by Cheryl Griffin
For at least twenty years prior to her entry into New South Wales as a convict, Priscilla was a slave on Oliver Herring’s Paul Island Estate in Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. It was a large sugar plantation with over two hundred slaves, nearly all of whom worked in the fields. Priscilla, however, was one of Paul Island’s twelve domestic slaves.
On 18 October 1830, William Samuells, the white overseer, along with other members of his household, became nauseous and was subject to violent vomiting after the cook, thirty-nine year old Priscilla, served the breakfast tea. Immediately Samuells suspected Priscilla. He believed that she, her sister Margaret and Margaret’s husband Simon Fraser plus several others had conspired to kill him in revenge for punishing some of his house slaves by flogging them and sending them to work in the cane fields while Simon was placed in the stocks on suspicion of having stolen copper for sale. Only Priscilla went to trial, was found guilty, sentenced to be executed, a sentence later commuted to transportation for life.
Her crime, attempting to poison, appears to be a domestic matter, revenge for the punishment of her brother-in-law and fellow house slaves by a harsh overseer. Yet there are other, more subversive ways in which this crime could be interpreted. There is some physical evidence that Priscilla still held strong ties to her African heritage in the marks of cupping on each temple that were noted on her indent. Priscilla’s crime could well be seen as an act of obeah, an African religious practice, worked mostly by women who dealt in poisons, herbs and folk medicine. So the poisoning of William Samuells leads us backwards to Priscilla’s African heritage but also forwards to the acts of rebellion that were rife in Jamaica in the early 1830s. By poisoning Samuells, Priscilla was performing an act of resistance to slavery. She escaped execution, but was clearly considered dangerous enough to be removed altogether through the process of transportation.
Just as the nature of Priscilla’s crime is telling, so too is her religion. Priscilla defiantly declared herself to be a Baptist. The clerk who took down this information was probably unaware of the significance of this statement, but in December 1831, later in the year Priscilla was tried, there was a slave rebellion in Jamaica, known locally as the Baptist War, in which 60,000 slaves participated. So Priscilla’s crime should be seen in the context of trouble brewing and her declaration of religious allegiance as an act of political defiance.
Priscilla made the journey from Jamaica to England five years after the poisoning, presumably after spending time in a Jamaican prison, or perhaps in Cuba where many Jamaican transportees were sent in this time period. She was received on the Prison Hulk Hardy on 4 May 1836 with two other black convicts – Celia Williams (who later died en route to New South Wales) and Ann Powell (who was pardoned in England). So, Priscilla made the voyage to NSW alone.
Priscilla’s convict indent records that she was a house maid, cook and needlewoman, all highly sought-after skills in the colony of New South Wales. Although she had been convicted of attempting to poison, her indent states that her crime was stealing tea, in all likelihood an attempt to make her appear employable. After all, who would want a domestic servant with a history of poisoning her master?
Of Priscilla’s life in New South Wales, there is little to tell except that she survived, at least until 1852. In 1845, she was advanced money as a ticket of leaver to travel to Windsor in the Hawkesbury Valley, about sixty kilometres north west of Sydney and she was there until at least October 1850 when was one of four ticket of leave holders in the area brought up for not mustering their tickets. She was recommended for a conditional pardon in March 1851 and again in 1852, but beyond that, nothing is known. What can be said is that Priscilla was a survivor. If her age when she entered the hulks in England is to be believed, she lived to her seventies.
Cheryl Griffin, 'Whitewashing Australia’s convict experience: from the British Caribbean to New South Wales', in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 131-147.
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