Quakers in Jamaica and Barbados
In the seventeenth century, Barbados was the main port for trade and travel between Britain and her growing number of American colonies along the eastern seaboard. In 1655 Jamaica became a British colony too, and was soon part of the trade network.
At this time many people were exploiting the potential of burgeoning transatlantic trade. Many others were emigrating from Britain to the ‘New World’: some saw economic opportunities, and some saw the prospect of putting their political ideas and religious beliefs into practice.
Quakers were caught up in all these developments. Soon there were Quaker settlers in Barbados and Jamaica. Many Quaker merchants were involved in transatlantic trade. Other Quakers reached the Caribbean as convicts, and had to work on the plantations: at the time many Quakers were being imprisoned for their beliefs, and it was common practice to ‘transport’ prisoners to various colonies to provide cheap labour, rather than keeping them in British jails.
Quakerism also came to the Caribbean through mission activity. Early Quaker missionaries all passed through Barbados – Elizabeth Hooton and Joan Brocksop in 1661, Ann Robinson and Oswell Heritage in 1662, George Fox, William Edmundson, Elizabeth Hooton in 1671, and many others. Quaker George Rofe described Barbados then as ‘the nursery of the (Quaker) truth’.
They were less persecuted than early Quakers were in Britain or New England: in Jamaica they were allowed to worship freely if they paid their taxes and contributed to the cost of the military. In Barbados there are records of large numbers of fines paid by those who refused to pay to support the military, but it was still easier than it was in Britain.
For all these reasons, Quakerism grew fast. In 1700 there were about 10,000 Quakers in Jamaica and there must have been considerable numbers in Barbados, as they had five meeting houses.
Tragically, however, the whole economy was based on slavery and the slave trade. The main product of the Jamaican and Barbadian plantations was sugar, though cotton, tobacco and coffee also featured. All these crops were labour-hungry, and slaves did most of the work. Much of the trade in and via Barbados was thus not in crops, but in slaves, imported from West Africa in large numbers.
In the early days Quakers undoubtedly participated in all this, as plantation owners, merchants and ship-owners. Gradually however a realisation of the iniquity of slavery grew amongst Quakers everywhere. In Barbados, in 1671, George Fox spoke against slaves’ poor treatment. In 1675 William Edmundson condemned slavery outright. In 1688 Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued the first public anti-slavery statement. North American Quakers slowly rooted out slavery from their own community until they began to disown (expel) anyone involved in slavery in the 1770s.
By 1750 the number of Quakers in Barbados and Jamaica had dwindled to almost nothing. Presumably some died, some left the Society of Friends, and some went elsewhere.
For the next 130 years, such Quaker influence as there was came through anti-slavery movements elsewhere. In 1791 a campaign to boycott produce made with slave labour began in the US. In 1795 David and John Barclay, both abolitionists, inherited an estate in Jamaica: they freed the slaves and helped them get to Philadelphia. Quakers in Britain played an important part in the abolition of the slave trade (though not yet slavery itself) in 1807. In 1824 they began a campaign to boycott slave-produced sugar, significantly affecting the Caribbean. Slavery was finally outlawed in Britain and all its colonies, including Barbados and Jamaica, in 1833.
In 1836, Joseph Sturge came to Jamaica to investigate the situation of former slaves there. He was appalled, wrote a scathing report, and went on to found the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839. From 1820 to the 1860s, the Underground Railroad (the series of routes and safe houses by which slaves were helped to escape, and in which many Quakers were active) extended to the Caribbean.
In 1881, Friends in Iowa began a mission to Jamaica. In 1898 they founded Happy Grove School, which continues to this day. The school is working with Canadian Friends on a Peace Education Project. They started two homes for orphan boys and girls, both now closed, and some health facilities. Today there are 14 meetings in Jamaica and about 500 Quakers.