Lil Bar­ba­dos His­tory — Rachel Pringle Polgreen

Ah lil bit ah his­tory — Bar­ba­dos Folk­lore
Rachel Pringle Polgreen

One of the most talked about col­ored women in Bar­ba­dian his­tory, Rachel Pringle Pol­green achieved immor­tal­ity by enter­ing the books of his­tory by becom­ing the first woman of her kind to own and oper­ate a hotel in Bar­ba­dos. If we look at this through 21st cen­tury eyes, it does not seem to be a huge achieve­ment as the rise of women as entre­pre­neurs and suc­cess­ful busi­ness­women is well doc­u­mented. How­ever, when tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion that this was in the 18th cen­tury –before slav­ery was even abol­ished across the Caribbean – it is evi­dent this was a truly mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment. This arti­cle looks at the life of Rachel Pringle Pol­green by pre­sent­ing, who she was, what she did, where she did it, when she did it and how she became one of the most suc­cess­ful col­ored women of her time.

Who was Rachel Pringle Polgreen?

Rachel Pringle Pol­green was born in 1753 and like all “coloureds” she was the prod­uct of a union between a slave and her mas­ter. Her father was William Lauder, a Scot­tish school­mas­ter. Inter­est­ingly enough, with the assis­tance of Rachel’s mother, he opened a small busi­ness, which many assumed was where Rachel gained her skills. Noth­ing much is said about Rachel until the fate­ful series of events that occurred when she was a teenager. Her father began mak­ing inces­tu­ous advances towards her, evi­dently aroused by her beauty. When Rachel rejected him, he handed her over to be pun­ished by the whip…a pun­ish­ment that was reserved for unruly slaves. The “leg­end” as is told in Bar­ba­dos today, is that Rachel was saved by Thomas Pringle and the two even­tu­ally began a rela­tion­ship. How­ever, Rachel’s father was less than pleased with the arrange­ment and the fact that she escaped pun­ish­ment, and as she was still legally his slave, he sought legal advice about procur­ing her again. How­ever, Pringle came to the aid of his beloved Rachel by offi­cially pur­chas­ing her from her father. Rachel dis­carded her father’s sur­name and adopted the last name of her sav­ior and pro­tec­tor Thomas Pringle.

It must be noted that the tale of “who” Rachel was is not a fairy­tale as she was far from per­fect. In order to keep her rela­tion­ship with Pringle, she pre­tended to be preg­nant and upon his return from a cruise (some sources say it was a tour of duty), she “bor­rowed” an infant and pre­sented him to Pringle as his son. The scheme was blown out of the water when the real mother of the child demanded her son be returned to her. Pringle left Rachel and Bar­ba­dos upon learn­ing of her decep­tion. Rachel was not alone for long, as she soon found another pro­tec­tor named Pol­green, hence her name becom­ing Rachel Pringle Polgreen.

Thus, while the unfor­tu­nate cir­cum­stances in her child­hood were ter­ri­ble, Rachel’s attempted decep­tion of Pringle should rebuff any fairy­tale notions about this story.

Where did these events occur?

Despite all that tran­spired in her per­sonal life, what Rachel Pringle accom­plished before her 30th birth­day was truly extra­or­di­nary. As stated in the intro­duc­tion, in order to truly under­stand the nature of her accom­plish­ment, it must be placed in the cor­rect con­text. Slav­ery and racism was very per­va­sive in Bar­ba­dos and the Caribbean at the time. How­ever, the one inter-​racial activ­ity not frowned upon was sex. Women knew that unions with white men could pro­vide social mobil­ity oppor­tu­ni­ties for her as well as other mate­r­ial pos­ses­sions. Rachel was orig­i­nally a slave to her father, but then she was sub­se­quently freed by her first pro­tec­tor Thomas Pringle. Despite being a freed­woman, she still was not afforded the kind of oppor­tu­ni­ties in Bar­ba­dian soci­ety due to the fact that she was a non white. Also, one must note that at this period in Bar­ba­dos, non whites, whether freed or slave, were still treated with con­tempt. Thus, the cul­tural and socioe­co­nomic con­di­tions of those days did not afford advance­ment of any kind for non­whites. Thus, Rachel’s achieve­ments were truly phenomenal.

What did Rachel Pringle Pol­green do?

Despite her less than ami­ca­ble split from Thomas Pringle, Rachel was able to enlarge the house he had given her and in her 20s she opened her very own tav­ern and hotel, becom­ing one of the first freed­women to own such an estab­lish­ment. Within the fol­low­ing 12 months, she owned another house in the city, its prop­erty val­ued at 50 pounds. Again, this not seem like much, but as was noted by a some schol­ars, if Rachel was a white male instead of a col­ored woman, the own­er­ship of that house alone would have placed her amount a small elite whose prop­er­ties held the min­i­mum value that qual­i­fied them to vote and engage in other polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. It was this house that became the Royal Naval Hotel.

This hotel gained its name from another unfor­tu­nate event in Rachel’s life. Dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, vis­it­ing offi­cers of the Royal Navy would stay at Rachel’s hotel in order to rest after long tours at sea. One of these was HRH Prince William Henry, the then naval cap­tain on the Lee­ward Islands sta­tion. One night, in a drunken frenzy, the Prince and his com­pan­ions wrecked the entire hotel. Amidst all the com­mo­tion, Rachel remained unflap­pable as she sat in the door­way in an arm­chair. As if the expe­ri­ence was not bad enough, the Prince cap­sized Rachel’s chair as a form of enter­tain­ment for him and his bud­dies and the nearby onlook­ers. It was said that Rachel dis­played no anger or fear, but merely picked her­self up and went about her business.

If there was one thing evi­dent in the “who” of Rachel Pringle was that she was very intel­li­gent, dis­played in her elab­o­rate scheme for Thomas Pringle. After this inci­dent at the hotel, she made a list of the dam­age and sent the Prince a bill of 700 pounds, which was paid with­out protest. She then used the money to cre­ate an even classier hotel, and named it the Royal Naval Hotel as a result of the experience.

Thus, while many of these expe­ri­ences can be looked at as a series of unfor­tu­nate events, Rachel was able to turn these seem­ingly ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions into oppor­tu­ni­ties for betterment.

When did these events occur?

These events all tran­spired dur­ing the late six­ties when Rachel was a teenager, and con­tin­ued up the time when she breathed her last breath on July 23, 1791 as a 38 year old woman.

How did Rachel achieve all that she did?

At the time of her death, Rachel owned at least 11 prop­er­ties. But for all her indus­try and shrewd busi­ness sense, it must be noted that she did not achieve her suc­cess in a tra­di­tional way. Firstly, her evi­dent manip­u­la­tion of Thomas Pringle is not some­thing that should be ignored. How­ever, what stands out the most is the fact that her suc­cess though achieved in spite of the exist­ing sta­tus quo, it was seem­ingly achieved in accep­tance of it. She never openly spoke up against the sys­tem, and while she her­self was bought out of slav­ery, she still owned a few slaves. How­ever, Rachel still was loyal to her slaves and was said to be close to them, even leav­ing a house to one of her slaves in her will.

Despite the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives ema­nat­ing from the life of Rachel Pringle Pol­green, her accom­plish­ments can­not be min­i­mized. She was able to break out of slav­ery, albeit with the help of a good Samar­i­tan and in the midst of dif­fi­cult socioe­co­nomic and cul­tural con­di­tions she was able to build a suc­cess­ful life for her­self. While some can describe her as cun­ning and manip­u­la­tive, the best words to describe her are indus­tri­ous, resource­ful and shrewd. She did not out­wardly oppose the sys­tem in exis­tence at the time, but she was able to manip­u­late it to her own advan­tage, thus mak­ing her an impor­tant part of Bar­ba­dian folklore.

Rachel Pringle

The above pic­ture is a depic­tion of Rachel’s life. In the back­ground is a much younger Rachel con­vers­ing with her father, William Lauder. Look­ing on is her first pro­tec­tor, Thomas Pringle. In the fore­ground is an obese Rachel, at the height of prosperity.

© Arti­cle of Caribbean Dreams Mag­a­zine
© Photo from negroartist​.com

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