On Joseph Rachell of Barbados, by Karl Watson

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On Joseph Rachell of Barbados, by Karl Watson

Postby bimjim » Mon Feb 08, 2016 2:24 am

This month is Black History month. I was asked to speak on a topic for local TV... which I was quite happy to do. However, they wanted me to talk about Nelson. I refused politely, explaining that I had already said everything I wanted to say about Horatio Nelson and his role in the Caribbean. Further, as I explained, I thought that Black History month should be focused on positive role models for young people, drawing their attention to those who had conquered adversity and had risen through their own efforts. Such a person I suggested was Joseph Rachell who rose to prominence as a business person in mid eighteenth century Barbados and I indicated that I would be quite happy to speak about him. Since the programme's organizer knew nothing of Joseph Rachell and I suppose...my best efforts to the contrary... few Barbadians know anything about him, here is the story of Barbados' first important and successful black businessman.

Mr Joseph Rachell: The Contradictions of Life as a Black businessman, Philanthropist and Slaveowner in mid Eighteenth Century Bridgetown, Barbados.
Karl Watson

Joseph Rachell was undoubtedly the earliest and wealthiest black businessman of Bridgetown, described by contemporaries as ‘a capital merchant.” This was a remarkable achievement given the context of the times in which it was achieved. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the system of slavery was at its peak and non whites were at a considerable disadvantage in every way conceivable. Slaves were chattel or disposable property and free coloureds and blacks had very limited legal standing and in a court of law, could not bear witness against whites.

The first mention of Joseph Rachell in the existing documents, records his baptism on 4th May, 1726 at St Michael’s church in Bridgetown. He is described as “a free negro boy about ten years old.” The witnesses to his baptism were John Bellarmine, Charles Mingo and Sarah Peace. We know nothing about the latter two witnesses, but the first one, John Bellarmine was a free Negro, born 1699, the son of Thomas and Rachael Bellarmine, also free Negroes. It is highly likely that Charles Mingo and Sarah Peace were also free Negroes.

These details are important because they speak to the very small free coloured and black community that existed on Barbados towards the end of the seventeenth century. This was such a small community that it is possible that all its members were known to each other. These connections may provide clues to Joseph Rachell’s parentage, since to date; no document has been located which confirms the date of his birth. However, recorded details from his tombstones show the year to be 1716.

His parents were almost certainly William Rachel, described as “a negro of Col. Eginton” and Susannah Green, a free negro. These two individuals were baptized and married at St James’ Church on the same day, 11th April, 1701. The surname Rachel is an unusual one and a search of the records shows that for the time period in question, William Rachel was the sole possessor of this name.

There are no other individuals in existing documents who bear this name. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Joseph Rachell was the son of William and Susannah Rachel. This assertion is supported by the fact that on 23rd January, 1750, Joseph Rachell had his son baptized William Francis…one would assume in memory of his grandfather. Provided all the above is correct, then Joseph Rachell would have been free born, even though his father was a slave, as the status of slave was passed through the maternal line and Susannah was a free woman.

We do not know what became of his parents. They simply disappear from the record. It is entirely possible that they died sometime after Joseph was born. Had they then been alive, they would certainly have been at his baptism in 1726. He married Elizabeth Cleaver on 11 April, 1741. Both were listed in the register as free negroes. Their union produced ten children, only one of whom, Frances survived. Only five of the ten children were baptized, the others dying soon after birth.

Those baptised were firstly, Joseph Rachell who was baptized at St Michael’s on 14th November 1740. This baptism took place five months before Joseph Sr. married Elizabeth Cleaver. It is quite probable that she was the mother of Joseph Jr. On Christmas Day 1743, the couple had a daughter who was named Frances. Her baptism took place, also at St Michael’s on 6th October 1744. Their third child, Leonard Cleaver was baptized on 19th July,1746. Then followed William Francis baptized 23rd January, 1750 and finally Mary who was baptized 19 January,1757.

Mortality rates in the eighteenth century were high but even taking this into consideration, the Rachell family certainly had far more than their share of grief. The index to deaths (RL 1/69 Barbados National Archives) tells the sad tale of the disappearance of the Rachell children.

    Name Year of death
    Joseph Rachell 1742
    Leonard Cleaver Rachel 1746
    Josiah Rachel 1748
    William Rachel 1750
    ? Rachel 1752
    John Rachel 1753
    Joseph Rachel 1756
    Mary Rachel 1758
    Sarah Rachel 1764
    Joseph Rachel (Sr.) 1766

Even given the prevalence of gastrointestinal disease and other childhood diseases such as mumps, measles, whooping cough and diphtheria, not to mention small pox or yellow fever which periodically devastated Bridgetown’s population, this does not readily explain all these deaths. None lived past the age of two, most dying in the same year of their birth, even before their baptism. The likely possibility is that there was a deeper congenital issue at play. The culprit could very well have been an Rh incompatibility factor. With six deaths in quick succession, this must have devastated the couple.

It is not surprising that the Rachell’s took in an orphaned baby. The St Michael Vestry minutes of Thursday 22nd February,1753 authorize the Churchwarden to “pay Jos Rachell for nursing and supporting Mary, a bastard child of Sarah Waterman,deceased, the sum of L2 per annum from this day in quarterly payments.” It is one of the anomalies of the period of slavery that the white controlled vestry would hand over the care of a white infant to a black family but by this time, Joseph Rachell was so well known and “his character was so fair, his manners so generous that the best white people showed him a regard which they often deny men of their own colour.” (Dickson, 1789). It is not surprising that in the official documents of the period, the Rachells are no longer identified as free blacks.

Joseph and his wife lived on Maiden Lane which in the mid eighteenth century, linked St George Street and Cheapside. The levy book for 1756 lists five rate payers who lived on Maiden Lane. Joseph Rachell, Abraham Peixotto, George Clanchy, Isaac Garcia and John Caldwell. Of these five tax payers, Joseph Rachell was by far the highest rated. He paid fifteen pounds. Following him was Isaac Garcia who paid ten pounds followed by Abraham Peixotto who paid five pounds. The latter two individuals were members of the Sephardic Jewish community of Bridgetown. In fact, when compared to the majority of rate payers in Bridgetown, Joseph Rachell was assessed for a larger sum than most other tax payers, an indication that his various business interests were doing well.

The scanned account of Rachell which is included in this article, speaks to his various business interests and to his acumen as a business man. What is even more astonishing is that it would appear as if he was not literate. He did not sign his will but rather, left his mark and the impression of his personal seal to validate it.

Most of what we know about Joseph Rachell comes from various contemporary accounts. He was prominent enough and unusual enough to have attracted the attention of various writers of the time. The scanned document appended to this article is taken from William Dickson’s Letters on Slavery (1789) where it was included as an appendix. It is essentially the same account that was published in The New Lady’s Magazine or Polite and Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex. Vol.3 p.254. The author is identified by his initials only, H.W.C. Further details are provided about Rachell by James Ramsay in his An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784) p.254-259. Ramsay apparently met Rachell during a visit to Barbados and was sufficiently impressed with his generosity to state “and will any man pretend to look down with contempt on one capable of such generosity, because the colour of his skin is black?”

Joseph Rachell also appears in the testimony given by Rev. Robert Bowcher Nicholls before a committee of the House of Commons investigating the slave trade.

In recent historiography, Jerome Handler looked at aspects of Rachell’s life in his essay, “Joseph Rachell and Rachael Pringle Polgreen: Petty Entrepreneurs” in Struggle and Survival in Colonial America, David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash eds (1981)

The picture that emerges of Joseph Rachell from these accounts is that of a man caught in the complexities of the system of slavery into which he had been born and socialized. He was neither radical nor revolutionary. Despite the fact that his father had been enslaved, Rachell himself held slaves. The only recorded deed of a business transaction involving Joseph Rachell is that dated 4th February,1745 in which the grantee Joseph Rachell delivers/transfers to the grantor Theodore Walrond of the island of Antigua, “four Negro women named Nanny, Mary, Beck and Rose.” In return, “the said Theodore Walrond doth grant, sell the said Joseph Rachell a certain Negro woman named Rose and her grand daughter a mulatto girl named Beck.” (RL 3/37 p.172).

This in itself was not unusual. In fact, every other free person, whether black or mixed, who could afford it also owned slaves. The example of Philena Nunes illustrates very clearly, this insidious aspect of slavery. Philena was an enslaved woman who was the lover of a free mulatto silversmith, William Nunes. Nunes in his will, declared his love for Philena and arranged to have her freed after his death, at the same time, bequeathing her property and cash. The first use of the cash she inherited after her freedom had been bought, was to . seven slaves.

From a twenty first century perspective, such a transaction would be unthinkable. What, one might ask, was Philena thinking? Had she no compassion, no sense of betrayal? Having herself, experienced the inequities and injustice of slavery, how could she inflict the same trauma on others? At this point in time, we cannot ask Philena for answers, but employing the ideas of empathy and context, her possible answer would have been succinct…survival. Such an answer does not excuse but it explains her actions and those of so many more like herself who became enslavers when the first opportunity presented itself. It is perhaps ironic, that both William Nunes and Philena Nunes lie buried in St Mary’s Churchyard not far from where Joseph Rachell rests.

So we can see that what would have been very unusual would have been a scenario where Rachell, despite his business interests, refused to own and use slaves. Among his many business interests, which were not confined to Barbados but extended to Demerara and the Leeward Islands, was an extensive fishing fleet which he operated with the use of slaves. We cannot guess at his private feelings regarding the individuals he owned and there is no record to indicate what these feelings may have been, except for the contemporary views that contrary to the widely held stereotype of an excessively vigilant and harsh free coloured slave owner, Joseph Rachell “was extremely kind to his Negroes.”

Joseph Rachell kept a dry goods store which was well patronized. He is reported to have had such a good rapport with incoming ship’s captains that he was given first selection of their cargoes. Younger merchants often sought advice from him and if there were problems regarding the setting of prices, his advice was sought and followed.

His white employees… yes, here was a black man in the eighteenth century who employed whites… who “spoke of him in a respectful manner and particularly revered him for his humanity and tenderness.” He was especially conscious of the plight of the many poor whites of Bridgetown and helped them when ever possible. It was recorded that “he supported two or three old indigent whites and left them something at his death.”

He was also a trendsetter. When his fishing fleet returned to land, Rachell, “set apart every day, a quantity of fish for the use of the prisoners in the town gaol.” He himself visited the gaol regularly, enquiring about their well being and “gave them relief in proportion to their distress and good behaviour.” As a result, “his example stirred up a noble spirit of generosity in Bridgetown, insomuch that it was the custom for some years before his death, for the better sort of people to send weekly, either money or provisions to the gaol.”

He frequently lent money to people. His generosity was widely acknowledged, so much so that H.W.C. comments, “I have heard my father lament much that J.R.’s generosity was much imposed upon, both by whites and blacks.”
He was reputed to have bought estates of whites who found themselves in financial difficulties and to later sell them back to the same families at cost when they had cleared their debts. In one instance that Ramsay records, a friend of Joseph Rachell’s fell on hard times. Rachell was holding this friend’s credit bond for L60. He could have had him jailed for debt as was customary in those days. Instead, Rachell rather flamboyantly rolled up the bond and used it to light his pipe. This rather quirky action speaks to a showy side of Rachell’s personality. It was the equivalent in today’s terms, of using a US$1000 bill to light a pipe. It must have given Joseph Rachell some type of psychological comfort to have been in a sufficiently strong financial position to help the various white people he assisted.

Despite his good relationship with the white townspeople, and his reputation for “benevolence” and “charitable” deeds, Rachell must have been always aware of his uncertain and tenuous position as a free black man who was potentially subject to various forms of discrimination. That realization may in itself have led him to establish a reputation for philanthropy as a defensive measure, for he was in a vulnerable situation.

An example of this manifested itself with the frequent visits of a militia colonel who would take copious samples of Rachell’s cocoa that he stuffed in his coat pockets. Rachell was not prepared to deny him these many samples because of the individuals power and standing, but the situation was untenable. Neither could Rachell as a black man, offer evidence against a white man in a court of law. To solve the problem, he instructed one of his white clerks to attend exclusively and give this obnoxious customer samples from a specific bag of cocoa which no one else would touch. After some time, the colonel received a bill for the cocoa he had received as ‘samples.” Despite his protestations, he eventually paid up, as he realized that Rachell was onto his game and that the white clerk could give evidence in a court of law against him.

There is a curious baptism recorded for 29 December, 1761. This concerns Isabella, the mulatto daughter of Wm. McGibbons and Eliz. Rachel alias Jane. The infant was born the 30th August, 1761. Was the mother of this child the wife of Joseph Rachell? There is no record of the Rachells having a daughter who was named either Elizabeth or Jane. Could this have been an illegitimate daughter of Joseph Rachell? Again, there is no record of him having a daughter outside of his marriage. At this juncture, all we can do is to speculate about the parentage of Isabella.

Shortly before his death… four months to be exact, Joseph Rachell had the pleasure of seeing his daughter Frances marry Thomas Lanahan at St Michael’s church on 23 December, 1765. Though the connection has yet to be demonstrated, Thomas Lanahan was almost certainly related to Dr Lanahan who had treated George Washington successfully for small pox. Thomas and Frances Lanahan disappear from the records of Barbados after their marriage, suggesting that she either died shortly after her marriage or that the couple left the island. There is a death recorded for a Francis Lanahan in 1782. (RB5/325). This may be a spelling mistake. However, this could very well be the death record of Frances as there is no baptism recorded for Francis Lanahan.

The commentator H.W.C. notes that at Rachell’s death in 1766, “his funeral was attended by thousands of whites (some of them very respectable people) and by a prodigious concourse of blacks.” It is interesting to speculate on the reason he was not buried in the graveyard of St Michael’s. He after all, had been a stalwart and upstanding member of that church for most of his life. It was after all, the church where he was baptized, married and where his sole surviving child Frances also married in 1765.

Was it a question of race? This is possible but hardly likely given the fact that the Rachell family seems to have acquired “honorary white” status. It is perhaps extraordinary for the time that neither in the baptisms of his children, in the marriage of his daughter or in the minutes of the St Michael vestry is Joseph Rachell singled out or identified as a free black man. Previously, he had been identified as such. Both his baptismal and marriage records identify him as a free Negro.

But by 1743 such racial identification ceases. With his mercantile success, his conformity and participation in society, especially church affairs and his philanthropy to whites especially, the establishment seems to have accepted him as on of their own. Yes, even though his funeral rites were carried out in St Michael’s, his body was interred in the Old Churchyard, in what is today, the graveyard of St Mary’s. So can this be interpreted as a racial snub after death? It was unusual though not unheard of, for non whites to be buried in Anglican graveyards in the eighteenth century. It is possible that his seeming sudden death may have preempted any funerary plans on his part or his wife may simply have preferred that he be buried in what by custom had become the traditional burying place for the free coloured and free black community of Bridgetown.

His tombstone, an imported dark green granite ledger reads: To the memory of Mr JOSEPH RACHEL who Died the 15 day of Octor 1766 Aged 50 Years. The use of the prefix Mr is unusual. Very rarely is such usage seen in any graveyard in Barbados. It is quite likely, a deliberate, even if self conscious affirmation by Elizabeth Rachell that in death as in life, her husband commanded respect.

His will written on the day of his death, 15th October, 1766 is brief. He noted that though sound of mind, he was “sick and weak of body.” He directed “all my just debts and funeral expenses be paid” To “my dearly beloved wife Elizabeth Rachell,” he bequeathed “all my estate real and personal.” Elizabeth was named “sole executrix of this my said will.” The will was witnessed by John Martin, Wm Crichlow and Amy Crichlow. (RB6/21 pp.42,43) These were presumably friends of the Rachells. William and Amy Crichlow are easy to trace. They were a white middle aged couple who lived in Bridgetown, not far from the Rachell’s residence. John Martin is a bit more difficult to place as there were many individuals of that name christened in the first three decades of the eighteenth century.

Jerome Handler suggests that Rachell acquiesced to “the norms of compliance and accommodation white society considered appropriate to the behaviour of non whites.” In his view, Joseph Rachell was not “perceived as threatening to the social order and to the maintenance of white supremacy and he also met certain economic needs of the white community.” (Handler pp.381, 382)

In the twenty two years following her husband’s death, it is difficult to reconstruct the life of Elizabeth Rachell. We do not know for example, whether she continued to operate the dry goods store founded by Joseph. As the sole executrix of his estate, she would have been able to continue to enjoy a comfortable life. She owned many slaves, eighteen that are named in baptismal records or in her will, though possibly that number was greater. She may have continued to operate the fishing business established by her husband or have let her adult slaves out as jobbing slaves.

After Joseph’s death, his wife Elizabeth seems to have developed close personal relationships with two white men Isaac Williamson and Phillip Lythcott.

When she died in 1788 at the age of seventy four, she gave bequests to four people. She left five enslaved mulatto children, all named, to her “beloved daughter Rebecca Beves.” These were all the children of “my slave Princess.” To her friend, Isaac Williamson, she left “one mulatto woman slave named Nanny and her daughter Betsy Ann.” Her god daughter Elizabeth Bollington was bequeathed twenty pounds. I t is worth remarking that this is another instance showing the close personal relationship the Rachell family had with various white families of Bridgetown. To be asked to be the god parent of a child reflected the esteem in which that individual was held. It was normal for parents to choose an individual in a higher social bracket than themselves to stand as god parent. That in eighteenth century Barbados, a black woman was chosen by white parents to be the god mother of their daughter only confirms the degree to which the Rachells were held by the society of their time and corroborates all the existing testimony that speaks to the “high regard” of the “best white people” for them.

The rest of her estate, ‘in this island and elsewhere” (which suggests that her business interests extended beyond Barbados), “I give to my esteemed friend Philip Lytcott and my beloved daughter Rebecca Beves to be equally divided between them.” There is no mention of the daughter Frances so it is possible, as noted previously, that she too had predeceased her mother.

Whether Elizabeth established a sexual relationship with Philip Lytcott is unknown. They seem to have grown close after both lost their spouses. The witnesses to Elizabeth’s will were Alexander Barclay and John Willoughby. (RB6/33 pp336, 337) There is some question as to the place where Elizabeth Rachell died. Her name is not present in the index of deaths which suggests that she did not die in Barbados. Furthermore, there is no grave marker or plaque to her in the Old Churchyard (now St Mary’s Church). One would expect that had she died in Barbados, she would have been buried next to her husband Joseph and that some form of memorial would have been raised to her.
With the death of Elizabeth, the Rachell name passes into history.
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