Hidden Legacy

Slavery and the Loyalists in “Grand Caicos.”
By Ben Stubenberg

The Loyalists used forced labor to cut and clear the bush in TCI to plant sea cotton.

When the first British Loyalists arrived on the shores of North and Middle Caicos and Providenciales following the American Revolution in the late 1700s, they took with them enslaved people and a mindset of entitlement and power that mirrored the mores and hierarchy of the American South. The confiscation of home and plantations by the victorious American Patriots followed by forced exile apparently kindled no reflection or reconsideration of the practice of slavery as the Loyalists tried to recreate a lifestyle of privilege in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Largely left out is the perspective of the people who made possible that lifestyle, as if they were muted shadows on the wall instead of vibrant actors in their own right. What of the pain and exploitation they endured? What cracks in the system did they manipulate? And what of their courage under fire that, for a brief afternoon, put the enslaver and enslaved shoulder to shoulder as equals? Though slavery’s paradox was plain to see, Loyalists never mustered their own courage to change, even in a defining moment, holding on to their ways to the end.

Exile and second chances

The story of Loyalist settlers to the Turks & Caicos Islands is well documented. At the conclusion of the American Revolution, the Patriots bitterly resented those who had fought for King George III and often tarred and feathered them (a common mob form of punishment at the time). Forced off their property (which enriched the victors who took over), many of the Loyalists in Georgia fled to nearby St. Augustine in East Florida which had been returned to Spanish rule.

The Spanish offered to let the Loyalists stay if they swore allegiance to Spain and converted to Catholicism. But the Protestant Loyalists (also referred to as Tories, the political party reflecting their views) refused to convert and opted to take a chance on a new life in the Bahamas, which at that time included Turks & Caicos. (See Times of the Islands Fall 2010, “All the King’s Men” by Dr. Charlene Kozy.) Other Loyalists fled to the port city of Savannah and waited in squalid conditions for British ships that could take them to the Bahamas as well, or other parts of the British Empire for resettlement.

During this time in limbo, the British government compensated Loyalists for some or all of the losses suffered in the now former British colonies with cash and land grants that enabled them to begin anew. The compensation, as well as things of value to bring out, allowed Loyalists to purchase machinery, agricultural implements, and more slaves, giving them a big advantage in starting over with new plantations and a second life.

The first stop for many Loyalists was Nassau or nearby Cat Island, Eleuthera and Abaco. Their presence immediately caused friction with the long-term white residents who were mostly poor, illiterate and resentful of well-to-do refugees who looked down on them. Loyalists with the means set out for the more fertile and uninhabited islands of “Grand Caicos,” what we know today as North and Middle Caicos and Parrot Cay. They were really the third wave of slaveholders in TCI, the first being the Spanish enslavers who removed the original Taino and Lucayan Indians in the late 1400s and early 1500s that, along with disease and killings, completely depopulated all of TCI. The Bermudians followed in the late 1600s, bringing hundreds of slaves to Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos to work the salt ponds.

Before setting foot in TCI, the Loyalists knew the location and acreage of their new plantations in Grand Caicos. And they knew how much forced labor and tools they would need to cut and clear the thick brush for planting of sea cotton, which had already proven to be a viable crop on the other Bahamian islands. The Loyalist planters that arrived in Grand Caicos knew one another and kept in contact with other Loyalist families that had settled elsewhere in the Bahamas and other British Caribbean islands. That connection based on common values and shared experience in exile gave them a measure of social and political power.

Records tell of Loyalist marriages and offspring, their business dealings and their political ambitions to enhance their status in their new island home. We even know the inventory of luxury goods they loaded onto ships, such as fine mahogany furniture, china, silverware and linen sheets. Libraries, musical instruments, spy glasses and silver dueling pistols rounded out the households of the stone and wood houses the slaves would build for them. In fact, some Loyalists modeled their new abodes after houses where they had lived in Georgia.

There are no records of what they thought when they squinted out at the hot, low-lying islands of Grand Caicos covered with thick brush and rocks with few sources of fresh water. But surely their hearts must have sunk at the realization that even with slaves, machinery and a few luxuries, life would probably never reach the level they enjoyed in the American South.

No let-up for the enslaved

Slavery in the Caicos Islands was all about cotton.

The enslaved, of course, arrived here with nothing except a strong culture of resilience and adaptation. From the Loyalist perspective, they existed solely to be exploited for commercial gain. From the enslaved perspective, life centered on how to work the system, resist and retain a measure of dignity in the face of daily oppression. While Loyalists were able to bring some slaves from Georgia, the Carolinas and East Florida, they bought new ones at slave markets in Nassau and Cuba before the final leg of the journey to Grand Caicos. Thus, new arrivals from Africa mixed in with an existing culture of people who had known nothing but slavery.

We can only imagine the great despair and bewilderment slaves must have felt when they emerged from the holds of the same sailing ships as the Loyalists. They, too, shielded their eyes while peering into the bright sunlight and saw before them the desolate, faraway island, searingly conscious of their status and grim prospects. The new home held no promise of a better life, only forced backbreaking work until death.

As in the American South and throughout the West Indies, the Loyalists recorded slaves as numbers. How many belonged to whom and the purchases, sales and transfers, along with first names. While a slave’s position or health condition might be listed, this was the exception.

A sales document dated 20th August 1792 marking the transfer of slaves between plantation owners Wade Stubbs and Annis Stubbs provides an example. The document shows that Annis Stubbs paid “five hundred pounds sterling” to own 12 people. The document records their names as George, Phabe, Jeny, Venus, Rachel, Charlott, Lucy, Jim, York, Nancy, Cathy and Darky and stipulates “with all their future and increase of their bodies.” The quoted words make starkly clear the expected continuity of property through propagation and leaves no doubt about their belief in the perpetuation of the institution of slavery. It also lays bare the pure commercial transactional nature of the practice.

The Bermudian slave holders on Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos similarly tracked slaves they used to produce salt. And both groups counted the slaves who escaped, as these were serious monetary losses to be accounted for. In short, the lives of those held bondage were reduced to bookkeeping.

For slavery to succeed, though, slaveholders had to maintain constant control through absolute power using violence or the threat of violence. We are well aware of the brutality Bermudian slaveholders meted out to slaves who worked the salt ponds on Grand Turk through the raw and riveting firsthand account of slavery by Mary Prince. As recorded and published by abolitionists in London in the 1830s, Mary tells of the grueling labor and torture she experienced and witnessed as a slave working the salt ponds:

Then we had no sleep—no rest—but were forced to work as fast as we could, and go on again all next day the same as usual. Work—work—work—Oh that Turks Island was a horrible place! The people of England, I am sure, have never found out what is carried out there. Cruel, horrible place!

If we could not keep up with the rest of the gang of slaves, we were put in the stocks, and severely flogged the next morning.

Mr. D—has often stripped me naked, hung me up by the wrists, and beat me with the cow-skin, with his own hand, till my body was raw with gashes.

No such detailed account exists for the enslaved on the cotton plantations of North and Middle Caicos, Parrot Cay and Providenciales, though life was likely as harsh. Indeed, the Loyalist slaveholders would have every reason to omit accounts of violence inflicted on the enslaved in Grand Caicos. Great Britain had banned the slave trade in 1807 (not slavery itself) and put in place various laws to regulate slavery in the West Indies and elsewhere. So, at least on paper, the laws forbade some egregious practices and required some care for sick and elderly slaves. However, in the isolation of Grand Caicos, or even in the more trafficked Grand Turk, these laws could be safely ignored as long as everyone kept quiet.

Despite the paucity of written accounts of slave treatment in Grand Caicos, we can still glean a picture of slavery on these islands through the records kept, oral history passed down and witness accounts of the brutality of slavery in the region. These are largely in sync with what Mary Prince had revealed through her abolitionist supporters. For the Loyalist enslavers, the culture of exploitation in the American South closely paralleled the one here and, thus, can serve as a historical portal into the conditions and relationships that likely existed between slaves and Loyalists.

Exerting control

Presbyterian minister and abolitionist John Rankin’s 1826 Letters on Slavery compellingly describes common slave treatment at the time that parallel accounts throughout the West Indies. Control meant keeping slaves hungry and desperate for food, which could easily be cut off. From there, as Rankin’s Letters makes clear, slaves faced painful floggings for not working hard enough, for stealing food or for no reason at all. Ratcheting up, slaveholders at times applied more severe forms of torment, including dismemberment, mutilation and burning to punish and send a message to others. Notably, Rankin’s Letters recount the pouring of red pepper or turpentine into wounds and gashes, not unlike what Mary Prince saw when Bermudian slaveholders poured salt into the wounds of the enslaved on Grand Turk. While administering these tortures, slaveholders would actually read Biblical scripture that in their interpretation justified and rationalized their actions.

Perhaps the most vivid account of this harsh reality of slavery is the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup, published in 1853. Made into a major motion picture in 2013, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. The book and the movie detail Mr. Northrup’s experience of going from a free man in New York to being kidnapped and forced to work as a slave on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. After friends secured his release that enabled him to return to New York, he worked with abolitionist groups to highlight the conditions he and other slaves were subjected to. The book and the movie graphically describe the horrific treatment at the hands of a slave owner, including sexual exploitation.

It is fair to assume that Loyalist slaveholders, as a matter of course, continued to carry out such violence on Grand Caicos slaves, even if application varied. It could be argued that treatment of slaves on Grand Caicos may not have been as severe as on Grand Turk because slaveholders on Grand Caicos would have more incentive to manage them better in view of the difficulty of acquiring new slaves due to isolation. But beating slaves was such a regular part of slave life that it’s hard to believe the Loyalists would somehow become more amenable with changed circumstances, and there is little to suggest otherwise.

While violence was the main tool for controlling enslaved people and extracting as much work as possible, slaveholders also had to deal with the prospect of a slave revolt. Indeed, slave rebellions had taken place in the American South and West Indies throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, culminating in the successful rebellion in Haiti in November 1803 that led to the establishment of the first black republic of former slaves. Loyalists were keenly well aware of these uprisings, especially the revolt in Haiti in view of its proximity to TCI—just 100 miles/160 km away. Ships sailing between northern Haiti and TCI greatly facilitated a flow of information to slaveholders and slaves alike about the struggle taking place in Haiti over the course of more than a decade.

In order to mitigate the chances of an uprising and the risk of revenge, slaveholders often took measures to create divisions among slaves. One way was to acquire slaves from different parts of Africa who could not understand each other or mix them in with slaves who had been in bondage for many generations. The Loyalist purchase of slaves at markets in Nassau and Cuba to augment the slaves they had brought from the American South may well have had the effect of creating such divisions, though we don’t know if it was a deliberate strategy.

A second way to split slave groups was to create hierarchies of slaves with special privileges. We know that some of the slaves brought by Loyalists had specialized skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing, thus indicating the strong possibility of “favored” slaves with more status that could cause resentment and sow disharmony to discourage unified action.

In fact, no outright slave revolts took place in TCI. However, many slaves successfully escaped, mainly by taking boats from the beaches at night and sailing south to Haiti, a country that welcomed them as free people. (See Times of the Islands Fall 2018, “Sailing to Freedom” by this author.) Between 1822 and 1825, 128 slaves in the Turks & Caicos escaped, many of them from the Wade Stubbs plantation on North Caicos. We have no testimony on why they or any slaves from TCI escaped, though abusive treatment would seem to be the likely motivation to get away—bad enough to cause them forsake family and friends.

Exploitation and sentiment

One of the most debasing aspects of slavery was sexual exploitation of slave women by slaveholders that also involved violence or the threat of violence. While some slaves may have been accommodating to avoid repercussions, all were in some way coerced or forced.

Stories of such abuse abounded. Mary Prince herself was almost certainly subjected to sexual exploitation by the slaveholder she refers to as “Mr. D” on Grand Turk. Some abolitionists, including those who supported Mary Prince, may have purposefully glossed over the more heinous and salacious accounts, as they felt it would distract from the larger objective of banning slavery. Of course, the awareness could not be hidden for long since the exploitation resulted in numerous births of mulatto children.

A British-mandated census in 1834 in TCI classified 180 individuals (13.08% of the slave population) as “Mulattos,” which was defined as persons with both African and European bloodlines. Of these, according to TCI historian Nigel Sadler in his book Slave History of the Turks & Caicos Islands, 112 persons were under 20 years of age. It is not known if all of the mulattos were the offspring of slaveholders and slaves—some could have been the result of liaisons between white indentured servants or other white non-slaveholders and either slaves or ex-slaves. However, the high number of children and teens of mixed race, the close proximity of slaves to slaveholders in all the Islands and the long history of forced or coercive sexual relations by slaveholders strongly indicates that most, though maybe not all, mulatto offspring at that time were the result of slaveholder exploitation of female slaves.

These abhorrent violations could take strange turns. In the 1760s and 1770s, a Jamaican slaveholder named Thomas Thistlewood kept a detailed diary of his relations with slaves. He even documented his own brutality against slaves, which historian Trevor Burnard called “sociopathic,” a term which could perhaps be applied to most slaveholders, including many on Grand Caicos. In a twisted but not uncommon way, Thistlewood also developed an affection for a few of the slave women. One woman in particular named Phibbah, with whom he had a son, apparently used his emotional connection to her (perhaps dependency mixed with jealousy) to turn the tables and gain favors to survive in an otherwise oppressive society. Phibbah even felt free to quarrel with Thistlewood and refuse to sleep with him without fear of repercussion.

This brings us to the intriguing relationship between Dr. John Lorimer and his slave Rose on his Haulover Estate in Middle Caicos. Lorimer’s will, written in 1807, has been recorded as stating that on his death he would free all of his slaves. In fact, according to Mr. Sadler, the will was mistakenly recorded because Lorimer freed only one slave, referred to as his “faithful Negro woman slave Rose.” Rose first appears as “Rosana, property of John Lorimer Esq. born April 16th, 1795” and baptized in March 1800 in Grand Turk when Lorimer was there acting as the King’s Agent. Apparently, Rose is the only one of his slaves to be baptized, which raises the question of, “Why her?”

The details of Lorimer’s will provide some context: “I wish my body to be carried to the grave by six of my Negroes (if I have any) dressed in white. For long service rendered me by the Negro woman Rose, I leave her free . . . [and] leave Rose any two of my young Negroes born and raised in the Caicos and Turks Islands, which she may choose.” Rose is later mentioned in an 1822 slave register as, “Rose Lorimer, free black woman” who owns two slaves, “Joe, male 30, Black. Turks Islands and Hannah, female, 30, Black. Turks Islands.”

So it appears that Rose is free and has two slaves of her own, a rare gift for a former slave, which suggests a special relationship with Lorimer of some kind. It is telling that Rose is already referred to in Lorimer’s 1807 will as “faithful Negro woman,” and on track to be freed even though at the time she was only 12 years old (if she was in fact born in 1795 per the Grand Turk records). While not definitive, the shards of evidence seem to indicate that Rose is his daughter, prompting, of course, the second question about his relationship with Rose’s mother, most likely a slave under his control.

By singling out Rose in granting her freedom and slaves, Lorimer ensured she would have far greater independence and a higher level of comfort in life. One can try to portray this act of kindness as a slaveholder’s “softer” side. However, Lorimer still felt compelled to use and perpetuate the institution of slavery to express his apparent affection for Rose (or guilt) and to ensure she had a better life. Though it is possible Rose’s two slaves were enslaved in name only, and maybe even relatives of Rose, Lorimer failed to take that additional step of freeing all slaves. In that sense, Lorimer was not much different from other slaveholders in the American South or Caribbean who gifted slaves to their wives and daughters for the same reasons.

Indeed, the ownership of slaves by women was not unusual in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As many as 40% of enslavers may have been women in the United States, as slaves represented one of the few ways in which women could be independently well-off, if not wealthy. Ironically, by possessing slaves, these women gained a measure of personal freedom otherwise denied to them in an era when society accorded them few rights, as was even more so in the case with Rose.

While maltreatment of the enslaved is usually associated with men, historical records show that women were just as cruel whether or not they actually owned the slaves. In fact women, like men, in slaveholding families were socialized from an early age to treat slaves badly. The brutality was at its most pernicious when wives of slaveholders physically lashed out at slave women whom their husbands had impregnated. The wives often blamed the slave women rather than their husbands responsible for the transgression. 12 Years a Slave highlighted this. Astoundingly, these atrocities were confirmed through eye-witness accounts compiled as late as the 1930s from men and women still alive who had been slaves before American emancipation in 1865.

In less common cases, women took advantage of male slaves under their control in the American South and the West Indies, perhaps out of loneliness, perhaps out of defiance, or perhaps because they could. Local historian and naturalist B Naqqi Manco recalls a story about a slave-owning widow on North Caicos who had relations with a slave named Fred. Little else is known about the story, and it is hard to confirm, but the incident would not have been completely out of character for a slave-owning woman at the time in North Caicos or anywhere else.

Confrontation and loyalty

As slaveholders in the American South and the West Indies came under increasing scrutiny and exposure by abolitionist groups, slaveholders attempted to counter the narrative that slavery was evil. They mounted what was in effect a public relations campaign by portraying themselves as benevolent masters who treated “their” slaves well. They argued that slaves were, in fact, better off with the food and shelter they provided and cited incidents of slave “loyalty” as evidence of acceptance of their condition. Many people bought into the notion that slavery “wasn’t that bad,” a story line that could be considered the “fake news” of the time.

Just how did this notion of slave loyalty play out with the Loyalists of Grand Caicos? As it happens, a pirate attack off West Caicos brought enslaved and enslavers together in a fight for survival that tested assumptions about slavery for at least one prominent Loyalist planter, Colonel Thomas Brown. Originally from Yorkshire, England, Thomas made his way to the American colonies where he started plantations in the American South and acquired slaves just as the Revolutionary War broke out. After professing loyalty to King George III and refusing to sign a letter swearing allegiance to the Revolution at a “Sons of Liberty” meeting, the Patriots brutally attacked and tarred and feathered him.

Angry and spoiling for revenge, Brown joined the Loyalist unit “The King’s Rangers” and fought against the Patriots, rising to the rank of colonel. Legend has it that his bitterness was so great that he hanged 13 Patriots just so he could gloat over their suffering.

When the Patriots wrested control of the American colonies from Great Britain, he along with the other Loyalists made their way to North Caicos to start over. In the course of developing a plantation, he, like Lorimer, earned a reputation for treating slaves well. If a slave from one plantation wanted to marry a slave from another plantation, he would buy the slave in order to keep the family together. Supposedly, he had also freed favorites among the enslaved even before coming to North Caicos. Therefore, if any slaveholder could have empathy and understanding and see the enslaved as human, not chattel, it would seem to be Brown.

When a ship from Rhode Island laden with badly needed supplies and provisions for Loyalist planters wrecked on the reef off West Caicos, Brown, other planters and several slaves set off for the stricken ship. Sailing in five sloops, they found the ship intact and successfully salvaged the valuable cargo. As they were about to return, French pirates/privateers attacked them. A pitched battle ensued as the French attempted to drive the slaves and Loyalists against the reef and take their sloops and cargo.

Brown sailed the largest boat that was mounted with two small cannons. Also on board was a crew of slaves armed with muskets. Together, they managed to drive off the French three different times. After three hours of fighting, a cannon from a more heavily armed French ship sank Brown’s sloop, forcing him and the crew to swim to shore on West Caicos where they awaited rescue. Two of the slaves had been wounded in the fight, though not mortally. The French captured the remaining boats with the cargo and sailed away.

The Bahama Gazette carried a story of the fight in the August 21, 1798 edition, including Brown’s praise for his men. In a letter to his father in England, Brown wrote, “I was so proud of my men, did not mind the loss of goods.”

This was not the first action Brown took that involved arming slaves to protect Loyalist planter interests. Brown, using his own money and probably with assistance from other planters, had already built two forts to protect Saint George Harbour (now known as Fort George Cay between Pine Cay and Dellis Cay).

According to Edward J. Cashin in The King’s Ranger, “He (Brown) armed and drilled his black labor force” to man the fort. Clearly, Brown developed a great deal of confidence in people he had enslaved to actually arm them at a time when the Haitian slave rebellion was in full swing, and slaveholders were fearful the revolt might spread. Indeed, Brown’s initiatives were exceptional in a time when most slaveholders believed that slaves could not be trusted, much less with weapons.

While Brown praised his men, implying loyalty to him in the fight against the French pirates, the slaves could just as well have been fighting for their own survival, not fealty to their slaveholder. And while the arming of slaves for island defense against raiders may well have been forward leaning and progressive for the era, could that loyalty have lasted long on such an isolated post if the slave soldiers remained slaves? I can think of no instance where slaves fought willingly for slave masters without at least the promise of freedom, which Brown apparently never gave.

When Brown departed North Caicos in 1802 and resettled in St. Vincent a few years later to start another plantation, he reportedly took with him 643 slaves and 15 white overseers who had been working his plantations there. In fact, Brown had so many slaves that it took almost two years to transfer all of them. It should be noted that there is no record of slaves escaping from Brown’s plantation. That might suggest that they didn’t want to because they were content. But, such a perspective would require an assumption that Brown (and all of his 15 overseers) treated his slaves so vastly differently from other plantations that all of them preferred bondage to freedom, or at least questioned taking the risk of sailing to freedom.

Notwithstanding Brown’s experience and his admiration for the enslaved under his control, he apparently felt no compunction or inclination to let them go. Perhaps in arrogance he believed that bondage was better (except for one or two favored ones). Or perhaps he calculated that without hundreds of slaves working for him, he could not maintain his lifestyle and status, and thus could not do without them. In any case, Brown, like other ostensibly enlightened enslavers who were well aware of slavery’s bitter controversy, rationalized the status quo, unable to rise to the occasion.

Legacy and today

In the end, the Loyalist plantations lasted less than thirty years before hurricanes, soil depletion and disease destroyed much of the sea cotton crop. While some Loyalists turned to planting sisal then used for making rope, the brief heyday of the plantation life on Grand Caicos declined sharply. Most of the Loyalists lost their second fortune here and left for England, or in some cases went back to the American South where resentment against Loyalists had dissipated.

The Loyalists sold off some of the enslaved to recoup losses before departing, but left behind others. As the rigid, oppressive life of slavery began to unravel, the now former enslaved took control. Already hardy survivors, they were quite prepared to adapt, fend for themselves and make the land and sea serve them. They formed communities and depended on each other, a culture and spirit of reliance that continues to this day. This is quite a tribute for people whose ancestors came to these islands under the most excruciating circumstances and prevailed.

Ben Stubenberg (ben@caicunaniki.com) is a contributing writer to Times of the Islands with a passion for TCI history. He is also co-founder of the TCI adventure company Caicu Naniki and the annual Turks & Caicos “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim.

Special thanks to Nigel Sadler, Historian and founder of Sands of Times Consultancy, Dr. Charlene Kozy, Historian, and B Naqqi Manco, Naturalist and Historian, for their valuable contributions. The personal perspectives are entirely the author’s.


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