Pompey Joseph and the emancipation of slaves in Hopetown, West Coast Berbice, British Guiana

Before 1838, there were 4 cotton plantations or estates in the part of West Coast of Berbice now known as Hopetown. They were at that time known as plantation no 16, no 17, no 18 and no 19. At the time they were owned by a planter named James Blair. (More about him in an article to follow) The map below, based on a chart of 1788, shows how by 1800, land that was formerly planted with cotton was now devoted to cattle. This was because cotton from the USA was superior and cheaper than that from Guiana, so it was no longer profitable to grow it here for export. Cattle was a less labour intensive form of agriculture, so if fewer slaves could be used to mind the cattle, then it would cost less to produce the cattle.

1800 map of west Coast Berbice 001

After Emancipation in 1834, groups of freed slaves from these four plantations bought two sections of these plantations from Mr James Blair. The original 49 proprietors of the St Paul’s Section saved up the wages they were able to earn as apprentices to Mr Blair between 1834 and 1838 until they had $2,000 in coins, which they took in a wheelbarrow to Mr Blair to pay for these former cotton plantations.The estate they bought was divided up between the 49 proprietors who signed the transport document (deeds) with a cross by their names, since they could not write.

Pompey Joseph (Edwin’s 3 x Great grandfather) and Jacob Wilson were two of the former slaves listed as joint proprietors on the transport document they received on 12th October 1840.  By this time, one of the plantations (no 17) was a sugar plantation and Jacob Wilson was a cane cutter by day, earning a wage from the planter while returning at nights to cultivate his provisions (plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes, eddoes and corn) at the back of the estate the slaves had bought. Pompey Joseph was a carpenter who also kept cattle as well as cultivating his provisions on his portion of the land. By 1841, they had built “neat cottages” according to the magistrates report to the British Governor at that time.The original transport document was passed by Judge Samuel Firebrace whose name was given to the remaining section of the village which together with St Paul’s Section is now called “Hopetown”.

There was a lot of development and investment being put into infrastructure around this time, such as the railway between Georgetown and Rosignol which was being built by the Sprostons family. This would enable the transport not only of plantation sugar to the capital but also the cattle and perishable fruit and vegetables and arrowroot which was a cash field crop grown in the village. Free villagers like Pompey would have been able to get their surplus products quickly to market in Georgetown for sale if they did not sell it in the Hopetown village market. Pompey could not write his name to sign the church register on 5th January 1839, when he married Mary Ann Hawkemann, another freed slave from plantation 18, at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Fort Wellington. It states in that register that he was a carpenter, so we know that he was living by his trade and that together with his farm and cattle rearing, this enabled him to make a respectable income. Over the years, he must have learned many things and the church would have helped him to become literate.

By 1865, he was one of the elders of the village who signed a document listing rules for the administration of the village. He had by then learned to sign his own name and is listed as a shareholder and proprietor of St Paul’s section. He also signed a document of 1863 where he is included as a proprietor of no 22 plantation known as “Belle Vue”. Of course Pompey and Mary Ann had at least 6 legitimate children recorded in the church register who lived to be baptised. Each of those had at least 7 or more children and each of their children had around 6 legitimate children. This meant that the estate became subdivided many times over. The plots of land each family had were very much smaller by the time Edwin’s father Lewis came to inherit his share. Indeed most of the land that Pompey had left to his son, Charles, was pledged to Thomas Isaacs for a debt of $88, said to be for payment of a doctor’s bill for one of their children who fell sick. Charles, who had some time in the 1870s, “kidnapped” a white Scottish woman called Hannah Gibbs from her family living at Fort Wellington and taken her to live with him and his cattle “in the backdam” where they raised seven children together, was quite a famous character in village folk memory for this scandalous act. Lewis’s father, also named Charles, had been butted and killed by one of his cows in 1918 when Lewis was only four years old. This meant that Lewis was able to inherit very little of what was left of his great grandfather Pompey’s estate. In the 1940s, Plantation “Belle Vue” was known as No 22 Bel Air and was used as a race track by the Isaacs family who still possessed the title deeds. In 1984, Edwin Joseph purchased part of that land back from the descendant of Thomas Isaacs. This is the background story to “The ElDorado Affair”.

If you want to find out what happened when Edwin Joseph returned to help develop his birth country Guyana in South America, then order “The ElDorado Affair” by Jane Joseph ISBN 978-0-9932409-0-4 published by Sapodilla Press available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.co.uk, order it through Waterstones or your local book store via Nielsens teledata or read it in Kindle format ISBN 978-0-9932409-1-1 available worldwide on Amazon.com The link for the order page of the paperback book on Waterstones.com is to be found on my “Jane Joseph author” page on facebook, as is the link for the kindle version on Amazon.com  



3 thoughts on “Pompey Joseph and the emancipation of slaves in Hopetown, West Coast Berbice, British Guiana

  1. Just great to know where we come from and who fought so hard so that we could live the way we do now. Thanks Jane for researching a lot of the Joseph Family History. Cx


  2. Hi
    This was a great article and I learned a lot about Berbice!
    I don’t think I’m realated to your family. However my maternal grandmother Olga Webster and her entire family was from HopeTown Berbice and I’m trying to research the history that area. She married my grandfather, Eugene Bristol in 1925 and they lived in Ann’s Village.
    I’m curious about the list of 49 names mentioned in your article. I would love to see copy of it. If you can help with that or any relevant information, I’ll be most greatful.

    All the best



    • Hi Ang. Nice to hear from you and glad you liked the article. Olga Webster is a name familiar to me. There were three Webster families in Hopetown that I knew: Brenda Webster, the post lady, was sister in law to Raymond A Smith the sociologist who did his PhD thesis in Hopetown in the 1950s. Raymond married Brenda’s sister Flora and went to live in England. The list of 49 names was on a Hopetown village office document but it was also quoted and printed in Raymond Smith’s Book about Hopetown published in the 1950’s or 1960s which book I left in the library of Sapodilla Learning Centre when we handed it over to the Congregational church in 2009, so I no longer have it and cannot remember the exact title. (Something like The Negro Villager in British Guiana ). Ann’s village was known as Ann’s Grove when I lived in Guyana. The other Webster family I remember was Derrice Webster who was a teacher at Bushlot Secondary school still in her eighties but who taught in the Hopetown primary school in the 1940s. Finally there was Andy Webster and his sister Yovane who were active Congregational Church members in Hopetown in the 1990s but who migrated to New York. Of the 49 proprietors named on the list I can remember very few but if you can find Raymond’s book in a library somewhere then you will see them all.


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