In the last ten years, scholarship has a cast a bright light on ‘absentee’ slaveowner, British residents – both men and women – who profited from the enslavement, subjugation, and sale of Africans in the sprawling empire of the 18th century. As well as multiple long-term, speculated investment in plantations and slavery by both the aristocratic and mercantile classes, there existed a subtle form of short-term trading and mortgaging enslaved people to lend against and off-set debt. A remarkable document1 dated 1773 survives in Warwickshire County Record Office that reveals one such transaction.
Tobago slave trade
The document relates to ‘Lot No.4’ and ‘Lot. No.53’ in the Courland Division on the island of Tobago. The Caribbean island, although the centre of a tussle between English, Dutch and French colonials since the early 17th century, was transformed into a British plantation colony in 1764 at the end of the Seven Years War (when France agreed to British sovereignty of the island). Tobago was divided into over one hundred lots covering four hundred acres and sold to speculators in Europe. Soon, sugar and cotton cultivation required the shackled hands of African slaves to work them. By 1786, the island was home to 437 European colonists, 149 freed slaves, and 11,638 African slaves.
‘Lot No.4’ was acquired by a consortium led by the London jeweller Charles Belliard and the Edinburgh-born financier Thomas Fairholme, who had subsequently emigrated to the island of Grenada to bask in the profits of colonialism. As Fairholme slipped towards bankruptcy, he produced indentures to convey parcels of land and property to his debtors. One of his largest debts, totally nearly £5,000, was owed to Francis Greville, 1st Earl of Warwick (d.1773) and later his son George, 2nd Earl of Warwick (d.1816).
The family had been in business with Fairholme for many years, and continued to do so well into the 1780s: George’s dealings with Fairholme was recorded in 1783 and 1785, as received payments are recorded in the Earl’s account at Drummonds for those years (£215-60), (£266-32).
The indenture that survives in Warwickshire County Record Office paints a truly galling picture of the dehumanisation involved in the slave-trade. The indenture describes the land boundaries, provisions and buildings that are transferred to the ownership of the Greville family. Indeed, after these and before describing the tools and landscape acquire, the document described ‘all those fifty-three negroes and other slave men, women and children’ followed by their names:
“Negro men: John, George, Forress, Sandy, Sam, Bob, Frank, Prince, Toby, Hector, Peter, Chance, Titus, Nero, Jamy, Cesar, Philip, Roger, William, Hercules, Adam, Gibb, Joe, Dick, Brutus, Bacchus, Jack, Cato, Samson, Will, Watt, Ben, Ned, Billy,
‘Negro women: Pegg, Betty, Polly, Nelly, Precilla, Sally, Cloe, Diana, Sylvia, Daphne, Phoebe, Venus, Nanny, Rose, Fanny, Mary, Juno,
‘Negro children: Transway, Anislaus, and the future offspring and increase of the females of the said slaves…”
These names, probably imposed on African slaves by their masters, reflect the broader fashion of the age. Slaves were often provided with general Anglo-Saxon names (George, Frank, Sam etc.), named after classical emperors and heroes (Diana, Samson, Nero etc.), assigned a name to reflect a personal characteristic (Chance, Nanny etc.), or named after a term of martial or sexualised denigration (Hercules, Rose, Venus etc.)
The document is thus remarkable for both humanising and dehumanising the lives of 53 African slaves. By listing the names of slaves, indeed by referencing the reproductive agency of female slaves, the indenture is acknowledging their existence as human beings. Yet, in the same breath, the document reduces their humanity to a commodity akin to sugar-houses, mills, waterways, and livestock.
Although the Earls of Warwick were not conspicuous slaveowners – the plantation and their slaves were sold back to Fairholme and his new backer, George’s distant cousin Charles Greville, in 1775 – the document reveals the means by which British aristocrats dabbled in the acquisition, sale and indenture of Africans, with the same methodology as bonds, shares and mortgages. Warwick Castle’s extensive renovation during the 18th century may not have been directly funded by slavery, but the prosperity of the men who financed it acknowledged the existence and profitability of African enslavement and traded their lives for bonds and debts.
For men like Francis and George, the horrors of enslavement belonged to a world thousands of miles away. Other members of the Greville family had a different experience, however.
1 Reference CR1886 Box446/(BB825)