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James Knight and the Debate on Enslaved People's Cultures

          In his “History of Jamaica,” James Knight reported that the enslaved people were “fearless of Death and in their last moments Seem to be under no other Concern than that of parting with their Friends” and that many, “particularly the Eboes,” “can hang themselves.”[1] What is most striking about this fragmentary evidence is Knight’s association of suicide with a specific ethnic group, in this case the Igbo (a broad linguistic and cultural group originating in the region around the Bight of Biafra).[2] On its own this fragment could merely be understood as a typical cruelty resulting from the slavocracy operating on eighteenth century Jamaica. However, when read alongside the vast body of literature discussing the African influences on New World cultures it raises important questions.

          Ever since Sidney Mintz and Richard Price laid down the gauntlet by declaring that underlying “grammatical” principles were transmitted from Africa to the Americas, an enormous body of fruitful research has demonstrated specific cultural transmissions across the Atlantic Ocean.[3] Yet, whilst historians have been keen to uncover the precise origins of ethnic terms used in white colonial nomenclature, they have frequently allowed white colonists off the hook, almost uncritically accepting that the behaviour reported was based on an accurate observation.[4] This essay seeks to use James Knight’s “History of Jamaica,” to engage with European claims about enslaved cultures. By not simply accepting Knight’s observations at face value, it may be possible to uncover how African ethnicity functioned in the white colonist’s mind.

The Mintz and Price thesis has generated a whole scholarship focused on uncovering the origins of enslaved peoples’ cultures in the Americas. Their thesis was founded on the idea that enslaved people arrived in the Americas as “very heterogeneous crowds.”[5] For them, the primary connection among enslaved people aboard slave ships was the condition of “their enslavement,” rather than common African cultural practices.[6] This meant that, upon their arrival in the Americas, only underlying “grammatical” principles survived the Middle Passage, and the rest “had to be created by them.”[7] For Mintz and Price, it was the conditions of slavery that were the dominant determinant of enslaved cultures.

         Gert Oostindie and Alex van Stipriaan have utilised the Mintz and Price thesis to argue that the physical environment proved crucial in the development of enslaved culture in Dutch Suriname.[8] The Dutch used the polder system (a tract of low land reclaimed from water using high embankments) in Suriname, meaning plantations were frequently surrounded by water.[9] Oostindie and van Stipriaan suggest that this encouraged the development of the Watramama cult (a collection of rituals based around a water goddess), which was possibly related to the Mammy Wata cult in West Africa.[10] The presence of manatees, which were likely perceived as “water goddesses,” in both regions provided an environmental connection that encouraged the transfer of these cults to Suriname.[11] Like Mintz and Price, the conditions of slavery, in this case the presence of water, were crucial to Oostindie and van Stipriaan’s understanding of enslaved culture.

          The importance of the conditions of slavery in determining enslaved cultures has been questioned since the publication of Mintz and Price’s thesis. This work rejected the idea that enslaved people arrived in the Americas as heterogeneous crowds, instead claiming that they arrived as homogenous groups.[12] As enslaved people travelled in culturally similar groups, practices, specific to particular West and West Central African regions, were maintained upon arrival in the Americas.[13] This research was supported by the development of the Slave Voyages Trans-Atlantic Database, which has provided statistics tracking the movement of slave ships across the Atlantic.[14] As historians have an increasingly clearer idea about the regional origins of enslaved people, they have been to able use an “Atlantic model” to trace cultural continuities.[15] In these analyses, Africa was the primary determinant of enslaved cultures in the Americas.

          Scholars have utilised the “Atlantic model” to demonstrate the important role of Africa in the New World. James Sweet has argued that a Central African “worldview” was maintained among enslaved people in Portuguese Brazil.[16] He reached this conclusion using Portuguese Inquisition records alongside African sources to conclude that the one and a half million enslaved people from Congo and Angola encouraged the development of a slave culture that was “essentially Central African.”[17] For instance, white planters used Central African divination practices in slaves’ trials to legitimise the verdict amongst enslaved people.[18] In one case, a diviner named Gracia was brought in to assess the guilt of a free “Congo” man named Simão who had been accused of murdering fifteen slaves.[19] For Sweet, the culture of enslaved people in Brazil relied heavily on connections with a specific African region.

          James Knight’s “History of Jamaica” reveals there were important specific African cultures that were transmitted to Jamaica too. His claims, largely, align with Kwasi Konadu’s argument that a “specific Akan [a meta-ethnic group from the Gold Coast] culture” was transported to Jamaica.[20] Konadu’s comparative analysis suggests that political disruption within the Gold Coast during the early eighteenth century produced a population accustomed to warfare.[21] Between 1670 to 1750, 51,000 captives originating in the Gold Coast were transported to Jamaica.[22] The result was an increase in enslaved military resistance, with a suppressed uprising in 1685-86 and a major rebellion in 1695.[23] Konadu has argued that the destabilisation within the Gold Coast produced more militant societies whose members, when enslaved in the Americas, utilised those skills in resisting English planters. Knight’s text, from 1742, supports Konadu’s conclusion by claiming that “there never was… [a] Plot or Conspiracy” enslaved people from the Gold Coast were not “at the bottom of.”[24] In this respect, Knight’s manuscripts support the “Atlantic model” of enslaved cultures by suggesting connections between Africa and Jamaica.

          Data on the ethnic composition of Jamaica in the eighteenth century poses problems to the idea that Akan culture was dominant. The Voyages Database demonstrates that, between 1651 and 1750, 31% of enslaved people, whose ethnic origin can be identified, originated in the Gold Coast.[25] This data correlates with Simon Newman’s mitochondrial DNA evidence that shows that around 20% of the population had ancestry from the Gold Coast.[26] Whilst Gold Coast people were demonstrably a significant proportion of enslaved people transported to Jamaica, they were by no means a majority. A similar proportion, approximately 23% according to the Voyages database, of enslaved people originated in the Bight of Benin over the same period.[27] Newman’s data corroborates this, concluding that around 17% of the population had ancestry originating in the Bight of Benin.[28] Although this group was a lower proportion than those from the Gold Coast, it raises questions surrounding Konadu’s conclusions that an Akan culture had a dominant impact on Jamaica.

          Knight’s discussion of the Igbo raises further problems for arguments surrounding cultural transmission. Knight claimed that amongst enslaved people “the Eboes” were most likely to “hang themselves,” implying a specific cultural discourse existed among the Igbo that could, in certain circumstances, increase the likelihood of suicide.[29] This association was not unique to Knight’s manuscripts, but a common observation in white European writings. Michael Mullin in his work on the British Caribbean and American South, concluded that white Europeans everywhere viewed the Igbo as “suicidally despondent.”[30]  This common connection between an ethnic group and suicide is odd and must be questioned.

          It is plausible that Knight’s observation may be accurate, and suicide was more common among enslaved Igbo. Knight suggests that enslaved people were “fearless of Death,” believing they would “return again to their Own Country.”[31] Michael Gomez has argued that the Igbo believed in reincarnation and, once dead, would be guided by their guardian spirit, the chi, to the next stage of the life cycle.[32] Gomez suggests that it was these ideas that pushed enslaved Igbo people to conclude that they were “living the converse of life” upon their arrival in the Americas, making suicide a more likely response to Atlantic slavery.[33]  Thus, it is feasible that, if the Igbo people believed that death was a route back to Africa through reincarnation, they would be more inclined to escape the horrors of enslavement through suicide.

          Even if there was a genuine cultural connection with West Africa, it does not necessarily provide a reason for Knight’s interest in aligning suicide with an ethnic group. Knight, likely, never set foot in West Africa and his only understanding of African ethnic groups would have come from contemporary European writings on the region and his own observations in Jamaica.[34] Among the planter class, more broadly, suicide was documented because it created financial problems.[35] Enslaved people were aware of this and would threaten to kill themselves to prevent punishment.[36] For instance, Richard Ligon, a seventeenth century chronicler who lived on Barbados, wrote that “upon any… threatening of their Masters” enslaved people would “hang themselves,” thereby utilising their economic necessity to protect themselves.[37] This is likely the reasoning behind Knight’s claim that enslaved people killed themselves “to avoid Punishment.”[38] Knight wrote that planters responded to suicide by “dismember[ing] and burn[ing] the Bodys of such Negroes,” believing it threatened the belief among enslaved people that the dead person would travel to freedom.[39] A similar barbaric practice was common on Barbados, with the planter, Colonoel Walrond, severing the head of a suicide victim and forcing the people he enslaved to march around it in the hope that it would discourage them from killing themselves too.[40] As Vincent Brown has argued, suicide was a zone of conflict between the enslaved and the planter, with corpses enlisted by both to affect worldly affairs.[41]

          The economic problems associated with enslaved suicide possibly explains Knight’s interest in documenting it, yet it does not provide a reason for linking it to a specific ethnicity. It is possible that by associating suicide with the Igbo, Knight was attempting to defend the institution of slavery. In other parts of the manuscript, Knight continually describes slavery in a positive light. For instance, in his discussion on white Jamaicans’ treatment of the enslaved he argues that “very few” planters were “so Barbarous” and that many were of a “compassionate disposition.”[42] If his discussion of the ethnic composition of enslaved people is read with this in mind, it suggests he was augmenting his defence of slavery. In describing “particularly the Eboes” as prone to suicide, Knight could shift responsibility for the “Abominable practice” to West Africa, absolving the white planters of blame.[43] Under this understanding, suicide among the enslaved was not a response to their condition of enslavement, but a practice rooted in West African culture, hence, for Knight, slavery was not such a cruel institution.

          In associating the occurrence of suicide with the Igbo, it is plausible that James Knight was attempting to mount a stronger defence of slavery. By treating the manuscript as a whole, rather than focusing on specific fragments, it is possible to engage completely with Knight’s discussion of ethnic groups in Jamaica. Historians have long accepted white accounts of enslaved cultures, without always contemplating how such accounts helped maintain the overall system of slavery. By attributing specific traits to various ethnic groups, it is feasible that Europeans were attempting to deny the cruelty of enslavement. These conclusions are, of course, tentative and must be compared with other accounts and the rhetoric on cruelty towards the enslaved within European societies. Undoubtedly, beliefs and practices, originating in specific regions of West and West Central Africa, travelled across the Atlantic and proved crucial in the development of enslaved people’s cultures. However, Knight’s manuscripts raise new questions, which must be considered by historians of Atlantic slavery. Where did stereotypes about various African ethnic groups originate? Why did white Europeans link specific traits and behaviours with African ethnicities? How did these links function in the white European worldview? If we can grasp why Knight thought it pertinent to associate “particularly Eboes” with suicide or people of the Gold Coast with warfare, it may be possible to come to a greater understanding of how the system of Atlantic slavery maintained itself.


[1]James Knight, The Naturall, Morall, and Politicall History of Jamaica, and the territories thereon depending, from the earliest account of time to the year 1742, Vol. 2, autograph, British Library, Archives and Manuscripts, Add MS 12416.

[2]Philip Morgan, “Africa and the Atlantic, c. 1450-c. 1820.” In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Jack Greene; Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 238.

[3]Sidney Mintz; Richard Price, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 9; James Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Douglas Chambers, "The Black Atlantic: Theory, Method, and Practice." In The Atlantic World, 1450-2000, ed. Toyin Falola; Kevin Roberts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 151-173.

[4]Gwendolyn Hall, "African Ethnicities and the Meanings of "Mina"." In Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora, eds. Paul Lovejoy; David Trotman, (New York: Continuum, 2003), 65-81; Beatriz Mamigonian; José Reis, "The Nagô and Mina: The Yoruba Diaspora in Brazil," in The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World, eds. Matt Childs; Toyin Falola (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 77-110.

[5]Mintz; Price, The Birth of African American Culture, 18.

[6]Mintz; Price, The Birth of African American Culture, 18.

[7]Mintz; Price, The Birth of African American Culture, 9, 18.

[8]Gert Oostindie; Alex van Stipriaan, "Slavery and Slave Culture in a Hydraulic Society: Suriname,” in Slave Cultures and Cultures of Slavery, ed. Stephan Palmié (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 79.

[9]Oostindie; van Stipriaan, "Slavery and Slave Culture,” 80.

[10]Oostindie; van Stipriaan, "Slavery and Slave Culture,” 91-92.

[11]Oostindie; van Stipriaan, "Slavery and Slave Culture,” 93.

[12]John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 197.  

[13]Paul Lovejoy, "Identifying Enslaved Africans in the African Diaspora," in Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, ed. Paul Lovejoy (London: Continuum, 2000), 19.  

[14]David Eltis, “Methodology,” Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade- Understanding the Database, Slave Voyages, last modified 2018, https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/about.

[15]Chambers, "The Black Atlantic," 160-161.

[16]James Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 227.

[17]Sweet, Recreating Africa, 227-228.

[18]James Sweet, ""Not a Thing for White Men to See": Central African Divination in Seventeenth-Century Brazil," in Enslaving Connections: Changing Cultures of Africa and Brazil during the Era of Slavery, eds. José Curto; Paul Lovejoy (New York: Humanity Books, 2004), 140.  

[19]Sweet, ""Not a Thing for White Men to See,"" 140.  

[20]Kwasi Konadu, The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.  

[21]Konadu, The Akan Diaspora, 149.


[22]Konadu, The Akan Diaspora, 148.  

[23]Konadu, The Akan Diaspora, 149.


[24]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 175.

[25]Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade- Database,” Slave Voyages, accessed July 9, 2019, https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyages/PEGJ5cxB

[26]Michael Deason; Vincent Macaulay; Simon Newman; Yannis Pitsiladis; Antonio Salas, “The West African Ethnicity of the Enslaved in Jamaica,” Slavery & Abolition 34, no. 3 (2013): 385. 

[27]Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade- Database,” Slave Voyages, accessed July 9, 2019, https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyages/PEGJ5cxB.

[28]Deason, et. al., “The West African Ethnicity,” 385. 

[29]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 188.


[30]Michael Mullin, in Michael Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 92.


[31]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 187.  

[32]Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks, 101.


[33]Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks, 104.  

[34]Morgan, Kenneth. “Material on the History of Jamaica in the Edward Long Papers: An Introduction to the Microfilm Collection.” Wakefield: Microfilm Academic Publishers, 2006, 7; “James Knight,” Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, UCL Department of History, last modified 2019, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146649569.

[35]Vincent Brown, The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 131.  

[36]Brown, The Reaper's Garden, 131.  

[37]Richard Ligon, in Brown, The Reaper's Garden, 133.  

[38]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 188.

[39]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 188.


[40]Brown, The Reaper's Garden, 133.  

[41]Brown, The Reaper's Garden, 131.  

[42]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 181.  

[43]Knight, The Naturall, Vol. 2, Add MS 12416, ff. 188.  

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