1800-1859 | Slavery | Trinidad and Tobago

Newspaper dismisses dangers of treadmill, blaming idle, sulky slaves

Nineteenth century punishment treadmill –
Public domain – via geriwalton.com

12 October 1823

On 12 October 1823, the English newspaper John Bull, disparaged the concern expressed in a letter from the British colony of Trinidad over a slave called Moses, who had broken his leg while being punished on a treadmill. The treadmill or tread-wheel was a giant paddle wheel cylinder of twenty four steps, which a slave, being punished for some offence, had to turn by stepping on the paddles.  The offending slave was in effect forced to climb a never ending staircase for 7 am to 4 pm while an overseer watched him with a cow-skin whip ‘in case he should not keep equal motion with the revolution of the wheel.’1

John Bull strongly disputed that Moses’ injury was ‘an instance of barbarity’, and instead claimed that it was ‘merely the result of idleness or sulkiness, virtues with which the blacks are amply endowed.’  To suggest otherwise was an unjustified aspersion against ‘the Governor of that island, whose character for humanity and moderation we never before heard impeached.’  It admitted that for the punished slaves the treadmill was a more arduous task in the extreme heat of the tropics, than for a criminal sentenced to hard labour in England, but the newspaper reasoned ‘it should be considered that the ordinary labour of man in the fields is performed in the same temperature, and that of course the Tread-mill bears the same relation to… (such) work in a hot country as it bears in a colder one.’2


  1. ‘The Tread-Mill,’ John Bull, 12 October 1823, p. 325, ‘Tread Mill in Trinidad,’ The Morning Post, 15 October 1823, p. 4 and James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Harper Collins, London, 1992, p. 298.
  2. The Tread-Mill,’ John Bull, 12 October 1823, p. 325.

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