Alfred Pragnell (1932-2004) was a well-known, widely respected, and popular member of the Barbadian arts establishment. At various times during his multifaceted career, he was an actor, broadcaster, satirist, storyteller — even a calypso singer. Aside from all of this, he was a terrific human being. On a visit to his home in March 28, 2000, Fred, as he was sometimes called, on an impulse decided to interview me about my first coming to Barbados in the early 1960s, living in the village of Chalky Mount, and my experiences on the island during those, and later, years. Further, how my research interests developed into studies of the life of the enslaved, archaeological research particularly at Newton plantation in the early 1970s, the African presence in Barbados, and the history of slavery on the island. Topics, including obeah and lead poisoning, are also discussed, as is the 1816 slave revolt and its alleged leadership. At the time, Pragnell had an evening radio program, “Sunday Magazine,” which involved, among other things, interviews with island visitors. So, sitting in his parlor over a cup of tea one afternoon, he positioned his hand-held recorder in front of me, and proceeded with the interview. The interview lasts about 28 minutes. In the remainder of the audio, Pragnell reads a poem, written by the late eminent Barbadian poet, Kamau Brathwaite, in Bajan, the creole dialect of Barbados.
A resolution on slavery by the Barbados Governor and Council in 1636 has been widely cited and quoted by writers on Anglo American slavery and Barbados history from the early 19th century until the present. Writers have universally accepted either explicitly or implicitly that the Resolution was the earliest slave law and was foundational in legitimizing slavery in Anglo America. No writer has attempted to explain why the Resolution was adopted or has questioned or challenged its role in the history of slave law in Barbados or Anglo America.
In May and June 2018, Jerome Handler donated an additional box of supplementary research materials and notes to the Barbados Department of Archives relating to Barbados archeology, history, slavery, and rural society. For the itemized list of the notes and other research materials, click here.
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In January 1998, Jerome Handler donated four boxes of notes and other research materials to the Barbados Department of Archives. These boxes contain a variety of materials relevant to Handler’s dissertation research in Chalky Mount, St. Andrew in the early 1960s, archaeological research at Newton Plantation slave cemetery in the early 1970s, and miscellaneous other research projects relating to Barbados early history and slavery. For the itemized list of the notes and other research materials, click here.
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Seventeenth-century reports of the suffering of European indentured servants and the fact that many were transported to Barbados against their wishes has led to a growing body of trans-Atlantic popular literature, particularly dealing with the Irish. This literature claims the existence of “white slavery” in Barbados and, essentially, argues that the harsh labor conditions and sufferings of indentured servants were as bad as or even worse than that of enslaved Africans. Though not loudly and publicly proclaimed, for some present-day white Barbadians, as for some Irish and Irish-Americans, the “white slavery” narrative stresses a sense of shared victimization; this sentiment then serves to discredit calls for reparations from the descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. and the former British West Indies.
This article provides a detailed examination of the socio-legal distinctions between servitude and slavery, and argues that it is misleading, if not erroneous, to apply the term “slave” to Irish and other indentured servants in early Barbados. While not denying the hardships suffered by indentured servants, referring to white servants as slaves deflects the experiences of millions of persons of African birth or descent. We systematically discuss what we believe are the major socio-legal differences and the implications of these difference between indentured servitude and the chattel slavery that uniquely applied to Africans and their descendants.
2016 (Jerome S. Handler) “My Daddy was a Great Man in my Country”: Sibell, An enslaved African in Barbados relates her life story
Sibell was an “old” woman of African birth who, in 1799, narrated a brief account of her life to John Ford in Barbados. Ford’s identity is unknown though he was probably a white creole sensitive to the dialect (or the English creole language) of enslaved people on the island.
Ford’s transcription of Sibell’s account and another one by “Ashy of the Fantee tribe” ended up in the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford. The transcription came to Oxford sometime before 1893 — probably much earlier — but how it got there is not known. In July 1974, I consulted and transcribed both accounts. Details on the background and context of these accounts, including notes on the possible identity of the transcriber and various linguistic and African ethnographic references, as well as full transcriptions of the two accounts, can be found in my article, “Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in Barbados” (Slavery & Abolition 19 : 129-140; see this website for a copy).
Regardless of some possible inaccuracies in Ford’s transcriptions, the narratives apparently represent the enslaved Africans’ legitimate voices. A variety of linguistic features as well as African ethnographic data in the narratives argue for their authenticity. See John R. Rickford and Jerome S. Handler, “Textual Evidence on the Nature of Early Barbadian Speech, 1676-1835″ (Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9 : 221-55). These features make a strong case that the narratives reflect the actual speech of the enslaved individuals; they also express, however briefly and imperfectly, their genuine thoughts and feelings.
While I was in Coventry, England, in November 1999, I asked Marcia Burrowes, a Barbadian friend then doing doctoral studies at the University of Warwick, to read Sibell’s account in Bajan, the English creole or dialect of Barbados. She was asked to pretend she was an older/elderly woman (Marcia had earlier acting experience) and with a small hand-held tape recorder we recorded her reading of Sibell’s account. This unique recording is now placed before a wider audience which both Marcia Burrowes (now on the faculty of the University of West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados) and I hope will be particularly useful to teachers on secondary and college-university levels.
Listen to Sibell’s account here (the listener is urged to follow along with the published transcription, below).
Massah! my Daddy was a great man in my country and called Makerundy, he have great many slaves, and hire many man – And one of my Budders was a great man in de fight in my country – my Daddy nebber want – he have ground two, tree miles long and hire as many man dat he put de vittles in large tubs for dem – When he cut honey, he fill tree, four barrel he have so muchee. When we want good drink in my Country we go and cut de Tree and de juice will run, and keep some time will make good strong drink. I bin veddy fond of my sister- and she went out of de house one Day and let me alone, and my Budder in Law come in, and take me up and say he going to carry me to see his udder Wife. he take and carry, carry, carry, carry, carry me all night and day, all night and day `way from my Country- in de way me meet a Man and de Man know my Daddy and all my Family – Ah! Budder (me beg pardon for calling you Budder, Massah) you see me here now but dere has bin grandee fight in my country for me, for he will tell my Family – As my budder in law carry me `long, me hear great noise, and me wonder, but he tell me no frighten – and he carry me to a long House full of new Negurs talking and making sing – But veddy few of dem bin of my Country and my Budder in Law sell me to de Back-erah’ people. Me nebber see de White people before, me nebber see de great ships pon de water before, me nebber hear de Waves before which me frighten so much-ee dat me thought me would die. My Budder in Law took up de Gun and de Powder which he sell me for and wanted to get `way from me, but me hold he and cry – and he stop wid me till me hold Tongue and den he run away from me – De sailors keep me in dere long time and bring down two, tree ebbery day till de long house bin full – Dere bin many Black people dere veddy bad man, dey talk all kind of Country and tell we all dat we going to a good Massah yonder yonder, where we would workee, workee picka-nee-nee and messy messy’ grandee and no fum-fum. Me no know nobody in de House, but ven me go in de ship me find my country woman Mimbo, my country man Dublin, my Country woman Sally, and some more, but dey sell dem all about and me no savvy where now. [At this point, the transcriber writes] “Here she burst into tears and could say no more.”
The island of Barbados provides an ideal case study to explore the beginnings of slavery and definitions of slave status in England’s early American colonies. Africans and Europeans confronted each other earlier and on a larger scale in Barbados than in any other English colony. By tracing the development of slavery from the colony’s settlement in 1627 this article argues that the legitimization or legalization of African slavery and the status of slaves were established in custom long before any slave laws were passed. Focus is on slave status as a point of analysis, implicitly defined by three major features: chattel property, lifetime (or permanent) servitude, and inheritance of slave condition from an enslaved mother. In examining the evidence for these features, the article contends they were part of the culture of the Euro-Atlantic world and English worldview by the time the island was settled. None of the features was ever defined in any law; rather, they were implicit in any Barbados law that mentioned slaves.
In 1654, Antoine Biet, a French Catholic priest, travelled to Cayenne in South America, but unforeseen circumstances led him to a short stay in Barbados; ten years later he published an account of his experiences in the New World, including his visit to the island. In 1967, Handler published a translation of the two chapters of Biet’s volume that describe his three-month Barbados sojourn. Biet’s account offers a unique first-hand glimpse into life in Barbados during a period when the so-called sugar revolution was well underway and Barbados was generating an enormous amount of wealth from sugar produced on large-scale plantations largely worked by enslaved Africans. Although writers have used Biet’s account to illustrate a number of features of Barbadian society, little attention has been paid to his interactions with Irish nationals on the island and how such interactions reflect broader issues concerning the lives of Irish Catholics in a Protestant-dominated English colony.
This website brings together a selected list of my publications which have appeared since the early 1960s in widely scattered sources. These publications treat a variety of topics dealing with slavery in Barbados and the Atlantic World as well as some aspects of production activities in modern rural Barbados.