Could the “King’s Negroes” Be Loyal to the King? The British Royal Navy, African Slavery, and the Making of Jamaica Station

Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago)
Jared Ross Hardesty, Western Washington University
In late 1730, Rear Admiral Charles Stewart, commander of the British Royal Navy’s station in Jamaica, wrote to the Admiralty Board about labor shortages. Since the previous year, Stewart had been constructing a second naval base on a small island—named Navy Island—in northeastern Jamaica. The admiral, however, faced a problem: Jamaica and Navy Island were unhealthy places. Sailors sent to build the station died in large numbers, forcing the Royal Navy to hire local slaves at high prices. Stewart proposed a solution to “provide a great saving [sic] to the Government.” Pointing out that “the King has been the only Person in this Country not Served by” enslaved Africans, Stewart suggested that he could purchase slaves to work at the station. While the Admiralty Board deliberated, Stewart bought nearly 60 slaves. These were the “King’s Negroes.”

Little attention has been paid to how the Royal Navy—and by extension, the state itself—utilized and deployed enslaved labor. The navy was one of the largest bureaucratic institutions in the empire, meaning that in the process of purchasing slaves, they faced questions concerning loyalty. How could naval officers circumvent the authority of the Admiralty Board and purchase slaves? How did the Royal Navy envision mastery and ownership? Could enslaved Africans be an effective workforce for the navy? Were they better suited to the rigors of tropical work and thus less restive than regular seamen? In 1730s Jamaica, Charles Stewart and the enslaved men and women he purchased faced these questions. By examining the process by which the Royal Navy purchased and deployed enslaved Africans in northeastern Jamaica, this essay demonstrates how, in the quest to expand imperial power across the early modern Atlantic, state institutions and the people under their control tested and contested the bounds and meanings of loyalty.

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