John Bowen Colthurst (1779-1848) was appointed to Barbados as a Special Magistrate in 1835, and this is his diary, annotated by W.K. Marshall, Professor of History at the University of the West Indies.
After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834, the British government instituted a period of ‘apprenticeship’ when ex-slaves continued to work on their former masters’ plantations for 45 hours a week, in exchange for food, clothing and housing. They were no longer owned by their master, and he no longer had the power to punish them. Instead, Special Magistrates were appointed to hear complaints about the apprentices from their masters and vice versa. Much of the time he mediated between them, but he alone had the power to order punishment. It was intended originally that field (or praedial) slaves would be bound to work for six years as apprentices, while domestic (or non-praedial) slaves would be bound for four, on account of the longer working hours they undertook in the house. However, the Apprenticeship system was abandoned in 1838, largely because of the unworkability of having some Apprentices freed and others not, and because public agitation in England was ramping up again against continued involvement in slavery or its other manifestations.
John Bowen Colthurst was of a good Anglo-Irish family, with strong network connections. He had had a military career during the Napoleonic Wars (although he didn’t see active service) and had withdrawn on half-pay after the war to his farm in Ireland. The farm, however, had accrued many debts and so, like many others, he began petitioning the Colonial Office for a position, drawing on the strings of patronage at his disposal. He had been a JP in Ireland for many years and it was this combination of legal administrative experience and his military training that led to his appointment as a Special Magistrate in Barbados, and later St Vincent. In this regard he was unusual: many Special Magistrates had the military background but very few had acted as magistrates before. His family did not accompany him, and his wife and daughter stayed with her cousin. Despite his attempts to retrieve the financial situation for his family, they lost the farm soon after his return to Ireland.
Colthurst proclaimed himself to be an abolitionist, but he was able to reconcile this philosophy with his role as one of the functionaries of the Apprenticeship system. He seems to have seen the Apprenticeship as a temporary measure that needed to work as a preparation for freedom on both sides- both planter and apprentice- and believed that it would stand as a good example for other nations contemplating the abolition of slavery. He was certainly critical of many of the plantation managers and their treatment of Apprentices, although this seemed to stem largely from his dislike of ‘low-bred’ creoles (ie. Europeans born in the West Indies). Nonetheless, he continued to argue that a period of adjustment was beneficial and indeed necessary to induce plantation-owners to relinquish their slave property.
In 1837, agitation against the Apprenticeship system was ramping up in England, and the radical abolitionist Joseph Sturge released a critique of the Apprenticeship system, which received a great deal of publicity amongst abolitionsts in London. Over in the West Indies, Colthurst found himself springing to the defence of Special Magistrates and their role, and decrying Sturge’s information-gathering techniques and one-sided report.
Colthurst was probably one of the better Special Magistrates. He was well-informed about agriculture and police administration, and took an interest in the religious and educational provision of the apprentices. He was careful not to become too embroiled socially with the planters, preferring to maintain his contacts with the governors instead. Of course, this shapes his narrative as well.
On his return to Britain, he realized that there was a market for literature about the West Indies – for example, Mrs Carmichael’s work that I reviewed here and the eyewitness reports submitted home by abolitionists and planters as part of the public discourse about abolition. Through (and despite?) his involvement in the Apprenticeship system at the time, he became increasingly involved in abolition movements on his return, most particularly those agitating against the continuation of American slavery. He rewrote his memoirs into the form they are found in this book, in five separate volumes and forwarded them to leading abolitionists in the hope that they might be published. They were, but not as a stand-alone publication, being extracted for newspaper publication instead. Only four of these volumes exist today in the Boston Public Library, and the fifth volume has been reconstructed by the editor from columns that were republished in abolition newspapers.
Marshall’s introductory chapters to the journal are informative, and his annotations throughout the book are useful and insightful, providing information that Colthurst could not have known at the time, and challenging some of Colthurst’s observations. Colthurst’s writing is of its time, but he certainly provides a wealth of information about the role of the special magistrate in a short-lived experiment of policy.