Regulation and control of the colony and its justice system was critical for the early governors of St Helena. As naturally bound spaces, islands simplified the very nature of possession and dominion for the East India Company.[1] The Company appointed a governor, who had total control of the island and its inhabitants. They also served as point of contact for the Company and its directors. The governors of St. Helena had some serious problems controlling their population of settlers and slaves during the colony’s development.

Letters between the Company and the island give an idea of how the colony was managed, as well as the relationship between the governor and the Company directors. Included in these letters are also methods of revenue collection, through licensing liquor, grazing fees, tobacco duties and fines. Other letters are more idealised and recommend the ‘practice of true religion, virtue, justice’, reminding the abstinence of labour on the lord’s day and the right to a fair hearing.[2]

The Company was notably harsh on slaves, a tactic of deterrence that characterises many other laws of the period. The severity is still shocking to modern eyes. The passage below is one such example, where the Company ordered slaves to be castrated if they should become violent against any white person.[3]

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An ordinance sent by the EIC, collected by governor Goodwin. From Jamestown, Goodwin’s Abstracts 1673-1707, in Endangered archives, British Library, EAP524/1/1/1

The Company did not always believe that the government was applying their ordinances properly and tried to enact strict control. This is illustrated with the Company reaction to a consultation on the banishment of a fourteen year old Thomas Eastings to England, after he was caught stealing arms from a house.[4] In a letter to St. Helena, the Company regarded it ‘such a silly piece of Pageantry, instead of a punishment, that we are ashamed of our aged governor should be guilty of so great a folly.’ The governor was instructed to never ‘to mock the justice of your island’ again, and later reminded that orders given in letters are to be esteemed as standing directions for government.”[5] The full passage below is a good example of the kind of tensions that could arise between the governor and the Company.

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A letter condemning the banishment of Thomas Eastings, 1687. From Jamestown, Goodwin’s Abstracts 1673-1707, in Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/1/1

This letter was a reaction to a consultation and trial held at the island. These consultations appear to have been called roughly once a month or two for any major disturbances that broke out. A clerk copied and summarised the proceedings, which since have been kept for hundreds of years at the archives in Jamestown. The consultations generally record altercations, scuffles and land complaints for which the punishment ranges between fines, banishment and rarely in death. The number of complaints seems unusually high for an island that by 1683 had a population excluding slaves of 490.[6] It is also important to consider the element of discretion, and the ability to which the settlers may solve their own disputes and not require a consultation.

Some consultations were very serious indeed; in 1693 an account is given of mutiny on the island and the trial of the perpetrators. The fort was taken and the governor murdered by a small group of perpetrators led by a Sergeant in the militia. Eventually they were captured upon the ship they tried to escape on.[7] Mutiny was in the slave population too. The EIC did not face any large scale, organised slave rebellions unlike in parts of the Atlantic world, but St. Helena had a number of problems dealing with its slaves. In 1695 there appears to have been a slave plan to kill their owners, seize ammunition and mutiny by taking the fort.[8] According to Winterbottom (2016), it was their knowledge and experience that enabled them to resist their condition. On St. Helena, occasionally firearms were acquired and slaves were able to hide within the island’s difficult topography.[9] Complaints of ‘black magic’ illustrate a fear of slave knowledge before it was disregarded in the early eighteenth century. In 1693, a slave was tried by jury, convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake.[10] These consultations and letters are an invaluable resource to the study of St. Helena and an early Company settlement.

Thanks to a digitisation project from the British Library, many of these resources can be found online without a costly trip to the island. The records can be found quite conveniently by clicking here.

For more on the establishment of the colony and experimentation with agriculture, read this post.

References


[1] Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty; Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900, (Cambridge: Cam. University Press, 2010)  p.164

[2] Letter from London to St. Helena 1677 Jamestown, Goodwin’s Abstracts – Letters from England 1673-1707, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/1/1

[3] Rules for slaves sent by EIC, collected by Goodwin between 1707-1708. from Jamestown, Goodwin’s Abstracts – Letters from England 1673-1707, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/1/1

[4] Jamestown, St. Helena Consultation Records 1683-1687, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/3/2

[5] A letter condemning the banishment of Thomas Eastings, 1687. from Jamestown, Goodwin’s Abstracts – Letters from England 1673-1707, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/1/1

[6] ‘Abstract of the Population and Cattle on the Island of St. Helena from the year 1683 to 1733; extracted from the records’ from Beatson, Alexander, Tracts Relative to the Island of St. Helena; written during a residence of five years, (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1816), p.327

[7] A Consultation regarding a mutiny by Sergeant Jackson, 1693. from Jamestown, St. Helena Consultation Records 1693-1696, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/3/4

[8] 2nd December, 1695, from Jamestown, St. Helena Consultation Records 1693-1696, In Endangered Archives, British Library, EAP524/1/3/4

[9] Winterbottom, Anna, Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World, p.188

[10] ibid p.190


Jennings, Benjamin R. J., ‘Social control on early colonial peripheries; mutinies, crimes and disagreements on St. Helena 1673-1709’, stuff that happened, 14th Dec 2016. url: <https://benjaminjennings.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/social-control-on-early-colonial-peripheries-mutinies-crimes-and-disagreements-on-st-helena-1673-1709/&gt;

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