Tracing a man who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Caribbean can be quite difficult, but the roadblocks to research can pale in comparison when uncovering the life story of a woman from that time and place.
As part of my project of untangling the Cannoniers of St Kitts and Montserrat, I’ve tried looking at one Cannonier woman who appears in several records from St Kitts that relate to the enslavement of people of African ancestry. I’ve written about the information that can be gleaned, and connections that can be made, from these records.
Mary Cannonier first appears in the St Kitts British Slave Registry in 1825. She is recorded at different times as holding up to three people in slavery. They labored in domestic or trade work, rather than in agriculture. Mary was recorded in 1825 as purchasing an enslaved blacksmith from A. Cannonier (that would be Andrew Cannonier, who I believe was from Montserrat, probably born somewhere around the 1760s). The blacksmith was named William. He was born in Montserrat and was about 23 years old.
In the 1831 registry, Mary gained a 2 year old enslaved child named John (heart breaking), recorded as “by gift from Elizabeth Norford”. Elizabeth Norford is a clue to Mary’s apparent Montserrat connections. Norford appears in both St Kitts and Montserrat records (the connection could be through Elizabeth’s daughter Sarah Hill, as Hill is the married name of Andrew’s sister Mary (I’m putting a pin in the Norford question for now).
In the 1834 registry, Mary takes possession of another two year old, named Abraham, again “by gift from Elizabeth Norford”. In the British slave compensation records created just after the abolition in 1834, Mary Cannonier received almost £41 for three enslaved people.
This Mary Cannonier doesn’t appear in any of the civil records kept in St Kitts starting in 1859, so it’s a fairly safe assumption that she died between 1834 and 1859.
Does any of this information shed light on who Mary Cannonier was? One thing we can say is that it helps to tell us who she is not:
- She’s not the Mary Cannonier who was married to John Cannonier Sr., the father of Andrew Cannonier and Mary Cannonier Hill. That Mary is last mentioned in the deeds of Montserrat in 1808, and we can estimate her age at that time as close to 70, so by the 1834 records, she would have been close to 100. I think it’s safe to assume that she’s not the one.
- She also can’t be the Mary Alice Cannonier who was the wife of John Jr. (daughter of Nathaniel Bass Daly). Mary Alice’s husband John Jr. died in 1838 when they were both living in Montserrat, and she was remarried to Jesse Thwaites in 1846.
- There was a Mary Maynard Cannonier, who died about 1812 (when debts from her will were settled on Montserrat). She was the niece of John Jr., and doesn’t appear to have ever married.
- It also can’t be the Mary Cannonier, daughter of John Sr., who married Robert Hill in 1795, so her surname would have showed up as Hill. She may have been dead by 1824, when the Montserrat Slave Registry lists her brother John Jr. as taking responsibility of the enslaved people owned by Mary Hill’s four daughters (John Jr.’s nieces).
So who was she then? The fact that she was a woman makes this question more difficult. First of all, I don’t even know if Cannonier was her maiden or married name. She could have been the daughter or the wife of one of the Montserrat Cannoniers who came to live in St Kitts. She’s probably not the wife of Andrew, as they are both listed separately in the early slave registries of St Kitts, and Andrew sold the enslaved blacksmith William to Mary (unlikely, if not unheard of between a married couple). It would seem that she wasn’t married in the years 1825 to 1834, because she is listed on her own as a “proprietor”, without reference to a husband. She could have been a spinster, or a widow.
Could Mary have been a mixed race woman, born from a Cannonier man of European ancestry, and a woman of African ancestry? It’s possible. Mixed race people certainly held enslaved people at this time; there was a Thomas Tobias Cannonier who is listed in the 1825 St Kitts registry as owning one enslaved person through his guardian (he was a minor in that year). Thomas Tobias’s death record of 1870 lists him as mixed race.
Mary’s gender also means that there are fewer records about her. The old deeds at the Montserrat National Trust are full of records of business like sales of property, wills and inheritances, or settling of debts and disputes, and were often transactions between men. Women are mentioned less, and it’s often as they relate to men as widows, daughters, wives, or mothers.
It seems that the mists of time that surround Mary are probably even thicker than if she had been one of the Cannonier men.
- Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813-1834, ancestry.com
- Montserrat National Trust, holdings include digital images of Montserrat Slave Registries from the UK National Archives, and originals of Deeds 1667-1832 and 1832-1903 with many thanks to Jean Handscombe, Fay Needham and all the wonderful and helpful staff at the Trust!