A Cannonier from Dominica

In researching my husband’s Cannonier ancestors from St Kitts, I have come across connections to Cannoniers from Montserrat. I’ve also found one Cannonier who appears on the small West Indian island of Dominica. Originally populated by the native Ortoroid, Arawak and then Kalinago (also known as Carib) peoples, it was colonized first by the French, and then by the English. The island achieved independence in 1978. Like other Caribbean territories, Dominica developed an agricultural economy based on the labor of enslaved people, comprised mostly of captured Africans and their descendants.

William Cannonier shows up in a number of records from Dominica in the early 1800s. In one deed document from 1818, he made the gift of a house in St John parish, “in consideration of the good services of Mary Francis Payne”. William was identified as a shopkeeper of the island of Dominica.

In the 1817 and 1823 Former British Colonial Dependencies Slave Registers, William appeared as an enslaver. In 1817, he held four people:

  • Alphonse, a 25 year old mason, an Igbo man born in Africa
  • Victor, a 50 year old boatman from the Congo
  • Therese, a 40 year old domestic servant born in Dominica
  • Marie, a 3 year old native of Dominica, with racial designation given as “red”

There is an interesting note that was provided regarding Alphonse. The register described him as “Ibbo with his country marks in the face”. Ibbo (or Igbo) is an ethnic group centered around Nigeria. The “country marks” presumably refers to the facial scarification practice among the Igbo people, designating high social position and regional origins. Apparently some slave merchants preferred not to deal with men with these markings, as they were considered more difficult to control due to their higher social standing in their home country.

Dominica was different from St Kitts in the stronger presence there of indigenous people, true even today. There had been strong resistance to French and British colonization by the Kalinago people in Dominca. The natives were aided by the very rough, mountainous terrain that made it more difficult to completely conquer higher, more remote areas. Today, a 3700 acre Kalinago reservation on Dominica is the only indigenous reserve in the Caribbean islands.

Although the indigenous people of Dominica fought fiercely against slavery, there were a small number listed as “native” or “red” in the 1817 slave registry, like 3 year old Marie. The vast majority of enslaved individuals were given racial designations black, colored, or mulatto, and were born in Africa or “creole” (meaning someone of African ancestry born locally).

In an 1821 list of slaves sold by the local Provost Marshal as part of writs of execution (perhaps to pay a debt or a fine following a court proceeding), Victor and Alphonse were sold. In the 1823 slave registry, it was noted that Therese had died, and Victor was sold to another owner. There may have been an error in one of the documents, as the 1823 registry shows Alphonse still held by William.

Another place where William’s name shows up is in records of letters sent to two colonial officials regarding the Maroon War in Dominica of the early nineteenth century. The Maroons were a group of about 800 escaped slaves and indigenous people who lived in Dominica, in the remote mountainous areas. They carried out many years of raids on nearby plantations and served as an inspiration for the enslaved to attempt their own escapes. The British colonial authorities had been trying for years to eliminate the Maroons. They formed groups of rangers to seek out Maroon members and set up judicial means to bring to trial and punish their leaders. Career military officer George Robert Ainslee was appointed as governor of Dominica in 1813, when he issued an order to find and execute all Maroons of the island, eventually going so far as saying

I do further declare, that the utmost rigour of military execution shall be put in force against all those runaway slaves that may be apprehended after that period, neither age nor sex spared, all indiscriminately shall be put to the bayonet.”

His brutal policies led to the death, banishment, or re-enslavement of about 600 Maroons. His actions were controversial enough that he was called back to England in 1814 to answer to the British Secretary of State.

One of the letters William Cannonier signed was from a very large group of “Inhabitants, Planters, and Merchants of the Island of Dominica” to Lord Henry Bathurst, of the British Board of Trade and Plantations. The island men were upset that the government was critical of Ainslee, writing that Ainslee’s actions had “justly gained him the affections and gratitude of every class of this community”, rescuing them from the “brink of ruin”, and they thought the matter should be dropped. The second group letter was written to George Robert Ainslee himself in 1814, thanking him for his “judicious and salutary measures for the suppression of a most alarming and dangerous rebellion”. They felt he had shown great restraint with his initial “benevolent endeavors” to convince the Maroons of the errors of their ways, offering pardons for those that would surrender themselves to their former owners.

I have found no mention of William Cannonier of Dominica after the 1823 slave registry. Perhaps William’s fortunes declined; he may have died in the decade after the registry. After the abolition of British slavery in 1834, records of compensation for owners in Dominica don’t show William at all, so either he no longer held slaves, or he was dead by then. Or maybe he joined one of his likely Cannonier relatives in St Kitts or Montserrat?

Sources

  1. Ancestry.com. Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813-1834 [database on-line], 2007.Original data: Office of Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission: Records; (The National Archives Microfilm Publication T71); Records created and inherited by HM Treasury; The National Archives of the UK (TNA), Kew, Surrey, England
  2. Equiano’s World, Igbo Scarification, Studies in the History of African Diaspora Documents, Toronto Canada 2021
  3. Parliamentary Papers: 1780-1849 Vol. 28, Great Britain House of Commons, 1826
  4. Endangered Archives Programme, Provost Marshal’s Sales, British Library 2017
  5. The Colonial Journal, Vol. 2, Issues 3-4, 1816
  6. Marooncountry.org, Create Caribbean Inc. Research Institute at Dominica State College, Maroon Chief Jacko in 1812

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