Joseph Grisdell sells himself into Caribbean bondage

Posted: January 19, 2014 in American History, History
Tags: , , ,

It is perhaps not a well known fact that between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution had come under indentures. Indentured servitude was a form of debt bondage, established in the early years of the American colonies and elsewhere, including in the Caribbean. It was in many ways a form of voluntary or involuntary slavery. The belief that most early American immigrants were akin to the Pilgrim Fathers is a myth. One Cumberland man who sold himself into such bondage to the planters of Jamaica was Joseph Grisdell.

A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean before 1840.

Most were young men, with dreams of owning their land or striking it rich quick would essentially sell years of their labor in exchange for passage to the islands. However, forceful indenture also provided part of the servants: contemporaries report that youngsters were sometimes tricked into servitude in order to be exploited in the colonies. The landowners on the islands would pay for a servant’s passage and then provide them with food, clothes, shelter and instruction during the agreed upon term. The servant would then be required to work in the landowner’s (master) field for a term of bondage (usually four to seven years). During this term of bondage the servant had a status similar to a son of the master. For example they were not allowed to marry without the master’s permission. They could own personal property. They could also complain to a local magistrate about mistreatment that exceeded community norms. However, his contract could be sold or given away by his master. After the servant’s term was complete he became independent and was paid “freedom dues”. These payments could take the form of land which would give the servant the opportunity to become an independent farmer or a free laborer. As free men with little money they became a political force that stood in opposition to the rich planters.

White Indentured Servants in America

White Indentured Servants in America

But indentured servants were exploited as cheap labour and could be severely maltreated. ‘The seventeenth-century French buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin reported malnourishment and deadly beatings by the servants’ masters and generally harsher treatment and labour than that of their slaves on the island of Hispaniola. The reason being that working the servants excessively spared the masters’ slaves, which were held as perpetual property as opposed to the temporary services of servants.’

The Caribbean landowners’ reputation as cruel masters became a deterrence to the potential indentured servant. In the 17th century, the islands became known as death traps, as between 33 to 50 percent of indentured servants died before they were freed, many from yellow fever, malaria and other diseases.

But this reputation didn’t deter Joseph Grisdell. On 16 October 1736 Joseph signed a four year indenture bond with the London ‘chapman’ William Burge to serve in Jamaica, no doubt on a sugar or tobacco plantation. It must be said he must have been desperate.

Joseph gave his age as 19, his occupation as ‘sawyer’, and his place of residence as Blackhill in Cumberland. He said that his mother lived in Dublin.

The fact that Joseph gave his origin as Cumberland strongly suggests that his name was in fact Grisdale. Grisdell was not an unusual spelling of the name, particularly when people moved away. As far as I can tell the ‘Blackhill’ in Cumberland most likely refers to a small village two miles south of Carlisle, variously called Blackhill, Blackhell, Blackhall or Blackwell, the name deriving from the black heathy district, being part of the Inglewood forest.

Under the terms of these Agreements, the “Master” would provide the “Servant” with his passage to Jamaica, clothes, food and drink, washing, lodging, and a small annual salary, and the “Servant” would agree to serve in Jamaica for a certain number of years, in Joseph’s case four. One such agreement made in 1739 by Patrick Burke of Dublin reads as follows:

INDENTURE AGREEMENT
PATRICK BURKE 1739
London, the 30th Day of June
One Thousand, Seven Hundred and 1739

Be it remember’d that Patrick Burke of Dublin in the Kingdom of Ireland Bookkeeper his Father and Mother being dead, did by Indenture bearing like Date herewith, agree to serve Joseph Whilton of London Chapman, or his assigns four years in Jamaica In the Employment of a Bookkeeper at 30 li [i.e. £30] per annum Current Money of Jamaica and did declare himself to be then of the Age of Eighteen Years, a single Person, no Apprentice, nor Covenant or Contracted Servant to any other Person or Persons. And the said Master did thereby Covenant at his own Cost, to send his said Servant to the said Plantation; and at the like Costs to find him all necessary [crossed out – Clothes] Meat, Drink, Washing, and Lodging as other Servants in such Cases are usually provided for, and allowed, excepted provided he understands the business of a Bookkeeper.

Patrick Burke
Allow’d the 28th of July 1739
before me Micajah Perry, Mayor
[then Lord Mayor of London]

indentured servant advertisement

indentured servant advertisement

Now a ‘chapman’ like Joseph Whilton in Patrick Burke’s case or William Burge in Joseph Grisdell’s case was a buyer or merchant. They entered into indentures with multiple poor English and Irish people, shipped them to America or the Caribbean and there sold them on to the planters. When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants were for sale. One example of such an advert in America read:

Just imported, on board the Snow Sally, Captain Stephen Jones, Master, from England, A number of healthy, stout English and Welsh Servants and Redemptioners, and a few Palatines [Germans], amongst whom are the following tradesmen, viz. Blacksmiths, watch-makers, coppersmiths, taylors, shoemakers, ship-carpenters and caulkers, weavers, cabinet-makers, ship-joiners, nailers, engravers, copperplate printers, plasterers, bricklayers, sawyers and painters. Also schoolmasters, clerks and book-keepers, farmers and labourers, and some lively smart boys, fit for various other employments, whose times are to be disposed of. Enquire of the Captain on board the vessel, off Walnut-street wharff, or of MEASE and CALDWELL.

This was the fate awaiting Joseph when he arrived in Jamaica. Whether Joseph died in Jamaica or ever returned home is unknown. But what Grisdale family of Cumberland did he come from and what was the Dublin connection? There was a Dublin connection with the Matterdale Grisdales at this time, a subject to which I will return.

Patrick Burke's Jamaican Indenture, 1739

Patrick Burke’s Jamaican Indenture, 1739

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