Samuel Prescod: The Birth of A Hero
It was against this historical background that at the meeting of 1829 a young man of twenty three got up to address the chair. In appearance he just fell short of being handsome, his well formed features and earnest look being spoiled by the thoughtful frown, amounting almost to a scowl, which he habitually wore. Of somewhat less than medium height, he was slight of build and had a sallow complexion. Nevertheless there was something striking about him if only because, unlike the others present, he was not dressed in broadcloth as was considered appropriate to such important occasions, but sported an informal white round jacket, a fact which made him look even younger and less worthy of attention than he proved to be. Not that he was entirely unknown to the gathering. Named Samuel Jackman, apparently after a prominent planter and Justice of the Peace in St. Peter, he was the self-willed son whom the free coloured woman Lydia Smith was reputed to have borne for William Prescod, a wealthy landowner in the: leeward parishes. He had little formal schooling and for that little he was indebted solely to his mother. When he grew up he was not enabled to slip into a privileged position, but like most other lads of his class was put to a trade. At that time the free coloured people had bv the excellence of their work almost engrossed two of the trades, shoemaking and cabinet-making. Young Prescod was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker.
It was in the pursuit of his trade that he entered the golden circle of legend. One day he took a chair which he had helped to build to the House of Assembly. The House, which then used to meet in the building now occupied by the Waterworks Department, was sitting at the time and Prescod lingered on to listen to the proceedings. It is a further indication of the way in which the free coloured people were treated that this show of interest on his part was regarded as an act of presumption and that he was summarily ejected, not without certain expressions of scorn, by the Marshal. Whilst being hustled out he told this functionary, as cheekily as he knew how, that the day would come when he, Samuel Jackman Prescod, despised though he then was, would sit in the House as a member.
This story, of which there are several versions, has often been told as affording evidence of Prescod’s great courage even as a stripling. But there was nothing particularly courageous about the retort which he flung at the Marshal. One being haled before the House of Assembly the principal signatories of the counter-address of 1823 had avowed that among the privileges which they desired was that of electing and being elected to that Chamber. Young and brash Prescod was giving this supposedly subversive view a personal application: that was all. He was in the radical. or as we would now say, the leftist tradition.
Unfortunately, it was not yet a unified tradition, for in the graduated scale of Barbadian society there was still little that was professedly common to the radicalism of an aristocrat like Sir John Gav Allevne, a middle class white like John Poyer, a free negro like Francklyn and a slave like Busso. Nevertheless, its existence was undeniable. As early as 1774 Alleyne had lamented from his place as Speaker of the House of Assembly the necessity which made him a slave owner, the lack of civil rights among the free coloured people and the prevalence of colour prejudice. Poyer had written a work of propaganda, disguised as a history of the island. and had founded a newspaper on behalf of the poor whites. Francklyn and his free coloured associates, like Bussa and his, had resorted to insurrection. The sectional aim and the method of achieving that aim differed in each case but the general purpose was clear – the effecting of so fundamental a change in the structure and tone of society that the underprivileged might recover something of their human worth and dignity.
But the promulgation as an active faith of so all-embracing a radicalism was not yet possible. Intent on avenging the insult to himself and implicitly to the whole free coloured community, Prescod could not have imagined that he would one day be the acknowledged spokesman of all the underprivileged groups in the island. Indeed, one version of the story has it that he immediately turned his back on the cabinet-maker’s trade and began devoting his time to the cultivation of hi mind in preparation for his triumphant entry as the champion of his class in the House Assembly. To accept this version, however, is to give romance too free a rein. This is not to deny that his clash with the Marshall helped to determine the commencement of his political seed-time, but on investigation it seems to have been only one and not even the decisive one of a series of incidents which impelled him to plan his future in terms of something more significant than making and mending chairs. Of two such incidents he tells us himself. One reveals the indignities to which his mother. who owned property, was obliged to submit in employing ” worthless white man – a constable – not worthless because he was a constable but because he was a low fellow, to rent her house on her behalf.” The other concerned his maternal great uncle, “that old christian man who loved him as a son and whom he loved as a father,” but who, “when on the natural verge of life” had been ‘driven to madness by the horrors of slavery made to for get his God and bring upon his grey hairs the odium of suicide.” The fact that each of these incidents was recollected in a moment of tranquillity and described to a racially mixed audience after Prescod had ceased to be the uncompromising firebrand of local politics shows the extent to which each had scarred his personality. He seems never to have made any public reference to the incident about the chair.
Of Prescod’s period of preparation for public life we know but little. He was fond of reading and loved to keep in step with what was then known as “the march of mind.” It was a love which he shared with another coloured youth, Edward Wilmot Archer, great great uncle of the present President of the British Caribbean Court of Appeal. The two lads differed widely in temperament, Archer providing the foil of gentleness to Prescod’s rasping methods, but in their devotion to learning they were at one. They discovered some Greek and Latin folio volumes and set about teaching themselves these languages. What Archer’s favourite reading was does not appear, but it was to the literature of the English radical movement such as Tom Paine’s pamphlets, Godwin’s Political Justice, the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the political writings of William Cobbett that Prescod devoted most attention. Like many another youngster of a literary turn of mind he also tried his hand at poetry; unlike most of these, however, he derived inspiration not from some lady’s eyebrows but from politics. We still have a few lines of one of his early poems to judge him by and we can further gauge the niceness of his ear by the corrections which he made many years later to the fledgling verses of a Contributor to his newspaper. In early life Prescod was also interested in the drama and by 1828, if not earlier, he was Manager of the Lyceum, the coloured people’s theatre in Reed Street.
One accomplishment, however, he lacked: he was not an instinctive public speaker. Although he was later branded as a dangerous demagogue he had none of the artifices of the mob orator. His style of public speaking was remarkable for lucid analysis and clever reasoning rather than for any impassioned appeal. But that was not the impression he left on those who heard him at the meeting of the 23rd February 1829. Much had happened since 1823. Prompted by the unanimous adoption of Canning’s resolutions of that year by the House of Commons, the absentee proprietors as well had petitioned the House of Assembly to ameliorate the condition of the slaves. The consolidation of the slave laws, on which the House had been engaged since 1821, was, after a fashion, complete. Of special interest to the free coloured population was the provision for facilitating manumissions. As one observer wrote at the time: “Emancipation and not amelioration is the order of the day and the only question on which there seems to be any hesitation is whether the emancipation shall be. gradual or immediate.”
There now ensued a period in which relations between the free coloured people and the slaves were extremely confused. Some of the latter, exulting in that mitigation of their servitude to which they were now entitled by operation of law, were apt to be rather uncivil to the free coloured people, thus copying in their wav the attitude which Prescod and the more intransigent free coloured people adopted to the whites. After all, the slave of today might possibly become the free coloured man of tomorrow. At the same time some free persons increased their efforts to buy their kinsmen out of slavery. Some tried to bridge the gap between themselves and the slaves by religious and educational means. In addition to their charity school in Mason Hall Street, which had been formed to afford instruction to poor free coloured children and the children of slaves, they had recently opened similar institutions in St. Peter, St. James and Christ Church. They had also started a Sunday School for such children in Bridgetown. But there remained a hard core of free coloured people, consisting of well-established members of this class for the most part – slave owners and owners of other property – who frankly resented the fact that while the slaves were now assuming a place in; the social hierarchy beside them, they were not only standing still but actually had fewer civic rights than their brethren in some of the other islands. Had not Mr. Dwarris, the commissioner appointed by the British Government to inquire into the administration of justice in the West Indies, recommended in his report that the free coloured people in all these colonies should be given full civic rights?
Paradoxically enough these social diehards comprise not a few who were most prominent in religious well-doing. Such, for instance, were some of those who induced the others to assume the task of erecting a wall around St. Mary’s Churchyard by voluntary donations. Such, too, were some of those who were commended by The Barbadian, the Church newspaper, for their “humble. inoffensive and respectful demeanour.”
But a new spirit was abroad and their disapproval was overborne when, at an afternoon service in the Cathedral, the other free coloured persons present refused to be herded in the galleries to which the slaves were restricted, and rushing down the stairs crowded the aisles.
These developments were probably not without their influence on Prescod. It is likely that he had already acquired an anti-clerical bias from his reading of Tom Paine and other rationalists and that the homily which the Barbadian saw fit to deliver to those who had refused to be limited to the galleries of the Cathedral only confirmed him in this attitude. Said the Barbadian:-
“We would seriously advise them to remember their situation. The tolerating and benevolent spirit of the age has conceded to them privileges and enjoyments beyond what the law of the land has given them. They are fond of being called Christians – they boast of it; let them then exhibit those most beautiful features of the Christian character, meekness and humility.”
From what we know of him it is safe to conclude that Prescod’s resentment could have been directed as much against those who sat still under this advice as against those who gave it, and most of all against those who, while accepting it, were still minded to maintain certain “Distinctions necessary to safety” between themselves and the slaves. It was therefore in no placid mood that he attended the meeting in the Charity School. He went prepared to say a number of things which had never been said openly and which he thought needed ventilating. As it was the first time that he would be speaking in public he wrote out his speech, and being afire with his subject he was more concerned to succeed by the shock of invective than to run the risk of failure by excessive decorum.
No detailed report of his speech has come down to us but all the indications are that it was very much of a young man’s speech, eager, iconoclastic and not a little opinionated; later on he himself was heard to say that he was only a boy then and that he had spoken like a boy; yet we would dearly love to be able to read what he said on that occasion, not only because it was his maiden speech but because it created a sensation. The views he expressed were of so much more decided a cast than was usual among those present that various attempts – some fearful, some deprecatory – were made to get him to desist. But to no avail. Then somebody hit him with an umbrella, but he still kept on. Further attempts were made to put him down, but on and on he went and only stopped when the meeting got completely out of control and broke up in disorder. Outside the school however, “the child in the round jacket” could still be seen in the centre of a small gathering expounding the social and political gospel according to Prescod.