Details in the life of Quamin, head boilerman on Palm Estate.
This is page 1 of the slave register for Palm Estate in St Thomas-in-the-Vale, Jamaica, in 1817. The information given about each enslaved person is sparce, just a name, ‘colour’, age and whether born in the Caribbean (‘Creole’) or in Africa. For some of the younger ones, the mother’s name is also given. Accounts of the lives of individual enslaved people are rare, but for ‘Boiler Quamin’, age 50, eighth from bottom in this list, we have another source. He appears in Benjamin McMahon’s autobiography, A Description of Jamaica planters viz. attorneys, overseers, and book-keepers, with several interesting anecdotes, published in London in 1838. McMahon had worked as an overseer on Palm Estate in 1822. As head boilerman, Quamin held a crucial and highly-skilled position on the estate, ensuring the cane juice was successfully transformed into crystalised sugar.
It is through McMahon that we see a power struggle between Quamin and the white overseer, Colin Graham Simpson. Simpson claimed that Quamin and the second boilerman, William Thomas, had complained about him to the attorney. As a result, Simpson was determined to see them indicted for serious crimes and tranported off the island. He asked McMahon to watch both Quamin and William Thomas closely and to set a trap by making it easy for them to steal from the estate. When McMahon failed to find fault with the boilermen, Simpson also took revenge against McMahon. Simpson inflicted repeated, brutal beatings on Quamin and other enslaved people, described by McMahon in graphic detail.
McMahon’s account cannot be verified by sources other than the slave registers, where Quamin appears in 1817. The words attributed to Quamin and Simpson are put into their mouths by McMahon, who wrote his account 16 years later, and who wrote it to justify his own behavoir to an anti-slavery audience. Nevertheless, his account of Palm estate is worth repeating in full. (I have split the text into separate paragraphs for ease of reading.)
Colin Graham Simpson was the overseer. He was mean and miserly in his habits — not violent in his temper, but terribly vindictive;— if once he took a dislike, he never stopped till he destroyed his victim, if he were able.
He sent me to the boiling-house, as the mill was then about, and after a few days he told me that the two head-boilers were most rebellious rascals, and he therefore ordered me to keep sharp look out after them, and try to catch them in fault. I accordingly watched them closely, but never detected any thing wrong,— in fact, they were two of the best men on the place. But I soon found that Simpson was determined on the destruction of these men, and merely wanted to make me the instrument of his vengeance. Every night at supper he demanded if I had found nothing against them yet, and my constant reply was, "No, sir, nothing of harm as yet." This reply made him growl like a disappointed bear.
At length, he seemed determined to bring matters to a crisis, and he took me aside, and said, "Young man, consider, you have no home, no friends, and are far from your country and family, therefore, reflect on it. You are aware that, in the planting line, no favour or friendship can be expected if a book-keeper disagrees with his overseer. It is his duty to assist the overseer in every plan he lays down— to do as he does— and say as he says; by such conduct alone can he expect to succeed, and therefore I now give you my last trial: — you will therefore understand that, right or wrong, your efforts must be directed to assist me in accomplishing the object of my determination.
“It is my intention to have the two boilermen, old Quamin and William Thomas, transported off the island. They complained against me to the attorney, and I am determined to bring them to their bearings. I have already reported them as dangerous characters. If you have any wish to secure my friendship, now is your time. I have sufficient interest to procure you an overseer's appointment in less than six months. Take your time with the black rascals — give them rope and they will hang themselves— let them have plenty of opportunities to steal sugar or any thing else that can lead to their being shipped off—the damned laws will not allow us to hang the rascals for such things now. But your evidence against them, together with mine, will be enough to do their business."
After this lesson, I was allowed to remain at rest for nearly a month, during which, every thing was done to make me comfortable — nothing in fact was too good for me. I was introduced to his acquaintance in the most flattering manner, and every sort of attention was paid to me. It was, however, all in vain, for I could never think of perjuring myself for the purpose of destroying two innocent and defenceless fellow-creatures. I dreaded the day when Simpson should break silence about it — at last it came.
It was at dinner one day, when Simpson said, “Well, Mr. M'Mahon, I suppose by this time you know as well as I do of the villany of those notorious rascals, and we will now bring them to their doom— they have long laboured for it. I am confident you must know enough to convict them, — speak up, Mr, M'Mahon, my friend, in a manly manner.' I thanked him for his directions and then told him, in plain terms, that I had watched the men closely day and night, and had never detected them in any fault, and was convinced they were as honest and correct in their conduct as any men in the parish, and that I should decline in future having to do with any plans for the destruction of innocent men.
Simpson clenched his teeth together with a ferocious grin, and said, "I’ll make you trip your heels for this, young man.” He did not, however, discharge me then— perhaps he was afraid of the story getting wind, but he resorted to every sort of persecution to make me discharge myself. I will not stop to tell all his dirty acts of tyranny, but must observe that, in trying to injure me, he deprived the property of fully ten puncheons of rum, by destroying the sweets, and not allowing me to be supplied with firewood. On one occasion, when I asked him for wood for the stilhouse, he replied, “Go sir, and get a large green cotton tree, and drag it to the still-house." As he said this to insult and ridicule me, I replied, ''If you allow me the benefit of a spell of steers and a cart, I can go to the pasture and bring home a load of the bones of the cattle you have killed, this crop, and they will do for me for a few days’ burning." He shook his head, and ordered me out of the house, muttering through his clenched teeth, “I will crush you to the earth yet."
I will give one anecdote about Simpson, which will show his mode of management. Old Quamin, the head-boiler, was taken very sick, and confined to his bed. While he was away from the boiling-house, Simpson found fault with the quality of the sugar, and sent for old Quamin to be brought to the boiling-house, sick as he was, to superintend and give directions. The old man was not able to move about, but sat down and gave his orders. After being at this a couple of days, Simpson ordered him to take entire charge. At this time, Simpson was constantly finding fault, although there was no fault to be found; and on the third day of Quamin resuming his duties, Simpson came down immediately after breakfast, and the moment he entered, began to curse and swear, and called to me to stand at one door while he guarded the other. He then called the boatswain of the yard, to punish all hands in the boiling-house: — the first laid down was poor old Quamin, sick, weak, and emaciated as he was. He said, "Busha, you bring me from my house when me no able to walk, to look after the work, and me do all me can to please busha, but busha won't be satisfied. If busha flog me, he will kill me; me no able to stand it, but busha must have him own way, and if me dead me can't help it.” With that he was laid on the ground, and the lash came down; he cried out at first at each lash, “Busha kill me." "Me dead, oh," &c. but after five or six lashes he became silent, and then only shook his head in a despairing manner at each blow, but soon even that ceased, and he lay motionless as a log; the whip however still went on, and he received a dreadful punishment. I really thought he was dead; he lay without moving for a considerable time after the punishment was over, and during that time the others were successively laid down, and flogged to the satisfaction of the brutal overseer. I did not at that time think there was a man in all Jamaica that could have had the heart to flog a poor weakly old man, like Quamin. This scene, however, during crop, was several times repeated.
Simpson, by sneaking into my room, during my absence, got a sight of a letter I was writing to my brother, in which I stated, that to the great mortification of my feelings, I was a planter, and compelled to view daily the most brutal tyranny and treachery that was ever exercised under the reign of the monster Caligula, &c. This expression was repeated through the neighbourhood, and the doors of planters were shut against me. I then discharged myself from Palm, and for some days lived amongst the people of colour, by whom I was much respected. In a short time, a gentleman named Blake, who was a planter of a very different character from any of his neighbours, — humane, liberal and independent, procured me a berth in another part of the parish.
Benjamin McMahon, A Description of Jamaica planters viz. attorneys, overseers, and book-keepers, with several interesting anecdotes (London, 1838) pp. 38-46. To read the complete book, see https://archive.org/details/jamaicaplanters00mmagoog. For more on Palm Estate, including the other pages of the 1817 slave register, see http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/estate/view/1806.
Slave register entry for Palm estate in 1817, page 1 of 8. T71/25 pp. 123-130. © Images reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England. The National Archives give no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided. Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education. Applications for any other use should be made to The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, Tel: 020 8392 5225 Fax: 020 8392 5266.