Prince Klass, Antigua’s anti-slavery hero!

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday February 27 2013 in Opinion
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Sugar plantations crushed so many slaves that maintaining a population of 20,000 required replacements, annually, of 150,000.


Surviving the back-breaking, spirit-crushing hardships was ‘seasoning a slave’. Thus, not only was sugar a synonym for slavery, but slavery was also a synonym for rebelling against ‘seasonings’.


Antigua—today, Antigua and Barbuda or, to the Caribs then, Wadadli—is an island in the Lesser Antilles. The country’s topography, generally of low-lying limestone, was considered most ideal for the large-scale, labour-intensive production of sugar. Ideal, too, were its stable climate and many accessible harbours.


Furthermore, in an age before the 1800s—when steam power replaced wind power— Antigua’s location astride the Trade Winds was ideal for running windmills and sailing wind-driven ships. Created by the rotation of the earth north and south of the Equator, these prevailing winds, blowing constantly, made available the use of windmills for crushing and processing cane fronds into sugar.


In addition, because wind-driven sailing ships required reliable wind patterns, these Trade Winds, aptly named, provided predictable wind power for shipping tonnage to and fro between Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean. In fact, without these winds Columbus wouldn’t have reached the Caribbean, nor returned to Spain.


To these conditions favourable to sugar production, there was yet another. Antigua’s unique gateway location, controlling the major sailing routes in the Caribbean, made it the ideal strategic entrepôt for whoever controlled it. Thus in 1784 did Horatio Nelson establish here Britain’s most important Caribbean naval base.


In Antigua, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, these available conditions changed sugar from being a rare commodity, historically, into a modern bulk commodity, globally. Its production, millennia earlier in East Asia, had usually been for medicinal uses. In fact, so rare was it that even for wealthy Europeans, annual use was limited to spoonfuls.


Therefore, the relief that sugar production subsequently brought for a Europe plagued by epochal pandemics and endemic poverty, made it the ideal wealth-creating commodity. In short, the linkages between incipient Capitalism, Caribbean sugar and European imperialism, mutually launched each other … on the pauperised backs of Black slaves!


Kwaku Takyi , better known to Antiguans as Prince Klass, a captive then, today a national hero there, was one of these slaves. He was, however, not your ideal slave.


So, in 1736, a century before emancipation and seven decades before the Haitian revolution, this Akan from Ghana, minted from the same currency of resistance as were later Maroons like Nanny and Cudjoe, set about coining a rebellion that made more restless the sleep everywhere of slave-owners.


Like many leaders of similar revolts elsewhere, Antigua’s slave leadership was drawn, not from the field-hands, but from the ranks of the artisans and house-slaves, they oft having responsibilities which allowed them more access to others on other plantations and, most of all, more access to knowing the plans of the slave masters.


This revolt was peculiar, too, in several ways. It was island-wide. It took three years of planning. With population ratios of 80 per cent slaves to 20 per cent Whites, if successful, the revolt could have wiped out most of the 3,800 Europeans. The revolt, in addition to its discovery, failure, and subsequent trial of its leaders, generated—compared with similar trials elsewhere—more official court records detailing the diet of iniquity served up daily under enslavement.


And what was the plan by Prince Klass and his associates? It was one similar to the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot, planned by disenfranchised Catholics in Protestant England to blow up the English Parliament in 1605.


But why, with such detailed planning, did the revolt fail? Described in the 1741 trials by New York prosecutors as “an unparalled hellish plot,” it never got off the ground.


It had been planned to break out at night, during a coronation ball in the capital, St. Johns. A keg of gunpowder was already in place. Its blast at the ball was the signal for the slaves to rise up against their masters. The plot was thwarted because, on three occasions, the coronation festivities planned by the Whites, had been postponed, unawares.


Eighty-seven slaves, including Prince Klass, were subsequently executed. He was ‘broken on the wheel’, a gruesome example of a sobering public spectacle.


This ‘breaking on the wheel’ was the worst of punishments, reserved for the most heinous of crimes. It therefore required its own ‘skilled specialist’. A prostrate form of crucifixion, it had several cruel refinements. First, the prisoner was spread-eagled, strapped to a large cartwheel placed axle-first in the earth. This thereby formed a rotating platform a few feet above the ground.


The prisoner would then be stretched … stretched … and the wheel, slowly rotated by the executioner, would methodically crush the bones of the condemned, starting with fingers and toes, and working inexorably inward to hands, to wrists, to feet, ankles …


According to Professor David Barry Gaspar, a skilled specialist or “headsman would take pride in ensuring that his victim remained conscious throughout the procedure, and when his work was done, the wheel would be hoisted upright and fixed in the soil, leaving the condemned to hang there until he died from shock and internal bleeding a few hours or a few days later.”


Despite this, there were more slave revolts in Antigua and elsewhere. There was Haiti. And one hell of a ‘seasoning’, anti-slavery Civil War in America.


And Antigua’s highest elevation today, Mount Obama.