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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Campaign for civil and political rights

Last page of pamphlet showing a list of committee members in manuscriptA list of committee members, in manuscript, included at the end of the pamphlet, Statement of proceedings of the people of colour of Jamaica, in an intended appeal to the House of Assembly of 1823, for the removal of their political disabilities. [Jamaica: sn, 1823?] [FCO Historical Collection F1886 STA]The free black and mixed race population of the British Caribbean colonies occupied an ambivalent position. Scorned by the bulk of the white community, to whose privileges they aspired, and disliked by the slaves, from whom they were anxious to distance themselves, they grew in number in the early years of the nineteenth century, largely as a result of manumission.

Gisela Eisner estimates that by 1834 the free black and mixed race population of Jamaica numbered 45,000 (as against 15,000 whites and 311,070 slaves), while in Trinidad official figures put it as high as 17,148 in 1834 (as against 3,212 whites and 21,210 slaves). The high incidence of manumission being granted by planters as a reward for sexual favours is indicated by the disproportionate number of women among the free black population; in Jamaica women were reported to outnumber men in this section of society by two to one in 1825.

The free black and mixed race population was subject to a number of civil and political disabilities; its members were barred from holding senior public office and from serving on a jury, they were excluded from the suffrage, they were required to furnish written proof of their freedom before their evidence was accepted in court and they were insufficiently provided with schools for the education of their children.

By the 1820s, as this record of a public meeting held in Kingston, Jamaica, at the house of Alexander Simpson, shows, they were campaigning in earnest for the abolition of these disabilities, by which they were ‘aggrieved and oppressed’. The pamphlet records that statements of support for the campaign were received from all over the island and that the meeting closed with the formation of a committee (whose members are listed in manuscript on the final page) to co-ordinate the presentation of a petition to the Jamaica Assembly.

In making their case, they were keen to stress ‘the devotion which has heretofore animated, and which always will animate them, in supporting the honour and interests of the British Empire.’

While some free black and mixed race people supported the cause of slave emancipation, many were in fact either indifferent or opposed to it, and it was only the rebuffal by the colonial legislatures of their efforts to win civil and political equality with the white population that eventually led them to make common cause with the abolitionists and appeal directly to the London government. It was not until 1832 that their civil and political disabilities were lifted in all the islands.

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