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Betto Douglas

 

 

 

 

 

CASE OF BETTO DOUGLAS, A ST. KITT'S SLAVE—UNITED STATES—SLAVE POPULATION OF WEST INDIES.


We have before us the official details, (No. 187 of 1st May, 1827,) as recently printed by order of the House of Commons, of a case from the Island of St. Kitt's, which affords some striking illustrations of the spirit and influence of slavery—not merely as it prompts the master to acts of cruelty and oppression, but as it operates to subvert and vitiate the best sympathies of our nature, to such an extent as to render slaveholders, generally speaking, unfit to discharge the functions of legislation or of judicature towards the enslaved population. The particulars of the present case are as follow :—
Betto Douglas is a Mulatto slave, about fifty-two years of age, belonging to the Earl of Romney. Some years previous to the present transactions she had requested Mr. Goldfrap, one of Lord Romney's attorneys on his estates in St. Christopher's, to solicit for her the proprietor's permission to be allowed to purchase the freedom of her two sons. The request was complied with; and this poor slave had the delight of thus securing the freedom of her offspring, probably under an impression that she might not live long enough to effect her own liberation as well as theirs. Mr. Goldfrap, in a letter to Governor Maxwell states, that he had on that occasion strongly recommended Betto Douglas to Lord Romney's favourable consideration, which recommendation his lordship seemed to construe as a wish that she should be manumitted; and, as Mr Goldfrap, who at that time ceased to be his agent, understood, had issued orders to his'new attorney to that effect.


Several years however elapsed, and no steps for her enfranchisement were taken. She had been allowed to reside in a house, apart from the estate, but was obliged, by the new agent, to pay a certain sum (three dollars and a half) per month to Lord Romney. The following is her own account when interrogated before the magistrates :—" Mr Cardin told me I must go and work out for three and half dollars a month. I told him I was not able to give that price : and he would insist, and I went. And after I found it was so hard, I went to him again, and told him the times were hard—I was not able to give that price—that I sold all I had to pay the money: and he would insist. I then said \ had nothing to give him, unless I went upon the highways, and committed something bad. He would insist upon the money. I then went to Master Richard; I tell him to speak to his father, and tell him how hard the times were—and he promised to do so. I told him his father had told me that he had directions to manumit me, and I'd thank him to speak to him. The month following that, I strove and made up three dollars and a quarter, and carried that to him : and he told me if I did not give him the other quarter he would stop my allowance." " When owing two months' hue, I went to Mr. Cardin with four dollars, saying, I could pay no more. He refused to receive the four dollars, but confined me two weeks in a room; and my children went and borrowed three dollars, and made up the seven dollars for the two months' hire. I paid for the time I was in confinement, and received no allowance of any kind."

For about three years matters went on in this way. The monthly pittance of three dollars and a half was wrung from the toil, or the prostitution* of this poor creature, or supplied by the affection of her children and relatives. But in February, 1825, these resources failed ; and being hard pressed for the arrears by Mr. Cardin, and having the assurance of his predecessor Mr. Goldfrap, that he believed her to have had from Lord Romney a promise of manumission, Betto Douglas, by the advice of that gentleman, presented a petition to the Governor, praying for his interposition, in order to procure for her relief and justice.

Governor Maxwell, with a promptitude highly honourable to his character, immediately instituted an inquiry into the facts of the case. But though Mr Goldfrap, in his letter already mentioned, corroborated the woman's claim for enfranchisement, so far as his recollection of Lord Romney's kind intentions went, the other persons, to whom referencewas made in the petition, contradicted her allegations; and as no written evidence could be produced in support of her pretensions, the claim was rejected, and she was advised by the Governor to return to her duty on his Lordship's estate.
Whether, as the female slave alleged in her declaration, some of the1 persons whose evidence opposed her claim, could have supported it except for the dislike " to interfere with people's business," and to " go against Mr. Cardin," we will not undertake to determine; but it is obvious that she was herself fully persuaded that her manumission was unjustly withheld from her by Mr. Cardin, after being granted by Earl Romney; and this persuasion she continued to cherish, even after the Governor had dismissed the case for want of proof.

On returning to Earl Romney's estate, Mr. Cardin insisted on Betto Douglas going on hire, and continuing the monthly payment of three and a half dollars as formerly. This it would seem she objected to— alleging her inability to make it up. The course pursued with her is thus described in her subsequent examination: " During the time I was last in confinement, after the petition to the Govemor, I was carried before Mr. Stedman Rawlins at Miss Douglas's; and from thence I was carried to the estate, and confined in the stocks, from the 17th May to the 2d December. I then owed for three months'hire. I was put in stocks one foot night and day, except on several occasions when Dr. Rawlins gave me physic." Some rumour of this severe treatment having reached the Governor, he directed the circumstances to be inquired into by the magistrates ; in consequence of which the slave was liberated from imprisonment in the stocks, after a confinement of six months : and on the 16th and 20th of January, 1826, an investigation of the treatment to which she had been subjected was gone into. The conduct of the magistrates on this occasion was very far from satisfactory. After examining the woman, and hearing Mr. Cardin's exculpatory statement, a few questions were asked of the witnesses brought forward in his defence; but they seem to have carefully avoided calling such witnesses or touching on such points as might lead to a confirmation of his illegal conduct; and this defective investigation having been concluded, they gave the following decision :
" The magistrates having taken into their consideration the complaint preferred against Mr. Cardin, are of opinion that the duration of Betto Douglas's confinement in the stocks not being proved, they cannot decide the question of the punishment being excessive; but they at the same time cannot refrain from remarking, that Betto Douglas's conduct has evinced great insubordination, highly injurious to the property, and recommend that the said Betto Douglas be returned to the estate, and placed at such light work as Mr. Cardin may please to direct.

" We the magistrates having reconsidered the point of Cawky Connor's evidence, are still of opinion that it is not sufficiently strong to govern them in their opinion as to the particular period of, Betto Douglas's confinement."

The Cawky Connor here referred to was the person who carried the daily allowance to the prisoner ; and she stated distinctly, that the period of confinement " might be about six months."

The attorney-general was so little satisfied with this decision that he resolved to prefer a bill of indictment against Mr. Cardin, for illegal treatment, at the ensuing Court of King's Bench and Grand Sessions. A bill was accordingly preferred ; but here likewise the spirit of the system was triumphant: the Grand Jury unanimously threw out the bill, and made a special presentment to the Court, in the following terms:—
" In returning the bill of indictment, ignored unanimously, the Grand Jury feel themselves called upon respectfully to state to the Court their regret that a prosecution should have been founded upon so frivolous a complaint, and supported only by the slender evidence adduced before them, whereby the feelings of an honourable, humane, and respectable man have been considerably wounded unnecessarily, and his character (which from the evidence before us appeared unimpeachable) attempted to be assailed.

" The Grand Jury also beg leave to express to the Court the feeling of indignation that this course of proceeding has excited; and they lament that the time and money of the country should have been thus sacrificed in investigating such frivolous and unfounded complaints as the present matter is founded upon."

Such was the conduct of the Magistrates and Grand Jury of St. Christopher's, in a case where very illegal and cruel conduct to a slave was as clear as day ; and where, if more direct proof had been wanted, it could readily have been obtained. Instead, however, of animadverting on such gross partiality and injustice, in the strong terms which naturally suggest themselves, we turn with much satisfaction to the opinions expressed by Governor Maxwell and Earl Bathurst in the correspondence appended to this case.

The Governor, in transmitting the documents to Lord Bathurst observes : " The several inclosures will inform your Lordship of the real circumstances of the case, which contain strong evidence of the illegal treatment of the old woman; but this sort of confinement being a common usage, it is from custom considered justifiable and proper. But this opinion is strongly reprobated by the Attorney-general, and some humane thinking gentlemen in the island."

In reply Earl Bathurst remarks, that he had " read these documents with great regret and concern;"—that " the fact of Betto Douglas having been actually confined night and day in the stocks for a period of six months, appears to be established;"—that " it must also be observed, that if the magistrates considered the evidence incomplete they had ample means of procuring additional testimony. They might have put the question distinctly to Mr. Cardin, junior, who as overseer of the estate, must have known the truth, and to Mr. J. Rawlins, the attending physician on the plantation : and had any doubt remained, it was palpably their duty to send for other free persons resident on the estate, whereby the truth of this simple fact might have been substantiated or disproved. It is inexplicable why these obvious means of inquiry were neglected."

Of the extraordinary presentment of the Grand Jury his Lordship states, that he had " perused it with extreme surprise." He then goes on to remark:—" They express their regret that a prosecution should have been founded upon what they term ' so frivolous a complaint;' yet the complaint which they thus designate as' frivolous' was expressly stated in .the indictment sent up to them, as nothing less than the confinement in the stocks of a female slave for twenty hours in each day, during a period of six months and eleven days. If it be said that such punishment was sanctioned by usage, and that its severity was rather nominal than real, it is to be remarked, that the Chief Justice in his charge to the Grand Jury, uses the following expressions : ' It is due to the cause of truth and justice to inform you, that the records of this Court, and the Court below, to which the punishment of slaves is more immediately confined, do not afford an instance of such severe and protracted punishment for any offence whatever.'

" The Grand Jury state that the charge was supported only by slender evidence ; and that the feelings of an honourable, humane, and respectable man have been considerably wounded unnecessarily; and hischaracter, which from the evidence befpre us appears unimpeachable, attempted to be assailed. .

" I am bound to give the gentlemen of the Grand Jury credit for the conscientious discharge of their duty, especially when I remember that this presentment was made under the sanction of an oath. But it is impossible not to observe, that as it is plainly no part of the functions of a Grand Jury to examine witnesses in favour of the accused, particularly as to general character and reputation, I am at a loss to understand on what this part of their presentment was founded.

" In conclusion the Grand Jury express ' indignation' at the course of proceeding adopted, and at the use of the public money in what they again term ' a frivolous and unfounded complaint;' observing, however, that they do not mean to cast any imputation on the character of the Attorney-general.
" It is far from my wish to use any expressions which could be painful to the feelings, or injurious to the reputation of any gentleman in the colony; but I cannot withhold the expression of my deepest regret that such proceedings as those on which I have observed should have occurred.

" I have not particularly adverted to the offence with which Betto Douglas was charged by Mr. Cardin, because it is not very easy, nor perhaps very material, to discover the precise nature of it. But it would appear from the language of Mr. Cardin himself, as quoted by Mr. William Wharton Rawlins, that she was kept in confinement,' in consequence of her refusal to continue the payment of the hire' she had been in the habit of giving her master.

" If this was really the offence, it would be superfluous to observe how utterly the punishment was disproportionate to such an offence."

Of the justice and propriety of these observations every one must cordially approve; and the discountenance shewn in this case, both by Governor Maxwell and Lord Bathurst, to the oppressive spirit of the Colonial proprietary, and to the unrighteous spirit of the Colonial judicatures is highly creditable to his Majesty's Government. But the root of the evil lies too deep to be cured by such lenitive applications.

Even if we allow that the old woman's claims for enfranchisement were illusory (though supported by Lord Romney's former agent) what a picture does not this case present to us of the meanness, as well as the misery of the slave system! A poor worn-out female (for even the bench of magistrates recommend her to be employed only in light work) is refused the freedom which the strong recommendation of a former manager, and the reply of the noble proprietor had long led her to expect; and in order at the same time to silence her pretensions, and to wring from her the paltry pittance of nine pounds a year, to augment Earl Romney's income, this poor creature is first threatened with being flogged and worked in the field, and is afterwards imprisoned, and confined in the stocks for six continuous months. - •

She had already meritoriously exerted herself, while health and strength were continued to her, and before the ravages of age had enfeebled her frame, to effect the redemption of her two sons—magnanimously preferring their emancipation to her.own. And when this meritorious conduct had produced an impression on the agent of Lord Romney, and on his Lordship also, leading them to use language calculated to excite a confident expectation of receiving her own gratuitous manumission from the bounty of his Lordship—she is threatened, at her advanced age, with flogging and the field, for daring to prefer such a claim : and she is required, as the only means of escape from that, or from some still worse fate, to pay to Lord Romney a sum of three dollars and a half monthly, procure it as she may. She fails to fulfil the condition : and what is the result ? She is incarcerated, on the sole authority of Lord Romney's agent. She is incarcerated, her feet in the stocks, with a brief interval in each day, night and day for six long months. And when an attempt is made, by course of law, to relieve this poor creature from such a merciless infliction, the grand jury (to say nothing of the magistracy) representing, without doubt, the predominant feeling of the white population of St. Christopher's, are roused to "indignation" by the attempt; stigmatize the prosecution as if it were a public nuisance; and reconsign the wretched Betto to the tender mercies and considerate care of Mr. Cardin.

We have often been accused of unfairly dwelling on individual in-" stances of cruelty, as if they proved any thing more than that, in every community, there were to be found cruel individuals. We have been reproached on such occasions with Mother Brownrigg, or some other inmate of the murderer's cell in England. But suppose Betto's case had occurred on Lord Romney's estate in Kent, instead of his estate in St. Christopher's, and that, invested with his Lordship's authority, his bailiff had treated her as she has been treated by Mr. Cardin ; and suppose a similar indictment had been preferred against the bailiff before the grand jury at Maidstone, what would have been the fate of that indictment, and what the situation of the bailiff, as compared with that of his colonial compeer? Would he have found the charge scouted as trivial; the bill on that ground ignored, though there was not, and could not be auy opposing evidence; the prosecution denounced and presented as a nuisance ; the respectability of the accused affirmed in the face of positive evidence establishing the facts of the case; and the wretched complainant remanded to the custody and uncontrolled authority, and arbitrary disposal of her oppressor ? So far from this, the general indignation of the community would have been roused against the bailiff; and he might have deemed himself fortunate in escaping from the rage of the multitude without the loss of life or limb. Let us only imagine such a transaction to take place in England, where the peasantry, we are told, are far worse off than the slaves in the West Indies ! Only suppose an elderly woman, the mother of a family, to be treated by any nobleman in the land, or by any nobleman's bailiff, as poor Betto was treated in St. Kitt's ; and what could save the conduct of either the one or the other from the vengeance of the law, and from the universal execration of the community ?

Can any thing shew more strongly than this contrast, which any Englishman may realize to himself, the state of feeling which exists in Colonial communities, as to all that affects the wretched slave, when his claims are brought into competition with the authority or the pride or the interests of the master or manager; or when a black or a brown complexion, nay, when even a single tinge of African blood stands opposed, before a jury of planters, to the unlimited power, and the not-tobe questioned superiority of the white ?

Let us mark too in this transaction the real source of those revenues, which enable the owners of West Indian estates to vie with the proudest nobles of the land in every luxurious enjoyment; which enable them even to purchase those seats in parliament that give security to their uncontrolled power of exaction ; and thus enable them also to maintain a system which violates with impunity every obligation ofjustice and humanity, every maxim of constitutional law, and every precept of the gospel. The real source of those revenues is to be found in the compelling power of the whip and the stocks and the dungeon, which may, at will, he put in operation to secure to the absent owner an income of nine pounds a year from the toil of a wretched female, who has already worn out her strength, not only by the labours of nearly half a century for her master's benefit, but by effecting besides the redemption of her two sons from the stocks and the cartwhip; and the very dregs of whose age and feebleness are to be drained in contributing to his multiplied enjoyments, by toiling under a vertical sun, and under the whip of the driver, for his sole advantage.

Is it necessary to add one word more to the facts of the case ? They speak more strongly than any comment could possibly do.

* The declaration that she could not make up the sum" unless she went upon the highways," &c. appears to indicate some such wretched resource as is here stated.

 

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