Slavery and Escape in the South Eastern Caribbean
During the early 1770s fugitives from slavery fled by sea from the then-British Caribbean colony of Carriacou, an island a short sail from Grenada in the southeastern Caribbean.
The fugitives, wrote the British Windward Islands’ governor William Leybourne in 1773, “escape from us in boats to some of the nearest Spanish settlements,” induced by “unknown agents” who had “inculcated” in the escapees “notions of freedom.” Despite “repeated applications” to Spanish officials, Leybourne explained, “no redress [could] be procured.”
Those who fled Carriacou left a plantation colony where around 2,700 enslaved people labored, primarily on cotton plantations, under the supervision of around just one hundred white settlers.
To Carriacou’s south were several Spanish territories including Caracas, Cumaná, Margarita, and Trinidad.
In the latter province, Spanish policies first decreed in 1680 theoretically offered sanctuary to fugitives, typically in exchange for Catholic conversion.
In 1704, a similar proclamation was issued in nearby Venezuela.
In 1750, the Spanish issued a Royal Decree stating that fugitives who escaped from Protestant-governed territories to any of Spain’s American domains could be declared legally free as Catholic converts.
As Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind shows us, news of such decrees traveled widely and quickly in the Caribbean. Over time and between colonies, the mobile and masterless – small time traders and sailors, smugglers, runaways, rebels, deserters, and dock workers – circulated news and rumor that often found its way to those who remained confined on plantations.
As Scott showed in such vivid detail, the mobility of these people posed a “steady undercurrent of opposition to the ‘absolute’ power of masters, merchants, and military officers” in the colonial Caribbean at-large. As Scott put it, “local rulers were no more able to control the rapid spread of information than they were able to control the movements of the ships or the masterless people with which this information traveled.”
The commercial routes through which these people operated opened up subversive communication channels, “as well as tempting routes of escape.”