Historians are like detectives. They question, analyze and interpret evidence from the past. Studying history is diving into the unexpected and unknown. By understanding our past you’ll also learn to create a better future. Reference; Utas history unit handbook.
As they say, you cannot change history so with this in mind I have decided to blog about an episode in our family history that is less than commendable. Some people may find this episode distasteful but, I believe that it is important to tell this story as it may relate to John Prendergast’s arrest and transportation to Australia.
When I commenced my Bachelor of Arts, History major at the university of Tasmania this year, I enrolled in unit HTA 102. Little did I know that one of the subjects would impact my Prendergast family history research.
We were studying Slavery when randomly I googled the words “Prendergast and slavery”. I had not expected to find anything and was quite shocked when I came across a study that was taking place at the University College London and read the contents. The study was called the ‘Center for the study of the legacies of British slavery’. The link is www.ucl.ac.uk. if you would like to read it for yourself.
I was horrified to discover that there are 11 Irish Prendergast family members who were slave owners in the 17th and 18th century in Jamaica. Amongst the 11 there were 2 female slave owners. I have since found documentation in Dublin related to one of the slave owners Hannah Prendergast and the addresses on her census are in both Dublin and Jamaica. As there were only three Prendergast families living in Dublin during the late 1700s, and they were all related, there is every chance that she along with several other Irish slave owners, is related to our Prendergast family.
And now for a quick history lesson.
Following the British invasion of Jamaica in 1655, Cromwell increased the island’s European population by sending indentured servants and prisoners to Jamaica. Due to the wars in Ireland at this time 2/3 of this 17th century European population was Irish.
The invading army of 1655 had within a generation become the nucleus of a prospering band of planters. All sorts of tropical produce emerged from these plantations, but the single most important crop – the biggest volume of exports, the most lucrative product and the crop which devoured the labors of ever increasing gangs of slaves – was sugar.
Over the next 200 years, 900 plantations sprang up over Jamaica. The rapid introduction of plantations in Jamaica meant that to cover transportation costs between Jamaica and Britain, large scale cropping of Tobacco, Coffee, Cotton, Indigo, Rice, Potatoes, and Sugar ensued. Until the 1st of August 1838 when slaves were fully emancipated, these plantations were worked by African slave labor. During this time more than 800,000 slaves were imported from Africa to Jamaica.
This next piece of information may upset you, as it did me. I could not understand how some people could treat other people, namely the slaves, so inhumanely.
The British laws defined slaves as chattel, to be sold, bequeathed, and transferred like other goods. These laws were accompanied or inevitably modified by laws that unequivocally treated them as persons even while restricting their activities, bringing them to trial, and punishing them. However slaves and slavery were defined, slaves in fact were not outside the social order.
I would like to think that our Pendergast slave owners were kinder to their slaves and there is evidence supporting this theory. On ancestry.com I located an inventory of slaves owned by Hannah Prendergast. Whereas some slave owners used derogatory names for their slaves, Hannah has conformed to the Irish naming pattern giving her slaves Christian names as well as the Prendergast surname. There are records indicating that she had her slaves baptized into the catholic faith.
I have also located the will of Jeffery Prendergast gent of St. Thomas in the East, Jamaica. He bequeaths property to his Quadroon daughter Elenor, his negro woman slave, and a “Free mulatto” woman.
According to Wikipedia, the meaning of the word quadroon is – “1/4 black by descent”. The meaning of “Free mulatto” is a racial classification to refer to people of mixed African and European ancestry. I hasten to add that both these terms are considered outdated and offensive.
Although this is a disturbing discovery, there is a silver lining to this story. I located a newspaper item in the Irish times “The Irish Lord who freed Jamaican slaves” It reads –
On his appointment as Governor General of Jamaica in 1834, Lord Sligo made the discovery that he had inherited 2 Jamaican plantations from his grandmother, Elizabeth Kelly, heiress of the Chief Justice of Jamaica, Dennis Kelly from Galway. These plantations used African slaves to provide labor for the plantation. Although the planters expected Sligo to be on their side because he was now a slave owner, he did not hide his disgust at the discovery.
In 1833 the British government had passed an emancipation act. The act however did not give immediate freedom to the slaves who merely became apprentice to their masters for a further four years. Described as “slavery under another name”, the controversial apprenticeship system which Sligo was appointed to implement, was misunderstood by the slaves and resisted by the Jamaican plantocracy and by powerful vested commercial interests in Britain.
Lord Sligo found the slavery personally abhorrent. From the flogging of field workers with cart whips branding with hot irons, to whipping of female slaves, “The cruelties are past all idea” he told the Jamaican assembly. “I call on you to put an end to conduct so repugnant to humanity”
His campaign to have slaves freed ruffled feathers in government and the planter dominated assembly commenced a campaign of vilification against him in the Jamaican and British press. During this time he built schools at his own cost on his property. He was the first plantation owner to initiate a wage system for black workers and later, after emancipation, to divide his lands into numerous farms to be leased to the former slaves.
On March 22nd, 1838 Sligo publicly announced in the House of Lords that, regardless of the outcome of the government deliberation, he would free all apprentices on his own estate in Jamaica on August 1st 1838, thereby leaving the government with no alternative but to implement full emancipation on the same date.
Sligo earned an honored place in the history of Jamaica where he is acknowledged as champion of the slaves and where the town of Sligo Ville, the first free slave village in the world, still bears his name.
I feel very proud of Lord Sligo and the campaign he undertook to free slaves. Although Lord Sligo is not directly a Prendergast, his wife’s auntie was a Prendergast.
When I visited Lord Sligo’s ancestral home, ‘Westport house’ In 2015, Ireland, at that time I did not know of the Prendergast connection. But, in a house full of beautiful antiquaries the one particular item that stood out to me, was the fire guard made of tapestry. The words that were embroidered on this tapestry read “PROREGESAPE PRO PATRIA SEMPER” translated from Latin into English this means “For the king sometimes but for the country always.”
As mentioned in my introduction, I believe that because John Prendergast was related to the Irish slave owners in Jamaica, he may well have been involved in their export/import business of Sugar and Tobacco to Ireland. Large quantities of Sugar and Tobacco were two of the three items that John Prendergast was accused of stealing at his trial. There was always a question about these items because the person who accused him of the theft happened to be the jury foreman at John’s trial.