Dulwich’s Murkier Past
by Michael Geoffrey Baron
‘Slave owners’ may be words too controversial for Dulwich (and Camberwell) today. But the two part TV documentary broadcast by BBC 2 in July 2015 ‘ Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ may have prompted questions about Dulwich’s part , at some remove, from the ‘ abominable’ trade in human beings, which, according to some estimates, about 10 million men, women and children were transported from Africa to British colonies in the West Indies, and to the emergent United States and into slavery..
It was from ‘the heart of darkness’ that chieftains who brought in captives and others from tribal wars, to forts, operating as trading stations, on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Gambia aided by Arab middlemen from East African seaports. It is believed that about 4 million died in the forced marches to the African coast and while awaiting transportation across the Atlantic to labour on the plantations.
The market , that is to say, the plantations, demanded a supply of cheap, disposable and submissive labour. Britain had the ships, and the funds to finance the hugely profitable triangular trade. From the coastal ports of Bristol and Liverpool, and briefly from Whitehaven, came boats, masters and crews; and the manufactured goods to trade with Africa. Back from the West Indies came sugar and rum. From the United States came cotton.
In the West Indies, some plantations, were owned ,either by inheritance or investment, by people living in Dulwich, and Camberwell and elsewhere. Most likely they saw themselves as paragons of moral probity. But they shared the interests of the plantation owners who formed a powerful lobby and were well represented amongst the bankers and merchants of the City of London . The trade, the system, and the plantations were and are the negation , in particular to men and women of colour, of the human rights which were to find expression in the animating ideals of the French Revolution in 1789. That revolution and its antecedents in the 1776 Declaration of Independence by the 13 American colonies were themselves products of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.
In England, not yet a United Kingdom, when the trade was in its early days , the Crown was a major player in the guise of the Royal Africa Trading Company. ……..It was led by James, Duke of York, Charles II's brother. Its original purpose was to exploit the gold fields up the Gambia River identified by Prince Rupert during the Interregnum, and it was set up once Charles II gained the English throne in the Restoration of 1660. However, it was soon engaged in the slave trade as well as with other commodities”. Between 1672 and 1689 it transported around 90,000 slaves. Its Secretary from 1719 to 1731 , when the company abandoned slaving for ivory and gold dust , was Francis Lynn of Hall Place, Dulwich.
Francis Lynn’s Hall Place, formerly the Manor House, once one of the grand houses of Dulwich, is no longer. Demolished in the 1880’s the site is on the south-west side of the junction of South Croxted Road and Park Hall Road. ( I am indebted to Patrick Darby for this). Lynn seems to be the first identifiable Dulwich man associated with the ‘abominable’ trade. But by the time he became Secretary, the Royal African Company had long lost its monopoly in slaves. During the 17 years of its legal stranglehold over African and West Indian commodities (including human beings), considerable profits flowed into the City of London. Francis Lynn will not have been the only resident of Dulwich and Camberwell to have benefited from that largesse.
The West Indian historian, later prime minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams, claimed in his 1944 book “Capitalism and Slavery’ that slavery was ‘the engine that propelled Europe’s rise to global economic dominance’. Since then, historians have long challenged Williams’ thesis. An article published by the US Gilder Lehrmann Institute in January 2015, asserts ‘the combined profits of the slave trade and West Indian plantations did not add up to five per cent of Britain’s national income at the time of the industrial revolution’ . And ‘as late as the 1850’s the slave system in the United States was expanding and slave owners were confident about the future’. The article took no notice of, or was unaware of, the massive capital compensation paid and its reinvestment - £17bn in today’s money.
However, new research undertaken by a University College ,London, team led by Professor Catherine Hall , principal investigator of the project Legacies of British Slave Ownership (2004-12), and its successor 'The Structure and Significance of British-Caribbean Slave-Ownership, 1763-1833 ‘ supports Eric Williams’ argument.
When Rachel Cook in the New Statesman on 17 July 2015 reviewed the BBC2 documentary, she was moved to write ‘ If it is unnerving to be reminded of the extent to which British wealth was built on the Caribbean sugar trade, it is downright painful to discover how many owners-spinsters, widows and even clergymen lived in Britain rather than on plantations, their slaves having been inherited or bought as an investment, like stocks and shares’.
Eric Williams may have been right after all, for the information gleaned by the University College team of researchers shows how wealth was channelled into productive UK investments. Of 671 investors, 526 individuals purchased shares in a plethora of railway companies. Other investments were in banking, insurance, mining , glass manufacture, ironworks, shipping and docks, sugar and rope.
The back story is that Parliament abolished slavery in its Caribbean colonies, Mauritius and the Cape in 1833. The trade had actually been abolished in 1807, twenty years after Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce started the abolitionist campaign . Nonetheless so active and influential were the vested interests of the slave owners that there was to be no freedom (of a sort) for Britain’s slaves without compensation. The state allocated £20 million to the Slave Compensation Commission, established in 1833, paying about half to owners in Britain, and the balance to overseas owners. In its account books there are 46,000 handwritten entries. The business of doling out the money was made easier by the existence since 1813 of registers of colonial slaves. Commissioners were sent out to the colonies to assist in the drawing up of detailed records of owners and plantations. Initially, freed slaves were tied to the land by a system of apprenticeship. This proved a failure and was abolished in 1838. By the end of 1845 any unallocated money reverted to the Exchequer and the Office of the Registry of Colonial Slaves was closed in 1848.
So who were those Dulwich and Camberwell residents who benefitted from the slave trade? Robert Hichens of The Grove ( then Baileys Grove),East Dulwich, who died on 20 March,1865, was an extremely successful banker and stockbroker and when, as trustee for the Stapleton Estate both he and his brother ,William ,claimed compensation for Stephen Blizard’s plantation in Antigua. For the 217 slaves enfranchised they received £2919.14.8. A very precise calculation , down to the eight pence ,the award being worth around £195,573 today. Both brothers and their firm were heavily involved in promoting railways. William is recorded in 1837 as holding 15,000 shares in the London to Brighton Railway and 1000 shares in the London and Blackwall Railway and Steam Navigation Company.
John Watson Borradaile lived at 7 Park Place, Dulwich, between 1841 and 1851 and was a City merchant , a director of the London Assurance from 1819 to 1857; and a wealthy man. In 1851 , he was living at Park Place with his family (his wife, Ann, 4 daughters and a son), and 4 servants - a butler, cook and 2 housemaids, He was born, in the parish of St Gabriel, Fenchurch, London. When the long established firm of West Indian merchants D &H Rucker went bankrupt in 1831, he, together with a former partner in the firm, Joseph Ediman , acquired its assets which included 99 slaves on Yeamans plantation on Antigua; 681 slaves on four plantations on St Vincent, and 79 slaves on the Dunvegan plantation on Tobago. For all these ownerships he received a total of £21,909 compensation, or today £146,790. He may have been the brother of William Borradaile who invested, from his compensation for slaves on another St Vincent plantation, £2000 in the Diss and Colchester Railway. This is another example of how slave owner money went towards investment in the burgeoning railway networks crucial to industrial development. If slavery and the trade were ‘a stain on the nation’, it would certainly have been an unlikely topic of conversation at 7 Park Place. Nor would William Pitt’s speech in the House of Commons in June 1792 been recalled, especially his closing words, ‘some of us may live to see a reverse of that picture, (of slavery) from which we now turn our eyes with shame and regret. We may live to behold the natives of Africa engaged in the calm occupations of industry, in the pursuits of a just and legitimate commerce. We may behold the beams of science and philosophy breaking in upon their land, which, at some happy period in still later times, may blaze with full lustre." .
Much further down the scale than the Hichens brothers and the Borradailes was Mrs Charlotte Carter (formerly Adcock) of 5 Sherwood Cottages, Albany Road, Camberwell. The account book records her as a ‘legatee’ of 29 slaves. Her payment was £1400. Mrs Carter does not, from her address, sound like an exceptional heiress, maybe just one of those widows who struck lucky with a nice untaxed capital gain. Judah Cohen, another West India merchant of Herne Hill did better, receiving 45 awards for upwards of 400 slaves which he had acquired through buying assets -debts and mortgages -of unsuccessful merchants.
These slavery links, whether for individual benefit or as executor/ trustees ,are the local snapshots from a colonial picture album conveniently forgotten or concealed from public view until the extensive researches by University College ,(without which this article could never have been written ) and the subsequent television documentary. Yet another illustration of the fact that we are not quite what we seem; that the sources of wealth are never free from stain , whatever purpose to which these are put in pursuit of gainful investment.