Article 2

ART. II. The History of Barbadoes, from the first Discovery of the Island in the Year 1605, till the Accession of Lord Seaforth, 1801. By John Poyer. London, Mawman, 1808. pp. 668, 1 Vol. 4to.

[pp. 258-268] [original article in PDF format]

  1. THE numerous and respectable list of subscribers by which this work is accompanied, affords a presumption that the talents and diligence of Mr. Poyer are held in high estimation by his countrymen in Barbadoes, for whose amusement and instruction his labours have been employed; and the candour and modesty with which he has brought forward, in his preface, some disqualifying confessions which it depended upon himself to withhold, could not fail to prepossess us in his favour. 'The best and most copious account of this country extant,' says he, 'is said to have been published by Oldmixon in his History of the British Empire in America. This publication I have never seen. Anxious to consult every author who had written on the subject, I offered, by public advertisement, any price for the book; but those who had it were not liberal enough to indulge me with the [258] use of it.' He also says, 'the journals of the Colonial parliament, had I been allowed access to them, would not have supplied every deficiency, and smoothed the way before me; but this was an advantage which I was not permitted to enjoy.' Lastly, with the hope of averting the severity of criticism, he tells us that he was 'denied the advantages of an academical education.' This deficiency, however, is by no means apparent. He is perhaps occasionally too fond of those sonorous terms and glittering epithets, and rhetorical inversions, which are sometimes supposed to constitute fine writing; yet he does not weary us by a constant display of this baneful accomplishment, his language in general being easy and perspicuous. The paucity of his materials for the early part of his history is certainly to be regretted; but we cannot lament his want of access to the Colonial Journals, because we think that his work is already far too diffuse, and that the addition of these official documents would only have given more solemn and dignified insipidity to a narrative which is even now overcharged with uninteresting ceremonials, with petty intrigues, and with tiresome disputes between tyrannical governors and refractory assemblies.

  2. We did not expect that the civil and military history of Barbadoes could be dilated into a thick quarto volume with very great advantage to the English reader; but we did hope that a native historian would, even accidentally and inadvertently, bring us acquainted with such particularities of colonial manners as would compensate for much dry and unprofitable detail. We hoped to learn something new concerning the rural economy, and the agricultural and commercial resources of a colony which was the first and most prosperous, and, notwithstanding its constant decline, during more than a century, is still likely to prove the most permanent of the British establishments in the West Indies. But it seems as if the author were always struggling against those feelings which connect him too closely with his country; as if he wished to conceal, as derogatory from the dignity of a philosophic historian, and unpleasing to the fastidious taste of a learned reader, all the distinctive features which characterize a society established within the tropics: he turns away his eyes from the cultivator, the mechanic, and the merchant, to fix them on the legislator and the magistrate; and expends his whole sagacity in criticising certain peculiarities of municipal law, or of parliamentary usage. We have been able to discover only one solitary instance in which he betrays any solicitude for the trivial concerns of a colony; and this too appears to have been an after-thought, because it is thrown into a note at page 60. After deploring the 'disastrous [259] emigration of the lower classes of white people,' whom he justly represents as forming the real effective strength of the country, he proposes two remedies for the evil, both of which require the interference of the legislature. The first is to provide habitations for the poor on those portions of land which shall be thought least valuable to the opulent planters by whom they are occupied: the second is to secure employment to the industrious, by confining slaves to the labours of the field, and thus precluding a competition unfavourable to the white mechanic. We are persuaded that the abolition of the slave-trade, which has at length taken place, will prove far more efficacious than these measures, the policy of which, supposing them practicable, might possibly be questioned; and, shall therefore, without stopping to discuss their merits, proceed to matter of more importance.

  3. The two most considerable events in the history of Barbadoes, and those to which Bryan Edwards had directed his chief attention, are the imposition of the 4½ per cent. tax granted by the colonial legislature as a permanent revenue to the crown, and the two navigation acts establishing the monopoly of the mother country. On the first of these subjects Mr. Poyer has added nothing to the statement of his predecessor, and on the second very little; yet this little deserves notice. Our readers will remember that the navigation laws, so much extolled by all the advocates of the mercantile system of political economy, originated in an act passed by the long parliament in 1650, for the double purpose of punishing the colonists of Barbadoes for their stubborn attachment to the cause of royalty, and of injuring the Dutch, whose trade with the island was no less profitable to themselves than advantageous to the refractory settlement. Mr. Poyer has given us, on this occasion, a summary of the manifesto which was set forth by the legislature of the island, and which is interesting from its near resemblance, both in point of argument and of expression, to the declaration afterwards issued by the Americans on their final rupture with Great Britain. But the fruitless resistance which followed this manifesto having been too short to excite much indignation, or even attention, in the mother country, was soon forgotten; the obnoxious act was openly recognised and secretly evaded, till after the restoration of Charles II.; when it was revised and amplified, and enforced with a rigour which effectually precluded the colonies from all intercourse with foreign nations. 'This intercourse, it must be confessed,' says Mr. Poyer 'had greatly contributed to the wealth and opulence of the country; and the inhabitants, who had formerly considered the interruption of their commerce as a punishment inflicted on them [260] for disowning the authority of the lord protector, were filled with consternation and resentment, on finding a measure so fatal to their interest confirmed and adopted by their sovereign on his restoration. They complained of the hardship and injustice of fettering their commerce with such arbitrary restraints; and deprecated the ruin to which they would be exposed by the operation of the double monopoly of import and export, claimed by Great Britain. But these complaints were unavailing. The objects contended for were of too much importance to be abandoned; nor was it reasonable to expect that the parent state, in compliance with the wayward whims and sinister desires of selfish individuals, or from a regard to the petty interests of the colonies, should consent to relinquish the solid and permanent advantages of an exclusive commerce with her West Indian settlements.'

  4. We really know not what comment to make on this summary decision of a question on which the rival sects of political economists have been so long at issue; which has been examined at great length by the very acute and ingenious author of the Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations; and which has since undergone a still more elaborate investigation in Mr. Brougham's Essay on Colonial Policy. If Mr. Poyer meant to be sarcastic, we think his irony too deeply concealed; if he was in earnest, we recommend to his perusal the two works above mentioned, which may perhaps enable him to form a juster estimate of the solid and permanent advantages of an exclusive commerce. And here, if the question were only important from its involving the doctrine of commercial equivalents, and of mercantile profit and loss, we should take our leave of the subject. But we have long been persuaded that the monopoly, claimed and exercised by all the European nations in their commercial intercourse, has proved a moral evil of enormous magnitude; that it has been the principal cause of the disproportion which now exists, in the West Indian islands, between the numbers of their black and of their white inhabitant; that it has been most noxious to the character and happiness of both; and that, from its continuance, the gradual decline of those valuable possessions may be reasonably anticipated. And as some of the events related in the work before us tend to confirm our opinion, we shall, as concisely as we can, present them to our readers.

  5. The establishment of a colony in Barbadoes was begun, in 1625, by thirty adventurers, sent out at the expense of Sir William Courteen, a private merchant; and though near three years elapsed before they received any addition to their numbers, their success was complete. Fortunately the woods, which it was [261] necessary to clear for the purpose of erecting habitations and planting provision-grounds, supplied two valuable articles of commerce, lignum vitæ and fustic, and the report of this discovery and of the fertility of the soil, soon excited the avidity of new speculators, and secured a rapid and regular supply of colonists. Notwithstanding the disputes between the Earls of Carlisle and Marlborough, each of whom claimed the property of the soil under grants from the crown, and the consequent insecurity of all tenures held under either, it was found that in 1636, eleven years after the commencement of the settlement, the number of landholders occupying ten or more acres each was 766. This year forms an important era in our colonial history, being marked by a law 'authorising the sale of Negroes and Indians for life.'

  6. A second event which had a very considerable influence on the population and agriculture of this colony was the commencement of the culture of the sugar-cane, which was introduced, probably by some Dutch emigrants from Brazil, about the year 1648. This therefore gives another period of about twelve years, during which three great causes contributed to promote the growing prosperity of Barbadoes. 1st. The Dutch, on whose trade the island relied for the supply of various necessary articles, attained, during this period, the highest point of their commercial opulence. 2d. The civil wars in England drove to the colony a number of emigrant-royalists, who carried with them a considerable capital. 3d. The same cause effectually prevented any interference on the part of the mother country in the commercial or agricultural concerns of these industrious islanders. Accordingly their numbers increased so rapidly that their militia amounted to ten thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry; a force which supposes a population of at least 20,000 white persons. The amount of the negroes is not known, but they probably were, at this time, rather less numerous than the whites.

  7. From this period, till the time when the navigation laws and 4½ per cent. tax began to operate, the prosperity of the island appears to have been progressive, but the number of its inhabitants is very differently represented. 'We are assured' says Bryan Edwards 'that about the year 1670, Barbadoes could boast of 50,000 white, and upwards of 100,000 black inhabitants, whose labours, it is said, gave employment to 60,000 tons of shipping. I suspect that this account is much exaggerated.' Of this there can be no doubt. Hughes, who is likely to be correct, reduces these numbers to 30,000 whites and 70,000 negroes. This may perhaps appear inconsiderable, till it is recollected that such an estimate assigns to Barbadoes a white population [262] which, in proportion to its extent of territory, exceeds that of the mother country.

  8. Supposing these numbers to be nearly exact, it will follow that during the last period, the number of negroes in the colony was increased to three times its former amount, whilst that of the whites was augmented by only one third. And this effect could not fail to result from the growth of opulence, so long as any land, capable of profitable cultivation, remained unoccupied. But here, at least, was a natural limit to the extent of the negro trade. It was only from the savings of patient industry that the early colonists of Barbadoes could derive the price which they paid for their slaves, who, therefore, were only purchased to supply the real wants of agriculture: and the constant demand for white servants from Europe, who contracted to serve for a certain time, and on certain conditions, proves the high value attached to the negro labourer, whom it was a part of their duty to superintend. It may therefore be fairly presumed that the toil of these unhappy people was never capriciously or unprofitably wasted: indeed, it is evident that in a country which, with a superficies of 107,000 acres, maintains 100,000 inhabitants, the system of cultivation must be directed with considerable intelligence and frugality.

  9. The monopoly established by the mother country, whether politic or unwise, manifestly altered all the commercial relations of the colony, and introduced a new order of things, which has now subsisted during near a century and a half. In the course of this time Barbadoes has lost about one half of its white inhabitants, and has, by means of an unceasing annual importation, barely kept up its original stock of negroes. Antigua and Nevis, the only British sugar islands whose colonization was at all advanced before the introduction of the new system, have experienced a similar decline. Our subsequent settlements, the genuine children and nurslings of our mercantile policy, resemble garrisons rather than colonies; their white inhabitants forming scarcely a tenth of their total population. This much is notorious. But as it does not necessarily follow that our colonial laws have contributed to the mischief which has taken place since their enactment, we will add a few words on this subject.

  10. The attainment of a predominant share, or if possible of a monopoly, of the slave-trade was, during the whole of the 17th, and part of the 18th century, a favourite object of British policy; rather from the hope that this might facilitate some access to the wealthy provinces of Spanish America, than from any anxiety to secure the supply of our own settlements, whose wants [263] were then very inconsiderable. It happened, indeed, that a taste for chartered companies was no less prevalent than the desire of sharing the treasures of Spain, and though four African companies were successively created, they successively failed, without much affecting, in any way, the prosperity of our West Indian possessions. The full influence of the slave-trade monopoly could only be felt when the commerce began to be carried on with the skill and enterprise and profusion which always characterise the exertions of English merchants; but thus carried on, it excited a boundless spirit of speculation amongst the colonists, by offering them an inexhaustible stock of power immediately applicable to the extension of their culture; and it became the presiding genius of colonial agriculture, instead of being an humble minister to its wants, and dependant on its progress. The island of Jamaica, which owed its first English population to a disbanded army, and its wealth to the exploits of the buccaneers, had scarcely made any advance in cultivation when it was selected in 1689 by the contractors who had engaged to supply the Spanish settlements, as a place of deposit for their negroes; and it continued ever after to distribute, either by means of an authorized or of a contraband trade, no inconsiderable portion of the wretches imported from Africa. From the reports presented in 1787 to the privy council, it appears that, of the slaves imported into all our islands during the preceding four years, not quite two-thirds were retained. Now, what became of the remaining third? They were reshipped at a considerable expence; they were exposed to an increased mortality; they were exported to a foreign market, where they must have come in competition with the rival cargoes of other foreign traders; and they were sent merely at a venture, because, had they been collected in Africa for the purpose of supplying some certain or even probable demand, they would have gone directly to the place of their destination. Such a trade, it is evident, could not have subsisted for a moment had it not been supported on the basis of a monopoly in our own colonial markets. In every island therefore which became the scene of this monstrous transit-trade, there was always an annual superfluity of imported slaves; in each of them the number of the negroes retained must have represented, not only the amount of its natural demand for the support of its cultivation, but that of all the sales which could be negociated between adventurers eager to attempt the settlement of a new plantation, and merchants who preferred a distant payment to the trouble and risk of seeking a new market. Long credit, when resulting from such a compromise, [264] must necessarily have opposite effects to that which arises out of rational and sober confidence; it must tend to discourage frugality, and to produce habits of profuse, improvident, gambling speculation: it must have occasioned a dreadful waste of life amongst the victims of the traffic, and endangered, in many different ways, the very existence of the colonies. Accordingly, in 1774, the Assembly of Jamaica took the alarm, and endeavoured by the imposition of a heavy duty, to check the inundation of imported savages. But though they proved, by authentic documents transmitted to the Privy Council, that the annual importation had so rapidly increased as to exceed the whole existing white population of the island, the Governor was directed to refuse the royal assent to the bill, as infringing on the commercial supremacy of this country. If therefore, to the influence of an African trade thus conducted, and thus, till the Abolition bill was first proposed, forced upon the colonies, we add the natural operation of the whole comprehensive monopoly, and of the innumerable minute fiscal vexations by which every possible expansion of colonial industry is coerced, lest it should accidentally produce a competition with the flourishing manufactures of Great Britain; it will rather create surprise that any subordinate offices in society are still executed in the West Indies by white people, and that the demand for such persons is still met by an efficient and growing supply, than that their numbers should only amount to about one tenth of the total population.

  11. From this fearful disproportion many persons have been led to anticipate the early explosion of a servile war, as destructive as that which desolated St. Domingo; and it must be admitted that our West Indian possessions are, to say the least, in a state of very doubtful security. But, setting aside the great contingent dangers which may arise from this cause, we will confine ourselves to those evident and certain inconveniencies which it cannot fail to produce. One important evil is, the necessity of confiding to one man, many different, and sometimes very difficult offices. The overseer of a sugar plantation, for instance, must direct all the various operations of agriculture, and those of the subsequent manufacture; he must provide against the natural improvidence of slaves by insuring for them a regular supply of food; he must minister to all their wants, in sickness and in health; and at the same time must exact from them the requisite portion of labour. It seems indeed that he receives the assistance of one or two or more clerks, without whom he could not possibly preserve the complicated accounts of an estate from inextricable confusion; but, in the important task of [265] governing men, he is compelled to delegate his authority to subaltern agents selected from the negroes themselves. We suspect that amidst so many calls on his attention, some will be neglected; and that a considerable waste and misapplication of labour would necessarily ensue from such a complication of duties, even if the persons entrusted with the charge of plantations were universally suited to their employment by a long acquaintance with the peculiar character of the people whom they are called upon to govern. But as the stock of white inhabitants in our islands is principally preserved and increased by emigration, this important task must frequently be confided to persons of very little experience: and to this inexperience, and to the necessity of repairing the erroneous orders of one day by severer exertions on the next, much more than to caprice or cruelty, we are inclined to attribute the waste of negroes which the slave trade was employed to remedy.

  12. But it may perhaps be thought that the inferences which we have drawn are not quite warranted by our own statement; and that a white population, amounting to one tenth of the whole, does not appear so inadequate as we represent it, either to the defence, or to the internal economy of the islands. But it must be remembered that a system of laws devised by merchants for the express purpose of promoting commerce, was not likely to be injurious to the trading, however fatal it might be to the agricultural part of the colonists. In fact its influence has been confined to the country. It appears incidentally from Ligon's account of Barbadoes, that in his time the proportion of white servants on the plantations was as high as one to four negroes. We suspect that at the time of the Navigation Act it was as one to six or perhaps eight. In a century after this it seems, by an estimate in Campbell's 'Political Survey,' to have been nearly as one to twenty. In Jamaica, we are told that a law was formerly past, enjoining the planters, under a heavy penalty, to maintain one white servant for every thirty negroes; but that the penalty has been so generally incurred, that this penal law is at length become a lucrative branch of revenue: and this fact is sufficient to support our reasoning. Indeed we think it evident that, wherever a society consists solely of free men vested with authority, and of mere slaves, a great numerical disparity between these two classes is the worst evil that can befal the community. It has an obvious tendency to produce insurrection on one side, and harshness on the other. We have endeavoured to shew that it must be the cause of much unintentional oppression, by frequently throwing extensive authority into the hands of ignorance [266] and inexperience. We think too that it will always prove a very material impediment to the natural increase of the negroes in our colonies. To say that this increase has been hitherto prevented by the severity of their treatment, is to attribute to those of our countrymen whose daily emigration forms so large a part of our West Indian population, a strange and unnatural cruelty; besides which it appears very doubtful, from the experience of the severer monastic orders, whether labour, and abstinence, and stripes, and interrupted slumbers can materially check the impulse which leads to the union of the sexes; and we cannot easily conceive such a system of government as should frequently urge the pregnant women to procure abortion, or the mother to desert her child. Great mismanagement might indeed occasion extensive mortality; the aged and infirm and sickly might be rapidly swept off; but the young and vigorous would be the last to perish, and if they survived, would soon replenish, and more than replenish the waste of population. But libertinism, which poisons and often annihilates the power of reproduction, can easily effect what violence would fail to accomplish; and it is extremely probable that the polygamy of Africa should degenerate into the promiscuous concubinage attributed to the negroes of our colonies. If then this evil exist, and exist to such an extent, how is it to be checked by a handful of colonists, already exposed to no inconsiderable danger of insurrection, and unable, from the paucity of their numbers, to establish that general system of police and of watchful and patient superintendance, by which alone any material improvement can be effected?

  13. There are many persons who appear to expect, from the mere Abolition of the Slave-trade, a remedy for all the grievances which our colonists endure or have endured, and we should be happy to indulge the same sanguine hopes. The abolition is, we believe, the only measure dictated by honourable motives, which has ever emanated from the imperial right of monopoly, the right of determining whether, and where, our colonists shall sell what they raise, and buy what they want. It proscribes, throughout the extent of the British empire, many flagrant abuses, under the same authority which first introduced and then justified them: it is, with respect to Africa, an act of self-denial and of benevolence; but towards our colonists it is merely restrictive, and, whilst it enjoins improvement, it supplies no means of effecting it. These, we are persuaded, would be found in a relaxation of the monopoly-system; a system which seems to have originated, not in justice or policy, but in metaphor. [267] Great Britain is a mother-country; and this fond mother having been taught that she had herself been nursed in the lap of commerce, was induced to confide her infant children to the same nurse, who has swathed and compressed and bandaged them into their present rickety and distorted form. Such rhetorical figures, rather oddly combined with the figures of arithmetic, have turned the heads of many profound statesmen; but we trust that a more liberal and enlightened policy will at length be adopted, and that our colonists will be permitted to improve, for the general benefit of the empire, those advantages which large tracts of uncultivated land and a climate highly favourable to vegetation so liberally furnish.