The Memory of the World programme was established by UNESCO in 1992. It recognizes that while documentary heritage is created by specific countries, organizations and individuals there are aspects of it that are of value to the whole of humanity. Through its international register, the programme highlights these items and attempts to encourage the preservation of documentary heritage as a whole.
In 2009, the Register of Slaves that had survived in St. Kitts as well the Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Dominca, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago and the United Kingdom were listed on the register. For St. Kitts this was the first nomination to be submitted and listed.
The Slave Register of St. Kitts
The plantation economy that emerged in St. Kitts and spread to the rest of the Caribbean was one that thrived on the exploitation of the land, and the population that inhabited it to cultivate a crop that could be sold for profit. The land was required first to cultivate tobacco and a systematic deforestation began. It quickly became clear that the people who then occupied the island were not going to constitute a good labour supply. They susceptible to diseases brought by the Europeans and they absolutely refused to change their way of life to the dictates of the newcomers. When the incentives for indentured Europeans to come to the region diminished so did their numbers. This happened at a time when a much more aggressive plantation system was becoming necessary for the cultivation of sugar cane. Europe’s major maritime powers became involved in the slave trade acquiring Africans all along the coast from the Senegambia right around the Cape to Madagascar with the vast majority being taken from West Africa. Traders operated from castles and stations dotted around the coastline but most stayed on board their vessels and waited for African traders to bring their captives to be exchanged for goods manufactured in the new factories of Europe.
The presence of enslaved Africans on St. Kitts started with a small number taken from the Spaniards in 1626. By the time Governor Philip de Lonvilliers De Poincy started experimenting with sugar cane there were enough of them on his estate for a separate village to be set up beyond the walls of his chateau. Jean Baptiste Du Tertre estimated that there were approximately 600 enslaved Africans in the French sector of St. Kitts. Their presence grew slowly throughout the 17th century. By 1707 there were more enslaved Africans in St. Kitts than people of European descent. In 1807 the enslaved numbered 26,000 while there were less than 2000 whites on the island.
ABOLITION AND THE CREATION OF THE REGISTRY
On the 25th March 1807 the British Parliament passed an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This meant that it was no longer permissible for British traders to bring enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. Denmark and Norway had already abolished their trade in 1803 while Haiti declared its independence and abolished slavery in 1804. Enslavement was not terminated and enslavers could still buy enslaved labourers from neighboring islands and from nations that had not abolished the trade.
In 1811 such trading became a felony within the British Empire. The punishment was transportation. James Stephen, lawyer and abolitionist who had spent several years in St. Kitts realized that these laws required more than good faith to enforce them and in 1815 he strongly urged the keeping of a register of slaves to guard against smuggling of new slaves into the British colonies and the loss of revenue to rival nations. The first register in St. Kitts was created in 1817.
An act of 1819 established the Registry of Colonial Slaves in London, which was to receive copies and duplicates of all registries or returns of slaves, indexes and abstracts and associated papers. Under the act no slave could be bought, sold, conveyed, imported, exported, or inherited etc without first being registered in the appropriate island registry. A Colonial Office circular of 1 May 1821 (CO 854/1, fo94) instructed governors to forward duplicates of the slave registers and associated abstracts and indexes to the Registry of Colonial Slaves.
Under the terms of the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833, slavery was abolished in most British possessions on 1 August 1834. The Registry of Slaves was then used to determine which of the enslaved were to become apprentices and which were to be freed immediately. The Compensation Commissioners used the registers to determine legal ownership and final evaluations for compensation purposes.
The Original Register of 1817 represented the first census, or perhaps inventory, of the enslaved populations of St. Kitts. Subsequent returns recorded new births, deaths, manumissions, transportation and marronage.
WHAT THE REGISTERS TELL US
The most obvious information that comes from the registers includes:
- – The names and number of the enslavers;
- – The number of the enslaved held in bondage by individuals and on the Island as a whole;
- – Individuals’ names, age, sex, colour, place of origin and occupation;
- – On rare occasions there is mention of family relations.
- – The enslaved were property that could be bought, sold, exchanged, willed and inherited;
- – The young (6 and under) the old and the infirm were not expected to work;
- – Enslaved man and women worked side by side in the cane fields.
There is also information that can be inferred.
- – There were opportunities for traditions and customs originating in Africa to be renewed and passed on.
- – A significant amount of migration was taking place both within the region and with North America.
- – Muslims were very likely present on the island and that some of the enslaved may have been literate as Muslim boys were often thought to read and in some instances to write.
- – Enslaved workers were moved, en mass from one island to the other, suggesting that elements of the white population had interests in other places besides St. Kitts.
- – Enslaved people may have attempted to create a family experience.
- – The names of the enslaved were sometimes an indication of the depth of the psychological trauma that the enslaved endured.
- – Some of the enslavers were actually humane and may have cared for the enslaved persons who worked for them.
- – Not all enslavers were rich white men. In some instances they were women, or free coloured or free black men or women who may have controlled a plantation or just a few household slaves.
The Slave registers of St. Kitts are the first documentation of a people who had previously been made to live, work and die without an identity. For today’s Kittitian they represent a link with unknown ancestors. Although many cannot trace their family to the days of enslavement, there is, at times, a feeling of satisfaction in knowing that an ancestor has to be listed in one of the registers. The registry has therefore given some people a sense of history and grounding in society.