Slavery on St Helena

St Helena was largely built on slave labour

If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.
John Brunner

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WARNING: This page contains material that some may find distressing.

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For over 150 years St Helena kept and exploited slaves

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Below: Origins‘Slave Laws’Property, not peopleAccommodationMaintaining the stockTowards emancipationStatistics:Slave owners identifiedEmancipationSlavery CommemorationsRead More

SEE ALSO: Attacking the Slave Trade. The terrible treatment of slaves resulted in many ghost stories about them. Their mistreatment also features on our Titbits from the records page. The effects of slavery on St Helena today are described on our page Slaves and slavery.

Slavery Images

Painting showing a slave (foreground), 1815
Painting showing a slave (foreground), 1815
Unidentified St Helena slave woman
Unidentified St Helena slave woman
Slave ‘Medal’, awarded for good conduct
Slave ‘Medal’, awarded for good conduct
Slaves for sale
Slaves for sale
Slaves for sale
Whipped Slave
Whipped Slave{1}
Slaves were sold under ‘The Trees’
Slaves were sold under ‘The Trees’

How did supposedly Christian people defend slavery? It was justified by a ‘convenient’ interpretation of Genesis 9:25: And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. It was argued (spuriously) that the black people of Africa were descendants of Canaan the son of Noah, who had cursed him so, and hence that slavery was sanctioned by their God.{2}

Origins

St Helena was colonised by the English in 1659, and at that time the use of slaves was commonplace. One of the original Settler ships from England, the London, had orders to call at St Iago and there procure five or six blacks or Negroes, able men and women for St Helena. Also in 1659 the captain of the Truro was instructed to call at the Guinea Coast and there purchase ten lusty blacks, men and women, for St Helena. Early slaves were brought mostly from East Africa or Madagascar. By 1679 there were some eighty slaves on the island. In the later 17th Century it was made a requirement for all ships trading with Madagascar to deliver one slave to St Helena, and during the 18th century The East India Company expanded around the Indian Ocean and slaves began to be brought from Malaysia and India.

Slaves were used for unskilled manual labour. In 1708 New Ground was designated as a site for a plantation to be worked by slaves (when Donkeys were first brought to St Helena in 1709 by Governor John Roberts they were referred to as ‘ass negroes’). In addition to road building, plantation work and domestic service, one of the more obscure jobs given to slaves was carrying ladies and visitors up the original zig-zag path to Ladder Hill (the charge of 1/6d(£0.075) per trip went, of course, to their owners, not to the slaves themselves).

Punishments for slaves that did not work or otherwise misbehaved were extreme. Whipping was common for even minor offences; execution for more significan ones (from theft to mutiny). Male slaves that had sex with Planter women were usually either executed or castrated (but, of course, Planters and Soldiers who had sex with slave women were subjected to much lighter punishments, if at all). After a failed rebellion a slave called Jack was hung alive in chains at the top of Ladder Hill and left to die of starvation{3}.

Slaves did not get days off, but by convention those that converted to Christianity were allowed to attend one church service per week (though they might not be allowed to sit on pews).

Interestingly, on St Helena it was possible for some slaves to obtain a rudimentary education, though only if their master would allow them the time off. More on our Education page.

The ‘Slave Laws’

The powerful have always legalised their subjugation of the less powerful.
John Kass (2015)

It is sometimes claimed that slavery in British territories was not as harsh as that experienced by slaves in America, it being described as more akin to serfdom. Despite this claim, slaves on St Helena and throughout the British Empire were still treated as sub-human; as property to be bought and sold. To give an idea of their treatment, here are the Laws and Orders, constituted for the Negro Slaves, by the inhabitants of the island, with the approbation of the Governor and Council from c.1670:

That no Black or Blacks, upon any pretence whatsoever, shall wander from his master’s plantation upon Sundays, without a lawful occasion granted by their said masters or mistresses, either by writing, or some other token that shall be known by the neighbourhood, upon the penalty of ten lashes on his naked body for the first offence, fifteen for the second, twenty for the third, and so for every offence thereafter committed : but if the master of the said slave or slaves should refuse to comply with this said order, and the person who shall have taken the said slave or slaves acting contrary to this said order, shall be obliged to complain to the Governor and Council, whom we desire to fine him or them that shall so offend at discretion.

That Negro, or Negroes, that shall be known to steal the value of eighteen pence shall have twenty lashes on their naked body, inflicted by the master or masters of such slave or slaves, in the presence of the person so offended ; but if the theft should amount to three shillings, the lashes aforesaid are to be increased to thirty ; and if six shillings, to sixty; the party so prejudiced shall receive the value of the thing so stolen in specie, or in money, from the owner of the said slave or slaves ; and if the theft amounts to above six shillings, and under thirty shillings, the offender shall be seized, and brought to the fort, where he shall immediately receive fifty lashes on his naked body, and secured ; two days after, he shall receive thirty lashes, and two days after that, twenty more; and the master of the Black shall pay the value stolen, as before.

Those that shall absent their masters’ service three days, and three nights, shall be punished according to the last foregoing article, and the master make satisfaction for what they have stolen as aforesaid. For the first offence of this kind, the master or masters shall make satisfaction for what is stolen, and repair all damages done by the slave or slaves ; so soon as taken, shall be brought to the fort, and immediately receive, on his naked body, one hundred lashes, then secured ; four days after that, thirty; six days after that, twenty more, and branded in the forehead with the letter R : for the second offence in this kind, he shall be punished as above said, and wear, for one year, a chain and clogs of thirty pounds weight ; and for the third offence, satisfaction shall be made as above said to the loser or losers, and the slave or slaves shall suffer death, at the discretion of the Governor and Council.

In case any, male slave, from the age of sixteen years and upwards, shall presume and attempt to strike or assault any white person whatsoever, correcting him or otherwise, for any cause whatsoever, shall, for the said offence or offences (though without weapon or dangerous instrument) undergo and suffer the punishment of castration, that is to say, shall have his, testicles cut out ; and in case any such slave or slaves shall chance to die under the punishment aforesaid, or before he be well, then the country and public shall bear the loss, and make good the value of the said Black, with the charge of castration to the master or owner of the said slave or slaves, according to an appraisement made by the Governor and Council for the time being : further, but in case the said slave or slaves should die through neglect of the master or owner, then, upon proof thereof, the said master or owner to bear their own loss of the said slave or slaves, and the whole charge of every thing relating thereto ; and if the said slave live, the master to be at all charges.

That if any Negro slave, male or female, shall presume to resist any white person whatsoever, in the taking or pursuit of them upon any lawful occasion, the slave or slaves so offending and resisting as aforesaid, for the first offence shall be immediately conveyed to the great fort, and secured till they have undergone double punishment, according to the constitution of runaway Negroes, and branded in the forehead with the letter R ; and for a second offence in this nature, the said slave or slaves so offending shall suffer the same punishment as is adjudged and ordered in the case of striking or assaulting any white person, to wit, to be castrated, if a male, but if a female, to be severely whipped, as aforesaid, and both ears to be cut off, and branded in the forehead and both cheeks.

And in case any slave or slaves, male or female, shall presume to strike any white person whatsoever, with any weapon, the said slave or slaves so offending shall suffer death ; except those white persons who demean and debase themselves in conversing, corresponding, and gaming, with the blacks, as if they were equals, which we judge shall have no more benefit of those laws than Blacks themselves.

And in case any Negro slave, male or female, shall presume to give any, saucy or impertinent language or answer to any white person (except those white persons aforesaid), shall, upon complaint thereof to the master or owners of the said slave, be severely whipt, in the presence of the party offended, to his satisfaction ; and if the said master or owner of the said slave shall refuse, or neglect, to punish the said slave so offending, then the party offended may complain to the Governor, and so cause the said slave to be apprehended, and conveyed to the fort, and punished according to the nature of the offence.

That no Negro slave or slaves shall truck, barter, or exchange any thing, without the foreknowledge and consent of the owners of the said Negroes, both the sellers and buyers, deliverers and receivers, of any commodity whatsoever, to the value of one shilling, upon the penalty of twenty lashes, or more if it should exceed that value, according to the judgment of the Governor and, Council, severely to be inflicted on them at the flagstaff, upon the complaint of any one aggrieved by such a clandestine way of one Negro dealing with another.

That no white person whatsoever shall truck, barter, or exchange any commodity whatsoever, with any Negro or Negroes, to sell to them, nor buy of them, any sort of commodity, without the foreknowledge and consent of the owners of the said Negro or Negroes, upon the penalty of being adjudged accessory to felony, and so consequently liable to a fourfold restitution to the owners of the said Negro or Negroes, besides a fine to the Lords Proprietors ; nor no Negro shall alienate any commodity or thing whatsoever, to any white person whatsoever, without the leave and consent of the said Negroes’ master or mistress before had, upon the penalty of severe correction, according to the judgment of the Governor and Council.

That no Negro whatsoever shall prescribe or administer any physic or medicine whatsoever, to any Negro or Negroes, without the consent of his or their master or mistress of that Negro unto whom he shall prescribe or administer any physic or medicine, upon the penalty of severe correction, according to the judgment of the Governor and Council; neither shall any Negro whatsoever take or receive any physic or medicine, or follow the rules or prescription of any pretended black Doctor whatsoever, without acquainting their master or mistress therewith, upon the penalty of the like pain and punishment as the black Doctor who pretends to physic is liable to.

A 1673{4} order from London stated that:

We also order that all negroes{5} both men and women living on the said island that shall make profession of the Christian faith and be baptized shall within seven years after be free Planters and enjoy the privileges of free Planters both of land and cattle.

…though exactly how these new Planters were to acquire land and cattle was not made clear, given that up to the point of their ‘liberation’ they were penniless with no right to own propertly.

In 1679 rumours of an impending uprising by slaves led to the gruesome execution of three slaves and cruel punishment of many others - ghost stories still told on the island relate to these executions. The sad fact is that slave revolts were not uncommon. The even sadder fact is that they are poorly documented in the Records because slaves did not matter that much. What little we could glean is documented on our page Unrest and Rebellion.

In 1735 the local Court was asked to rule on whether the children born to a free woman and an enslaved man were free or slaves. The Court decided they were slaves and assigned the three girls and two boys a net value of £33.

Property, not people

Slaves remained the property of their owners and could be bought and sold, as the notices (above, right) illustrate. If you click on the images (for the enlarged version) you will observe that the place of the auction is described as ‘under the trees’. The trees in question were the ones still growing at the bottom of Napoleon Street in Jamestown, in front of the Canister building. They are Peepul trees, the Indian trees of wisdom ficus religiosa, sacred to Buddhists because Siddharta attained Nirvana while meditating under one of them. It can only be imagined what he would have made of auctioning human beings under them. Reportedly there are nails hammered into the trunks - one for each slave sold. Early photographs show three trees but one seems to have been removed sometime in the 20th Century.

Accommodation

Slaves, of course, lived near where they worked. Many of the larger houses in Jamestown and around the island have more rudimentary buildings at the back - the slave quarters. Slaves working on plantations up-country would have had shacks, naturally located well away from the main house. The name Hutts Gate relates to rudimentary huts there in which slaves were housed.

On 18th June 1717 Smallpox broke out among the slaves from Madagascar. They were sent into quarantine in Lemon Valley.

Maintaining the stock

The Records tell the story of an adventure to Madagascar for the purpose of recruiting some slaves:

3rd February 1762: The East India Company Directors write agreeing that many of our Blacks are quite worn out, approving of a proposed adventure to Madagascar for the purpose of recruiting some slaves. The expedition sets out on 5th June 1764 but runs into trouble….

5th June 1764: The adventure to recruit some slaves from Madagascar sets out aboard ships Mercury and Fly, seeking men, able bodied under 25 and boys well grown. The expedition runs into trouble….

29th November 1764: A rebellion aboard Mercury, bringing slaves from Madagascar, leads to the death of the Captain and two slaves.

25th January 1765: The adventure to recruit some slaves from Madagascar returns with 16 men and two boys. Two more slaves had died in a rebellion during the voyage….

As indicated, he trip was more of an adventure than had been expected. In the rebellion the ship’s Captain was killed and the ship’s mate wounded. In the ensuing battle five slaves were shot, two fatally. The ringleaders were brought back to St Helena, tried and hanged.

There are and always will be some who, ashamed of the behavior of their ancestors, try to prove that slavery wasn’t so bad after all, that its evils and its cruelty were the exaggerations of propagandists and not the habitual lot of the slaves. Men will say (and accept) anything in order to foster national pride or soothe a troubled conscience.
C. L. R. James (1938)

Towards emancipation

In 1792 a new set of slave laws were introduced to the island. Although the 42 Articles mostly concerned the correct treatment of slaves by their owners, Article 39 is of some interest: it stated that no new slaves could be imported to St Helena. Anyone breaching this law would be fined £50 and also bear the cost of returning the slave to his or her place of origin. Although this did not end slavery on St Helena it did mean that only existing slaves and their children would remain in slavery - a small but significant step forward.

Fifteen years later, in 1807, the Slave trade was banned throughout the British Empire. This did not, however, free existing slaves. St Helena had stopped importing slaves in 1792 so the new law had no impact on the island. As late as 1815 segregation was still very much part of island life:

22nd May 1815: PUBLISHED NOTICE: Appropriated Pews in Town Church: No Slaves or Free Blacks are to occupy any of the Pews.

It should be noted that Governor Beatson (1808-1813) proposed to Council the abolition of slavery on St Helena, but his enlightened move was opposed by the landowners, led by Sir William Doveton. The proposal was abandoned and the island’s slaves had to wait another twenty years for their freedom.

In 1818, whilst still claiming that nowhere in the world did slavery exist in a milder form than on St Helena, Governor Lowe initiated the first step in emancipating the slaves by persuading slave owners to give all slave children born after Christmas of that year their freedom once they had reached their late teens.

On 19th December 1826 The East India Company Directors instructed: The speedy and entire abolition of slavery is essential to the welfare of the island. Emancipation should be secured the moment the slave understands and appreciates the blessing, and the means of instruction should be steadfastly and zealously pursued at the cost of Government. This initiated the process and the phased emancipation of over the remaining 800 resident slaves began in 1827. Under certain circumstances a slave could buy his or her freedom, using money borrowed from The East India Company.

Statistics:

Slave values by age
Slave values by age

You can See a catalogue of the island’s slaves, 1827-1834{a}.

The following table{b} also illustrates the numbers of slaves just before emancipation:

Population of St Helena by Classes 1814-1821

 

1814

1815

1816

1817

1818

1819

1820

1821

White inhabitants

694

738

746

821

611

664

708

712

Slaves

1,200

1,255

1,218

1,540

1,165

1,165

1,095

1,147

Free blacks

420

447

489

500

482

619

613

626

Company’s Civil Establishment

42

38

33

-

-

-

17

22

Company’s troops

891

850

745

820

702

745

698

868

King’s troops

-

-

1,536

1,475

1,338

1,536

1,483

660

Families of King’s troops

-

-

335

352

338

413

424

180

Chinese

247

280

293

618

524

591

481

488

Lascars

-

15

19

24

24

36

33

29

Company’s slaves

93

98

97

-

86

85

61

44

Slaves to Company’s troops

-

-

-

-

8

-

-

8

Slaves to King’s troops

-

-

-

-

5

4

-

13

Totals

3,587

3,721

5,511

6,150

5,468

6,061

5,817

5,097

Total slaves

1,293
36%

1,353
36%

1,315
24%

1,540
25%

1,264
23%

1,254
21%

1,156
20%

1,212
24%

Slave owners identified

The period is not now far distant when Slave labour shall be rejected by the civilised world. There is something revolting in it to civilisation.
Governor Walker 5th November 1827

Here is a complete list of the owners of slaves in 1827 - there are 174 of them, with many prominent names:

Mrs Alesworthy • Frederick Alexander • Mr G. W. Alexander • Mr H. Alexander • Mr Samuel Alexander • Mrs M. Alexander • Mr John Bagley • Mr O. R. Bagley • Mr Richard Bagley • Mr Barker • Mrs M. Barnes • Mr John Bayes • Mrs Bazett • Captain Beale • Miss Beale • Mr A. Beale • Captain Bennett • Mr Blake • Mr Blenkins • Rev. Boys • Mr Brabazon • Captain Broadway • Mrs Broadway • Mr Brooke • Mr G. R. Bruce{6} • Mr John Burnham • Mr S. Burnham • W & J of London Burnie • Sergeant Carolans • Mr T. Carr • Mr W. Chamberlain • Mr Charlette • Mr Clements • Captain H. Cole • Miss E. Cole • Miss S. Cole • Drum Major Connolly • Mr Cruickshank • Mrs Cruickshank • Mrs Cruickshanks • Mr Darling • Mr J. De Fountain • Mr John De Fountain • Mrs E. De Fountain • Mr C. Desfountain • Mrs E Desfountain • James Dickson • G. Doveton • Sir W. W. Doveton • Mr Dring • Dr J. C. Dunn • Mr Eddlestone • Mr Eyre • Mr E. Fowler • Mr Gideon • Mr Greenland • Mr Greentree • Mr Gunnell • Mrs Gurling • Mr D. Hamilton • Mrs Harper • Mrs Anne Hayes • R. Hayes • Mrs Haymes • Mrs Hayward • Colonel Hodson • Mrs A. Hodson • Mr A. Isaacke • Mr Alfred Isaacke • George James • Governor Janisch • Mr R. Julio • Mr William Julio • Dr Kay • Henry Kay • Miss C. Kay • Mr Henry Kay • Mrs E. Kay • Lieutenant William Kennedy • Mr John Knipe Senior • Captain Knipe • J. B. (children of) Knipe • Mr J. B. Knipe • Mr T. B. Knipe • Mr W. B. B. Knipe • Mrs Henry Knipe • Mrs Mary Knipe • Mrs A. Lambe • Mrs M. Lambe • Mrs Matilda Lambe • Mrs Le Breton • Mrs Richard Leech • Mr Legg Senior • Mr S. Legg • Mrs Leicester • Mrs Lester • Dr Lorimer • Mr Marrowbeck • Captain Mason • Colonel Mason • Ensign John Mason • Lieutenant William Mason • Miss Mason • Mr Ben Mason • Mr James Mason • Mrs R. P. Mason • Mr Meade • Mr J. Metcalfe • Mr Moss • Mr Mullhall • Mrs E. Noqueda[h] • Captain O’ Connor • Lieutenant O’ Connor • Mr Oswald • Mr C. Patterson • Dr Price • Mr Prince • Lieutenant James Pritchard • Major D. K. Pritchard • Major H. H. Pritchard • Mr S. Pritchard • Mrs E. Pritchard • Mrs S. Pritchard • Mr Jacob Rich • Mr John Rich • John Roake • Mr Edward Roakes • Mr J. Robinson • Mrs Rofe • Captain Sampson • Major (1833) Sampson • Lieutenant John Sampson • Mr R. Scott Junior • Mr R. Scott Senior • Mr Charles Scott • Mr John Scott • Mr W. Seale Junior • Mr William Seale Junior • Major Seale • Mr H. F. Seale • Mr R. F. Seale • Mr William Henry Seale • Captain Shortis • Colonel Smith • Lieutenant A. Smith • Mrs A. Smith • Mrs Mary Smith • Mr B. Solomon • Mr S. Solomon • Captain Statham • Mrs Stewart • Mrs S. Stewart • Leech, Trustees Thomas • Captain Thorn • Mr Harry Tim • Captain Torbett • Mr R. Torbett • Mr Richard Torbett • Mrs M Torbett • Mr Tracy Senior • Mr C. Tracy • Dr Watson • Mr Weston • Mr R. Wills • Colonel Wright • Mr Robert Wright • Mr Youd • Jonathon Young • Lieutenant S. Young • Miss P. Young • Mr Am-t Young • Mr John Young

In the period from 1715 to 1764 at least 58 slaves attempted to escape from St Helena, mostly in very small boats not at all suited to an ocean voyage. Very few of them are known to have survived.

Emancipation

The actual abolition of slavery had to wait until 1st August 1834, after which - by Act of Parliament in the UK - any slave throughout the Empire more than 6 years old would be freed but would remain in work, becoming an apprentice labourer. Although the ‘Territories in the Possession of The East India Company’ were exempted from this law, the India Act of 1833 had transferred control of St Helena from The East India Company to the Crown with effect from 22nd April 1834, so slavery was abolished here with effect from 1st August 1834 (although the Ordinance for the abolition of slavery in the island of St. Helena that formally abolished slavery on the island was not enacted until 27th May 1839).

All was not well, however. The transfer to the Crown meant many employees of The East India Company lost their jobs and the economy declined sharply, with food prices rocketing. Inevitably the situation was worst for those at the bottom of the social scale, the ex-slaves, many of whom also had emancipation loans following the 1827 law. Freedom did not confer prosperity and the ex-slaves suffered just like - possibly more - than the general population, of which they were now part.

To underline the change, in copies of The ‘Blue Book’ for 1839 the column headers for ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ population were struck through and a single column replaced both, headed ‘Population’. Officially there were no longer racially divided people on the island. Also in December of that year the remaining unpaid emancipation loans were written off: of the £31,645.10 that had been loaned 91% remained unpaid.

Slavery Commemorations

A number of annual days mark themes related to slavery, which are observed to varying degrees on St Helena:

The first slaves here actually came of their own free will and lived free. Sometime before 1557, before the island was settled, three male and two female slaves escaped from a ship and remained hidden on the island. When discovered in 1557 their number had to risen to twenty. Sadly we do not know what became of them. They were either rounded up by the Portuguese (who then owned the island) and re-enslaved, or their colony died out for other unknown reasons. There is no record of there being any indiginous inhabitants when the English arrived in 1659.

Read More

Below: WikipediaArticle: Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery

Wikipedia

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery

Article: Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery

Published in the St Helena Herald, 30th March 2007{7}

Logo: Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery

On Sunday 25th March St Helena joined other countries around the world to celebrate 200 years since the passing by Parliament in 1807 of the Slave Trade Act, which commenced the abolition of slavery within the British Empire.

Slaves did not gain their full freedom until 1838 and, although slavery was finally abolished in the Americas in 1888, it is estimated that over 20 million people worldwide are still in forms of servitude today.

In the United Kingdom various events were organised to commemorate the abolition of Slavery and the St Helena Government UK Representative, Mrs Kedell Worboys, was invited to attend the National Service of Commemoration at Westminster Abbey.

Here in St Helena a special thanksgiving service to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery took place in St Paul’s Cathedral. This service was well attended, with an estimated congregation of around 100, and also Her Excellency the Acting Governor Mrs Ethel Yon MBE and Mr Gilbert Yon MBE were in attendance. The service was recorded by Radio St Helena for broadcast on Sunday evening.

There is no funny image on this page. There is nothing funny about slavery.
The shocking thing about slavery is that it still goes on today{8}
To join the fight against slavery see the Equality & Human Rights Commission website.
Slave Manacles

Credits:
{a} Colin Fox for the Museum of St Helena{b} From ‘A Handbook and Gazetteer of the Island of St Helena’, by G. C. Kitching, 1939{c} en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery

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Footnotes:
{1} NB: Not a St Helena image; included for illustration purpopses only.{2} If you want to argue that this verse comes from the Old Testament and that Jesus’ arrival changed everything then see Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.{3} The Records are not clear whether he was also denied water, in which case he would have died of dehydration withinn days,even in the winter, or given water to prolongue his suffering for maybe a fortnight.{4} In the aftermath of the re-taking of the island from the Dutch.{5} a.k.a. Slaves.{6} An ancestor of Ian Bruce.{7} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{8} In 2019, approximately 40 million people, of whom 26% were children, were enslaved throughout the world.{c}.

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Slavery on St Helena | Copyright © John Turner

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