Slavery, Migration, and Narratives of the Black Pacific
In 1803, on a small tropical island surrounded by beautiful oceans and relentless sugar plantations, a baby was born. The swaying palm trees that dotted the peaceful shoreline betrayed the violent subjection the child’s mother was forced to endure. During her pregnancy, she likely found little reprise. The sweet sugar crystals that she produced were always in demand in distant markets. While English was widely spoken on the island, it was a pidgin English. Words, foods, and ideas were borrowed from seafaring travelers and imperial powers that passed through the area. Other volcanic islands stood proudly nearby. As diverse as they were, the entire archipelago shared a common set of problems brought about by the invasion of European modernity.
This was not Hawai’i or Oahu, but it might have been. This was Antigua. Slavery fueled its rise. Like so many other British slave societies in the Caribbean, white planters in Antigua quickly discovered that working slaves to death was more profitable than paying for food, housing, and health care. While the sugarcane that the slaves grew eventually provided both surplus calories and surplus capital for an expanding British Empire, most slaves lived brutally short lives in a constant state of near starvation. Slave families were hard to form. Most new arrivals to Antigua came not by birth but in the hull of a slave ship. For this reason alone Jeremiah Martin’s birth in 1803 was special.1
We can only imagine the relationship between his enslaved African mother and his white Scottish father. She may have been in love. She may have said yes, but she had no legal right to say no. Rape, as a concept, was inadequate. The world she lived in was so warped by the perverse power dynamics of chattel slavery that contemporary notions of consent or even “agency” would have sounded like little more than a cruel joke. She was property—a person with a price. While she would have known that having sex with a white man might statistically offer her some added hope for a dismal freedom—both for herself and for her children—the costs of placing such a bet were enormous. Still, maybe she played him. Maybe she held some fleeting measure of influence over him. But certainly she suffered. In any case, this black woman eventually had several children by a white man who would soon abandon her. She and her children would remain in bondage. He would return to Scotland and marry a white woman in her place.
As a young man, Martin would have likely grown up hurt and resentful. His father left him. His grandfather legally owned him. His mother and his siblings were considered property as well. At the same time, however, the Haitian Revolution had been raging for over a decade prior to his birth. When he reached his first birthday the end of slavery in Haiti stood as an inspiration to slaves throughout the Atlantic World. Martin may have somehow managed to secure his freedom before Antigua officially ended the practice in 1834. Prior to 1824 he was at least free enough to travel to Scotland to confront his absentee father. When Martin arrived, his father denied he was ever born.
At this point, an angry and perhaps already alcoholic Martin left the Atlantic World to make a new life for himself in the Pacific. Enlisting aboard a merchant ship was one possible path to freedom for slaves in 1824. If Martin was still the legal property of his father or grandfather at the time, stealing himself was probably the least he could do to repay them for their cruelty. The twenty-one-year-old jumped ship when he reached the shores of Hawai’i—an island all too similar to the one he left behind. He wasn’t enslaved there. And he never looked back.
By 1827, Martin had secured farmland from Governor John Adams (Ki’iapalaoku Kuakini) inside of the king’s Great Wall that stretched from Kailua to at least Keauhou on the island of Hawai’i. Strangely harkening back to the labor management system he had learned in Antigua, Martin quickly found two native Hawai’ian tenant farmers, Haa and Kukauai, to work the land on his behalf. They would not legally be slaves but at the same time they were not entirely free. One of the crops that they may have grown for Martin was cotton. The nearby port at Kailua was a major trading site for the crop, with one early observer predicting that because of it “[c]otton may yet be king in the Hawaiian Islands.”2 In 1828 Martin also acquired a 4.7-acre homestead from Samuel Rice in Honua’ino behind Kainaliu Beach and was seeking an additional 50 acres from the government to expand his holdings.
By the 1840s Martin had parlayed this fresh start into a successful shipping business, a fact dutifully recorded by noted missionary Chester Lyman in 1846. Martin had fathered three children (one of whom appears to have later become an attorney), built a church where he preached his version of Christianity, and served as a deacon in Asa Thurston’s congregation. He appeared as both a plaintiff and a defendant in several civil lawsuits involving his business ventures. Perhaps always sensitive to the ways in which his mother had been treated by his father, Martin also successfully sued a Dr. McNamara for defaming the character of his daughter in 1845. Apparently the doctor had been spreading vicious rumors about his daughter that caused the end of her engagement to a Mr. William Beckly.3 The degree and rapidity by which Martin became part of Hawai’ian society, formed a family, and gained access to the existing legal system (while not unheard of for former slaves in Antigua) was noteworthy to say the least. He died on July 28, 1860 in nearby Kaʻū.
Much of what was once known about Jeremiah Martin will forever remain lost to history. The fact that his story happened at all, however, speaks volumes of the yet untold connections between colonized peoples in the Atlantic and the Pacific. While black history and Hawai’ian history are often imagined separately, Jeremiah Martin’s life commands us to think transnationally about the larger global forces that affect us all. Hawai’i and Antigua may be oceans apart but they are also worlds that take shape together.
Guy Emerson Mount is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago and the Coordinator of the U.S. History Workshop. His dissertation, “The Last Reconstruction: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Black Pacific,” analyzes the legal end of American slavery alongside the birth of American overseas empire. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.
- Unless otherwise noted, all information on the life of Jeremiah Martin is derived from the Collections of the Kona Historical Society. ↩
- The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, October 21, 1909. ↩
- Jeremiah Martin to G.P. Jude, July 5, 1845 and G.P. Jude to Martin July 19, 1845 in Book 1, Interior Department Letters, Hawai’i State Archives. ↩
Comments on “Slavery, Migration, and Narratives of the Black Pacific”
I really appreciate reading and learning about this life. Thank you for your work.
That was a very interesting read. Thanks so much for sharing this historical perspective.
I have long thought African History in what is called “The South Pacific” has been neglected and hidden. The facts show African influence in many Pacific locations. Really greatful to see and learn of Mr. Martin and his life and success in Hawaii. It destroys that myth of omnipresent Asian/Pacific Islander ONLY inhabitants.
Good Day Mr. Mount. The name Martin jumped out at me, as my Great Grandmother, Ms. Sarah Martin, (on my Father’s side) as told to me by my Father, was the daughter of an Overseer/Land Owner in Antigua & Barbuda. My Grandfather, her son, Samuel Simon was born in 1886. My Great Grandmother, may be a distant relative of Mr. Jeremiah Simon. Unfortunately, my father died of Alzheimers before I was able to properly record all the stories, which he told us when we were children.
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