Wales and the slave trade

Collections - Posted 23-08-2021

The transatlantic slave trade, which flourished between the 17th century and the 19th century, affected Wales in ways that are still not fully appreciated. It left its mark not only on the merchants, sailors, plantation owners and estate workers who were directly involved in it, but also on the rest of Welsh industry, commerce, society and daily life. Wales was known for its iron, wool and copper, all of which were often made into items that were traded for slaves or used in the slave ships and plantations, while the cotton and tobacco that were widely consumed at all levels of society in Wales were produced by slaves.

Evidence of the slave trade and its impact can be found in many of the Library’s collections, especially the archives of landed estates that owned slave plantations. Sometimes the references are clear, but often we need to scratch the surface before we can see the full picture. Work by historians such as Professor Chris Evans (Slave Wales: the Welsh and Atlantic slavery 1660-1850; University of Wales Press, 2010) has helped to uncover the story, but there is a lot still to be discovered in the archives. As UNESCO marks the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23, we take a look at some of the material relating to the slave trade in the Library’s collections.

The slave trade within the British empire was carried on across the world, from the East Indies to the Americas, and many Welsh people were involved in it. UNESCO emphasises the importance of the transatlantic trade because of its far-reaching impact on race relations today, so the focus of this blog is on the West Indies. Our collections also contain a wealth of information about the slave trade in other parts of the world.

From the beginning, many contemporary references to the slave trade were heavily coded by those involved in it. In 1692, for example, a joint stock company trading in Africa and the West Indies referred only to its ‘interests’ there (Tredegar Estate Records MSS and Docs 122); this was the time when the Royal African Company was at its height, monopolising the English and Welsh trade in African slaves – a statue of its Deputy Governor, Edward Colston, was famously pushed into the harbour in Bristol in 2020. Outwardly, and throughout the period, title deeds and financial transactions concerning plantations in places such as Montserrat, St Kitts and Dominica gave the impression that the properties were no different from manors in Gloucestershire or Monmouthshire (Gogerddan Estate Records MC2/1; Penty Park Estate Records 28; Nassau Senior Papers E714), and correspondence from the sugar plantations in Nevis and St Kitts often made very little if any mention of the presence of slaves (Bodrhyddan Estate Papers 58/1-143).

Similarly, letters from Navy officials to Charles Hayes, the Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, mentioned French protests about British encroachments on their trade at Senegal in the mid-18th century without being explicit about what that trade was (Gogerddan Estate Papers GCB1/1). Even apparently innocent hydrographical charts of the West Indies, such as that drawn up by Joseph Smith Speer in 1774, conceal the dark reality of the world of slavery in which they were created (Aston Hall Estate Records 3503). At the same time, colonialists such as the Ottley family took great pride in their position as Establishment figures in Antigua, St Vincent, Grenada and other parts of the British West Indies (Ottley Family (Additional) Papers 1).

Slavery is far from invisible in the archives, however. A letter to Charles Hayes from William Slawman in 1747 openly invited him to engage in the supply of slaves from Gambia to Buenos Aires (Gogerddan Estate Papers GCB1/1), and sales of slaves were recorded (Nassau Senior Papers E732). Slaves were generally listed as possessions alongside livestock and mineral deposits in inventories and agreements (Peniarth Estate Records DK2), and Richard Swarton’s estate in Jamaica in the 1760s consisted mostly of slaves (Slebech Estate Records 3328-33). In 1785, William Knox of Slebech was party to the purchase of 100 slaves at a price of £54 10s. (NLW Deeds 1948); these slaves had already been taken from Georgia to Jamaica, and they were now to be delivered to South Carolina. The agents who conducted this business kept journals (Nassau Senior Papers E814) and sometimes recorded information about the health of slaves, but only in relation to how well they could work (Slebech Estate Records 8342-440). They saw slaves merely as financial assets, and complained about inflated prices and the difficulty of obtaining ‘seasoned slaves’ (Nassau Senior Papers E51, E64, E4).

The slavers were well aware that their rule was based on force, and they made it clear that they expected ‘runaway slaves’ to be suppressed (Nassau Senior Papers E74). West Indian planters and merchants petitioned the British government with their concerns when tensions between slaves and planters escalated in 1791 (Slebech Estate Records 11532-41) – a successful slave revolt a few months later in the French colony of Saint-Domingue eventually led to the establishment of the free state of Haiti – and the owners’ fears grew stronger during Britain’s wars with revolutionary France (Glansevern Estate Records 1010). When slaves in the West Indies first became free, it was through their own bloody struggle with European colonists.

There was always opposition in Wales to the slave trade, but it made little difference until the end of the 18th century. By that time, meetings calling for abolition, such as the one at Usk in 1792, were becoming more common (Tredegar Estate Records 64/346). Edward Williams or Iolo Morganwg was known for his strong opposition to the trade; not only did he speak, read and write on the subject, he also refused to sell his literary work to those whom he knew to be supporters of the trade in Bristol (Iolo Morganwg and Taliesin ab Iolo Manuscripts and Papers NLW MS 21282E/359, NLW MS 21396E/17, NLW MS 21392F/29, NLW MS 21400C/24-24a). His opinions were not shared by everyone, however. Many of the Welsh gentry and their agents had invested extensively in the plantations, and they argued that abolition would ruin the economy of Liverpool and other ports (Harpton Court Estate Records 2073).

The slave trade in the British empire was abolished in 1807, but slavery still persisted, and in some circumstances slaves could still be bought and sold. In October 1810, for example, Major General Thomas Picton – at that time fighting in Portugal with Wellington – made an agreement with members of the Delaforest family for the conveyance of plantations, buildings, implements, slaves, horses, mules and other effects in Trinidad, which had become a British colony in 1797 (Picton Family Records 19). Picton, a wealthy landowner who later became M.P. for Pembroke Boroughs, was well known for his cruelty and arbitrary brutality, especially to slaves, and he had been found guilty of approving the torture of a young girl called Luisa Calderón (who was not a slave) in Trinidad in 1801, but he had appealed against the conviction on a technicality and the case was never resolved. For many years he was best remembered for his part in the Peninsular war and his death at Waterloo, and a monument was erected in tribute to him in Carmarthen. There has recently been a campaign to remove it.

The cruel treatment of slaves in Jamaica was still being commented on in 1815 (Nassau Senior Papers E136), and the Royal Navy in the West Indies had to act against piracy and the slave trade – which the government now considered to be closely related – for years after that (Penralley Papers 219). The attention of abolitionists was now turning towards slavery itself, not only in the British empire but in the United States of America and elsewhere. The campaigners in Wales included the Independent minister Samuel Roberts (‘S.R.’) (NLW MS 9523A), but the most prominent individual in the Library’s collections is Thomas Clarkson, who travelled extensively for the Anti-Slavery Society (NLW MS 14984A) and dedicated his life to the cause, sometimes at great personal risk. It was Clarkson who galvanised the movement for abolition in Britain in the 1780s by collecting testimonies from sailors, which he knew would reveal not only the terrible conditions faced by crew members on board slave ships but also the treatment of the slaves themselves. Some of those Bristol and Liverpool sailors were Welsh.

These are just a few of the more easily accessible items in our collections. Many hidden stories still lie buried in the archives, waiting to be unearthed.

Wales’s involvement in slavery did not begin with the transatlantic trade. Medieval Welsh law – of which there are several manuscripts in the Library, such as Peniarth MS 28 – routinely took slaves for granted as a category of society, while narrative sources such as Brut y Tywysogyon (Peniarth MS 20) and Vita Griffini filii Conani (Peniarth MS 434E) tell of Vikings from Ireland taking people in Wales into slavery. Even the seventh-century lullaby Pais Dinogad, which is written in the voice of a woman singing to her child, refers to their eight slaves (‘wythgeith’) singing along with them (NLW Llyfr Aneirin, Cardiff MS 2.81).

Nor is the slave trade yet a thing of the past. In 2007 and 2008, as part of the Everywhere In Chains community project, Women in Jazz conducted a series of workshops in south Wales to raise awareness of human slavery and trafficking both in the past and in the modern world (Jazz Heritage Wales / Women’s Archive Wales 4/9). We hope that such additions to our collections will not be necessary in the future.

Dr David Moore (Archivist)


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