Prior to the Quakers’ large-scale migration to Pennsylvania, Barbados had more Quakers than any other English colony. But on this island of sugar plantations, Quakers confronted material temptations and had to temper founder George Fox’s admonitions regarding slavery with the demoralizing realities of daily life in a slave-based economy—one where even most Quakers owned slaves. In The Quaker Community on Barbados
, Larry Gragg shows how the community dealt with these contradictions as it struggled to change the culture of the richest of England’s seventeenth-century colonies.
Gragg has conducted meticulous research on two continents to re-create the Barbados Quaker community. Drawing on wills, censuses, and levy books along with surviving letters, sermons, and journals, he tells how the Quakers sought to implement their beliefs in peace, simplicity, and equality in a place ruled by a planter class that had built its wealth on the backs of slaves. He reveals that Barbados Quakers were a critical part of a transatlantic network of Friends and explains how they established a “counterculture” on the island—one that challenged the practices of the planter class and the class’s dominance in island government, church, and economy.
In this compelling study, Gragg focuses primarily on the seventeenth century when the Quakers were most numerous and active on Barbados. He tells how Friends sought to convert slaves and improve their working and living conditions. He describes how Quakers refused to fund the Anglican Church, take oaths, participate in the militia, or pay taxes to maintain forts—and how they condemned Anglican clergymen, disrupted their services, and wrote papers critical of the established church. By the 1680s, Quakers were maintaining five meetinghouses and several cemeteries, paying for their own poor relief, and keeping their own records of births, deaths, and marriages. Gragg also tells of the severe challenges and penalties they faced for confronting and rejecting the dominant culture.
With their civil disobedience and stand on slavery, Quakers on Barbados played an important role in the early British Empire but have been largely neglected by scholars. Gragg’s work makes their contribution clear as it opens a new window on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world.