During slavery, there was one singular, openly declared, and lawfully protected rule in the West Indies. It was that the relationship between master and slave, as owner was to property, was sacrosanct. Nothing and no one could interfere in whatever punishment a master sought to inflict upon his slave. The relationship could not be interfered with as doing so, slave owners and the colonial powers had long surmised, could put ideas of revolt into the mind of the slave.
If the slave could successfully appeal to the kind nature of anyone, a Joe Public who happened to be nearby, this would undermine the authority of the master over them. This was why so much cruelty and depravity and murder was meted out on backs of the slave, in the British West Indies.
It was held in the West Indies, that although the Royal mercy might be extended to slaves guilty of crimes against the public, it could not be extended to those who were thus subjected to punishment by their masters. Sometimes above a hundred of these unfortunate creatures were attached to the same chain, just at a sufficient distance from one another to enable them to walk and work. They were driven out into the plantation in the mass, without regard to sex, age, or strength, and the most distressing scenes were frequently occasioned in the consequence.
And yet the right on the part of the Crown to extend mercy to this miserable riches was denied.
(Part of a House of Commons debate 22 April 1818) (The Caledonian Mercury (reprinted from the London Gazette) Monday 27 April 1818)
On April 22, 1818, in the House of Commons, in London, Sir Samuel Romilly stood to make his contribution to the honourable house. He was there on urgent business affecting the colonies, and as he would add, also humanity. Romilly stood to expound on the cruelties being perpetrated against negro slaves in British West Indian colonies, “the object of his present motion was to bring a subject to which his attention has been called, and in which the feelings of humanity were interested, in an authentic manner before the House.”
Sir Samuel Romilly cited a case in Dominica. In the spring of 1817 certain negroes had been tried for an offence, but were acquitted by the courts. The master of the slaves, angry at the verdict, took the negroes from the court and had them whipped anyway. They were whipped in the market square, for all to see. Another master was so cruel during his beating of a female slave that he snapped her arm in two.
(The Caledonian Mercury (reprinted from the London Gazette) Monday 27 April 1818)
1817 – Mr. Huggins of the island of Nevis – A Most Brutal And Wealthy Slave Owner
Mr. Huggins was twice tried for cruelty towards his slaves and the slaves owned by others. Twice he was acquitted.
It was the case of the same Mr Huggins, whose cruelty had formally been the subject of Parliamentary consideration, at which period it was spoken of with great detestation by the Right Honourable Gentleman opposite. This Mr Huggins, not with standing his conduct, was still a man of great opulence and weight in the island of Nevis.– The House were aware that he had been tried for cruelty to his own slaves. He had lately been brought to trial again for cruelty to slaves not his own.
A Mr Cottle, who quitted his plantation for a time, left in the charge of Mr Huggins, as his attorney. Mr Huggins went to the plantation, and by his own authority and without the interference of any Magistrate, ordered two very young lads, who had been guilty of receiving some stolen stockings, to be punished by the infliction of one hundred lashes on each, although by law of the colony thirty-nine lashes with the upmost that was permitted to be inflicted at a time.
He stated these facts from accurate notes taken on the trial. There were present when these boys were so punished to female sleeves, the one is sister of one of them, the other a relation, who was a domestic slave of Mr Cottle’s, and who had always been treated with the utmost kindness and tenderness by the gentleman.
These female slaves, unable to restrain their feelings, shared tears, and for that offence alone of shedding tears, Mr Huggins ordered that they should receive the 30 lashes, the other 20. For this conduct Mr Huggins was prosecuted by the Attorney General. The facts were established; he was acquitted, and it was declared to be a most odious interference on the part of the Attorney General!
In 1811, Mr. Huggins, of the island of Nevis, was described as ignorant and rich. He espoused the doctrine that it was cheaper to buy negroes than to breed them.
Mr. Huggins was so brutal that his slaves tried to poison him five times, but somehow survived. Huggins not only survived, he bragged about it, because in the end, he made sure the slaves paid an even dear price than just getting flogged.
Mr. Huggins was put on trial for his cruelty and acquitted after one of his slave overseers refused to give evidence.
ISLAND OF NEVIS
Cruelty to Negroes
Some papers have been printed, by the order of the House of Commons, consisting of a correspondence relating to punishments inflicted on certain Negro slaves in the island of Nevis, and a prosecution instituted in consequence, wherein the defendant was acquitted. The circumstances which led to this proceeding are detailed in the following extract of a letter to Governor Elliott, dated September:-
Your Excellency will doubtless be told, that they who have exerted themselves in bringing to punishment the authors of such crimes, have been actuated by the spirit of party. Of that you will be well able to judge, when acquainted with all the circumstances.
When I arrived a twelvemonth since, in this country, Mr Cottle, the President, made me an offer of a seat in the Council, which I declined on the grounds of ill health, and want of sight; nor should I have thought of meddling in public affairs, but the horrid outrages lately committed in this island, and the open violation of law and justice which have followed them.
Mr Huggins, author of these evils, when I was here sixteen years ago was then as distinguished for his cruelty as in the present day, and his conduct held in abhorrence by every good man in the community, and by no one more than by Mr Cottle, since become his son-in-law, neither deficient himself in understanding or humanity.
Mr John Stanley, late Attorney-General for these islands, some years since assured my father, that he was examined before a committee of the House of Commons respecting a murder committed by Mr Huggins, who has not scrupled to acknowledge to a friend that he shot a negro. It was understood at the time that the body had been thrown into a negro hut, and burnt with it.
An inquest was taken on the body of another negro, who died shortly after a most inhuman flogging; but the overseer who is still in the island, refused to give any satisfactory evidence to the Grand Jury, who examined him.
Two wretched suicides, weary of life and the sufferings they endured have been taken out of the cistern, with their chains about them. Not whips and chains alone, but collars armed with spikes have been used, and I believe still are, as instruments of punishment by this man.
Ignorant and brutal as he is, he amassed an immense fortune, and still is grasping at the possession of more land and more negroes. His doctrine was that it was cheaper to buy Negroes than to breed them. He has publicly boasted of five attempts against his life by poison; and there are medical men who well know the facts. In the first six months after he took possession of the estate called Pinnings, nine negroes died without any of the epidemic disease.
A wretched old woman came to me a few days ago, to tell me she was compelled to work in the field. She was a favourite house negro in her former master’s family, and had nursed one of his children. Being ordered to throw a mixture of gunpowder and salt water on the mangled bodies of the Negroes lived in the marketplace, she refused, and include the displeasure of her master; and to intellects have since been evidently disordered.
And English groom, who had been witness to many of these shocking scenes, quitted the estate with horror, and returned to England, where his testimony will have some weight, as he bears a very good character.
The negro Fanny, who died, had not been accustomed to hard work for many years before Mr Huggins got possession of the estate; but he put her into the field, and she was one of those ordered to carry out dung by night. She never worked with the hoe again after the whipping, and died of atrophy.