November 22, 2020

In 1625, Barbados was claimed for England by a Captain John Powell after earlier inhabitants, Arawak Indians left the island. In 1627 the English established a more permanent settlement when John Powell’s brother landed with 80 settlers and ten enslaved Africans.

The dense forests were cleared by a force of poor white labourers sent over to Barbados from England. These labourers were indentured, contracted to work a number of years before securing their freedom. They were a mix of political prisoners and criminals. The document below is an example of the legal contract creating such an indenture – the two parts of the paper were joined at the end of the contract to prove its fulfilment.

After Cromwell sacked Ireland and Scotland, he ordered thousands of defeated soldiers to be sent to Barbados along with the idle, vagrants and the criminals. These labourers experienced a type of labour that was dramatically different to but nevertheless a development of the systems already in place in England. Although similar in nature, the system was worse as the planters felt no ‘duty of care’ towards their servants, as they were beyond the rule of the law of the mother country. Writing in 1654, Henry Whistler described the place: ‘This Island is the Dunghill wharone [whereon] England doth cast forth its rubidg[rubbish]] Rodges [rogues] and hors [whores] and such like peopell are thos which are generally Broght [brought] hear.’

White labourers from England found themselves working alongside Africans enslaved for life. Across the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese and then the Dutch were heavily involved in trading Africans to the New World. By 1663, England’s Royal Adventurers to Africa were fully involved as well, regularly offering slaves for sale in the West Indies for £17 each. By this time, two men from Exeter, had fled Cromwell’s England to set up as planters on the Island of Barbados. Their names were John Colleton and Thomas Modyford.

Colonel Modyford was the son of an Exeter Mayor. There were early signs of his duplicity when some of Exeter’s grandees pointed to Modyford as being the cause of the downfall of Exeter during the English Civil War. Perhaps wisely he set off to start anew in Barbados. He had a cousin there already doing well – Thomas Hilliard, a merchant from London with interests in the city of Exeter. Modyford did very well for himself in Barbados and rose high in the governing body. He sat on the Barbadian Council in 1651, was speaker of its Assembly in 1652 and became acting governor of the colony in 1660. He also became the Barbados agent for the newly formed Royal African Company in 1663.

The Royal African Company 

King Charles II encouraged the expansion of the slave trade. He granted a charter to a group of men, the Royal Adventurers, who later became the Royal African Company (RAC). The king and the Duke of York backed this enterprise by investing private funds. The charter stated that the Company ‘had the whole, entire and only trade for buying and selling bartering and exchanging of for or with any Negroes, slaves, goods, wares, merchandise whatsoever’. The king therefore gave full support to this system of trading. 

The first Royal African Company ships sailed from Liverpool and Bristol to develop their commercial activity along the West African coast. Over the next two centuries, these two cities grew from the profits of the slave trade.

Sources: The National Archives; The Slave codes and Devon men: a significant contribution By Joanna Traynor

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