Barbados Quakers – Early History
In 1655, two Quaker missionaries, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, arrived on the island to propagate the Quaker faith. Their mission was very successful. One of the islands most respected and wealthy families, the Rous family, became Quakers and many others followed.
Barbadian Quakers were subject to persecution by the local government for their non-conformist views, which included better treatment of slaves and freedom for slaves after considerable years of service. The Quakers were also one of the first Christian churches to encourage the slaves to join them. This so angered the Plantation owners that it resulted in the legislation of 1676 that made it illegal for blacks to attend a Quaker meeting. This law was repealed only in 1810. Despite enduring suppression, arrest, and crippling monetary fines, prominent and ordinary Barbadians joined Quaker ranks, including plantation owners, businessmen, physicians and others. This list included the Gittens ancestors who were primarily planters and businessmen.
Prior to the Quakers’ large-scale migration to Pennsylvania, Barbados had more Quakers than any other English colony. However, 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.
Since Quakers refused to conform to the Anglican Church, they were generally not recorded in the parish registers. They established their own registration system for birth, marriage and burial. These records do not survive in Barbados. The loss of these records much complicates the research on the early Gittens family.
By the end of the 17th century, Barbados was home to at least 5 Quaker burial grounds and 5 meeting houses with substantial memberships. Through out the 18th century Quaker numbers began to decline as a result of persecution and other factors. By 1780, the island’s meeting houses had been destroyed by hurricane and were not rebuilt. The burial grounds fell victim to the elements and development.
Today only the Cliff Burial ground survives its original form. It was established in 1670, when Quaker Richard Settle gave a legacy in his will for the purchase of land in St. Phillip Parish. There, he directed that part of the bequest be used for construction of the Windward Meeting House and the rest for a “burying ground for friends upon the Cliff.” His Stepson, Richard Taylor, constructed a family vault there, as did John Gittens, Dr. Ralph Weekes, and others. In all, six tombs were hewn into the natural coral stone of the Cliff Burial Ground. (Note 1)
The first evidence that our ancestors became Quakers was found in a land purchase of a property more recently known as Epworth House and owned by the Wesleyan Church since 1861. In 1668, John Gittens was a member of a Quaker group that purchased the dwelling and land for a Quaker meeting house and burial ground. It is unknown if the property was ever used for these purposes.
The 1680 Census of landowners in the Parish of St. Phillip included a listing of Quaker Land owners. and detailed the following people:
- Gittens, John Sr. husband of Q Hannah Gittens 30 acres of land 8 slaves
- Gittens, John Jr. son of Q Hannah Gittens, 5 acres of land 4 slaves
- The Will of John Gittens was dated 10 November 1698, in St. Phillip Parish. It states that he wanted “To be buried in the manner of Quakers.” It is the Gittens tomb in the Cliff Burial Ground that is pictured above.
One of the more significant factors that points to our ancestors being Quakers is the absence of baptism and marriage records from 1650 until 1699, in the Parish of St. Phillip, almost a 50 year period. On April 10, 1699, Isaac had his sons Robert, Isaac, Joseph, Benjamin and John baptized. On April 19, 1699, he had his daughter Sarah baptized. This would appear to be conversion to the Anglican Church which was likely caused by persecution of some form.
Through this 50 year period we know that there were Gittens families living in St. Phillip Parish as evidenced by a few of our ancestors Wills in the early 1700’s. These people were all living before 1699.
- Hannah Gittens, Feb 1720, St. Phillip Parish
- Isaac Gittens, Mar 1713, St. Phillip Parish
- Isaac Gittens Apr 1717, St. Michael Parish
- Joshua Gittens, 1714, St. Phillip Parish
- Robert Gittens, 1715, St. Phillip Parish
- Samuel Gittens, 1718, St. Phillip Parish
The final bit of evidence confirming the existence of the Gittens families in the Parish of St. Phillip is the Census of 1715. The census lists 12 Gittens families in St. Phillip Parish and one in St. Michael parish.
The 50 year absence of baptism and marriage records in the Parish of St. Phillip and the knowledge that there were Gittens families living in the Parish at the time, as evidenced by wills and the 1715 census, supports the conclusion that all of our ancestors became Quakers. The really interesting fact then is that all Barbados Gittens families originally descended from these early Quakers.
The conversion back to the Anglican Church started in 1699, with Isaac Gittens and his family. Slowly over the following years many, if not all, of our ancestors reverted to the Anglican Church.
Note 1 – Source Pamphlet titled “Quaker Burial Ground c. 1670” prepared by the Committee for the Preservation of the Quaker Burial Ground.