we had to work all night, measuring salt to load a vessel; or turning a machine to draw water out of the sea for the salt-making.”

Any slave perceived as not putting in full effort could expect tortuous punishment. Mary Prince describes what happened to “Old Daniel” who could not work as hard as the others because of a lame hip.

“[The owner] would order him to be stripped and laid down on the ground, and have him beaten with a rod of rough briar till his skin was quite red and raw. He would then call for a bucket of salt, and fling [it] upon the raw flesh till the man writhed on the ground like a worm, and screamed aloud with agony. This poor man’s wounds were never healed. I have often seen them full of maggots, which increased his torments to an intolerable degree. He was an object of pity and terror to the whole gang of slaves, and in his wretched case we saw, each of us, our own lot, if we should live to be as old.”

For the slaves, it was well nigh impossible to break out of their subjugation. Unlike mountainous Jamaica where runaway slaves called “Maroons” could hide in small communities deep in the interior jungles, TCI’s small, flat islands offered no such refuge. The slave masters had the salt rakers trapped—until a confluence of three pivotal elements gave them a chance: The means to escape, a safe haven, and an intelligence network to guide their course of action.

Building the Caicos sloop
As slaves like Mary Prince and Old Daniel labored to produce ever more salt under threat of violence, the salt merchant pond owners needed more boats to transport their commodity. Bermuda was already running short of trees to cut, but small forests in Middle Caicos turned out to have excellent quality wood to build small lighters, as well as bigger sloops for longer voyages. Constructing the boats locally instead of sailing hundreds of miles down from Bermuda made sense. And soon an independent boat building industry sprang up using African slaves from Bermuda as shipwrights, carpenters and blacksmiths.
The tenacity to build Bermudian-style fast sloops from scratch in the bush cannot be overstated. David Douglas, owner of the West Indian sloop Atabeyra and founder of the Caicos Sloop Project, makes clear the incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity required. “With just meager tools, these TCI guys went into the bush, found the right trees, and hand-cut the wood to build ocean-going vessels. And the builders passed down that knowledge, as well as the skills to sail, from one generation to the next, right through to today.”

James S. Deane of the Wheeling settlement in Providenciales is one of the great living TCI boat builders.

James S. Deane of Wheeling on Providenciales recalled the traditional boat building techniques that he had learned from his father. They built their Caicos Sloops the way they did 200 years ago, using mostly strong locust or mahogany wood for the keel and ribs and Caicos pine for the planks, mast and spars. Builders would often search and select trees that already had a natural curve so just one piece could be used. “After laying the keel,” Mr. Deane said, “the ribbing shape only varied between the more rounded ‘rainbow’ style or ‘straight V.’ My father could cut the planks so precise that the spacing would be as little as 1/64th of an inch. But the craftsmanship was actually too good, as it did not permit enough space for the caulking using sisal tree fibers and ‘putty’ made from a mix of ant nest and paint. So they had to widen the spacing a bit.” For Mr. Deane and the other boat builders of today and long ago, the sloops were as much a work of art and beauty, as function. They wanted their boats to look as good as they sailed.
What became the Caicos Sloop proved to be the equal of the masterful Bermudian sloop, allowing TCI to develop its own sailing prowess. The maritime linkages between the Islands enabled the boat builders to pass on sailing skills to salt rakers, according to Dr. Carlton Mills, editor of the The History of the Turks & Caicos Islands. That connection was particularly strong between Middle Caicos and South Caicos, as boats regularly launched from the settlement of Lorimers and made their way down the channel and the lee side of South Caicos for trade, news and, over time, family ties with the salt rakers. Dr. Mills also points out that salt rakers on Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos likely worked on the small lighters sailing between the shore and larger ships to bring salt and off-load cargo, which would further enhance their nautical knowledge. For slaves seeking to escape, however, the boats had limited utility unless they could find refuge with contacts, a sanctuary in an otherwise hostile environment.

Slaves revolt in Haiti
Beginning in the 1770s, revolutions rumbled first in the American Colonies, followed by France, and then Haiti. All violently challenged longstanding notions of hierarchy and power and called for a new, more egalitarian political order. However imperfectly, the leaders attempted to apply what had been only philosophical concepts of basic rights, social contract and democratic self-determination. For slaves in Haiti, the revolutionary choice was far more stark—barbarous bondage or liberty.
The French colony then known as St. Domingue lay just 100 miles (160 km) south of TCI and encompassed a third of Hispañola. The fertile land there produced more wealth than any other colony in the Caribbean, mainly through vast sugar cane plantations. For aspiring French gentry seeking fortune and higher status, Haiti offered a clear path to get there. All it took were seed capital, importing thousands of slaves from Africa to work the fields and a decade of ruthless plantation management. Slaveholders figured they could get one or two year’s of hard labor from a slave before he or she succumbed to Yellow Fever or exhaustion, so they constantly sought to replenish slaves, while expanding their plantations to generate more income. The reckless greed soon led to a 10:1 ratio of slaves to whites, higher than other West Indian colonies, including TCI which had at most a 6:1 ratio. Watching the insurrections in Haiti and experiencing their own revolts in Jamaica, the British were especially sensitive to slaves overwhelming the white population, according to Dr. Mills, and sought to reduce the ratios as a management technique.
In 1791, the first revolt took place in Northern Haiti near the colony’s capital, Cap-François, today called Cap-Haitien or Okap. The slaves massacred several plantation families before being put down. But precedent had been set, and soon new uprisings took place leading to the creation of well-led Haitian militias that evolved into disciplined armies pitted against French troops fighting to preserve the plantation system.
The conflict took many twists and turns over the next 12 years, including alliances on both sides with free mulattos who saw an opportunity to improve their own lot as a class with limited rights. The French Revolution ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity had already reached Haiti’s shores and been internalized by slaves and mulattos. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France in 1802, the now ex-slaves had taken control over most of Haiti. Influenced by his wife Josephine, herself from Martinique, another colony dependent on slaves to cut cane, and plantation owners eager to regain their holdings, Napoleon sent an army of 50,000 men from France to quash the rebellion definitively. By the following year, however, almost all the troops had been wiped out by Yellow Fever and a formidable Haitian fighting force. Napoleon would later write that his effort to win back Haiti was the worst decision he ever made.
On January 1, 1804, Haitian leaders formally declared their independence, becoming the second independent republic in the Americas and the first black one. They discarded the name St. Domingue and restored the original Taino Indian name, Haiti, meaning “land of high mountains.” The Haitian Revolution stands as the only successful slave revolt in history. The biggest slave rebellion prior to Haiti had been the unsuccessful uprising led by Spartacus against the Romans more than 1,900 years earlier. Keenly cognizant of their singular accomplishment, Haitians enticed thousands of free and enslaved blacks in the West Indies to flee to their shores and secure rights denied elsewhere.

Network of black mariners
The triumph by the oppressed in Haiti reverberated throughout the slave communities in the West Indies, as well as among slaveholders fearful that insurrections might come their way too. While slaveholders, merchants and government authorities typically got their information through the press, letters, official reports, visitors and sometimes plantation owners fleeing the strife in Haiti, slaves received their updates in a very different manner. Excluded from standard forms of communication, slaves relied instead on black sailors who picked up news in the ports they visited and passed it on, effectively creating a parallel structure.
Dr. Kevin Dawes, Professor of History at the University of California, Merced, explores this dynamic in his paper “Enslaved Ship Pilots in the Age of Revolution: Challenging Notions of Race and Slavery between the Boundaries of Land and Sea.” He writes:

“Atlantic ports were market places for news and pilots funneled intelligence between mariners, passengers, and shoreside communities, serving as the overseas eyes and ears of urban and rural slave communities. News was passed by word of mouth along maritime routes . . . free black sailors linked black communities in New England to the West Indies.”

Professor Dawes goes on to assert that “these murmurs of liberty rippled across the greater Caribbean inspiring corollary slave rebellions.”
During this era of political and social upheaval in the Americas, black mariners, slave and free, occupied a unique and liberating space on the water with far fewer constraints than slaves on land. Able to roam, these men of the sea witnessed and absorbed the fissures of instability and change in the region that they passed on. In the fluid environment, black mariners also understood how their specialized skills could be exploited for more privileges and to redefine notions of race and status. As Professor Dawes explains, the independent character of the labor of free and enslaved black mariners “undercut white dominance, allowing them to use the ocean as a transient sphere of opportunity where they severed terrestrial ties . . . and gained economic advantages and racial parity deprived ashore.”
Nowhere was this equality more conspicuous than with enslaved pilots who gained the trust of white shipmasters to safely guide the lumbering sailing vessels into tricky harbors after crossing the Atlantic. Shipmasters in fact became dependent on pilots’ essential maritime knowledge, enabling them to take advantage and invert the racial hierarchy of subservience. Indeed, enslaved pilots regularly talked back, cursed and ordered about white captains and crew. One account of an enslaved pilot in Barbados has him even demanding grog as he took command of a ship entering the harbor and offered a toast to the white women passengers below, something that would not have been tolerated on land.
Ship owners and shipmasters did not object or challenge the pilots, lest they risk the pilot “accidentally” crashing the ship and cargo on the reef or shoals around the harbor. In some instances, ship owners even enjoyed watching the black slave pilots boss around white sailors, thus further highlighting the inverted social hierarchy on deck. The deference given to these black mariners, of course, infused a level of confidence and freedom to move about and openly flout the norms of the day.
As many ships frequented Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos to unload food and materials and pick up sacks of salt, these black mariners and other slaves brought news of revolt and liberation to the salt rakers. Their influence on the salt rakers did not go unnoticed by TCI slaveholders who blamed them for inciting escapes. In the chapter on Slavery in The History of Turks & Caicos Islands, TCI historian Nigel Sadler quotes the assessment of the “King’s Agent” in TCI Colonel Alexander Murray in 1798:

“Of late many valuable Negroes allured by the description given them of French liberty by their associates, have eloped to the enemy. One man of Salt Cay, James Deane, has lost no less than fifteen. Of the several plans to escape with boats to Cap François, we have found no instance where the French Negroes were not the principals or parties.”

And this was well before the Haitian Revolution had ended.
It is important to note that while black mariners calling on TCI ports played a critical role in transmitting intelligence for would-be escapees, they were not the only source. Dr. Mills notes that household slaves also had excellent access to information by their proximity to the salt merchants they served. They may have overheard talk about upcoming travels, in-fighting or illnesses that would have distracted slaveholders from keeping a watchful eye. The house slaves would feign ignorance or disinterest when in fact they were listening and observing carefully. At the same time, Dr. Mills suggests, slave mistresses of the salt merchants may also have picked up intelligence through their intimate contact to pass on. These important nuggets could be pieced together and factored into decision-making for an escape. Any escape plot took extensive and creative planning to ensure success. Failure was not an option, and there is in fact no record of TCI slaves being caught escaping.

Efforts to stop slave escapes
The first King’s Agent in TCI, Andrew Symmer, made the initial attempt to control boats being taken by slaves. He required all boat owners to remove their sails at night and instituted liability and penalties by compelling “any master of a servant or slave” who absconded with a boat “to make good all damages” to the boat’s owner. By the early 1800s, local authorities instituted more severe measures to punish slaveholders for not controlling slaves sufficiently. If the slaveowners lost slaves to escapes, authorities reduced their share of the salinas in direct proportion to the slaves they no longer had, thus hurting them financially.
The incentives to control slave escapes apparently had little effect, as statistics bear out the prevalence of slave escapes from TCI. According to Mr. Sadler, “Between 1822 and 1825, of the 142 slaves listed as runaways in the Bahamas (which at that time included TCI), 128 (90%) had absconded from Turks & Caicos, mainly due to the ease of access to salt ships and proximity of Haiti.” These included slaves escaping in this time frame on sloops from Hawks Nest, Grand Turk, from North Caicos using sloops owned by Wade Stubbs also in 1823, and from South Caicos in the sloop Polly taken from Henshall Stubbs.
Finally, British officials deployed a detachment of the West Indies Regiment on Grand Turk to uphold law and order in the early 1830s. But even that was not enough. A year before emancipation in 1834, salt pond owner and slaveholder Henshall Stubbs took matters into his own hands by furnishing his own boats to serve as a de facto coast guard to try to stop the exodus of slaves getting away by boat.
Absconding with sloops to sail to Haiti and freedom was not unique to TCI. Professor Dawson notes that in 1817, seven Jamaican slaves commandeered their pilot boat, the Deep Nine, when the owner and captain went ashore near Port Royal and sailed it to Haiti. British authorities blamed Haitian sailors for importing revolutionary ideals that led to the slave escapes by boat. Knowing that the new Haitian government protected fugitives from re-enslavement, the runaway Jamaicans made no attempt to conceal themselves or their boat when the owner/captain came to Haiti looking for them. He got the boat back but not the mariners, now former slaves.

Leaving a legacy
The names of enslaved TCI salt rakers who escaped their ordeal have been lost to history. But through the words of Mary Prince echoing through the centuries, we know how motivated they must have been. We know the courage that it took in view of the severe punishment that awaited them if caught. And we know that they were very much part of a Great Caribbean network of intelligence fostered by black mariners and other slaves who kept them well informed.
Using nautical skills likely acquired from handling lighters and from boat builders, escaping slaves would have been prepared to sail the 100 miles (160 km) to Haiti in less than a day with a good northerly breeze. As for navigation, Mr. Douglas posits that the escaping slaves probably knew quite well what they were doing. “In late winter/spring, they would easily have located the Southern Cross just above the southern horizon that would have guided them to Cap-Haitien.”
We can only imagine the anguish the salt rakers felt leaving behind family and friends without much hope of seeing them again. At the same time, we can sense the thrill of escape across the ocean and embarking on a new life in a new land, however uncertain the future. Indeed, the TCI salt rakers took full advantage of the cracks in the prevailing system of bondage to make their move. Far from passive observers, scores of salt rakers, perhaps hundreds, claimed freedom on their terms in their native Caicos sloops despite resolute efforts to stop them, leaving behind a legacy of bold defiance.

Ben Stubenberg is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for Turks & Caicos Islands history. An avid ocean man, he is the co-founder of the sports and adventure tour company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-Seaswim. Ben can be reached at ben@caicunaniki.com.

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