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'Runaways' from Lord Seaforth's plantations

Peter Fairbairn's letters to Lord Seaforth [National Archves of Scotland, GD46] , accounting for his management of Seaforth's plantations in Berbice from 1801, provide an example of how enslaved Africans attempted to gain their freedom.

In January 1803 Fairbairn reported that two slaves had escaped but that he expected them back soon. The following January, 1804, he reported that 'desertion' had been 'furious during this quarter' and that an expedition has been mounted into the bush. This had encountered a camp of around 50 maroons about a day's journey away, on the Demerara side of the Abary Creek, 'with plantains, rice, tobacco, cassava etc in abundance'. These included three of Seaforth's slaves – Peter, Dingwall and Inverness. Only Inverness was re-captured and a 'military party' was being sought in order to pursue the others.

At this date [January 1804] the 100 slaves bought for plantation Brahan since 1801 had been reduced by five deaths and six escapes.

In January 1808 Fairbairn referred to Quaco, who had been Seaforth's cook in Barbados, and a boy, who had both absconded and attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact the 'maroons in the woods'. Quaco escaped again in late 1809, along with another slave 'of much greater value than himself'.

Both shortages of food on the plantations, as a result of the failure of the plantain crop, and dry seasons, which made travel easier, increased the number of escapes.

In undated correspondence from about the same time, Fairbairn gave a detailed account of the slave Favourite, who had been 'detected in the practice of Obie [Obeah = African religious rites]' and 'also in having communication with Runaways and having formed a plan to carry off a number of the women to the Woods ' He had been punished by 'confinement in barracks' and then returned to Plantation Seawell. However, in November [1808?], he had again been found practicing his Obeah and had been ' delivered to the Governor to be put in irons and put to labour'.

Favourite escaped and in May [1809?] but was caught at Brahan 'in the act of carrying off one of the negroes, assisted by a negro belonging to the estate and by one of the Brahan Runaways, Inverness, who had been long absent but who it seems knows the way back and holds correspondence with the coast'. Favourite was again 'confined in barracks'.

By this time Fairbairn reckoned that the maroon camp had grown to number about 100 and remarked that 'if the Runaways . . . are not drove away I fear very serious consequences'. The Governor, van Battenberg, had promised to send an expedition the previous year, 'assisted by Indians, but had been prevented by the season'.

The promised expedition was mounted in January 1810, under Charles Edmonstone, and Fairbairn was able to report that the 100 'runaways' had been 'killed or taken'. Among those captured were Quaco and his companion, who with the other captives would be 'shipped to the islands' but the plantation would 'get the value'.