The Defender of Human Rights
The Right Excellent Samuel Jackman Prescod was born in 1806 to Lydia Smith, a free coloured woman, and William Prescod, a wealthy white landowner.
Prescod’s primary cause was to improve the conditions of ‘free coloured people’ and to fight for the liberation of slaves in Barbados.
Although political in nature, Prescod was initially excluded from Barbadian politics due to a law of 1697 that stated that all voters be white, own 10 acres of land, and be of Christian religion.
Even though he was a well-educated journalist and an acknowledged leader, he was thrown out of the Barbados House of Representatives for observing the political process like any other citizen was entitled to.
Did you know? Samuel Jackman Prescod was named after a rich planter from St. Peter, ‘Samuel Jackman’.
The Power Of The Pen
A gifted writer, Samuel Jackman Prescod used the power of his pen to encourage social consciousness in Barbados.
Prescod’s clever use of print media allowed certain views to be freely expressed, encouraged discussions on important topics, and stimulated change in society.
He spoke out on the taboo racial and labour issues, and quickly became known as a dangerous revolutionary and an enemy of the established order of the island.
In 1836 ‘non-whites’ were given their first newspaper, the New Times. Prescod served for eight months as editor without pay until the job was taken away from him as his ideas were seen as too radical.
Prescod then moved on to another newspaper, The Liberal, founded by the ‘poor whites’ and targeting the island’s working- and middle-class people, irrespective of colour.
In an attempt to unite the masses against the powerful white plantocracy, the newspaper focused on issues like social injustice and the abolition of slavery, and supported reforms that affected all classes in the community.
After The Liberal newspaper fell into financial difficulty, Thomas Harris and Samuel Jackman bought it, with Prescod retaining his editorial freedom. Although a social justice campaigner and a fierce defender of the rights of blacks, in 1840 Precod was also charged with criminal libel and placed in jail for eight days.
Politics and The Plantocracy
Prescod began his political work in 1829 and his popularity quickly grew. He openly dedicated his life to creating a better social environment for all. So much so, that in 1831, he successfully won the right for free coloured people to vote, just as white people could. In June 1840, Prescod also travelled to London to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention.
Continuing his works, in July 1840, Prescod wrote to the Colonial Office in Barbados as a leader of the coloured community to protest the high prices landowners were putting on small plots of land.
This was an especially significant move by Prescod, since white land owners were using this to prevent other races from entering the land-owning middle class, and hence also prevent their ability to vote.
Investigations by the Colonial Office confirmed Prescod’s suspicions, and although Prescod was successful in getting a change in the law, the effect was minimal.
Prescod Makes History
On 6 June 1843, Prescod was elected as one of two members for the City of Bridgetown, making history as the first person of African descent to be elected into Barbados’ Parliament and to sit in the House of Assembly.
This was a particularly triumphant victory for Prescod, not only to overcome the prejudices of that time but also because it was not a secret ballot.
Samuel Jackman Prescod also helped form the political organization known as the Liberal Party with a small group of white members from the House of Assembly.
They continued to fight for social justice for twenty-five years, and the party became known as ‘the Opposition’.
In 1860, Samuel Jackman Prescod retired from Parliament and accepted the position of Judge of the Assistant Court of Appeal.
The Right Excellent Samuel Jackman Prescod passed away in 1871 at the age of 65 and is buried in St. Mary’s Church yard.
Honors and Legacy
One of Prescod’s major accomplishments includes assisting black people to develop and implement educational programs so they could challenge the elitist plantocracy.
He continuously fought for the establishment of primary, secondary and tertiary education for the children of former slaves, and also encouraged the Secretary of State to review clauses in the Police Act which unjustly sought to maintain unfair distinctions between white and coloured people.
Because of his work in relation to creating educational facilities for the children of ex-slaves, the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic (SJPP) (http://sjpp.edu.bb/) in Barbados is named in his honour.
Prescod has featured as a face on the 1973 Barbadian one-dollar note, the five-dollar note from 1973 – 1986, and on the twenty-dollar note. The twenty-dollar note was redesigned in 1985 and 2000, however Prescod’s portrait remains as a feature.
Postage stamps with portraits of both Sir James Lyon (the Governor who removed the restraints on coloured people’s right to vote) and Samuel Jackman Prescod were also issued in 2006 to commemorate this momentous and historical event.
Notably, a portrait of Samuel Prescod at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention still hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In 1998, by an act of Parliament (the Order of National Heroes Act), Prescod was also publicly honoured by being named as one of the ten official National Heroes of Barbados because of his significant contribution to the island’s history and development.
An admirable gentleman who tirelessly campaigned for the rights of the underprivileged, his invaluable contribution to the nation will forever remain in the hearts of all Barbadians.
Author: Brett Callaghan