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“Thy Chains Are Broken, Africa, Be Free!”: Highlights from Caribbean History and Culture, 1535-1920

Posted on 05/03/2016

The April release of Caribbean History and Culture, 1535-1920: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a collection of observations on tropical medicine, an anthology of poems by James Montgomery, and an assemblage of laws pertaining to the British West Indies. 

Medical and Miscellaneous Observations, Relative to the West India Islands (1817) 

By John Williamson, M.D.  

Dr. John Williamson was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, and had served as a surgeon for the Caithness Highlanders, a regiment of the Highland Fencible Corps.

In 1798 Williamson traveled to Jamaica where he remained for over a decade. Williamson writes about encountering specific ailments: “The yaws have been long a loathsome and disgusting disease, as well as an immense source of loss to proprietors.” And describes the need for reforming the administration of the island’s health services: “The hospital management of negroes being defective, improvements are suggested, to place these establishments on a foundation consistent with the comfort and welfare of mutual interests.” 

Williamson also writes about vaccines, the public’s reaction to them, and the need for public figures to speak responsibly about them. 

The blessings which have proceeded from Dr. Jenner’s matured plan of vaccination, to prevent small-pox, were not fully introduced at Jamaica before 1801; at that period even, it shared the fate of all innovation in medicine; and its avowed advantages were treated by many with confidence, by others with reserve, and by some as an ephemeral presumption, which time would do away, as altogether unequal to its professed purposes.

He continues:  

In the pursuit of an object so much for the public good, it cannot be too much impressed on those who possess decided influence, by rank and fortune, that their exertions in support of any means to preserve the lives of our fellow creatures should be always ready to assist practitioners, and to remove whatever prejudices the more humble descriptions are disposed to form, on such an innovation as the introduction of vaccine inoculation. 

Poetical Works of James Montgomery (1845) 

By James Montgomery 

Rev. Rufus W. Griswold introduces both James Montgomery and his collection of poems, writing:  

James Montgomery is the eldest son of a Moravian clergyman, and was born at Irvine, in Scotland, on the fourth of November, 1771. His parents determined to educate him for the ministry, and at a very early age placed him in one of the seminaries of their church, where he remained ten years. At the end of this period he decided not to study the profession to which he had been destined, and was, in consequence, placed with a shop-keeper in Yorkshire. Ill satisfied with his new employment, however, he abandoned it after a few months, and, when but sixteen years of age, made his first appearance in London, with a manuscript volume of poems, of which he vainly endeavored to procure the publication. 

Montgomery, who supported not only the abolition of slavery but also an end to the exploitation of child chimney sweeps, was twice imprisoned for sedition in the 1790s. He had written a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille and criticized the dispersing of a political protest. Shortly after his release Montgomery published Prison Amusements and by 1806 with the publication of The Wanderer of Switzerland was enjoying limited acclaim for his work.  

This compilation of Montgomery’s works includes both aforementioned collections and several others, including his 1809 publication The West Indies which begins: 

“Thy chains are broken, Africa, be free!”

Thus saith the island-empress of the sea;

Thus saith Britannia. O, ye winds and waves!

Waft the glad tidings to the land of slaves;

Proclaim on Guinea’s coast, by Gambia’s side,

And far as Niger rolls his eastern tide,

Through radiant realms, beneath the burning zone,

Where Europe’s curse is felt, her name unknown,

Thus saith Britannia, empress of the sea,

“Thy chains are broken, Africa, be free!” 

The Laws of the British Colonies in the West Indies and Other Parts of America Concerning Real and Personal Property, and Manumission of Slaves with a View of the Constitution of Each Colony (1827)

By John Henry Howard 

In addition to this piece, John Henry Howard also authored The Duties of Solicitors in Sales by Auction, or Private Contract, or under Extents, or Decrees of Courts of Equity. Although both titles suggest they are dry reference materials, Howard, in the work highlighted here, includes numerous brief histories that add an unexpected level of interest. Introducing Grenada, he writes: 

In 1650, this island, being then inhabited by savages, was taken possession of by the French, who made a settlement there, and soon afterwards exterminated all the natives. 

Describing his work and motivation, Howard writes: 

The laws that govern such of the British possessions now under consideration, as enjoy the benefits of an English constitution, are partly local and partly those of England; the former of which are very similar to the latter. But, in addition to the fact of their being in many instances so ill penned, as to be far from clear, it has long been a subject of serious regret that, in most of our West Indian possessions, those laws exist only in manuscript, and in few copies, consequently a general ignorance of them prevails, not merely in this country, but in the colonies themselves. 

For more information about Caribbean History and Culture, 1535-1920, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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