Samuel Prescod: The Birth of A Hero
Prescod’s performance on this o cc as 1 on marked a turning point in his career. It is not too much to say that it also marked a turning point in the history of Barbados. At that time, however, few people if any would have thought so. What future was there for a young man who had turned his back on a sound and honest occupation and was constantly stuffing his head with a lot of [nonsense by revolutionaries and sceptics? He seemed only to have made a nuisance or himself and to have rendered it impossible for the elder of the free coloured community to ask any member of the Legislature to present a petition on their behalf for some time to come. Certainly it was nearly five months on – 14th July to be exact – before any such petition reached the Legislature. But it was a petition worth forwarding; alike from the point of view of literary expression, independence of spirit and forthrightness of demand it was the most striking petition which the free coloured people had had presented to the legislature up till then. The petitioners asked for two things, admission to the elective franchise and the right to be tried by an equal number of their peers. They stressed the fact that the free coloured people contributed indiscriminately with their white fellow subjects to the internal support of the colony by the payment of all taxes and expressed the hope that in view of their loyalty in the anxious and critical moments of emergency and danger the House would, in its wisdom and justice, deem it expedient to establish that unity of interest where a unity of action might be essentially requisite.
Six years earlier such language would have been regarded as containing a veiled threat. No doubt a good deal of chaffering and compromise preceded the adoption of the final draft, for among the signatories were some who had signed the address of 1823 as well as some who had signed the counter-address of that year. It is significant however, that the petition bore only eighteen signatures and that Prescod’s was not among them. He was a person without property a “child” and a bookish visionary. Even if he had not been disqualified on these grounds it would have been impolitic to imperil the fate of the petition by allowing it to appear that it was in any way the work or an obvious hothead and not or the wealthy and decorous seniors of the free coloured community.
But the Assembly was not to be hurried. Members were still smarting because of the rebuff they had received from the Secretary of State for the Colonies over the case of Rev. Harte who had been indicted and fined at the Court of Grand Sessions for preaching “equality” to the slaves two years earlier, but on appealing to the Sovereign had been granted an unconditional pardon. Earlier, in the debate on the Slave Consolidation Bill, there had been some intemperate remarks about the ignorance of local conditions evinced by the Colonial Office in the model statute which the House had been advised to follow. It was as much as any member’s seat was worth to propose that the House should capitulate to the demands of the free coloured people too at such a time. And so, while news reached Barbados of an increase or likely increase of civic rights for the free coloured people of Antigua, Grenada Dominica and St. Lucia and of the increased agitation to this end of their brethren in Jamaica, the session came to an end a little over a year after the Charity School meeting and no Bill to improve their civic condition was introduced into the legislature. Promptly in the new session, therefore, they returned to the fray: they called another meeting to devise means of compelling legislative action in their behalf, and at this meeting it was decided to send a petition to the Governor asking him to recommend to the legislature the removal of those grievances prayed against in their petition of the previous October. This new petition also expressed the hope “that we may be spared the alternative of claiming Your Excellency’s powerful influence and support in enabling us most humbly to lay our grievances at the foot of the Throne.” The Governor lost no time in sending the petition with a favourable covering message to the House of Assembly who took the hint and eventually on 7th June 1831 passed a Bill to remove all civic restraints and disabilities on the free people of colour.
What part did Mr. Prescod play in continuing this manifest, if somewhat tardy triumph? Probably none in so far as the actual drafting’ of the petitions was concerned; that honour seems to belong to Nathaniel Roach, a wealthy and scholarly gentleman who had returned home in 1828 from England where he had been educated and had lived continuously for twelve years. Nor did Prescod contribute anything by way of consultation to the content of the first petition, for as we have seen he was generally regarded at that time as a mere nuisance. Still, it is not improbable that his performance at the meeting of 1829, belittled though it was by some, had seemed to focus attention sharply on the need for a much more militant approach if the free coloured people were to get anything done: instead of soliciting the patronage of the rulers of the land they must extort their respect. In this indirect way, he also contributed to the breach between the coloured leaders since they were all now agreed on a forward-looking policy. With the meeting of 1830, his position among his fellows was put beyond all doubt. At this meeting he delivered another speech, written out like that of the previous year but calculated not so much to shock as to win a hearing, to encourage and to _give a clear sense of direction. In this he succeeded admirably for according to him the speech gained him the position of a leader, a position which he held without serious challenge until 1840 when, because of the changed social outlook, he changed his course.
The tale of the next six years is soon told. At the end of that time Prescod had long got past the stage of being a promising young man and had become acknowledged as the most outstanding, in decisiveness of intellect and character, of the coloured leaders. The record for these years is scrappy and the precise steps by which he achieved this primacy are not known. Perhaps it was established not so much by any series of seemingly important events as by an unremitting grasp of affairs and a natural thirst and drive beyond those which the other leaders had cultivated. Assuredly the popular image of him among his group was that of the new man entering into his rightful inheritance in the new age. But for the .first three of these six years, although we feel his presence, we see little of him. At Emancipation he was in England, where he had gone with the hope of securing admission to one of the Inns of Court so as to complete his training for the difficult days that evidently lay ahead, but a weakness of the chest to which he had always been subject began to take an alarming turn and he soon had to hurry back to the invigorating sunshine and seabreeze of his native land.
In the next year he wrote what seems to have been his first letter to the Press, at least it is the first which appears over his name. In it he accused the Police Superintendent of the Tudor Street District of illegally extorting a fee of half a dollar from a poor lad who had been arrested and had asked for bail at the hands of the police. Referring to him as “Samuel J. Prescod” whose claim to that name is as unfounded as he himself must be base, the Superintendent went on to jeer at Prescod as being “gifted with ‘forensic knowledge and an unbridled tongue”, •and tried to establish the legality of the fee. ‘Prescod’s reply was marked by considerable restraint. The fee, he said, was illegal, as there was no authority in the Police Act for any such demand even of the Magistrate; still less, therefore, was there any authority to delegate the power to make such a demand to any other person. Furthermore, as the half dollar so paid was always returned to the accused if he was acquitted, it was clear that the fee was in the nature of an anticipated fine for the offence supposed to have been committed. The superintendent’s dig at his supposedly dubious paternity must have cut him to the quick, but he did not flinch from dealing with the sneer. “If,” he wrote the Superintendent, “all he can say against me is on the score of my birth in a community of heterogeneous characters such as these islands necessarily contain – from virtuous to vicious – why, that is a compliment.”
In February of the next year Prescod was married at the Cathedral to Miss Cruden, a refined and accomplished lady who was educated in England. Many years of happiness were granted to the pair, a happiness which was however marred by the death of all their children save one – a girl who later married Mr. William H. Berkely, a Customs clerk who rose to be A.D.C. to the Governor and afterwards Assistant Colonial Secretary of Gambia.
In March 1836 the coloured people began publication of their first newspaper, the Times, with Prescod as Editor. His standing at the time may be seen from the reference to him in the preliminary advertisement of the newspaper. The promoters described him as “a gentleman of ·respectable abilities whom they have secured for the exclusive management of the editorial staff ‘of this journal as a means of rendering it as generally interesting and as respectable as possible.” The New Times was a weekly and was published from Palmetto Street. Prescod remained there for only just over eight months. He had agreed to serve for the first six months and longer if necessary without a salary, provided he had exclusive control of the editorial department, but this part of the bargain was not kept by the proprietors probably because his writings were too outspoken – he alludes once to the time when he was “doing the terrible” in the Xew Tim and so he left without having received one cent of salary. Perhaps it was as well. The conduct of a small weekly newspaper, restricted in circulation and reflecting the policy of its proprietors was not the sort of employment that a man of energy and large views could endure. For relief he turned once more to politics, and agitated for the lowering of the franchise, the qualification for which on the admission of the free coloured people to hat privilege had been trebled so as to exclude as many of them as possible from the electoral roll. For the next twenty years he was to urge an increasing light for franchise reform: indeed, as he said of himself, he was the father of franchise reform in Barbados. In order to earn a living he also opened a school. This seems to have been a rather select affair, the pupils being limited to “a few respectable boys” and the course of instruction embracing several apparently trifling but really useful and important particulars not usually attended to. He also took in one or two respectable boys from the country or the neighbouring colonies as boarders.
Prescod seems to have made no great reputation as a schoolmaster. For one thing, Nathaniel Roach had already opened a school, and being a born teacher, which Prescod was not, had soon built up a reputation which Prescod could never have attained. For another.an opportunity of sitting in the editorial chair was soon opened to Prescod again and born writer that he was be seized it with both hands. In 1837 some poor whites launched a newspaper of their own which they called the Liberal. Prescod, however. contributed articles to it almost from the start and when a few months later the proprietors got into financial difficulties and offered it to him he managed to secure another coloured man, Thomas Harris, who put up the purchase price, The editorial department was left entirely to Prescod’ care. who made the Liberal the mouthpiece of the labouring and middle classes of all colours. It was a surprising transformation, but it shows how rapidly Prescod had matured and how clearly he had grasped the necessity of racial tolerance and cooperation if the island was to overcome the unfamiliar difficulties presented b Emancipation. As a prominent legislator once said Prescod’s change of policy saved the country.