Poison and Protest: Sarah Bassett and Enslaved Women Poisoners in the Early Modern Caribbean

In 2008, the government of Bermuda erected its very first monument to an enslaved person. The “Sally Bassett Memorial Statue” is a ten-foot tall bronze sculpture by Bermudian artist Carlos Dowling. It depicts Sarah Bassett, an enslaved woman who was executed in 1730 for poisoning three people. Bassett is a well-known figure to Bermudians, and a part of local folklore, but opinions differ on her historical significance. Was she an innocent victim, unjustly accused? Or a resistance fighter protesting the injustices of slavery? While Bassett’s story remains open to interpretation, it offers a window into the complex dynamics of race, gender and medical knowledge in the early modern Caribbean.

Sarah (or Sally or Sary) Bassett was an elderly, enslaved “mulatto” (mixed-race) woman who was accused of poisoning the white couple, Sarah and Thomas Foster, who owned her granddaughter Beck. Bassett also poisoned a girl named Nancey, who was another of the Fosters’ slaves.1 According to the trial records, on December 18, 1729, Bassett gave Beck poisons containing ratsbane, manchineel, and something referred to as “white toade.”

One set of poisons was intended for Sarah Foster, and Beck was instructed to put it in her food over an extended period of time to make it appear that Foster was dying of a “wasting” disease. The other set was intended for Nancey. Bassett told Beck to hide this in the kitchen in a place where Nancey would be sure to inhale it. This poison was supposed to kill much more quickly. However, Nancey found the poison and alerted the Fosters.

Photo of a gray monument of a woman in flowing clothes tied to a stake with her hands behind her back with her face turn up towards the sky and her eyes closed.
A monument to Sally Basset in Hamilton, Bermuda. (Bader Journal)

Beck testified against her grandmother, most likely in return for her life. Ten white citizens of Bermuda also testified against Bassett, including her intended victim, Sarah Foster. Several of these witnesses recounted an earlier incident in 1712 when Bassett had been accused of conspiring with a man known as “Indian Tom” to poison the livestock and damage the property of two white men. Bassett proclaimed her innocence, but not surprisingly, given the testimony against her, the all-white jury found her guilty. She was sentenced to be burned alive at a public crossroads. Her execution took place in the last week of June 1730.

Bassett was one of hundreds of enslaved people in the early modern Caribbean to be accused of poisoning. Indeed, this was one of the most common crimes for which enslaved people were prosecuted. In the 1620s in Cartagena, a city on the Colombian Caribbean coast, an enslaved healer named Paula de Eguiluz was brought before the Inquisition for allegedly using herbs to kill people.2 In the 1820s in Martinique, an enslaved woman who worked as a cook poisoned her mistress’s child, and in a particularly grisly twist, dug up the child’s body and mixed the flesh into the mother’s food.3

These examples could be multiplied many times over. It is not always possible in the historical sources to discern whether or not a person was actually a victim of poisoning, or whether an enslaved person was blamed for a naturally occurring disease like cholera, dysentery, or yellow fever. But fears of slave poisoners clearly ran high and led to the passage of laws that explicitly prohibited enslaved people from accessing and using poisons and prescribed severe punishments for those who did.

Photo of a grouping of pink five-petaled flowers in bloom. This is the oleander flower.
Oleander is widely available on Bermuda, and is poisonous when ingested. (Gaspar/Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.5)

A Virginia law of 1748 actually forbade enslaved persons from administering medicines in an attempt to prevent them from giving poison in the guise of medical treatment.4 Many of the poisoners (or alleged poisoners) were women, and many of these women lived in intimate proximity to their victims, functioning as house servants, cooks, and nursemaids to white children.

The prevalence of women among the enslaved people accused of poisoning reflects both the prominence of enslaved women as medical practitioners as well as the high degree of respect their medical theories and practices were accorded. Throughout the Caribbean, enslaved women worked as healers, providing essential medical care not only to their fellow slaves, but to white plantation owners as well. Many European colonists preferred to consult enslaved women healers rather than European-trained physicians when they or their families fell ill.

Paula de Eguiluz, the accused poisoner mentioned above, was hauled in front of the Inquisition three times to answer accusations of harming people with her medicines. She was nonetheless one of the most highly sought-after healers in Cartagena, treating even the upper echelons of colonial society. The medicine practiced by black women in the early modern Caribbean was a complex and sophisticated hybrid of European, Amerindian, and African elements.

In the French Caribbean, enslaved women were frequently trained in surgical skills — bloodletting, setting broken bones, and dressing wounds — by surgeons who had received their training in France.5 Enslaved women also learned healing techniques from indigenous peoples. (Bassett’s earlier friendship with a man named “Indian Tom” is suggestive of this kind of knowledge exchange). Enslaved women brought with them medical knowledge from West or West Central Africa and learned from fellow slaves and free blacks.

A man painted with his face painted white and a shoulders and chest also painted stands over someone who is curled in a fetal position on the ground beneath him. The painted man has his arms raised. There is a thatched-roof hut behind him.
Medicine-man, treatment of a patient in Central-Africa. (Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, enslaved healers performed their own experiments to learn the medicinal properties of the plants and animals in their new environments. Enslaved medical practitioners utilized an eclectic and dynamic mix of healing techniques and substances. These women provided much of the medical care on plantations, for both slaves and masters, and in cities.6

Their medical skills not only garnered them respect and generally better conditions and treatment than other enslaved people but also generated considerable anxiety. Anyone who knows enough about the body to heal knows enough to harm.

One indication of this anxiety can be seen in early responses of Europeans to the practice of inoculation, which, as a preventive measure against diseases like leprosy, yaws, and smallpox was practiced in Africa long before it was adopted by Europeans. It involves taking a small amount of the bodily fluid of a person suffering from the disease and introducing it into a healthy person. This induces a mild case of the disease in the healthy person and confers immunity from the disease.

When Europeans first saw enslaved medical practitioners (often women) performing the procedure, they initially assumed that these practitioners were trying to kill their fellow slaves to spare them a life of slavery. Slave owners often construed the deaths of enslaved people, by murder or suicide, as forms of resistance. For example, Karol Weaver has described how the extraordinarily high rates of neonatal death among enslaved infants in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue were blamed on the supposedly malicious and depraved actions of enslaved mothers and midwives.

Drawing a a woman sitting under a drooping palm tree. She holds an infant in her arms.
An enslaved woman holds a child under a tree. (Library of Congress)

These women allegedly killed newborns with poisons, as well as with evil spells and by sticking pins in their skulls to enact revenge on their masters.7 It seemed perfectly plausible to the white denizens of the Caribbean that enslaved women would have the knowledge and skills to concoct complex poisons, ones that might mimic natural diseases and thus be very hard to detect.

Another reason that enslaved women figured prominently in accusations of poisoning was that, for Europeans, poisoning had long been intertwined with witchcraft, a crime strongly associated with women.8 The indictment against Bassett, which described her as “being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the Devil,” as well as her punishment of being burned at the stake (an unusual mode of execution by this time), are both reminiscent of European witch trials.

Paula de Eguiluz, the enslaved healer in Cartagena who ran afoul of the Inquisition, was also accused of being a witch, although unlike Bassett, she escaped execution. (This was not unusual. The Spanish Inquisition in the New World tended to punish women like Paula de Eguiluz by imposing sentences of penance rather than death).9 African medical practices certainly could involve invocation and manipulation of spiritual entities, and Europeans were quick to characterize these entities as demonic.10

For Europeans, witches were the inversion of “good” women. Instead of being young and fertile, they were old and barren. And they destroyed the fertility of other women, of livestock, and of crops. Instead of caring for and nurturing the sick and the young, they killed. In the Caribbean, enslaved women were often tasked with intimate acts of caring – cooking, caring for white children, healing the sick.11 Again, it was eminently plausible to white masters and mistresses that enslaved women might invert these acts of caring and turn them into acts of harming.

Legend has it that the national flower of Bermuda, the sisyrinchium bermudiana , first grew at the site of Bassett’s execution, out of her ashes. It now grows all over the islands. Bermuda’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources describes it as “quite hardy” and notes that it “can be found in a variety of habitats, from sandy beach dunes, to rocky shorelines, and coastal forest floors.” Tenacious, adaptable and able to survive in challenging environments, it seems a fitting tribute to Sarah Bassett.

Notes

  1. My discussion of Sarah Bassett’s case is drawn from Clarence V.H. Maxwell, “‘The Horrid Villainy’: Sarah Bassett and the Poisoning Conspiracies in Bermuda, 1727–30,” Slavery & Abolition 21, no. 3 (December 2000): 48–74. Return to text.
  2. Pablo Gomez, “Incommensurable Epistemologies? The Atlantic Geography of Healing in the Early Modern Black Spanish Caribbean,” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 44 (2014), 95-107. Return to text.
  3. John Savage, “Between Colonial Fact and French Law: Slave Poisoners and the Provostial Court in Restoration-Era Martinique,” French Historical Studies 29, no. 4 (2006): 565–594; and Idem, “‘Black Magic’ and White Terror: Slave Poisoning and Colonial Society in Early 19th Century Martinique,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (2007): 635–662. Return to text.
  4. Diana Paton, “Witchcraft, Poison, Law, and Atlantic Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 2 (2012), 235-264. Return to text.
  5. Karol K. Weaver, “Surgery, Slavery and the Circulation of Knowledge in the French Caribbean,” Slavery & Abolition 33, no. 1 (2012): 105-117. Return to text.
  6. Londa Schiebinger, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford University Press, 2017). Return to text.
  7. Karol K. Weaver, “‘She Crushed the Child’s Fragile Skull’: Disease, Infanticide, and Enslaved Women in Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue,” French Colonial History 5, no. 1 (2004): 93–109. Return to text.
  8. Paton, “Witchcraft, Poison, Law, and Atlantic Slavery.” Return to text.
  9. For more on Paula de Eguiluz and the Inquisition, see Kathryn Joy McKnight, “Performing Double-Edged Stories: The Three Trials of Paula de Eguiluz,” Colonial Latin American Review 25, no. 2 (2016): 154-174. Return to text.
  10. Kenneth M. Bilby and Jerome S. Handler, “Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life,” Journal of Caribbean History 38, no. 2 (2004): 153–83; Diana Paton and Maarit Forde eds., Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing (Duke University Press, 2012); and Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Return to text.
  11. Jennifer L. Palmer, Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Return to text.

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