CARIBBEAN-L ArchivesArchiver > CARIBBEAN > 2001-04 > 0986680712
From: Ernest Wiltshire <>
Subject: Barbados Redlegs - 1957 article from BMHSJ
Date: Sat, 7 Apr 2001 14:58:32 -0700 (PDT)
THE REDLEGS OF BARBADOS
By EDWARD T. PRICE
Poor white people do not belong in a colonial world of
white masters and coloured labourers. They not only
stand out as anomalies, but are likely to be
hard-pressed for survival in a society that has no
niche for them, that assumes they will not exist. The
poor whites on the other islands of the Lesser
Antilles, described by Grenfell Price,1 are mostly
living in distinct settlements with some degree of
economic self-sufficiency -- but Barbados offers no
such opportunities. It is not surprising, then that
the once numerous Redlegs have virtually disappeared
as a group on Barbados.
The term "Redleg" on Barbados probably refers to the
sunburn picked up by light-skinned people in sunny
latitudes. The name originally drew my attention to
the group because of the fact that it is used in South
Carolina occasionally to refer to a mixed-blood group
(and there probably implies Indian blood). Since South
Carolina was settled by Barbadians, I had thought of
the possibility that the two Redleg groups, each an
anomalous proletariat in a biracial society, might be
related. I found no concrete evidence for this, but
think it possible that the name in the two places had
a common origin. It is said to have been used in
Scotland to describe the kilted highlanders, but I
have obtained no knowledge of when it was first used
in either Barbados or South Carolina. The Barbados
Redlegs have also been termed Redshanks and Scotland
Johnnies (some of them reside in the island's hilly
The Redlegs are survivors of the heavy white
immigration into Barbados during the seventeenth
century. Sugar was introduced commercially by the
early 1640's and proved so profitable that it quickly
surpassed all other crops. Population grew rapidly
with the recruiting of labour in Britain and Ireland,
and the importing of African slaves. Excerpts from a
journal of 1654 illustrate the prevalent themes of the
day: "this Iland is the Dunghill whereon England doth
cast forth its rubidg . . . manured the best of any
Iland in the Inges . . . . But it maintains more souls
than any piese of land of the bigness in the wordell".
2 Indentured servants came in number; if they survived
the merciless treatment. they might receive a few
acres for their own at the expiration of the contract.
Sometimes the recruiting was forceful: men were
shanghaied or, in the language specific to the day and
place, "barbadoed." Political prisoners were sent to
Barbados, especially during the Civil War and after
the Bloody Assizes of 1685. 3 Prison...
[poor photocopy last line on page missing].
During the seventeenth century many of the farm units
were small, and the Europeans outnumbered the slaves,
but the heyday of the small proprietor died with the
flush of sugar crops on the virgin soils. Before 1700
the whites became so alarmed at the increasing
preponderance of negro slaves in the face of white
emigration that legal measures were taken to maintain
a yeomanry on the island. Every sugar estate was
required to maintain a footman for every 20 acres and
a horseman for every 40 acres (the ratio seems to have
varied from time to time).4 The militiamen thus
prescribed were each assigned a house and a small plot
of land on the estate. The forces saw little activity
in maintaining order on Barbados, but were several
times called on to aid in attacks on the other
colonies. As military activity waned, so did the
responsibility of the militia. Assured of a minimum
living from their two acres and with little
opportunity to better their positions, the militiamen
and their families developed into an ambitionless
group. So they were almost universally described by
travellers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
who also reveal some of the feelings that kept the
Redlegs a people apart.
George Washington, who visited the island in 1751
wrote: "Every Gentn. is oblig'd to keep a white person
for ten Acres capable of acting in the Militia and
consequently those persons so kept cant but (be) very
George Pinekard in 1806 referred to a numerous class
of inhabitants between the great planters and the
people of colour, people who had lived on the island
so long they regarded it as their native abode, not
looking to England, he noted with surprise, as another
and better home. They "obtain a scanty livelihood by
cultivating a small patch of earth, and breeding up
poultry, or what they term stock for the market." 6
H. N. Coleridge in 1834 reported on this special class
of people who existed " . . . . in consequence of the
large white population" and who had "an indefeasible
interest for their lives in a house and garden . . . .
They owe no fealty to the landlord, make him no
acknowledgement, and entertain no kind of gratitude
towards him . . . . They will walk half over the
island to demand alms, or depend for their subsistance
on the charity of slaves . . . . Yet they are as proud
as Lucifer himself, and in virtue of their freckled
ditchwater faces consider themselves on a level with
every gentleman in the island."'
Sir Andrew Halliday noted in 1834 that a remnant of
the "descendants of the first white labourers" still
existed and "were reputed to be the most indolent,
ignorant, and impudent race of beggars that were ever
tolerated in any community."8
Emancipation of slaves in 1834 brought a quick
termination to the status of the militia people, which
had lasted for a century.........
[poor photocopy - last line on page missing]
maintain law and order. The sugar estates employed
the freedmen, who on Barbados had no alternative; in
other colonies the freedmen often took to the bush or
struck out on their own land but all the useable land
in Barbados was already owned and in cultivation.
_About 2,000 whites from the militia class are
estimated to have been put off the estates. 9 These
people did not take to the only evident type of
employment - working with negroes in labor gangs. Many
took up residence in the villages of the poorer and
more remote windward side of the island, eked out
livings from various sorts of odd jobs, and acquired
reputations as professional
paupers. 10 Between 1859 and 1879 the government took
an interest in the plight of the Redlegs and a number
of reports were prepared concerning them. A report of
the Poor Relief Commission stated: "The white paupers
as a rule have larger pensions than the black and
colored-there being greater destitution-and they
sometimes though able to work are pensioned, because
they say they cannot find employment . . . they
consider themselves above work and almost equal to
their employer."11 An independent observer of the same
period said, "The very poorest and most miserable
people in the whole island are whites." 12
The physical condition of the Redlegs was as pathetic
as their economic condition. John Davy commented that
the poor whites resembled more albinos, than
Englishmen when exposed to the tropical sun.13 He
described them as sickly white or light red in color,
and noted marks of feebleness. During the First World
War the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a hookworm
survey of Barbados, which revealed a very high rate of
infection in the poor windward parishes; the disease
was reported especially noticeable among the poor
whites who showed its effects in profound anemic
emaciation, and faulty growth. 14
A detailed record survives of one private attempt to
help the Redlegs.15 A resident of St. Philip, the
southeastern parish, died in 1857, leaving his
residence and estate for the purpose of providing a
school for the children of poor whites people living
in that parish Up to 36 children were to be provided
with instruction, books, and two suits of clothing per
year. The school operated off and on over the years,
but finally was closed in 1949 because there were
virtual no poor whites left in St. Philip. The funds
available for the school
have been used to provide scholarships for worthy
children of both races.
Now the Redlegs have all but disappeared.
Opportunities In the city of Bridgetown (population
80,000) have undoubtedly j t been the biggest cause
drawing them away from the rural areas
[poor photocopy - last line of page missing]
financial success and recognition. Bridgetown has
many poor whites today, and it is most likely that
they derive from the old Redlegs class. Only a hundred
or two Redlegs survive in the negro villages of the
windward parishes. They may be seen walking along the
roads or working on highway crews, living in much the
same fashion as the colored villagers. Some have
intermarried, but most of the survivors maintain a
racial pride and a degree of aloofness from the
negroes with whom they live in such close proximity
The account of the Redlegs would end with their
virtual disappearance on Barbados had not the
nineteenth century efforts to resettle them borne some
fruit. After investigation of their condition the
Governor in 1859 made arrangements for moving several
hundred of them to another island, but the plan failed
when the House of Assembly refused to appropriate the
money to transport them. A few years later, however,
one of the Parish Rectors arranged with an estate
proprietor on St. Vincent to transport a number of the
Redlegs to that island. Other families followed the
good reports of the first, apparently on their own, so
that, by the late 1870s three or four hundred were
settled in the Dorsetshire Hill district of St.
Vincent.16 At that time they were reported as leasing
lots of an acre, clearing the forest, burning
charcoal, cultivating the land until the fertility was
exhausted, then moving to new pots. Apparently the
impermanent nature of this farming did not persist,
for Dorsetshire Hill is now a compact, densely
populated, and in intensively farmed settlement of
probably 300 whites of Barbadian origin. Just beyond
the outskirts of Kingstown on the southern end of the
island, the Dorsetshire Hill community occupies a
steep ridges covered with a deep, friable soil. The
land is as neatly farmed in food crops and pastures as
any land anywhere. Houses are small, but far above
West Indian standards in both size and neatness. The
community has maintained its separateness with very
little intermarriage. Most of its residents have one
of half a dozen common surnames-Davis, Gibson,
Hinkson, Marshall, Medford, Bradshaw. The community
has its own school and an Anglican Church (Catholicism
is predominant on St. Vincent). For many years there
seems to have been no room for growth; emigration has
taken colonists in some number to the United States
Two other colonies of Redlegs in the Windward Islands
have also survived more distinctly than the parent
group on Barbados, but the Grenada and Bequia
settlements have not maintained their distinctness so
clearly as the Dorsetshire Hill community. None of
these three colonies shows the degraded, depressed,
[poor photocopy - last line of page missing]
had to form discrete settlements of their own on the
less densely settled islands.
The Bequia colony was considered a failure, 17 but,
actually a number of families, perhaps a hundred
people altogether, are still living on Pleasant Hill
above Port Elizabeth. This hill land on Bequia is both
dry and steep for the best farming, but a variety of
food crops is being grown on terraced fields. The
shipping business is probably of more importance to
the colony. Some of the men operate inter-island
schooners, and most of the families share in 4the
ownership of the vessels through family syndicates.
Family names are Gooding, Davis, and King.
Considerable emigration to North America has occurred
The Mt. Moritz settlement in Grenada, in the hills
overlooking the coast two or three miles north of St.
George's, has another group of white Barbadians:
Though they have begun to intermarry with the negroes,
the community probably has most of the unmixed whites
to be found on the island. The leading names in the
community are Edwards, Dowding, Harris, Graves, and
These families have probably been on Grenada since the
-1870's though no present member of the colony seems
able to offer a specific account of its origin.
They have also been culturally distinct from the
Grenadians. The negroes used to recognize them as a
peculiar group to be viewed with curiosity or fear.
The speech of the Mt. Moritz people is easy for an
American to understand (true of most Barbadians,
also), whereas the speech of the negro Grenadians is
often not intelligible. The Barbadians have acquired a
reputation as industrious growers of vegetables,
whereas the rest of the island produces tree crops
(cacao, nutmeg-curiously considered as a lazy type of
farming) or sugar. The Mt. Moritz whites are
particularly proud of their method of hillside
cultivation wherein their gardens are hoed up into
rows of small basins to prevent soil erosion; these
plots have the aspect of a fine-textured version of
the Barbados sugar cane hole pattern, which is most
probably their prototype.
Many. Mt. Moritz people now have jobs in St. George's.
The community probably includes 200 unmixed whites.
Its school in 1956 had an enrollment of 154, of whom
about a third appeared to be white. The people are
still recognized on Grenada as Barbadians and even
negroes who live in the community are likely to be
Among the three colonies described and the original
group on Barbados, a large number of surnames are
considered characteristic of Redleg families. Each of
the windward parishes on 'Barbados seems to have its
own names. A few of the names have
[poor photocopy - last line of page missing]
The Redlegs are sometimes said to have sprung entirely
from the deportations following the Monmouth Rebellion
of 1685,but actually the Redleg names do not show up
on Hotten's lists of deportees. (See footnote 3.) It
is evident t h a t the - Redlegs have sprung more
broadly from the entire British immigration into
Barbados during the seventeenth century, and that they
developed as a distinct group because of the narrow
(and here legally provided) opportunities in a
stratified society. Their disappearance on Barbados
has been made possible through; an increase in the
possibilities of social mobility not well provided by
the smaller cities of Grenada, St. Vincent, and
This article first appeared in The Yearbook of the
Association of Pacific Coast
Geographers, Vol. 10, 1957, pp. 35-39 is reprinted by
kind permission of the Editor.
1 White Settlers in the Tropics, American Geographical
Society (New York,1939)
2 Henry Whistler's Journal of the West India
Expedition, 1654, Sloane Ms.3926
British Museum. (Quoted in series of articles on
people of Barbados in the Barbados Advocate, April
3 John Camden Hotten, in The Original List of Persons
of Quality and 0thers (London, 1874) names several
hundred of the latter.
4 The Groans of the Plantations (London,1689), p. 14,
"We cannot now be at the
Charge to procure and keep White Servants, or to
entertain Freemen as we used to
do .....So that our Militia must fall."
5 The Diaries of George Washington, 1784-1799, edited
by John C. Fitzpatrick, Boston, 1925), v. 1, p. 29.
6 Notes on the West Indies (London, 1806), pp.78, 132.
7 Six Months in the West Indies, second edition
(London, 1836), p. 99.
8 The West Indies (London, 1837), pp. 56-7.
9 Governor Rawson's Report on population, 1851-1871,
Appendix E, Minutes of Assembly Council, 1872.
10 Report of Commission on Poor Relief, Appendix B,
Minutes of Assembly, 1877-1878 p. 92.
11 Appendices to the Report of the Poor Relief
Commission, 1875-1879, Bridgetown, p. 3.
12 Greville Chester, Transatlantic Sketches In the
West Indies, South America,
Canada and the United States, (London, 1869).
13 West Indies Before and Since Slave Emancipation
(London, 1854)" p. 114.
14 G. P. Paul, "Report on Ankylostomiasis Inspection
Survey of Barbados, Sept. 4, 1916-Nov. 16, 1918,"
International Health Board, Rockefeller Foundation,
15 Minutes of meetings of Emanuel John Cock Hutchinson
School Trustees in hands of Rector H. V. Armstrong of
St. Philip Parish, Barbados.
16 Same as 11, p. 18.
17 Ibid., p. 20.
18 On file in Registration Office, Bridgetown.
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