Wales and Atlantic Slavery

On 16th March 2023, History of Deganwy Group members assembled in Peniel Chapel to hear a fascinating talk which opened our eyes to the hidden, and often shocking, history around us. Dr Marian Gwyn is a historian and heritage consultant, and her role includes working with organisations like the National Trust and the Welsh Government to develop an understanding of the connections between the slave trade and Wales in particular. Members will remember that she previously gave a talk to our Group on the subject of Posh Privies, which at first sight appears to be entirely unrelated to the slave trade – however the subjects are linked by the common denominator of landed gentry and country houses, and perhaps also the dirt that people cause and leave behind them.

Atlantic slavery has left a long shadow which gets darker still as we try to resolve issues, and confusion and misinformation abound. Until relatively recently, Wales and Scotland have tended to avoid their involvement in the slave trade and to focus attention on England’s part – however we need to understand our country’s historical role, which can be clearly seen using archives and other material.

Dr Gwyn reminded us of how horrific the slave trade was by showing us a contemporary image of a slave ship, marked with the tiny spaces people were forced to lie in without being able to move for a voyage of several weeks. She also pointed out that atrocities such as the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s massacres and the Rwanda genocide were carried out over relatively short periods by transgressive regimes, whereas the slave trade was entirely legal for about 350 years. During those centuries, over 15 million people are recorded as being forced to leave Africa, and about 12.5 million are recorded as having survived the voyage to arrive in the Americas. The amount of profit generated by this human trade is immeasurable.

The trade was triangular – goods from Western Europe were shipped to Africa and exchanged for captive people, who suffered the terrible Middle Passage voyage and then endured forced labour on plantations on the American continent. The system was driven by powerful people at the top of the triangle, who benefited from the money made by selling sugar, rum, cotton and other goods produced by their enslaved workforce.

However, overall responsibilities for the slave trade are much broader than a few maverick entrepreneurs, and, looking at Britain, Dr Gwyn showed how all of society was implicated through for example trade, ship-ownership, insurance, banking, laws, investment, the navy, industry and politics. This interconnected spectrum of activities and legislature kept the whole trade going and is therefore responsible.

Trading conglomerates such as the East India Company, founded in 1600, and the Royal African Company, set up in 1752 by James II, had a huge impact on Britain’s credit, banking and insurance systems, and promoted imperial expansion. Britain was by far the largest slave trading nation, and carried enslaved people for other countries also. The vast majority were shipped to the tiny islands of the Caribbean. The shocking reason that so many were sent to the Caribbean, particularly when it is proportionately so small, was that captive people were treated in a uniquely cruel way there and died very quickly. North America, for instance, also treated enslaved people cruelly, but many lived long enough to produce children – who automatically became the property of their parents’ “owner”. The Caribbean islands were designed just to produce goods and make money, and weren’t self-sufficient. This meant that the death rate for white people overseeing the plantations was also high, but for Black people conditions were absolutely appalling.

Looking at Wales’s involvement, this was on two fronts: people and natural resources, such as iron, copper and lead. Iron, produced at places including Merthyr Tydfil and Wrexham, was used for canon and ordinance for naval and merchant ships, and for the accoutrements of slavery including shackles, machetes and rollers for crushing cane. Copper, produced at Parys Mountain on Anglesey and smelted in Holywell, was used to line the hulls of ships, as currency in the form of manillas, and as utensils such as clarifiers which sugar cane was boiled in. Parys Mountain was managed by Thomas Williams, an Anglesey lawyer who was one of the richest men in Wales when he died, and was jointly owned by the Pagets of Plas Newydd and Rev. Edward Hughes. The latter was described initially as “a humble curate”; he went on to buy Kinmel Hall, and his son became the first Lord Dinorben, proving just how fast money from slavery came into certain families, and how far they rose in civic society. Lead, produced in places including Cardiganshire, was used to produce shot for pistols and muskets, and to produce millions of gallons of lead paint for shipping.

As for Welsh people – it wasn’t just successful merchants from Liverpool who invested in landed estates. Penrhyn Castle was built by the Pennant family using money from their plantations; their archives survive and include lists of names of enslaved people with prices next to them. Chirk Castle is one of the earliest examples of a landed estate bought with slave trade money, in 1595. Thomas Middleton had invested in the sugar market, becoming one of the richest traders in London, and contributing to the funding of voyages by Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Hafodunos Hall in Llangernyw was built due to the meteoric rise of the plantation-owning Sandbach family.

Another interesting example is Piercefield in Monmouthshire, built by Valentine Morris – a plantation owner who invested in landed estates. After his death, the house’s next owner was Nathaniel Wells, the son of a white plantation owner and a Black enslaved woman. His father sent him to Britain where he attended elite schools and university, and he continued to own plantations, receiving compensation when slavery was legally ended. This indicates that in some circumstances, power structures of racism could be transcended by money.

Another Welshman, Sir Thomas Picton, was the governor of Trinidad and an exceptionally cruel man. In 1806 he was convicted of the judicial torture of a 14 year old child, Louisa Calderon; howver due to his influence, the conviction was squashed on appeal. Despite his reputation, there is an elaborate memorial to him in Westminster Abbey with an inscription reading “To the memory of a hero and a Welshman”; there is also a school named in his honour.

Moving from people of power to the common folk of Wales – Y Gwerin – the wool they produced through cottage industry was used to support the slave trade for about 200 years. It was used as a barter good on the west coast of Africa, and as clothing for enslaved workers in the Caribbean and in North and South America. A notice in a 1767 paper from N. America describes a “runaway slave” as wearing a Welsh cotton jacket – this tells us that the readership would have known what Welsh wool looked like at that time and shows how well-known it was as a product. South Carolina slaving laws stated that owners had to supply clothing for their captive workforce, and “Welsh plaine” is the only cloth named as being suitable in a non-generic way.

The sale of wool in Wales had orignally been controlled through the drapers’ market, which bought up stocks and sold them on to European traders; however around the 1750s traders from Liverpool began to come directly to farms and cottages to buy wool straight from the loom. This led to the rapid growth of market towns such as Dolgellau, as weaving, particularly in winter, supplemented subsistence farming and boosted income. It was known at the time where these goods were going and why. Atlantic slavery was always challenged, and it would be wrong of us to presume that it wasn’t, and so the reasons why “ordinary” people, who were themselves often exploited, were involved in producing goods for it are complex. Dr Gwyn made the point that most of us were probably wearing clothes made in e.g. Bangladesh, despite our access to information about the terrible conditions in sweatshop factories there. There is clear evidence for opposition to the slave trade in Wales in industrial centres, but but the situation is far more nuanced for those dependent on landed estates: again, this is not surprising as for the common people, their work, home and health was tied to the goodwill of the estate owner.

In 1807, a law was passed ending slave trading by Britain (though it was to continue illegally), but it was not until 1833 that the use of enslaved labour was legislated against. At this point, compensation was paid – not to the captive workers, but to their owners. Collectively they were paid more than £20,000,000 – the equivalent of over £3,000,000,000 today. It was not until 2015 that the British government repaid the loan it took out to cover this payment.

In Wales, knowledge of the connections between slavery and the landscape around us has been lost. Although it is hidden it is real, and needs to be acknowledged and explored so that contemporary issues and social movements such as Black Lives Matter can be understood. Our sincere thanks are due to Dr Gwyn for her thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of our history and heritage.

Lucinda Smith

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