Of an unjust imprisonment and a shocking legacy

By Thomas Hudon, engraved by Johan Faber (The National Maritime Museum), via Wikimedia Commons

Many who are new to tales of Jamaican slavery are deeply shocked when they discover that freed slaves and mixed Jamaicans often themselves owned slaves. I think this is understandable (which is not to say justifiable), if you accept that for most people in the eighteenth century slavery was a fact of life and one which they generally did not question. Since owning slaves reflected your economic and social status it is unsurprising that freed slaves and mixed race Jamaicans would want to reinforce their new status, in much the same way as aspiring middle class Victorians in England would employ a live-in maid or a cook. A key difference of course being that the latter were free to leave for other employment.

However, I did find it particularly shocking when I read the Will of Francis Delap to discover, that in freeing and educating his little six year-old mulatto son Arthur, he was requiring his executors to provide Arthur with ‘three new Negro Boys nearly of his Age to be bought for him by my Executors immediately after my death to be marked AD and to be bred to the same Trade with himself’.  Not only were three little African boys straight off the boat to be branded with Arthur’s initials, but they were to be the slaves of another child of their own age.

Since they were all to be bred up in the same trade I presume Francis was trying to provide Arthur with the ultimate means of setting himself up in business. And of course this is not the only case of a child being given his own slaves.  But shocking nevertheless.

Francis Delap has however gone down in history for quite another reason. He was at the centre of the great Jamaican controversy in the mid 1750s surrounding the location of the island capital.

When the British arrived in Jamaica in 1655 St Jago de la Vega was the Spanish capital, situated inland for easier defence against seaborn raiders. After the 1692 earthquake and a later fire largely destroyed Port Royal, Kingston rapidly grew to be the centre of mercantile activity. By the mid- eighteenth century a schism had grown up between the planter and administrative classes who favoured Spanish Town, where the Assembly met and legal cases were heard, and the merchants who wanted to move the capital to Kingston. Apart from the disruption this would have caused, planter social life centred on the times of year when they arrived from their estates to enjoy the Spanish Town entertainments and attend the races, to get married and to baptise their children. Any move of the capital would also have had a depressive effect on property values in Spanish Town which had just been ascertained in the 1754 Census.

When Sir Charles Knowles arrived in Jamaica as Governor he sided with the Kingston lobby in favour of the move, falling out with the Spanish Town inhabitants and choosing to move to Kingston rather than as was traditional living in Spanish Town. He also insisted on the supremacy of the English parliament over the Jamaican Assembly.  This direct confrontation with the Assembly came to a head when the Governor dissolved the Assembly and elections were called. There was not of course any universal franchise, only free white men who were freeholders could vote.

It appeared that the votes for the three members for Port Royal were going to be critical and the pro-Kingston lobby wanted to ensure that the vote was not supervised by the Provost Marshall Francis Delap, who was thought to favour the Spanish Town cause. Uncertain what to do for the best when told to hand over the Writs, Delap had the Writs and all his papers locked in two chests and deposited  them with Charles Price and Dr William Wynter.

The Governor had Delap arrested and ordered him to surrender the Writs for the election so that new ones could be issued, putting a Mr Johnston who he had appointed as the new Provost Marshall in charge of the election. Delap had serious doubts about the legality of this, but was unable to act beyond securing all his papers, as Governor Knowles had him committed to the Kingston jail where he was clapped in irons, deprived of the use of pen and ink and prevented from communicating with anyone.

Knowles intended to have him shipped out to England as a prisoner, but the Island Council decided instead to prosecute him for a misdemeanour and he was at last able to apply for a writ of Habeas Corpus and to obtain bail. Following a court appearance in June 1755 Delap was fined £500 and once again imprisoned.

One of Delap’s friends and supporters was Rose Fuller, who had earlier clashed with Knowles as a result of which he had resigned as Chief Justice. In the Spring of 1755 he heard that his brother John had died in England and so after two decades in Jamaica Rose Fuller returned to England, arriving in August of 1755. His presence there enabled him to coordinate support for Delap’s case in London and eventually Delap was freed. Papers held at the East Sussex Record Office at Lewes show that Fuller had raised a letter of credit on Arnold, Albert and Alexander Nesbitt of London  for £6000 for Delap’s legal support, based on a valuation of Delap’s Jamaican estate which ‘recently stocked with a great strength of able negroes and mules, is good security for £30,000’ (ESRO  SAS-RF/21/42).

The Board of Trade eventually decided in favour of Spanish Town on a technicality and Governor Knowles left Jamaica. A huge procession of carts brought the island papers back to Spanish Town and the celebrations included two huge bonfires, one topped with an effigy of Governor Knowles and the other one of his ship[1].

When Delap died over twenty years later most of his wealth was left to his siblings in Ireland, but he also made provision for the care of four mixed race children, whose mother was Mary Shippen, and for little Arthur, now the master of his own slaves.

 

 

 

 


[1] You can read a fuller account of the Spanish Town versus Kingston controversy in Gone is the Ancient Glory, Spanish Town, Jamaica 1534-2000 by James Robertson, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston 2005; and a contemporary account of the trial of Francis Delap in An account of the trial of Francis Delap Esq upon an information for a misdemeanour: at the Supreme Court of Judicature, held in the town of Kingston, in Jamaica, on June 18, 1755. Ecco Print Editions (print on demand).

One thought on “Of an unjust imprisonment and a shocking legacy”

  1. Brett Ashmeade-Hawkins

    It was actually quite common for White Slave-Owners in Jamaica not only to free their Negro or Coloured Mistresses and their illegitimate Coloured Children, but also in their Wills to leave them Slaves, along with Money, Furniture, Land, Horses and Cattle. Jamaican Slave Society was far more complex than most people realise.

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