Well, here we are at the penultimate post for Black History Month – time flies! Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at the origins of the province’s African-Island community, as well as the institution of slavery as it once existed here. Today, we’ll continue on with the theme of slavery and examine the lifestyle led by the Island’s enslaved in the late 18th and early 19th centuries largely through the prism of criminal justice (I apologize up front for the lack of imagery, and will try my best to keep things shorter as a result).
I think it goes without saying that the life of a slave anywhere, and at any period in history, was one fraught with hardship, and you’d be hard pressed to come up with many (or any) examples of people forced against their will into servitude who at the same time managed to lead a posh existence. It just didn’t work that way, and the Island was certainly no exception to the rule. (Of course to be fair, there weren’t too many people on the Island during this time whose lives were anywhere close to lavish. For instance, our first chief justice, John Duport, had a daughter who actually died of starvation.) Life was hard across the board, but that still doesn’t make any better or easier to swallow the fact that this was the case for African-Islanders simply because they were forced into it, with little to no recourse at hand.
As I’ve previously related, the large majority of African-Islanders ended up here during the 1780s amid the immigration of loyalists to these shores. Most (but not all) ended up in Charlottetown, while others could be found in more remote regions of the Island, such as Malpeque and the Three Rivers area. (In later years, the African-Islander diaspora would actually see a greater percentage living outside Charlottetown than were resident in the city). Most enslaved African-Islanders worked in domestic roles and as itinerant labourers, and nothing here ever developed akin to the plantation system that entrenched itself in the US.
It’s notoriously difficult to get intimate insight into the early lives of African-Islanders, mainly because there is, in general, little in the way of documentation from the period that concerns them. One area that bucks this trend, however, is the realm of criminal justice (or, as was often the case, injustice). For instance, thanks to Jupiter Wise’s theft of rum to supply a party in the summer of 1785, and a larger theft later that year, likewise to supply the necessities for a party, we learn that it was not uncommon for African-Islanders to gather together to have a good time and to discuss, among other things, plans to escape their unhappy situation. (Wise would eventually be brought to ground on both counts of theft, followed by assault. Although not charged for the former, he was sentenced to hang for the latter, a sentence later commuted to transportation from the Island to the West Indies, thanks to benefit of the clergy.) Neither were women exempt from such a harsh sentence. Ten years later, in 1796, Freelove Allen, aided and abetted by her husband and another man, burgled a house in Charlottetown. As the person who actively committed the crime, Freelove was sentenced to hang, but a petition got up by a group of women succeeded in having the death penalty reduced to transportation.
As Jupiter Wise and Freelove Allen both discovered, any acts committed which infringed on the perceived property rights of an individual were taken very seriously. Today, our justice system distinguishes between different degrees of theft, from petty thievery to grand larceny; it did in those days as well, but the lines could easily become blurred. While Wise and Allen were lucky to receive sentences of transportation, such was not the case for Sancho and Peter Byers.
The saga begins in October 1814, when Sancho Byers, son of John “Black Jack” and Amelia, was brought up and convicted on charges of having burgled the house of Matilda Brecken, the daughter of his former owner, helping himself to a single loaf of bread and about a shilling’s worth of butter. That’s it. Despite legal representation, Sancho was found guilty and sentenced to hang. While this was playing out, his brother Peter (known as “Black Peter”), was taken to court in early 1815, likewise on charges of theft. His crime? Break, enter, and theft in the amount of 5 pounds currency. Although he attempted to pin responsibility on an accomplice, he was still found guilty, and in March was likewise given the death penalty. The Byers brothers subsequently went to the gallows a mere twelve days apart. You really have to wonder if they weren’t so much hanged for the theft as they were hanged for having stolen and for being black.
But what about those who managed to avoid the hangman’s noose? There was always transportation, perhaps a trip to prison (‘gaol’), or, as was most often the case, physical reprimand. And as you might expect, although such punishment was meted out to both blacks and whites alike, it tended to be heavy-handed toward the former more so than the latter. In March 1817, William Bellinger (the accomplice implicated by Peter Byers in 1815) was publicly whipped at various places in Charlottetown, receiving a total of 117 lashes. The sentence was not abnormal, as crazy as that sounds; what was abnormal, however, is the fact that Bellinger had already been given a grand total of five hundred lashes in the past, for various other offences. Now the count was 617.
Negativity aside, not all stories played out so tragically, and some could even be characterized (surprisingly) as feel-good. While many African-Islanders found themselves to be very marginalized and unfairly treated (even after slavery was abolished), there were others for whom the same could not be said, a fact perhaps best exemplified by the story of Dimbo Suckles.
While the beginning of Dimbo’s story parallels that of other African-Islanders, it eventually diverges in an unexpected way. According to sources, he might actually have been born in Africa, about 1761, and depending on what version of events you hear, he was either brought to the Island by David Higgins, a merchant and early settler in the Three Rivers region and later acquired by Captain William Creed, or he was taken to the Island from New England by Creed in the mid 1780s. Whatever the case, he eventually became a slave of Creed’s, although their relationship was atypical and on far more equal footing than most.
In 1796, Dimbo and Creed entered into an agreement whereby he (Dimbo) would remain indentured for another seven years (until 1803), at which point he would be liberated. While some believe that he was freed before then, on or about the occasion of his formal liberation, Dimbo received a town lot in Georgetown courtesy of Gov. Fanning, and had even married one of his freed slaves, Polly, in 1802. Through sheer hard work and perseverance, he would later acquire an additional 100 acres near the Montague River in Lot 59, and passed away in November 1845 at the purported age of 84, having obtained the admiration and respect of all who knew him. It’s that last bit that stands his story in stark contrast to those of his counterparts elsewhere on the Island.
Like I said, the general paucity of African-Islanders in early records makes it rather tricky to gain a full understanding of the lives they led here within the institution of slavery, but hopefully this post provides you with at least some perspective. There is still much to be learned, but whether or not we’ll ever actually be able to remains to be seen. Next week, we’ll finish off Black History Month with a romp through The Bog and explore the heart of the Island’s African-Island community!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – The stories of individuals I told in brief, as I hope to revisit them in greater detail in the future in addition to others.