By Diana Paton
‘I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me; on his leaving the Estate he took me with him to Trelawny, where he died, and left me very well situated.’
Thus begins a letter from a Jamaican formerly enslaved woman, Mary Williamson, written to her former owner in 1809. For more than two hundred years the letter has been part of a private family collection, belonging to the relatives of Williamson’s owner. I was given access to it when a student at Edinburgh University contacted me to tell me about her family’s collection of documents, of which it is a part. The letter, reproduced in full below, provides a fragmentary, tantalising, insight into the life not just of its author but of others to whom she was connected.
In her letter, Mary Williamson briefly recounts her life. She explains that after the death of Mr Tumoning, who had bought her and freed her, she moved back to the estate of her former owner so as to be close to her family. In particular, she wanted to be close to her two sisters and their young children. The reason she writes is to ask for a piece of land to provide her with security in a context where the managers of the estate have vindictively turned against her. They have pulled down her house and the one that she built for her sisters, she says, and have also ploughed up her provision grounds, on which she previously grew food that supported not only herself but also her family members. If she does not receive land, she will be forced to move away from the estate, leaving her family behind.
Mary Williamson’s letter is written in a beautiful hand and phrased in a way that suggests familiarity with rhetorical conventions, but reveals a story of the brutality of Caribbean slavery: of the arbitrary authority of plantation managers who might suddenly ‘turn very severe’; of those managers’ near complete power over the lives not only of enslaved people but also of those who had become free; and of a world in which male sexual attraction led to a woman being sold to the man who ‘fancied’ her, with no apparent consideration of her views. Perhaps most striking about the letter, though, is the relationship of mutual care and support that it reveals between Mary Williamson and her sisters. This aspect of the history of slavery has been largely neglected by historians.
Mary Williamson’s letter is an extraordinary document by the standards of Caribbean slavery, where we have so few surviving words written by enslaved or freed people. Yet much about it is frustrating; it raises many unanswered questions. Most importantly, it doesn’t tell us what happened to Mary Williamson and her family, after she wrote her letter. There is no record that Haughton James ever replied.
Hanover 26 Octr 1809
I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr [Tumoning] unto who Mr Thomas James sold me; on his leaving the Estate he took me with him to Trelawny, where he died, and left me very well situated. But Mr T. James purswaded me to return to Houton Tower as every relation I have in the world are there, so Sir by his perswasions I returned, and he appointed a place for me to build my house; accordingly I built a house, but finding it too small to contain me and two black Brown sisters I have on the Estate I build another for my self in particular, and was in all respects very comfortable; Untill Mr James’s death. Then Mr Kircady the Overseer turned very severe on the Negroes on the property, and they could find no redress[,] for on Complaint to Mr Brown the Attorny he punished them the more severely, that the poor critures are harrased out of their lives, many dying; On Mr John H. James coming to the Island he took a look at the Estate, but did not have the Negroes called up in the latter end of August, the Negroes went on a Sunday to Mr James at Green Island, seeking for redress, from there so severe usage for which reason, Mr Brown & Mr Kircady took it into there heads that I had perswaded the Negroes, to aply to Mr James, and early in the morning came and pulled down both my houses, and took away the Timbers; Now Honoured Sir as I was sold of the property free I mought have been disc[ou]raged, as having no property or wright what has my two Sisters and there young children no wright to a house on their Masters Estate, their children are young and left without a shelter. I was a great help to them having a ground and garden with provisions which mought have been given to them, but it pleased your Attorny and Overseer to destroy every thing plowing up the garden and turning the Stocks into the ground or provisions, so that I am not only a sufferer but your poor negroes, are deprived, of the means of subsistence. Honoured Sir this is the truth and nothing but the truth, your negroes are harrased floged, and drove past human strength, with out any redress, to complain to an Uncle against his nephew is needless, it’s not my own immediate case that make me address this to you, but my suffering family, who can not go otherwise as I am obliged to do.
Thus Sir I have laid down the state of Estate of Houton Tower, which if not soon redressed you will have no slaves, to work on the Estate. I must beg my Honoured Master, for to give me a little spot somewhere on the Estate, for I do not wish to go from my family, as they want every assistance I can give them; I feel for you Sir as if I was still you slave; and as Mr Kircady says he will make your people sup sorrow by spoonfuls, they really do for he [satisfy] his words.
With all respect I am Honoured Master
Your most Obd’ Humble Servant
Letter from Mary Williamson to Haughton James, 26 October 1809, private collection of Nicholas John Rhodes James, Argyll, copy in possession of author. Reproduced with permission of Nicholas James.
Diana Paton is William Robertson Professor of History at Edinburgh University and a History Workshop Journal editor. This post is related to her lecture ‘Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archive of Atlantic Slavery‘, which was given to the Royal Historical Society on 9 February 2018. A longer article on the letter will be published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society in 2019.