Dr. Pinckard’s account of the torture of enslaved Africans in Berbice

Timber Estate, British Guiana, 1834 (Source)

Dr. George Pinckard toured Berbice and Demerara in South America as well as various other European colonies in the West Indies in 1796. Excerpts from his detailed three volume account of his travels were published as supporting evidence by slave trade abolitionists in 1807 and, quite brazenly considering the overall content, pro-slavery/racist ideologues. I arrived at Pinckard’s work via John Poyer’s History of Barbados (1808), which is a classic example of the latter. Poyer was a creole planter in Barbados who believed firmly in white supremacy and the perpetual enslavement of Africans. As Dr. Reilly has explained, he wanted the Council to uplift the “poor whites” above the free people of colour in Barbados, as he argued that a “well constituted society” was based upon “distinctions which naturally exist…First between White inhabitants and free people of Colour, and Secondly between Masters and Slaves.” Thus his misrepresentation of Pinckard’s work is primarily used to argue in favour of that old pro-slave trade canard that the “poor whites” back in Britain were worse off than black slaves in the colonies. The following letter from Dr. Pinckard dismisses such notions as baseless.


Mahaica, August (1796)

“If I were to proceed only upon the knowledge I have of your feelings, I should avoid laying before you a history, which is more direful and afflicting than any arising from the ravages of the much-dreaded fever of this climate ; but, when I recollect that it was emphatically your request that I would relate every fact which should present itself to my observation, respecting the slaves, I cannot refrain from telling you, that since my arrival at Mahaica, one of the most shocking instances of barbarity has occurred, which was ever perpetrated, even in a land of slavery.”

“Two unhappy negroes, a man and a woman, having been driven by cruel treatment to abscond from the plantation Lancaster, were taken a few days since, and brought back to the estate, when the manager, whose inhuman severity had caused them to fly from his government, dealt out to them his avenging despotism with more than savage brutality. Taking with him two of his strongest drivers, armed with heavy whips, he led out these trembling and wretched Africans, early in the morning, to a remote part of the estate, too distant for the officers to hear their cries ; and, there, tying down first the man, he stood by, and made the drivers flog him with many hundred lashes, until, on releasing him from the ground, it was discovered that he was nearly exhausted : in this state the monster struck- him on the head, with the but end of a large whip, and felled him again to the earth ; when the poor negro, escaping at once from his slavery and his sufferings, expired at the murderer’s feet. But not satiated with blood, this savage tyrant next tied down the naked woman, on the spot, by the dead body of her husband, and with the whips, already purple with gore, compelled the drivers to inflict a punishment of several hundred lashes, which had nearly released her also from a life of toil and torture.”

Whipping of a Fugitive Slave, French West Indies, 1840s (Source)

“Hearing of these acts of cruelty, on my return from the hospital, and scarcely believing it possible that they could have been committed, I went immediately to the sick-house to satisfy myself by ocular testimony : when, alas ! I discovered that all I had heard was too fatally true; for, shocking to relate, I found the almost murdered woman lying stark-naked on her belly, upon the dirty boards, without any covering to the horrid wounds which had been cut by the whips, and with the still warm and bloody corpse of the man extended at her side, upon the neck of which was an iron collar, and a long heavy chain, which the now murdered negro had been made to wear from the time of his return to the estate. The flesh of the woman was so torn, as to exhibit one extensive sore, from the loins almost down to her hams; nor had humanity administered even a drop of oil to soften her wounds : the only relief she knew, was that of extending her feeble arm in order to beat off the tormenting flies, with a small green bough, which had been put into her hand for that purpose by the sympathizing kindness of a fellow slave. A more horrid and distressful spectacle can scarcely be conceived. The dead man, and the almost expiring woman had been brought home, from the place of punishment, and thrown into the negro hospital, amidst, the crowd of sick, with cruel unconcern. Lying on the opposite side of the corpse was a fellow -sufferer, in a similar condition to the poor woman. His buttocks, thighs, and part of his back, had been flogged into one large sore, which was still raw, although he had been punished a fortnight before.”

“The following day we witnessed the preparations for the funeral of their murdered brother, by his fellow slaves. It was conducted in their usual manner, not with the afflicting solemnity of the Christian rites, but with all the mirthful ceremonies of African burial, forming a scene of gaiety, which consisted of music, dancing, singing, and loud noise. They all seemed to rejoice more in his escape from pain and misery, than to sorrow for his loss. , The body being put into the coffin, and every thing made ready for proceeding to the grave, the corpse was taken out of the sick-house into the yard, and placed very carefully upon the heads of two robust negroes, who carried it as far as the house, and then, halting under the window of the manager’s room, they set the coffin upon the ground, and the whole gang of slaves danced and sang, and played their music around it, in loud gambols, for nearly two hours ; beating at intervals, with great violence, against the door and window-shutters, and threatening vengeance upon the murderer of their companion.”

Funeral and Divination, Jamaica, 1843 (Source)

“The manager expecting that they would break into the house to massacre him, and feeling that he merited death from their hands, was seized with sad alarm; and, bursting from his hiding-place, he ran abruptly to the mess-room, to implore the protection of the officers, looking a ghastly figure of terror. I could not but remark the effect of his sudden appearance among us. Not one officer opened his lips in reply to him. The general feeling seemed to say — “a wretch so cruel can deserve no compassion.” After a short suspense, the silence, which must have been more severe than the bitterest words, was broken, by one of the gentlemen referring him to his feelings, and demanding whether he conceived himself to merit either pity or protection. His fears had magnified the danger; for although the slaves were clamorous, we did not notice among them any symptoms which evinced a disposition forcibly to break into the house. They at length concluded their dance, then replacing the coffin upon the heads of the two negroes, and observing much ceremony as to the position of the corpse, they proceeded towards the place of interment. On leaving the courtyard, they used the precaution of going round the house, in order to avoid carrying the body across the manager’s window, not, as you will suppose, from any sense of delicacy towards him, but from some superstition regarding the spirit of the dead slave.”

“As they moved on, two women tapped gently at the sides of the coffin, as if to appease the corpse, or soften its wrath while passing the murderer’s abode. The manager felt highly relieved by their departure; but they had not gone far before the whole party suddenly faced about, and came running back to the house, the two negroes who were bearing the corpse turning round and round, with it upon their heads, a number of times in the yard, while many of the gang beat and kicked against the door, and the window-shutters of the manager’s room, shouting and crying aloud for vengeance: upon which one of the book-keepers, an old man who had been long upon the estate, went out to join in the crowd; and exerting his influence to appease them, led them away, when they proceeded, dancing, singing, and beating their music, to the place of burial. After a short time the gang returned again into the courtyard, having left the remains of their companion in the peaceful grave. The busy dance was now resumed, and they hooted and hissed at the manager, and beat loudly at his door and window, continuing their shoutings and clamour until dark, when they all retired quietly to their huts.”

“A few days after the funeral, the attorney of the estate happened to call at Lancaster to visit the officers, and the conversation naturally turning upon the late cruelty of the manager, and the consequent injury derived to the proprietor, we asked him what punishment the laws of the colony had provided for such horrid and barbarous crimes; expressing our hope that the manager would suffer’ the disgrace he so justly merited; when, to our great surprise, the attorney smiled and treated our remarks only as the dreams of men unpractised in the ways of slavery.

He spake of the murder with as little feeling as the manager had perpetrated it, and seemed to be amused at our visionary ideas, of punishing a white man for his conduct towards slaves!

To the question whether the manager would not be dismissed from the estate, he replied, “Certainly not,” adding that “ if the negro had been treated as he deserved he would have been flogged to death long before.” Such was the amount of his sympathy and concern! The laws of the colony, he said, were intended to prevent any person from chastising a slave with more than thirty-nine lashes, for the same offence; but by incurring only a small fine, he could, at any time, punish a negro with as many hundred lashes as he might wish, “ although the governor and the fiscal” were standing at his elbow.”

“I was careful to observe the progress of the hideous wounds inflicted upon the poor woman, and to watch her recovery ; and you will be shocked to know that her sufferings were severely increased, by the inhuman neglect which succeeded to her punishment. One morning, upon hearing the loud cries of a female, I was led to look out at my window, when I saw some negroes carrying this unfortunate woman from the sick house into the yard, where they laid her down in the dirt, upon the bare ground, amidst a heavy shower of rain, then, kneeling at her sides, they proceeded to examine minutely into her wounds ; and you will scarcely hold it credible, when I tell you that they were employed a full half-hour picking maggots out of her sores. The ulcerations had penetrated to a great depth, particularly within-side the thighs, where the lashes of the whips had cut round, and torn the flesh in a frightful manner.

The ulcers were very raw and considerably enlarged, by the gnawing of the maggots which had been bred within them. I cannot describe to you the horror I felt at this deplorable sight. I had often heard of maggoting sheep, but this was the first instance I had met with of maggoting a human being…”

and I felt additional distress in finding the subject of it an unhappy female, whose punishment had been already severe, and in whom the occasion for such a beastly process might and ought to have been prevented, if the common dictates of humanity had been observed. The poor afflicted wretch groaned heavily under her sufferings, and the operation, which in itself was severely painful, was rendered so in a still greater degree by the roughness of her untutored surgeons. During the whole of the time, she was exposed naked to the rain ; also to the eyes of slaves, officers, soldiers, and all who chanced to pass that way. It was a spectacle, equally offensive to humanity, and to delicacy!”

“On representing the diabolical cruelty of this case to the surgeon, he remarked to us, that the sores, from punishments, did not usually fall under his inspection, but were left to the care of the negro doctor who had the charge of the sick-house; and that nothing was more common than to see the wounds filled with mascots: “Indeed,” said he, “it is often our greatest difficulty, in the practice of surgery in these climates, to prevent the breeding of insects in the sores.”

“I am sorry to remark that the Lancaster plantation has been distinguished for some time past, on account of the inhuman treatment of the slaves ; in fact, it seemed as if cruelty had become contagious upon this estate, for we learn, from the most respectable authority, that a former proprietor was so hardened in his savage conduct that, frequently, when an unfortunate negro was bound down to the earth, and groaning under the severe pain of two heavy lashes, he would strike him a blow upon the head with the but end of his whip, between each of the strokes given by the drivers; and that,

…carrying his barbarity still further, he would sometimes order the teeth of the slave to be torn out with a pair of iron pincers, and would himself stand by to see the torture inflicted…

“I can anticipate your sentiments upon reading the history of these shocking punishments, for they afford lamentable examples of the horrors and injustice of slavery ; and you cannot but think, with me, that the system which gives to an individual the power of lording his worst passions, over a fellow-being, uncontrolled, admits of no defence. It is a violation of nature, in which humanity is outraged, and our species degraded!”

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi https://ko-fi.com/liamhogan

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