The original record is a political petition to the colonial authority about conditions in Antigua, with details comprising the following:
The existence of a record indicates that the individual was of mixed race and was sufficiently politically motivated to sign a potentially controversial petition to the British parliament.
For more detailed background, and how to view the original document online, please expand the "Discover more about these records" section below.
This petition is of great Black history interest, and although with specific reference to Antigua it illuminates aspects of Caribbean history generally.
It is important to understand the context, in terms both of terminology and of demographics.
In the stratified and hierarchical society of the then colonies of the British West Indies, populations were divided broadly into three categories, these being white, “coloured” and “negro”. “Coloured” was the term that had replaced “mulatto” (and “mustee” etc) for what we would now regard as persons of mixed race – in this context, it usually but not invariably means the children of a white father and black mother, and the issue of those children.
The populations of many of the smaller islands were small. In the case of Antigua, with a total population of around 35,000 in the 1820s, about 5% of the population was white and 10% “coloured”. A large proportion of the “coloured” population was free. The balance comprised the Black population, the vast majority (but not all) of whom were enslaved.
In 1820, the population of Antigua was counted as follows:
In 1824, the count of the non-white population was given as follows:
3,825 free "coloured"
It is implicit that the great majority if not all of the slaves were black.
The 1830 Petition of the Coloured Inhabitants of the Island of Antigua should be regarded in the above context. There are 316 signatories. All were adult male. If we assume conservatively that on average each man was head of a household containing four other persons, we would have 1,580, or about 40% of the “coloured” population of Antigua. Mean family size was larger in the early 19th century and, even though these men would have been at different points in their life histories, quite probably we under-estimate when we use a household size of five. In any event, it is clear that the signatories represent a very significant proportion of the then mixed race population of Antigua.
The petition itself is significant as a claim for equal civil rights for the mixed race population as for the white colonial population. The tone is respectful but firm. The petitioners emphasise that, as loyal British subjects, they want parity, including the obligations that come alongside the privileges to which they feel entitled. Specifically, they demand such rights as:
It is clear that the petitioners perceive themselves the equal of the white population, and the petition is worded articulately in the elegant formal prose of the era, and bespeaks of a self-confidence and pride that is prepared to assert itself. Many of the signatures themselves are in an accomplished hand, and not one person is illiterate and needed to make his mark with a cross.
The petition is addressed to the Westminster parliament in London. The reason for this is that the petitioners’ requests had been repeatedly and roundly rejected by the white elite in power on Antigua, who clearly did not regard the mixed race population as equal. The petitioners refer to the white elite holding them “in a degraded light… as though they were physically and morally unfit”, and to their previous petitions to the local legislature as having been rejected “in terms of insult and abuse”. It is evident that the petitioners understand that attaining equality under the law would start to force a change in society. It is also evident that they have faith in progressive and liberal forces in the mother country Britain to make change happen in the colony.
For modern family historians with an interest in Antigua, this is an opportunity to see whether they can find an ancestor participating in the political movements of the time. Each signatory probably signed in his own hand, although in one or two cases (such as three men named Billinghurst who would appear to have been brothers) it is possible, on the basis of great similarity in handwriting, that one individual wrote the names of others. Many of the surnames are distinctive (such as Bouisson, Donawa, Harney, Lavicount, Thibou, Wesston and Willock). Other names are distinctive because of the combination of surname and forename (such as Joseph Bishop Cheek, James Grenville Hicks, William Wilberforce Millett, Horatio Nelson Picart and Thomas Octavius Ward). Indeed, it is possible to read in many of the names which have a middle name the kind of aspiration, self-assurance and dignity which one also sees in the rising middle classes in late 18th and 19th century Britain.
To find the original signature, go to the URL given in the Useful Links bar and then use the page and column reference in the transcription to locate the subject. Note that the cover is not included in the pagination, so the signatures begin on page 3.