Samuel Prescod: The Birth of A Hero

Reading Time: 18 minutes


On the morning of the 23rd February 1829 the free coloured people of Barbados held a meeting in their charity school, now St. Mary’s Boys’ School in Mason Hall Street, to decide on the wording of a petition to the Legislature for civic rights and privileges. It was the sort of meeting which they had been holding with increasing frequency for more than a generation, almost invariably without success. The last such meeting, held in October 1823, was the greatest failure of all: it ended in open dissension. But perhaps such things are inevitable when people’s nerves are on edge. There was a feeling of unrest, a strange mixture of hope and foreboding, abroad during the whole of that year. In Grenada, it was the year in which full citizenship was demanded and partly obtained by the free people of colour; in Demerara it was the year of the great slave riot and the unjustifiable sentencing to death of the Negroes’ friend, Missionary Smith; in Barbados, of the destruction by an angry white mob of James Street Wesleyan Chapel and of the death of the last great pivot of the old order, Mr. Attorney General Beckles. In England it was the year in which the House of Commons unanimously approved Mr. Secretary Canning’s resolutions in favour of ameliorating the condition of the slaves as a preliminary to their eventual emancipation.
These were no sudden or unrelated occurrences. In Barbados a wind of change had indeed been noticeable from the closing years of the eighteenth century and by 1816 it had attained hurricane force in the slave riot of which Washington Francklyn, a few other free coloured men and some of the better off slaves, like Busso, were the leaders. During all this time. however, the great majority of the free coloured people were conspicuously on the side of constituted authority. Some of them owned slaves themselves; those who did not were at least proud, in the caste-like social system of which they formed part, to have somebody to look down upon. They therefore had quite understandable motives for helping to put down the riot of 1816, and for their zeal in so doing the legislature had equally understandable motives in promptly rewarding them with a privilege for which they had been petitioning for at least two decades, the privilege of giving testimony in courts of law OJ! oath! But by 1823 those who had striven for this privilege over the years were inclined to rest on their oars. Their ameliorative energy may not have been exhausted, but in that uneasy atmosphere they thought it best to be content with what they had got. Consequently when, towards the end of that year, rumours began to spread that the free coloured people were going to revolt and that they intended petitioning for an increase of civic rights (the contrariety of these rumours shows how much the country was on edge, those of them who had most to lose were quick to show that they were on the side of law and order. They went out of their way to give the legislature an assurance of their friendship and respect and an undertaking that so long as the country remained in its unsettled state they would not trouble their “Honors” with any petitions for rights and privileges. The address in which these gratuitous sentiments were set forth bore the names of twenty men E:very one of whom belonged to the elite of the free coloured community.

The great majority of the free coloured people did not share these sentiments; there were several reasons for this. To begin with, the address had been got up at a meeting of the most consequential leaders to which the rest of the free coloured class, including not a few men of education and property, had not been bidden. The numbers of that class had been steadily rising for some years; from an estimated 3,000 in 1817, the year in which they were accorded the privilege of giving evidence on oath, it was now probably 4,000. This increase would seem to have been due not merely to the number of free born children but to a continuing increase in the number of manumissions. The newcomers to freedom were not likely to take kindly to the aloofness of the old guard of the “born free” or to applaud the lack of sympathy which the address showed with the slaves. Moreover, few if any of those who had been excluded from the meeting at which the address was drafted agreed that the agitation for an increase of civic rights should be avowedly halted just then or that the legislature should be left in any doubt as to their determination to press for increased privileges later on. The dissidents therefore drew up a counter-address in which they distinctly affirmed their rights as British subjects to certain civic privileges from which they were excluded and declared their intention to pray for a removal of those restrictions at the earliest convenient opportunity. This counter-address bore three hundred and seventy three signatures.