Two Statues Defining Caribbean Slavery
Countries tell their history through their statues. Know the statues and you know the country. That’s why I went to the statue of Prince Klass on the outskirts of St. Johns, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda. The statue with its marble base proved to be more than twenty feet tall, Klass impressively dressed in eighteenth century costume with a plumed hat, his head thrown up to heaven, blowing a conch shell to summon slaves to freedom. When I talked to white Antiguans about Klass, those claiming descend from the English who colonized Antigua, they say in 1736 Klass headed a slave revolt, was intending to kill all the whites on Antigua, and doesn't deserve a statue.
Klass was a slave from Ghana who had risen to be head slave at one of the largest plantations on Antigua, highly literate and of commanding presence. According to white Antiguans it was Klass’s intent to establish the first black nation in the Caribbean. A ceremony was held outside St. Johns where Klass was designated as “King of the Coromantees” by other slaves. The colonialists thought this was merely a colorful spectacle. Just in time they discovered that the ceremony was instead the intended start of a slave revolt. Klass and four others were killed on the bone breaking wheel reserved in the Caribbean for high treason. Six slaves were gibbetted (hung in irons until they died of hunger and thirst). And seventy seven others were burned at the stake, burning being an execution of choice as the slaves believed if you are burned your soul doesn’t ascend to heaven.
The black Antiguans I talked to had quite a different tale. They told me that slavery in the Caribbean was much worse than in the US, punishment by cutting off noses and limbs, many burnings, babies taken from mothers. They belonged to the plantation owner rather than the mother, and no escape as might be possible in the U.S. South with its secret ways to the North. Worse, in the Caribbean it was the practice that when a slave got old or incapacitated they would stop feeding them, let them die of starvation, cheaper to replace them with new slaves than take care of them. No wonder that by the 1700s there were bloody slave revolts on islands all around the Caribbean.
Antigua plantation owners feared Antigua would be next. They had reason to fear. At the time there were 37,000 slaves and the number of whites had diminished toward 2,000. The blacks I talked to insisted that the Klass slave revolt was the clever English solution to that situation, a revolt that was never planned, made up by the English out of whole-cloth to kill a lot of slaves, scare the slaves into long term submission, forestalling any future slave revolt. Klass was chosen as the erstwhile ringleader as he was a focal figure in the black community, an obeah-man (priest of the West African Yoruba religion), and a supposed Ashanti nobleman. They broke him on the wheel but he didn’t give the names of other slaves. So they took leading slaves from the largest plantations and killed them, eighty eight killed in total. The erection of the statue was the result of a long campaign by the blacks to give Klass deserved recognition, strongly opposed by many whites. Each year black Antiguans march proudly to the statue to lay flowers at Klass’s feet, called by all “Prince Klass” because of his bravery. Some blacks told me that even to this day, they think of the eighty eight brutal deaths every time they have to deal with white Antiguans.
The two statues told me a tale of black revenge against the slave owning whites but a very small revenge compared to the horror of slavery.
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