The voices of enslaved people of the past can sometimes be heard, albeit rarely and in painfully brief snippets. On the island of St Kitts, once part of the British West Indies, slavery existed until the 1830s. While the enslaved were brutally treated and had precious few rights, one avenue for them to speak up for themselves in the early nineteenth century was in court, where they were allowed to bring complaints against their estate managers. A “Return of Slave Complaints in Basseterre, St Kitts, from August 1822 to 26 December 1823” lists nineteen cases brought by individuals or groups of slaves, with the decisions made by the sitting magistrates.
The complaints were primarily about either mistreatment, such as beatings or unreasonable work expectations, or about insufficient food allotments. Women were the substantial majority of petitioners. Interestingly, the magistrates found for the enslaved in about half of the cases. The remedial actions called for by the magistrates clearly favored the managers however – while managers might have been instructed to increase food portions or slightly modify work levels, slaves found to be culpable could be sentenced to whippings.
Of particular interest to me were two cases brought against the manager of the estate of William Matthew Burt, in the town of Sandy Point. The manager’s name was Frederick Walton Mallalieu (1802-1851), mispelled Malalieu in the court document, who was my husband’s 3rd great-grandfather. Born in Lancashire, Great Britain, Frederick had immigrated to St Kitts by 1822, when he was in charge of the day-to-day running of a sugar estate at the young age of 20.
One complaint was made by a group of seventeen people, alleging that they were assigned “hard labour”, and not given their usual allowance of water and molasses while working. The magistrate recorded that
“This complaint decided to be groundless; the complainants admitting that they regularly receive their weekly allowance, and their appearance, generally, exhibiting no marks of ill usage. They were sentenced to receive thirty lashes each of the cat, and to return to the estate”.
The “cat” referred to the cruel cat o’nine tails whip, which was apparently used in this instance to punish the petitioners for bringing forward what the judge deemed to be a baseless complaint.
The second complaint was made by an enslaved man named Tony Crooke. It seems that he had been assigned the relatively light duty of keeping watch over a field of sugar cane. The cane had been damaged somehow, and Tony had fled in fear of the punishment he would receive. The magistrates found in his favor, stating that he wasn’t physically up to the task of watchman,
“owing to his being violently ruptured, and his legs being much swollen; and they recommended that on his return to the estate he might be kept about the works, and only employed in such light work as he might be equal to.”
It’s not explained how or when his severe injuries came about. Looking at the slave registers kept by the British Colonial governments during this time period, Tony (or Toney) Crooke appears in the 1828 books for the Belevedere estate, managed by F W Mallalieu. Toney was listed as a 44 year man, born in St Kitts about 1784, with the occupation “watchman crippled”. Enslaved people appeared in the registries during those years when they increased or decreased an owner’s total number of slaves; in this case, Toney appeared due to his death, which must have occurred sometime between 1828 and the previous registry of 1825.
It’s an indication of the strength and determination of the enslaved people of this period, that some braved the courts in a system so clearly stacked against them.
- Reports from the Commissioners, Return of Slave Complaints in Basseterre, St Kitts, from August 1822 to 26 December 1823, Vol. 24, Great Britain Parliament House of Commons, 1827
- Contested States: Law, Hegemony and Resistance, edited by Mindie Lazarus-Black and Susan F. Hirsch, 2012
- Ancestry.com, Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813-1834, 2020