If a slave ran away from his master, in the Bahama Islands, as quite a number of them did, there was really no good place to go. Small islands offered little sanctuary, unless they were prepared to go into hiding for a very long time. The Bahamas, unlike America, had no slavery free zones. No matter which island you landed on, the laws were exactly the same as the island you left.
To go further south, downward into the West Indies to say Jamaica or Cuba or Saint Domingo, offered nothing, but a more vicious plantation life for the slave. Bermuda offered nothing. Neither did Barbados. To go to Florida meant certain capture, and more enslavement. To try to sail to the North, in America, was almost impossible in a small dinghy. To try for an uninhabited cay, meant starvation and death.
Only the vast forests and jungles which covered the inhabited islands and cays, offered some measure of sanctuary and access to food. Slaves could hide in the bushes with other runaways or seek shelter with free negroes. All of it though was fraught with danger. Not only were professional slave catchers lurking about, but rewards were offered to negroes who turned in runaway slaves.
When forty-four slaves from the Lord Rolle plantation in Exuma decided to risk all for freedom, it is unclear exactly where they thought freedom was. We can only surmise that whatever uncertainty lay before them, it was better than the certainty which stood ominously behind them.
What they did could have cost some of them their lives. The runaway slaves stole a boat belonging to their master, his Lordship John Rolle. For a slave to steal his master’s property, was considered a high crime, a serious felony. Slaves had been hung in the past for stealing property.
Governor Carmichael Smyth was to preside over the matter, but the Honourable John Lees, the Agent and Overseer for the property and slaves Lord Rolle (who lived in England), decided to take matters into his own hands. John Lees knew Governor Carmichael-Smyth was an abolitionist. What Lees feared was that Governor Smyth would go easy on the runaways.
When Lees took the matter before the Police Magistrate Robert Duncombe, Esq. and two other Magistrates, they found the slaves to be runaways. This singled them out for extraordinary punishment. Of the forty-four, there were 5 male slaves who were sentenced to be lashed 50 times in the public square. Then, a boy and 8 women were to be flogged as well. They were each to receive 39 lashes.
When Governor Carmichael Smyth discovered what had happened, a fury took hold of him. The following proclamation with nary a full stop, tore into John Lees and Robert Duncombe for committing an act that they knew well enough England wanted to see the end of. They knew that the lashing of female slaves while not outlawed was well on its way to being so.
Governor Carmichael Smyth furiously suspends John Lees from his situation as a Member of His Majesty’s Counsel and he fires Robert Duncombe as Police Magistrate.
By his Excellency Sir James Carmichael Smyth, Baronet, Major General of his Majesty’s Forces, Governor and Commander-in Chief in and over the said Islands, and Garrisons there, or that may be sent thither, Chancellor, Vice Admiral, and Ordinary of the same.
Whereas the Honourable John Lees, a Member of his Majesty’s Council, and an Assistant Judge in these islands, is also Agent and Attorney for the Right Honourable Lord Rolle, and in which latter capacity he has the management and control of between three and four hundred slaves belonging to Lord Rolle.
And whereas forty-four of the Slaves of the said Lord Rolle left Exuma in a boat belonging to his lordship, and, having been met with at sea, were chased into this harbour, by a boat from Harbour Island, and are now detained here; and whereas the said Honourable John Lees, as agent to Lord Rolle, waited upon me to assure me that the 44 slaves, who had the seized Lord Rolle’s boat, and left the island of Exuma, had no cause of complaint; and whereas I then informed the Honourable John Lees, that I would not hear anything up on the subject from him privately, but that I would wait to form my opinion, until the business was legally investigated, and come regularly before me; and whereas, notwithstanding these my sentiments, with which he was thus made acquainted, the Honourable John Lees, has thought proper to proceed with these slaves in a summary way, (as runaway slaves), and to bring them before the Police Magistrate, who, assisted by two other Magistrates, sentenced five men to be publicly flogged with 50 lashes each; and a boy and eight women to receive 39 lashes each, in the workhouse; and where as the said sentences have been carried into execution, and, in the disgrace of humanity, eight women have been flogged! and whereas, by the 106th clause of the Consolidated Slave Law, a Court of Justices has no power in cases of felony, and whereas the stealing of Lord Rolle’s boat was an act of felony, and for which the slaves ought to have been tried before the General Court which would have been given me an opportunity of reading the evidence, and of remitting the sentence, according to the circumstances of the case might appear to me to require; and whereas in the summary in which the Honourable John Lee’s has thought proper to proceed, there is no record of the evidence adduced, nor of the defence made by the prisoners, nor any clue afforded as to the nature of their complaints, nor of the motives which induced them to leave Exuma; and where as the Honourable John Lees, in his capacity as one of his Majesty’s Council, could not but have been well aware of the determination of his Majesty’s government to abolish corporal punishment as far as women are concerned, and of the many and urgent dispatches which have been addressed to the Governors and Officers administering the different Governments in the West Indies upon this head, from the 28th May, 1823, to present period; and whereas it is impossible that the inhabitants of those islands, or any other of our colonial possessions, can believe in the sincerity of his Majesty’s Ministers, or can be expected to give their assistance towards abolishing so inhuman, disgraceful, and unmanly are proceeding as flogging of women, if they perceive gentlemen, high in office and rank, in the colonies, giving countenance to each such proceedings; and whereas it is the bounden duty of every individual in the employment of his Majesty’s Government , be he high or be he low, to give his full aid and assistance in carrying into affect the avowed intentions of Government; and whereas, in the present instance, the Honourable John Lees has acted contrary to the spirit, intent, and letter of his Majesty’s orders and instructions as repeatedly communicated and made known in this colony, I, I by virtue of the power and authority vested in me by his Majesty, and in compliance with the ninth article of my instructions, under the Royal signature, do hearby suspend the Honourable John Lees from his situation as a Member of his Majesty’s Council until his Majesty’s pleasure is known; and the Honourable John Lees is here by suspended accordingly.
And whereas I have every reason to be displeased and dissatisfied with Robert Duncombe, Esq. the Police Magistrate, for his conduct in this disgraceful business; and whereas the appointment of Police Magistrate, by the 30th clause of the Act of the Legislature, of 22nd. December, 1827, rests with the Governor, or Commander in Chief for the time being, I do hereby remove Robert Duncombe, Esquire from the situation of Police Magistrate, and he is hereby removed accordingly; and I nominate and appoint Charles R. Nesbit, Esq. one of the Justices of the Peace of these Islands, to the situation of sitting or acting Magistrate , commonly called the Police Magistrate for the town of Nassau.
Given under my hand and seal, this fourth day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty, at Government House, at Nassau Bahamas in Providence.
J. CARMICHAEL SMYTH
[Another proclamation dated the 8th of May, also removed two other magistrates who were taken jointly with the above.]
Removed as Magistrates were William Vass, Esq. and John Anderson, Esq.