MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Betto Douglas was an enslaved woman on the plantation belonging to the Earl of Romney. At age 52 she challenged the system of slavery by claiming that she had been promised her freedom and even petitioning the governor for his assistance. Her claim antagonized attorney Richard Cardin so that her story plays out as a clash of wills between a determined, elderly enslaved mother and the attorney who ran a plantation as he saw fit.
Betto’s pursuit of her own manumission was a manifestation of the enslaved’ near-relentless quest for freedom.
From: “Desiring Freedom – the Betto Douglas story” by Victoria Borg O’Flaherty, Director of Archives, National Archives, St. Kitts at the “Women and Slavery Conference” in London, UK, March 17, 2007.
The Federation of Saint Christopher & Nevis, located in the Leeward Islands, is a two-island sovereign state in the Caribbean which gained its independence from the United Kingdom on September 19, 1983. The history of the two islands is similar to that of other countries in the Americas and the Caribbean that were colonized by Europeans seeking to make their fortune.
The islands had been inhabited by people indigenous to the area who had lived there for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus who lost his way trying to find India and named the people he found in this New World “Indians”. Other Europeans followed Columbus and brought with them foreign diseases to which the people of these newly discovered lands had no immunity and so succumbed, devastating entire communities. Those who survived were enslaved and forced to provide unpaid labour which decimated those communities.
In his 2002 book: “A history of St. Kitts: the sweet trade”, author Vincent K. Hubbard writes: “Exactly when the Indians arrived is not known, but it could have been as early as 3,000 years ago. The first group were pre-ceramic and called Siboney. Their origins are unknown. At the time of the arrival of Columbus it was estimated by the Spanish priest, Bartolome de las Casas, that the Indian population of the Caribbean numbered in the millions. He declared that within half a century after Spanish arrival, the Native population had been reduced by 90 per cent.
The Natives had little or no resistance to European diseases which was the dominant reason for their population decline, but enslavement and sometimes outright murder contributed as well.”
With the loss of the enslaved indigenous population the Europeans in St. Kitts & Nevis turned to Africa for enslaved labour. Both St. Kitts and Nevis passed through the hands of various European tribes including the French, Spanish and English before being dominated by the English. The two islands remained British colonies until independence on September 19, 1983 under the leadership of Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw. Bradshaw is the first National Hero of the Federation of Saint Christopher & Nevis.
The road to independence was paved with the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved Africans who were taken to St. Kitts & Nevis to provide unpaid labour in the sugar industry which enriched White plantation owners in Britain. Those Africans struggled for their freedom in various ways throughout their history on the islands.
The story of Elizabeth “Betto” Douglas, an enslaved African woman from St Kitts, was first documented in the Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter of June 1827 (http://archive.org/stream/antislaverymonth2729maca#page/n9/mode/2up). The Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter was supposedly founded in 1825 by Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838), a Scottish man who took the position of plantation manager on a sugar plantation in Jamaica at age 16 and remained there for eight years.
The story of Betto Douglas’ determined fight for her freedom caught the attention of the editor of the Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter who wrote: “We have before us the official details (No. 187 of 1st May, 1827) as recently printed by order of the House of Commons, of a case from the Island of St. Kitts, which affords some striking illustrations of the spirit and influence of slavery – not merely as it prompts the master to acts of cruelty and oppression, but as it operates to subvert and vitiate the best sympathies of our nature, to such an extent as to render slaveholders, generally speaking, unfit to discharge the functions of legislation or of judicature towards the enslaved population.”
The story of the 52-year-old enslaved woman who had successfully bought the freedom of her two sons and was then fighting “legally” to secure her own freedom makes for interesting reading. After failing to secure her freedom through the courts (her case was dismissed) and even after petitioning the governor of the island, Betto Douglas decided that she had paid her dues, been enslaved long enough, and she ran.
The “Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter” of June 1827 documented information states that: “She had already meritoriously exerted herself, while health and strength were continued to her, and before the ravages of age had enfeebled her frame, to effect the redemption of her two sons – magnanimously preferring their emancipation to her own.
“And when this meritorious conduct had produced an impression on the agent of Lord Romney, and on his Lordship also, leading them to use language calculated to excite a confident expectation of receiving her own gratuitous manumission from the bounty of his Lordship – she is threatened, at her advanced age, with flogging and the field, for daring to prefer such a claim: and she is required, as the only means of escape from that, or from some still worse fate, to pay to Lord Romney a sum of three dollars and a half monthly, procure it as she may.
“She fails to fulfil the condition and what is the result? She is incarcerated, on the sole authority of Lord Romney’s agent. She is incarcerated, her feet in the stocks, with a brief interval in each day, night and day for six long months. And when an attempt is made, by course of law, to relieve this poor creature from such a merciless infliction, the grand jury (to say nothing of the magistracy) representing, without doubt, the predominant feeling of the white population of St. Christopher’s, are roused to “indignation” by the attempt; stigmatize the prosecution as if it were a public nuisance; and re-consign the wretched Betto to the tender mercies and considerate care of Mr. Cardin.”
After a lifetime of ill treatment and oppression and trying to gain her freedom through legal means Betto Douglas cannot be faulted for taking her freedom any way she could get it.
Before Betto Douglas there were enslaved Africans who struggled for their freedom and some escaped to live as Maroons. In describing the enslaved Africans’ resistance in Nevis in 1706, author Hubbard writes: “They took to the mountains and at what is now called Maroon Hill, near Zetland, organized an army and faced the French on the battlefield – the first time a slave army fought a European army in the Caribbean. For two weeks the French tried to dislodge the slaves from their defensive position but failed.”
In the St. Kitts Assembly the Europeans passed “An Act for Better Government of Negroes” in 1722 which read: “Whereas great numbers have deserted the service of their Masters and fled to the mountainous parts of the island and there have armed and assembled themselves into Bands, to oppose their Masters, and any who may come in pursuit of them, and in the Night-Time, when they cannot easily be discovered or taken, do frequently commit divers Thefts and Robberies in the Plantations of this island. That Johnny Congo, belonging to the Honourable Lieutenant General Mathew; Christopher, belonging to William McDowall, Esquire; and Antego Quamina, belonging to Marmaduke Bachelor, Esquire have, and for a long while past, and still do, head several armed Bands and Companies of Fugitive Negroes in this island everyone of them, be, and hereby are, convicted and attainted of Felony, and shall suffer the pains of Death.”
Emancipation of enslaved Africans happened in St. Kitts & Nevis on August 1, 1834 as elsewhere in the British Empire and as in other Caribbean islands there was a four year apprenticeship period until August 1, 1838.
The enslaved Africans in St. Kitts did not take kindly to a further four years of a system that except in name was four more years of slavery.
Hubbard writes that: “A demonstration took place in the countryside which turned into a widespread riot and British marines were called in from a warship anchored in Basseterre harbour. They brought the situation under control after two days but St. Kitts remained under martial law from 6 August to 18 August. The marines and St. Kitts militia swept the hills in order to bring back workers who had fled. They had left their tools at the doors of their overseers’ or former owners’ homes as an indication they would no longer work in the fields.”
Some of the Africans who had fled the plantations joined Marcus, an African who had escaped slavery some years before 1834 and was popularly known as “King of the Woods.” The colonial government in an all out effort eventually on August 18, 1834 captured the “King of the Woods” bringing an end to the Africans’ resistance to the four-year apprenticeship.
With these examples of resisting oppression and enslavement by their ancestors the Kittitians and Nevisians gained their political independence from Britain on September 19, 1983 and will celebrate 30 years of being an independent nation on Thursday, September 19, 2013.