Wiltshire's Slave Owners in Jamaica

on Saturday, 20 August 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

It is so unfortunate that such a terrible practice is still endemic in this country today. Slavery in more modern times, exploits many different nationalities in a period where there is a more fluid movement of people through borders. Despite having more rigid security procedures, innocent victims of slavery are still sneaked through into Britain. It is believed that there may be as many as 13,000 slaves living here, despite the new government law passed last year; the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Many of the people who succumb to slavery today are deceived by broken promises of a new life of prosperity and safety. However, a few centuries ago, the slave trade was carried out in a very different and more brutal way.  Most slaves were literally dragged forcefully from their villages by armed raiding parties, instigated by white Europeans. These slaves were predominantly taken from West Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria. Slave ships then transported them in the vilest and inhumane conditions imaginable, to North America and the West Indies.

Some of our records at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre show that we had a strong link to the slave trade. Bristol was a major and dominant port for importing goods which were a by-product of slaving. These commodities included Mahogany, sugar and rum.   

William Clark Slaves cutting the sugar cane, Antigua, 1823 – Held by British Library, reproduced under Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication

One of the biggest slave plantation owners in Wiltshire were the Dickinson family of Bowden House near Lacock and of Monk’s Park near Corsham.  This family of Quakers also had large estates in Somerset.

It is believed that the first member of the Dickinson family to arrive in Jamaica was Francis Dickinson during the ‘invasion’ by Penn and Venables in 1655, an attack which was supposed to have taken Hipaniola (on instruction of Oliver Cromwell). Francis was apparently rewarded 2000 acres by King Charles II for his part in taking the island from the Spanish.

Map of Jamaica compiled chiefly from manuscripts in the Colonial Office and Admiralty by John Arrowsmith. 35 Essex St. London, Pubd. 22nd April 1842 by John Arrowsmith, 10 Soho Square. Cartography Associates - reproduced under Creative Commons

The Dickinson family also had large estates in Somerset. The estate documents in our archives date from around 1732 and include the account books held by Ezekial Dickinson (b.1711-d.1788).

1171/222 Monks Accounts 1760-1779

Amongst the account books, it lists the plantations held at that time. The account book copied here shows that the Dickinson’s own the estates of Barton Isles, Appleton, Pepper, Watchwell and Delacross Penn. The family’s’ correspondence books are also kept in our archives. In one copy of a letter (Ref 282/2) dated 6th August 1787 sent from Ezekial and William Dickinson of Bowden House to their estate of Pepper plantation they write;

‘We are very willing that you should buy twenty Negroes provided they be young: Mr Caleb Dickinson recommends fifteen Obo Girls and five Corramante Boys; it may be proper too, to buy some young people annually to keep up the present numbers upon the estates...’

‘Obo’ people were African slaves taken from southern Nigeria and renowned for their allegiance to their homeland. The ‘Corromantee’ people were from the Ashanti tribes of Ghana. The name is derived from the Kormantine slave fort on the Ghanaian coast in West Africa.

Also, in the same document, the Dickinsons discuss ‘the breeding negroes’.  These were women kept for their masters to procreate with, in order to form the next generation of slaves.

Ref 282/2

‘If there is not a sufficient quantity of warm clothing shipt to supply the Aged people on the Estate and Breeding Women (who I am very desirous shall have all reasonable indulgence particularly such as may be descendants from those who were resident in my late Patriot Colonel Gomersals time).....I desire you will purchase what further may be wanted in Kingston that the Breeding Womens Midwives may have some pecuniary reward in the manner thee hast proposed for the children that shall be bred up.’

These letters, although condescending, show some compassion for the slaves on the Dickinson estates. As Quakers, the Dickinson family may have been better slave masters than their peers.

Richard Newman of Corsham was also a plantation owner in Jamaica during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He owned Corsham plantation and Melksham Penn in the parish of St.Elizabeth’s on the island. He also owned the plantation of Chippenham which was in the parish of Manchester in Jamaica. Back here in Wiltshire, in the parish baptism records of Corsham church (PR/ 1157/8) ‘George Newman (a Black brought from Jamaica by Mr Richard Newman) about 20 years of age was baptised on January 27th 1808.

PR/ 1157/8

Richard Newman was married to Deborah Alexander. She was born around 1775 in St.Elizabeth’s, Jamaica and described as a ‘Quadroon’. A ‘Quadroon’ was a person of mixed heritage; of one white person and a ‘Mulatto’. A ‘Mulatto’ was a person of half white and half African parentage. This made a ‘Quadroon’ one quarter African. 

In the Slave registers of former British Colonial Dependancies 1813-1834 which are found on the Ancestry website (accessible here at the History Centre). It lists the names of Richard Newmans’ slaves and some of their details including whether Negro or Creole and slave mother’s name. Most slave names were anglicised such as William, Peter and James. Others were named after places such as Pickwick and Edinburgh. Occasionally, slaves were given African names such as Phibba, which means born on a Friday. What struck me most looking at the registers was how many slaves were children born of other slaves.  

Richard and Deborah Newman had nine children. Deborah Alexander was mentioned in Richards’ will dated 1817, whereby she would receive a handsome sum of £150 British pounds every quarter until her death.  Deborah died in 1831. She was buried at Corsham Parish church in Wiltshire. 

663/46 copy of Richard Newmans’ Will
Anna Ervine, Community History Advisor


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