The Black Slaves Who Became Slavers Themselves

By Goffe, Gaia | New African, July 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Black Slaves Who Became Slavers Themselves

Goffe, Gaia, New African

Gaia Goffe, 20, an undergraduate studying history at Columbia University in New York, and the author of the 2008 book, Between Two Worlds, tells the shocking story of her black ancestral family, former slaves who, when freed, became not just slave owners themselves but hard slave-drivers! "That a man who had been a slave himself but had been lucky enough to be freed should later become a slave owner and an exploiter of free labour, is both shocking and ironic. I guess we should not be shocked that those who were once the oppressed in the Caribbean, and in Africa and in Asia, too, later became oppressors themselves," she writes.

I AM A DESCENDANT OF SLAVES WHO owned slaves. My fifth great grandmother, an African woman named Nancy, had been a slave but was fortunate enough to be freed from bondage in 1814, twenty years before slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834. But instead of opposing slavery, Nancy chose, bizarrely, to become a slave owner herself. Freed by Joseph Clemetson, the white slave master who owned her and the three "mulatto" children she had with him--James, Richard and Robert--Nancy decided to use her liberty and the money given her as part of her emancipation, or manumission, to become a slave master, as did other black and coloured people who had once been slaves.


Records show that in 18l7, three years after she was manumitted, Nancy already owned three male and seven female slaves. Among them were Joseph, a 40-year-old negro born in Africa, and Grace and Lucy, two negro girls born in Jamaica.

Slaves were not cheap. They cost around [pounds sterling]50 pounds each or $66,400 today. In 1817, Nancy and other slave owners were required by the British government to register and make a full account of the slaves they possessed. After listing the 10 she owned, Nancy, who could not write, put her 'X' at the bottom of the list and swore in front of a government official that her account of her human property was a "true, perfect and complete list and return ... of all and every slave and slaves proper by me as owner ..."

Nancy purchased slaves who had been born in Africa and who likely remembered when they had been free people. She also purchased "Creoles", slaves born in Jamaica, who knew nothing but slavery. Some of Nancy's slaves would have worked from sun up to sun down on her land, planting, cutting and harvesting, while others worked in her house from morning until night cooking and cleaning.

For Nancy, slavery was not personal. It was just business. And slavery was a very profitable business for people of all colours. Of the 310,000 slaves in Jamaica in 1826, freed coloureds owned 50,000 or almost 20% of them. Apart from Robert Clemetson, another of the freed coloured slave owners was Thomas Drummond who had 115 slaves.

Slaves as gifts

With business booming in the 1820s, Nancy expanded her operations. She purchased a small plantation called Prospect Hill and had her slaves grow pimento and ginger and other crops there. A success, Nancy bought more land and more slaves. In time, she had so many slaves she was able to give them away as gifts.

In the 1817 "Return of Slaves" register, records show Nancy gave away Grace, her 11-year-old negro slave born in Jamaica, to her oldest son, James, as his first slave. In 1823, James made his mother proud when he was able to purchase a slave with money of his own, Berges, a 45-year-old mulatto man born in Jamaica.

But James' youngest brother, Robert, outdid his older brother. Robert purchased his first slave years before this. She was named "Nancy" like his mother. And like her she had been born free in Africa and had grown up a slave in Jamaica.

In 1826, Nancy gave more slaves to her children as gifts. Records show she gave her son Richard a 6-year-old negro boy named Thomas, who, despite his youth, would have been put to work in the fields.

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