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Slavery and Devon: Identities of slave owners, and who received compensation when "their assets" were freed, revealed for the first time

By RichardBirch  |  Posted: March 21, 2013

  • Image held by Plymouth Record Office purportedly showing slaves about to be placed on a vessel to the West Indies

  • Henry Philpotts (1778–1869), Bishop of Exeter by Joseph Sydney Willis Hodges(c) Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

  • Image of a sugar cane plantation in West indies courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collection

  • Tony Simpson

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WHEN slavery was abolished in the UK in 1834, it marked a successful end to decades of campaigning by figures now lauded like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson.

But the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, enacted a year later, had something of a sting in its tail.

Releasing slaves “belonging” to British citizens was a long process. Only those aged below six were immediately released while those who were older became apprentices, still working for free and beholden to their owners. It took a number of years for this to come to an end.

And, as with much Government legislation, the successful implementation of the act came with a significant caveat - the right to claim compensation for “lost assets”.

The British Government set aside £20M to be distributed among slave owners to give them recompense for their business losses.

Thousands of British families owned slaves, many of whom were prominent figures such as the then Bishop of Exeter Henry Philpotts who, in a partnership with others, received £12,700 for the loss of 665 slaves in Jamaica.

Tens of thousands of Caribbean slaves were owned by wealthy residents of Devon and their identities can now be revealed according to new research published by the University of London.

A commissioned group of officials were appointed by Parliament to determine who should receive what and on what basis.

They carefully documented all claims made and all monies disbursed. The effect of this is that there is a set of records, held in the National Archives at Kew, of the claimants and of the men, women and children that owners claimed as their property and the monetary values that were assigned to them.

If the claims were validated, having been checked in the relevant colonies, the owner received compensation.

The amounts were fixed according to the classification of each individual - their gender, age, type of work and level of skill - and the level of productivity, and therefore profitability, of the different islands and territories.

Plantation owners living at Honiton, Sidmouth, Tiverton, Budleigh Salterton to name a few are among those who reaped large compensation payments.

Among those listed as receiving compensation for ending slavery are:

- Honiton MP Hugh Duncan Baillee, the son of a Bristol merchant who traded in the West Indies. He had acquired 15 plantations with more than 1600 slaves.

- Sir William Pole of Shute is recorded as sharing two plantations each with 170 slaves. He owned more than 1, 000 slaves in St Kitts 424 and received more than £5,000.

- Two brothers - Thomas and Henry Porter of Rockbeare - together received more than £55,000 (the equivalent of around £4million today) for the loss of 1,000 slaves in British Guiana.

- Emmanuel Lousada , a wealthy Sidmouth entrepreneur who built High Peak house and Connaught Gardens and became a High Sheriff for Devon, was involved in many local projects including the renovation of Sidmouth Parish Church. He received almost £7,000 for the freedom of 334 slaves on plantations in Jamaica and Barbados.

- John Rolle who became Lord Rolle of Stevenstone and Bicton , the most extensive landed property in Devon is said to have received £4,333 for 377 slaves, the largest slave holding in the Bahamas which became known as Rollestown.

Historian and lecturer Tony Simpson of Honiton said: “Women were also involved, directly or indirectly in plantation slavery.

“Caroline Robley from Tiverton was the widow of a planter who owned more than 1,600 slaves on 10 plantations in St Vincent and Tobago. She was left compensation of more than £34,000 - worth around £2.5M today.

“Apart from being compensated for the loss of ownership of slaves, it should be remembered that planters often enjoyed decades of income from slave plantations.

“Free labour yielded huge profits from crops like sugar and cotton which enabled them and their families to enjoy an enviable lifestyle, often fine houses or large estates.

“Although Britain abolished the Slave Trade in 1807, slavery continued on plantation estates for another 26 years. Even after the Emancipation Bill of 1833, slavery was only gradually phased out and many slaves continued as unpaid apprentices on plantations for a further four years.”

Catherine Hall was the principal investigator on the research project for the University of London.

She said: “We believe that research and analysis of this will be key to understanding the extent and the limits of slavery's role in shaping British history and leaving lasting legacies that reach into the present.

“The stories of enslaved men and women, however, are no less important than those of slave-owners, and we hope that the encyclopaedia we have produced in the first phase of our project, while at present primarily a resource for studying slave-owners, will also provide information of value to those researching enslaved people.

“We know that in addition to the many absentee planters, bankers and financiers directly concerned with the business of sugar and slavery, there were many other types of claimant: clergymen, for example, or the widows and single women, some of whom had been left property in the enslaved in trust.

“Slave ownership was spread across the British Isles, by no means confined to the old slaving ports, and included men and women of varied ages, ranging from the aristocracy and gentry to sections of the middle classes.

“Despite the popular enthusiasm for abolition, slave owners had no compunction in seeking compensation - apparently totally unembarrassed by this property that had been widely constructed by abolitionists as a 'stain on the nation'.”

To search the database and find out more about the research, visit www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

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The history of slavery in Devon was researched by Lucy MacKeith and published by the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage.

She wrote: “The slave trade and slavery are not the only parts of Devon’s history where we can find black people.

“But the contribution from black people in slavery, especially to the wealth of some people in Devon, is significant.

“People at all levels of society were involved: sheep farmers, spinners and weavers who created cloth which was exported to Africa and the Americas, wool traders in Exeter, bootmakers, food producers, metal workers who produced the slave chains, ship builders, and bronze founders who made the manillas (a kind of bracelet) which were used as money in the slave trade. The list goes on. Probably most families in Devon benefited.

“There were sugar-processing factories in Devon – at the Bishop’s Palace in Exeter, the Retreat in Topsham, and in Goldsmith Street, Exeter.

“The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has fragments of the original clay pots.

“There were also black people who lived in Devon who were slaves or servants. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Lady Raleigh, wife of Sir Walter Raleigh of Devon, was one of the first people in England to have a young African attendant.

“Devonians also played their part in the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. William Davy, from Exeter, was the one of the two counsels for James Somerset, the recaptured slave who fought to be free in the famous Somerset case of 1772.

“There were sermons in churches and numerous meetings were held in cities, towns and villages throughout Devon to call for the abolition of the slave trade and to collect signatures for petitions to Parliament.

“People had different opinions then, as they do now. Devonians are to be found on all sides of any debate, as they were in the argument about abolishing slavery and the slave trade.”

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