Sugar, slaves and the dry bellyache: Edward Atcherley in Jamaica

Sometime in the early 1670s Edward Atcherley [], a young man in his twenties and a native of Shrewsbury, gave up his career as a merchant in London and set sail for the West Indies. There, as a plantation manager in Jamaica, he grew sugar, bought slaves, drank rather too much rum – and suffered from a crippling colic known as the dry bellyache.

The earliest record of Edward’s presence in Jamaica dates from 1675 when, as “a young Jamaican merchant” he was employed by William Whaley as an assistant manager on the Bybrook estate in the parish of St Catherine (see map below). He had evidently already been on the island for some time at that point. Writing to the estate’s owner, William Helyar, who remained in England, Whaley reported that Edward “understands the affairs of this country very well”. By this, he meant that Edward Atcherley was familiar how things worked in Jamaica, including the many corrupt practices. As Edward himself wrote: “I find not in my neighbours but in several others honey upon their tongues, but much more poison in their hearts”. He vowed that he would be cautious of such people.

The plantation at Bybrook had been established in 1669 by William Helyar’s brother Cary, who died in 1672 before the estate had made any profit. William Helyar, who had owned a half share of the venture and pumped much of his own money into it, subsequently became the sole owner. Whaley, his godson, who had previously worked under Cary Helyar, became manager at Bybrook and with continued financial support from Helyar, continued to develop the sugar plantation by purchasing more slaves and building a sugar works, water mill, boiling house, distillery and curing house.

Despite the increased sugar-producing capacity at Bybrook, the estate’s output did not match its potential. Both Whaley and Atcherley suffered ill health in the first half of 1676. Whaley wrote to Helyar “I am daily troubled with the fever and cough, as also Mr. Atcherly who had a hard bout of it being taken sick in few days after he arrived.” Europeans had little resistance to the diseases of the tropics, and lacking the knowledge required to treat them many died there. On 2 July 1676, William Whaley joined their number.

Following Whaley’s death, Edward Atcherley took over management of the plantation and carried on where Whaley left off. Although he did manage to export eight hogsheads of sugar to England in 1677 – the first such shipment to be sent – like Whaley he sold most of the sugar produced at Bybrook in Jamaica, drawing bills of exchange on Helyar for more supplies. And just as Whaley’s name had appeared on invoices for the purchase of slaves from 1674 to 1676, so an invoice from a company sale of slaves in 1677 bore the name of ‘Edward Atcherly’.

The harsh reality is that Bybrook plantation was operated with a large number of enslaved Africans. Conditions in the West Indies were such that slaves were not expected to live much more than seven years after their arrival; around 25% died during their first three years. During his four years in charge, Whaley had bought at least 59 slaves, increasing the number on the plantation to 104. This total was one of the largest on any plantation in Jamaica at the time.

There were servants from England too. Whaley had written regularly to William Helyar requesting that skilled servants such as coopers and potters be sent to build and maintain Bybrook’s sugar-producing infrastructure. Helyar had obliged. Some of the men were indentured for periods of just a few years, but on 1 January 1675 Helyar and a Somerset potter named Nathaniel Creech had entered into an agreement which obliged Creech to serve for 21 years, with a salary. It was not long before another potter was needed to replace Creech, and Helyar once again agreed a term of 21 years, with Thomas Ford. Edward Atcherley, however, renegotiated this contract, advising Helyar in a letter dated 23 July 1677:

I have agreed with Thomas fforde Potter to serve you three yeares (deducting his Sallary which hee was to Receive yearly) teaching two of your negroes to make potts and dripps and burne and Sett as well as himselfe which thought Convenient to bee done, for the Thought of one and Twenty yeares for him to serve would Certainely have beene the end of his dayes in a shorte tyme (as I suppose was the occation of the other Potter Natll and his wife death).

Edward Atcherley did not remain the sole manager of Bybrook for long. During the course of 1677, William Helyar articled two additional agents (neither of whom had any experience of sugar making) to run the plantation jointly with Edward. Helyar, who had previously suspected Whaley of dishonesty, was probably experiencing feelings of déjà vu as the estate continued to swallow his money while generating very little by way of a return. He would not have been reassured by a letter he received in that year from fellow plantation owner (and former Governor of Jamaica) Sir Thomas Modyford, who wrote: “Your chief man Atcherly is a very drunken idle fellow, for which reason my son turned him out of his employ, and by this time you have reason to thinke him a lyeing one alsoe.”

Modyford’s accusations of drunkenness were not without foundation, as one author has written that “Atcherley lost the use of his arms from a disease known as the dry bellyache.” Although the root cause of ‘the dry bellyache’ was not known back in the 1600s it came to be associated with, among other things, “travelling in the night after too free ingurgitation of spirituous liquors.” The excruciating effects of the condition were described by Towne in 1726 as follows:

There is not in the whole compass of infirmities which flesh is heir to, any one that afflicts human nature in a more exquisite degree than this unmerciful torture. The belly is seized with an intolerable piercing pain, sometimes in one point only, and sometimes in several parts of the intestines. … during this scene of the distemper, which sometimes continues eight, ten, or fourteen days, the patient is upon a perpetual rack, with scarce any remission or pause from pain. He undergoes all the various modifications of torment [which] by turns afflict him with a diversity of grievous sensations.

While all this was going on the belly remained “obstinately costive” or in other words, constipated. In addition (according to Dr William Hillary, writing in 1766) “the Patient discharges but little Urine, and that often with Pain and much Difficulty.” Hence the drybellyache. As for Edward losing the use of his arms, this was another symptom of this catastrophic colic. To return to Towne’s description:

When the extremity of pain begins to abate, the sick person often observes a sort of tingling uneasiness through the spinal marrow, which propagates itself from thence to the nerves of the arms and legs, which at this time are very weak and debilitated. This weakness and inability increase daily, till in a short time they terminate in a confirmed paralysis of the extremities.

“Spirituous liquors” – specifically rum (or rather the impurities within it) – did indeed cause the dry bellyache, though this wasn’t known for certain until the late 1700s. The Encyclopædia Britannica then carried an entry on Colica Pictonum which stated that “Another cause to which violent colics are frequently to be ascribed … is lead … received into the body.” Those colics were said to include “what is called the dry bellyach in the West Indies”.

Rum became contaminated because it was distilled in lead equipment. And the liquor was readily available: in 1675 William Whaley had written that there was little profit to be made from the sale of rum as it was a “mere drug” on the market, so many people were making it.

Edward Atcherley’s bout of the dry bellyache was therefore self-inflicted, but he was probably unaware that his rum-drinking would have such devastating consequences. I can’t help but feel sorry for him, as he must have suffered terribly. However, the fact that he continued as a manager at Bybrook until 1678 suggests that he may have received treatment and recovered from the worst effects of his illness.

It seems likely that Edward was still at Bybrook when a number of Jamaican slaves rose up against their white owners on 28 April 1678. The rebellion began on the plantation of Captain Duck, where the guards were overpowered, guns were seized, and the Captain’s wife along with several others were killed. The rebels made off into the forest and, having connections with some of the slaves working on the plantation of Sir Thomas Modyford, headed for the woods in that vicinity. There, slaves from both estates allegedly plotted to “kill all the white men”.

Modyford, after being informed of what was happening, had those who were suspected of involvement in the rebellion rounded up. What followed was, in the words of author Amy Marie Johnson, “the most gruesome torture imaginable”. In fear for their lives, slave turned against slave. One saved his own life by implicating eight of his fellow bondmen in the rebellion. Of those eight, one was spared from the fate of having his arms and legs broken and “soe to be starv’d to death” by accusing some of the slaves at Bybrook of complicity in the uprising. The other seven were burned alive, a slow and unimaginably painful process. While being burned, one of these unfortunate men named another Bybrook slave as a co-conspirator, one Quashee Eddoo.

Eddoo was the most trusted slave on the Bybrook estate, and had served Cary Helyar, William Whaley and Edward Atcherley in turn. One of Edward’s co-managers, Joseph Bryan, wrote “I could have put my life in his hands I judged him to be so trusty a Negro; and this Negro was one of the chiefest rogues in the conspiracy.” Eddoo gave evidence against 12 other slaves to save himself. Following a court-martial four of the 12 were burned alive like those on Thomas Modyford’s estate, while the other eight were killed by hanging before their bodies were also burned. Quashee Eddoo was deported.

The events I have just described make grim reading. I try not to judge those who went before us for the things they did so long ago, in very different times, especially when in today’s more ‘enlightened’ world there are still so many examples of people being oppressed, abused and killed because of the colour of their skin, their beliefs, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation or their position in society. But neither will I attempt to excuse the men responsible for the atrocities which took place in the Jamaican parish of St Catherine’s in 1678.

Was Edward Atcherley one of those men? I have found no information regarding what part, if any, he played in the court-martial and subsequent killings of the slaves on the Bybrook estate. What I do know is that Edward’s days in the West Indies – and indeed upon this earth – were nearly over. Later in 1678, acting on advice from Thomas Modyford, William Helyar dismissed Edward (and presumably his co-managers), and appointed Thomas Hillyard to run the plantation in return for a third of the profits made.

Out of work and probably not in the best of health (he may still have been suffering from the effects of the dry bellyache), Edward Atcherley left the West Indies for England aboard the ship Robert and Richard in 1679. The ship, which was of “of Barbadoes”, was described as having “lately arrived in London” in August that year in a petition made to the King by Sir Philip Howard. Edward Atcherley however did not survive the voyage.  Probate lawsuits which took place in 1679 and 1680 show that “the deceased Edward Acherley, bachelor,” had “died overseas in the ship Robert and Richard”.

Picture credits. Map showing St Catherine, Kingston and Port Royal, Jamaica: cropped from image on page 26 of The History of the Maroons, taken from British Library Flickr Photostream. No known copyright restrictions. Extract from The modern practice of physic, page 175, published 1760 and so out of copyright.

[1] Shrewsbury St Mary, Shropshire parish register covering 1644/45: entry for Edward Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1911), Shropshire Parish Registers. Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XII, page 99 viewed at Mocavo and at Mel Lockie’s website. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P00681-1, Film 908234.
[2] J Harry Bennett (1965), William Whaley, Planter of Seventeenth Century Jamaica. In: Agricultural History, 40:2, pp 113-123. Copy viewed at JSTOR (website).
[3] Susan Dwyer Amussen (2007), Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700. Previewed at Google Books.
[4] Richard Dunn (1972), Sugar and slaves. Pages 215-8. Pages viewed at and snippets viewed at Google Books.
[5] Anton Gill (1997), The devil’s mariner: a life of William Dampier, pirate and explorer, 1651-1715. Page 38. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
[6] David W Galenson (2002), Traders, planters and slaves: market behaviour in Early English America.
[7] Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh (1972), No Peace Beyond the Line. Page 305. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
[8] Jerome S Handler et al (1986), Lead Contact and Poisoning in Barbados Slaves: Historical, Chemical, and Biological Evidence. In: Social Science History, 10 (4): 399-427. PDF copy downloaded from Jerome S Handler (website).
[9] John Ball (1760), The modern practice of physic. Page 175 et seq. (Quotes from Towne (1726).) Copy viewed at Google Books.
[10] William Hillary (1766), Observations on the Changes of the Air and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbadoes. Page 182. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Third Edition, Volume XI, 1797. Page 268. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[12] Amy Marie Johnson (2007), Expectations of Slavery: African Captives, White Planters, and Slave Rebelliousness in Early Colonial Jamaica. Pages 176-7. Previewed at Google books.
[13] Susan D Amussen (2010), Violence, Gender and Race in the Seventeenth Century English Atlantic. In: Masculinities, Violence, Childhood. Page 293. Copy previewed at Google Books.
[14] W. Noel Sainsbury and J.W. Fortescue (editors) (1896), Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 10: 1677-1680. Pages 403-411. Electronic copy viewed at British History Online (website).
[15] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/11/5, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherley. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[16] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/11/29, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherley. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[17] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/12/51, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherly and Cox. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.
[18] The National Archives item ref PROB 18/12/62, Probate lawsuit Almond v Acherly and Cox. Item described in TNA Discovery catalogue.