Historic England audits links to transatlantic slave economy

Earlier this year, English Heritage published an audit of Britain’s built environment that had links to the transatlantic slave trade that they had begun in early 2020. Their 157-page report identified hundreds of properties, including great houses, schools, farms, pubs and gravestones.

England played a pivotal role in the early centuries of the highly lucrative commerce of transatlantic slavery. The Slave Voyages databases allow searches on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866, including those sailing from English ports.

Encouraged by the British government, trading companies flourished, and were supported by huge sums of investment from merchants and aristocrats who accumulated great wealth from slave labour. The enormous amount of wealth generated was spent in buying landed estates in Britain, “including physical legacies in the built environment”. The English Heritage report lists known linkages between a house or building and an individual or business with slavery associations.

Although large cities like Bristol and Liverpool received the bulk of the investments from the slave trade, the report identified country houses in Northamptonshire that have links to slavery.

Astrop House in Kings Sutton was built in 1740 by Sir John Willes, who jointly held a plantation in Antigua for several years.

Ecton Hall, east of Earls Barton, has similar connections. Thought to have sixteenth century connections, it was renovated significantly in 1756 for Ambrose Isted, probably by Sanderson Miller. The Isted family owned a sugar and rum plantation in Jamaica from 1694 to 1766.

In nearby Lincolnshire, Burghley House in Stamford was built and is still owned by the Cecil family. In 1724, Cecil Brownlow, the 8th Earl of Exeter, married Hannah Sophia, daughter and co-heir of Thomas Chambers, a London merchant who had grown rich in the West Indies. When their son, the 9th Earl, inherited Burghley House in 1754, he employed Capability Brown to modernise the garden, surrounding parkland and aspects of the House, including the construction of stables, an orangery and a Gothic garden summerhouse.

The audit also documents legacies in the built environment that commemorate the presence of men, women and children brought to England as slaves.

The earliest tomb currently known to have been erected to commemorate a person of African descent, remembers ‘Myrtilla’ in the churchyard at St Lawrence in Oxhill, Warwickshire. The headstone was inscribed in 1705 with “negro slave to Mr Thos Beauchamp of Nevis”. It is thought that Mytilla was brought from Nevis by the sugar planter Thomas Beauchamp to serve his wife Perlitta Meese, daughter of the Oxhill rector.

In Northamptonshire, Charles Bacchus, a servant to Richard Bond, is remembered by a memorial erected in 1762 in the Church of St Mary in Culworth. The boy was 16 when he died. Part of the inscription on his headstone reads: “In Memory of / CHARLES BACCHUS / (an African) / who died March 31. 1762. / He was beloved and Lamented / by the Family he Serv’d / was Grateful, and Humane / and gave hopes of Proving / a faithful Servant / and a Good Man. / Aged 16′ // Here titles cease! Ambitions oer! / And Slave of Monarch, is no more. / The Good alone will find in Heav’n, / Rewards assigned, and Honour giv’n’.

Charles Bacchus was probably born in Jamaica, where two of his owner’s brothers held plantations. At the age of eight he was brought to England as a servant, likely to have been favoured by his owners, for the sentimental inscription on his stone memorial shows that he was held in high regard by the Bond family. It is possible that Bacchus’ owner, Richard Bond, had West Indian interests. Bond’s late wife Dorcas, whose first husband had held Jamaican properties, had made him the largest landowner in Haselbech after her death in 1757. Following her death, Bond moved to Culworth, bringing his two daughters – Sarah and Rebecca – with him; they are thought to have formed part of the family of which Baccus was ‘beloved and lamented’.

Apart from houses which benefited from the slave trade, on the other side of the scale, abolitionists have left their mark. Part of Kettering’s coat of arms features a Black man with a broken chain dangling from his wrist, symbolising the work of the Reverend William Knibb, who campaigned against slavery in Jamaica. A plaque to Knibb was erected by the Kettering Civic Society.

Historic England said: “The history of transatlantic slavery is indivisible from the history of England. The work surveyed here reinforces the idea that buildings and landscapes, and the stories they hold, are sites of memory, identity, shared heritage, education and local connection.”

Jennifer Yang
May 2021