Making an exhibition on the slave trade and slavery

by Catherine Hall

At the beginning of August I spent a week in the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington talking with a group of international curators and historians. We were planning a travelling exhibition on the slave trade and slavery – one that could move between Dakar, Brussels, Liverpool, Rio, Washington and Cape Town and tell a global story – no small challenge! The Museum itself is an inspiring place to be, the product of many years struggle and many years work, the last of the Smithsonian museums which aim to represent US life and culture. It has been an incredible success, bringing in literally millions of visitors, both African American and others, and telling a very different history to the conventional US account, a history rooted in slavery and the long struggle for freedom, the centrality of ‘race’ to US culture and the making of both black and white Americans. Blazoned on the wall as you step down into the history galleries are James Baldwin’s marvellous words, a motif for the place, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”


Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The idea of an international travelling exhibition is the brainchild of a partnership between the Centre for Slavery and Justice at Brown University and the African American Museum. They initiated a project which has brought in museums, universities and public historians from West Africa and the Cape, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, the UK and the US. The objective is to develop a global story about colonial and racial slavery and its foundational role in the making of the modern world. The aim is to show how this history links Africa, Europe and the Americas in ways that link peoples and places; that there is a global story of power and exploitation that long precedes contemporary globalisation yet has important connections to the present. The work will involve objects and archives, artists and designers as well as curators and historians. Particular attention will be paid to the legacies and afterlives of slavery. At the meeting in Washington we began to map out some possible themes and storylines for the exhibition – focusing on the many dimensions of the slavery business, the making of gender and racial difference, bodies and knowledges, the importance of place, and the building of freedom. The plan is that over time a workshop will be held in each place that plans to host the exhibition, exploring specific links between the locality and the global story. An exhibit specific to the locality will then be developed to sit alongside the travelling exhibition, highlighting local stories and the ways in which they connect with contemporary issues of inequality. The hope is that this can make a contribution to the work of recognition and reparation, the work of challenging the destructive effects of colonialism and empires.

This is an ambitious agenda for the years ahead – but there is both excitement about such a collaborative project, and a determination amongst the participants to do this work. So watch this space!

Dreams of a new plantation society: Legacies of British Slavery in Queensland, Australia

by Emma Christopher, University of New South Wales

The doyen of Queensland sugar planters, John Ewen Davidson, was a man with one single conviction: ‘he believed in sugar, the sugar of the West Indies.’[1] Sugar, and the vast enslaved workforces that produced it, had made his great-grandfather, and his paternal and maternal grandfathers exceedingly wealthy. And for all the plantocracy claimed that the end of slavery had ruined them, the Davidsons—John’s father Henry and his uncles Duncan, John and William—gained vast payouts at the time of emancipation. In fact John’s father had purchased more plantations in the 1810s and ‘20s with the expectation of a large compensation payout, and had an enslaved workforce of more than 4,000 men, women and children by 1834.[2]

John Ewen Davidson

John Ewen Davidson, n.d.

It seems plausible that at least some of the £301,500 John Ewen Davidson invested in his Queensland sugar estates came indirectly from the £166,612 his father had received as compensation for the loss of his enslaved workforce some 30 years before, especially since John was an only son.[3] John had visited his father’s Highbury plantation in Berbice after graduating from Oxford University and clearly aspired to recreating this in Queensland, all the while keeping quiet about his family’s slave owning past.[4]

Davidson was not the only scion seemingly trying to relive family glories of the West Indies in Queensland. Among the colony’s ‘aristocracy’[5] was the founder of the sugar industry Louis Hope, the grandson of John Wedderburn of Ballindean of Knight vs. Wedderburn infamy. Louis’ elder brother had claimed compensation for the enslaved of Blackness estate in Jamaica.


Left: Louis Hope, 1870s. Right: Hope’s Ormiston Mill c.1871

Francis T. Tyssen Amherst (or Amhurst) was from the aristocratic family who had once founded plantations in Antigua. He owned Foulden plantation and then purchased Farleigh and owned ships that recruited in the South Sea Island labour trade.



3-South Sea Islander in Foulden plantation

South Sea Islanders on Tyssen Amhert’s Foulden Plantation, c. 1880

Three great-grandsons of Beeston Long, Chairman of the West India Merchants, were also Queensland sugar planters. George Long would drown ‘recruiting’ labour in the South Pacific, while William returned to England, leaving behind only Edward M. Long, namesake of his father’s cousin, the Edward Long who authored The History of Jamaica. Edward founded Habana plantation, named for the Cuban capital, just outside Mackay.

2-Habana Creek outside Mackay ca. 18802-Habana Sugar Mill outside Mackay ca. 1884

Left: Habana Creek c. 1880. Right: Habana Mill c. 1884

Down the coast at Bundaberg were Horace, Ernest and Arthur Young, grandsons of Emily Baring. One of their uncles was a partner in Barings Bank while another, Sir George Young, was involved with a slave emancipation payout in Grenada. The Young brothers were prominent planters and Pacific labour recruiters, while their sister Florence established a mission among the islanders.


Left: an advert for Florence Young’s South Sea Mission, n.d. Right: Report of ill-treatment aboard Young’s Schooner ‘Helena’, Maryborough Chronicle, 2 Jan. 1885

Charles Armstrong, better known as Kangaroo Charlie and the one-time husband of Dame Nellie Melba, was the grandson of George Alexander Fullerton who inherited his great-uncle’s estates in Jamaica and received the compensation for the enslaved people who worked there.


Charles Armstrong with Nellie Melba c. 1902

Others had smaller payouts, such as Dorothy Reddish, whose granddaughter, Maria, married Maurice Hume Black, and John Buhôt’s parents. Buhôt, who today has a plaque to his sugar-growing efforts in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane and who worked for Louis Hope, was from Barbados. Both of Buhôt’s parents had received slave compensation; his mother, Elizabeth Walcott, likely received £708 15s 5d for 34 enslaved people in Barbados.



7-Buhot Plaque6-johnbuhot

None of these sums of money, Davidson’s excepted, may be enough to draw direct links between slave-made wealth and/or compensation and the early Queensland sugar industry. It does, however, cast another view on these planters’ insistence that ‘coloured’ labour was necessary in Queensland, a belief that resulted in the Pacific Labour Trade. These men were, after all, only a handful of those who arrived in Queensland from the Caribbean and Mauritius carrying with them ideas of labour and labour management from across the seas.



[1] ‘A Sugar Pioneer’ Cairns Post, 14.12.1923, p9

[2] Admin, ‘The History of Highbury’, Guyana International Times, 14 Jun. 2013.

[3] Aeneas F. Munro, The Sugar Fields of Mackay, (Mackay: Hodges and Chataway, 1895); David Ryden, ‘The Society of West India Planters and Merchants in the Age of Emancipation, c. 1816-1835’ [pdf], Unpublished paper, Economic History Society Annual Conference, March 2015.

[4] ‘Arrivals’, The Creole, Guyana, 24 December 1862, p2.

[5] Sir Ralph Cilento and Clem Lack Snr., Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch of Queensland (Brisbane: Smith & Paterson Pty Ltd, 1959) 94n.



John Ewen Davidson, Louis Hope, Ormiston Mill, South Sea Islanders at Foulden, Habana Creek, Habana Mill, Piri and Polly, all courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

Charlie Armstrong and Nellie Melba, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

John Buhôt, courtesy of State Archives of Queensland.

All above out of copyright.

Buhôt plaque, author’s own, 2017.


Bute House, official residence of the First Minister of Scotland

by Rachel Lang

In 1766, the Edinburgh town council announced a competition to design a new town to the north of Scotland’s capital city with the aim of providing grand, spacious houses for the city’s elite. The competition was won by 26-year-old James Craig with a plan for two garden squares connected by three wide, terraced streets. Built in stages between the 1760s and the 1820s, the New Town provided an alternative to the polluted, overcrowded wynds of old Edinburgh and symbolised Scotland’s confident steps towards a new Enlightenment.

On the north side of the grandest square, the houses blend together in a pleasingly unified palace façade, designed by Robert Adam in 1791 as the crowning glory of the whole development. The house in the centre of the façade, number 6 Charlotte Square, the most commanding house in the best position, is just that bit bigger and grander than the rest. Into this house, in the late 1790s, moved its first resident, John Innes Crawford[1].

6 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh

Crawford had a country residence too, Cleghorn House near Lanark. He was a member of the Highland Society, a Captain in the 10thRegiment of North British Militia and had scientific and literary interests. His mother lived with him until his marriage in 1799 and shortly after, he moved to nearby George Street[2].

Crawford’s wealth derived from Bellfield, the sugar plantation in St James, Jamaica, which he inherited at the age of five or six on the death of his father James Crawford[3]. James junior was born in Jamaica in 1776 but within two years of his father’s death, his mother had returned to Scotland where she remarried. He does not appear to have visited his plantation as an adult or met the several hundred enslaved people, also his personal property, who lived and worked there. But his fortunes were bound up with their subjugation and liable also for the debts of his planter father, reportedly over £15,000 in the mid-1790s, when the net proceeds of the estate were £3,000 a year[4].

First page of the slave register entry for Bellfield estate, 1820.TNA T71/205 p. 285

Subsequent residents of Bute House were also connected with the slave economy. Sir John Sinclair (1754-1835) bought the property in 1806, moving three doors down from his previous address at number 9. A more illustrious character than Crawford, he held a seat in the House of Commons from 1780 to 1811 but is best known today as the compiler of the Statistical Account of Scotland, a landmark survey of the country’s geography, economy and inhabitants[5]. Sinclair was a trustee of the marriage settlement of Hon. Archibald Macdonald and Jane Campbell, who had married in 1802; the settlement included three plantations in St Vincent. Sinclair died in 1835 before the slave compensation was paid out, but the remaining trustee received a half share in £15,766 7s 6d for the ownership of 610 enslaved people[6].

Sinclair sold 6 Charlotte Square in 1816 to Charles Oman, who ran the property as a hotel. Oman quickly expanded his property portfolio in the 1810s and 1820s, becoming the premier hotelier in the city[7]. His eldest son, also called Charles, does not appear to have joined his father’s business; he died on Trinity estate in St Mary, Jamaica, in 1819[8].

The house is now the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland and the venue of regular meetings of the Scottish Cabinet. Until recently, its connections to the slave economy have been overlooked, in common with many properties financed or inhabited by slave-owners. LBS seeks to reinscribe slave-ownership into the history of modern Britain.

[1]The ownership of Bute House from 1795 to 1911 can be traced through the Edinburgh Post Office Directories available at

[2]See for example Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1816) vol. IV p. 628; Crawford as a subscriber to Scotland’s Skaith… together with some additional poems(Edinburgh, 1815); as a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society, Caledonian Mercury 23/04/1818; his role in the North British Militia is given in the announcement of his marriage, Aberdeen Press and Journal 14/10/1799; his mother appears in the Post Office Directories as Mrs Alex. Simpson.

[3]Ownership of Bellfield traced in the LBS database,

[4]Francis Vesey, Reports of Cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery, from the year 1789 to 1817 (London, 1827), Vol. VI, 2nd ed., pp. 460-465

[5]Rosalind Mitchison, ‘Sir John Sinlair, first baronet (1754-1835), agricultural improver, politician and codifier of “useful knowledge”’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition, 2015).

[6]The estates were Argyle,, Calder, and Calder Ridge,

[7]For more on the Oman family see ‘The History of Bute House – Home to the First Minister of Scotland’,

[8]Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 4 p. 637 (February 1819).

An Afternoon Lecture at Latymer Grammar School, Edmonton, North London

By James Dawkins

The lack of attention paid to the contribution of British West Indian slavery in the formation of modern Britain has been an on-going issue of concern amongst parents of African-Caribbean heritage and some school teachers. Slavery, its effects, and abolition in 1833 is currently taught as a non-statutory topic at Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9) in English state maintained schools.[1] This is, however, the only period of compulsory schooling when pupils are exposed to the history of our country’s slave-based West Indian plantation economy. The brutal and inhumane nature of this system along with its lasting legacies, including a sustained sense of white guilt and the continued emotional pain along with feelings of injustice felt by the country’s African-Caribbean citizens, has made it a difficult subject to discuss in Britain. Interestingly, our nation’s active distancing, sanitisation, and downplaying of slavery and its role in the economic development of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain has garnered increasing curiosity from a number of quarters, particularly secondary schools and I was happy to receive an invitation from Doctor Brenda Quinn at Latymer Grammar School in north London who asked if I could come in to talk about slavery and industrialisation with the institution’s year-13 pupils.


The Latymer School, Haselbury Road, Edmonton

Drawing upon several key texts – Capitalism and Slavery; Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England; and ‘Slavery Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ – I spoke about the broad range of industries and professions which emerged and developed from their connection to the slave trade and the plantation economy.[2] Eric Williams was one of the first historians to trace the investment of slave-based wealth into the establishment of sugar refineries and metal works. He also pointed to the slave-trade’s stimulation of Britain’s timber and maritime industries, along with the erection of cotton factories – all of which processed the raw goods arriving from the West Indies and America, or manufactured guns, textiles, and domestic utensils that were shipped to the west coast of Africa and exchanged for Africans. I moved on to discuss the development of Britain’s social and transportational infrastructure highlighting the rise of its banking system, railways and canals, and steam-powered mechanisation, upon which the foundations of our modern-day economy were constructed. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership online database is an excellent resource for exploring the commercial footprint of the slave-based economy and I provided the pupils with a demonstration that elaborated upon the spread of West Indian colonial wealth into and across the country.

My discussion shifted from the national to the local significance of slavery as I used the online database to present an example of the geographic closeness of slavery and slave-ownership to Latymer School. John Snell was a particularly interesting individual who, in 1836, received over £3,300 in exchange for the liberation of the 123 enslaved people he possessed on the Clare Valley estate in St. Vincent.[3] Snell was a wealthy absentee who lived on Fore Street, opposite Pymmes Park, which is under one mile’s walk from Latymer School. Moreover, before he died, in 1847, he gifted one acre of land to St. James’ Church, situated just over one mile away from Latymer School, upon which St. John and St. James’ Primary School was built and opened in 1851. This was, therefore, an intriguing example of how a former slave-owner contributed to the establishment of an English school which is a stone’s throw away from Latymer School. Indeed, some of St. John and St. James’ pupils may have attended Latymer Grammar given its close proximity.

My evening at the school concluded with a lively discussion on the topic of slavery, its legacies, and reparations. The Latymer pupils advanced a series of important questions and were genuinely interested in the aftermath of British West Indian slavery and how its current legacies might be addressed. One pupil asked the excellent question: “how was Britain able to sustain itself as a global economic superpower after the decline of its plantation economy?” whilst another student asked “do you think that the country is ready to discuss the issue of slavery and reparations?”. These were just two of the many good questions that were posed. I responded to the former by highlighting the shift in Britain’s commercial interest from the West to the East Indies along with its colonisation and subsequent extraction of mineral resources from Africa in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latter question took a little more consideration and discussion with the pupils, after which I clarified my personal position and stated that stated Britain isn’t ready for an informed discussion on the subject of slavery and reparations yet. I explained that a discussion of such significance can best be addressed after a period of national education on the issue where the historical context, facts, and arguments are set out. Exposure to the numerous dimensions of this long-standing and complicated subject will allow for a more knowledgeable debate to take place. Indeed, I was informed that this lecture provoked a lively discussion in the classroom the following day as the pupils talked about slavery, industrialisation, and its legacies, which is exactly what the Legacies of British Slave-ownership’s outreach activities are intended to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon at Latymer Grammar School and appreciate Dr Quinn and her pupils’ kind invitation to come and talk about this overlooked period of British and African-Caribbean history.

[1] Statutory Guidance – National Curriculum in England: History Programmes of Study [].

[2] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944); Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); David Richardson, ‘Slavery and Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 2005), pp. 35-54.

[3] Legacies of British Slave-ownership, “John Snell, 1774-1847” [, accessed on 30 October, 2017].

A Black Presence in the Isle of Wight

by Nick Draper

On 11th October, I gave a lecture on ‘Slave-Owners of the Isle of Wight’ at a meeting of the Isle of Wight branch of the Historical Association in Newport. The branch, I was told, was among the most active of the Historical Association’s affiliated local history organizations, borne out by an engaged audience of upwards of 90 people. The talk was part of a continuing series of local events in which we use the research embedded in the LBS database to illuminate connections to slavery, aspects of local history that are often overlooked.

The Isle of Wight, like almost every other community we have explored in this way, had connections at multiple levels with the slave-system. The name of modern-day Isle of Wight county in Virginia reflects the presence of local aristocrats among the early projectors and settlers there; Cowes became an important port in the rice trade with the American colonies; I learned from the audience that the family from whom Queen Victoria had purchased the original Osborne House descended from a slave-trader, Robert Blachford; a slave-ship named the Isle of Wight sailed from Portsmouth in the 1720s; and perhaps most remarkably, in the Slave Registers for St Ann, Jamaica can be found enslaved males named Isle of Wight, one of them self-liberated in the 1800s and marked as missing in the Registers, and another a young boy born in the 1820s.

Isle of Wight in the slave register

Isle of Wight in the 1817 slave register for St Ann, Jamaica: “Negro”, age 41, Creole, “about 5 ft 7 in high Runaway Feby 7th 1808”. Source: TNA T71/43 p. 58

Spring Hill House

Spring Hill House, East Cowes, home to generations of the Shedden family

The island also has a number of slave-owners contained in the database. Some were transient, often moving there towards the end of their lives, perhaps as an alternative to more expensive south coast resort towns. Others left more marked physical and social legacies. Several generations of the Shedden family lived on the island and William George Shedden rebuilt the Spring Hill mansion at East Cowes in 1863; Robert Holford, an elusive figure for LBS to date, gave the land on which stands the Niton lighthouse, built by Trinity House in 1838.

Caroline Shedden

Caroline Hamond, wife of George William Shedden, around the time of her marriage in 1861. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Beyond these connections to slave-owners, however, we had also earlier this year come across in the will of Maria Burns formerly Inglis (proved 18/04/1800, PROB 11/1340/175) a reference by her to Thomas Siras ‘my old black servant now living in the Isle of Wight’ to whom she left ‘£100 to be paid within 6 months of my decease.’ Maria Burns was the wife of a doctor in Southampton; she had previously been married to John Dickons Inglis, who left her the Charlton estate in St Thomas-in-the-Vale in Jamaica, together with the enslaved people attached to it. She was apparently the financially stronger partner in her second marriage, leaving her husband an annuity of £100 p.a. secured on her estates and enslaved people, which and whom she left to a female relative, probably the sister, of her first husband.

Prompted by the imminent lecture, I tried to trace Thomas Siras further, unsuccessfully until I recognised that Siras was almost certainly a phonetic variation of something else. That realisation took me quickly enough to the baptism 22/10/1797 of a Thomas Cyrus, born 08/10/1797 to Thomas Cyrus and Ann, at St Mary’s, Cowes; to the 01/07/1804 burial of a Thomas Cyrus at Hamble le Rice Hampshire; to the 07/09/1822 marriage of Thomas Cyrus ‘a black’ to Martha Lee in Manchester; and to the 1851 census entry for Ann Brennan pauper aged 86 born Hamble and daughter Elizabeth Cyrus dressmaker born Cowes 49 living at Hamble le Rice. These fragments suggest an African man, probably brought from Jamaica either enslaved or free but becoming a ‘servant’ in the UK, in a relationship with Ann or Anne Brennan and having at least two children with her, Elizabeth and a second Cyrus (the man marrying in Manchester in 1822), and dying in 1804. The rest of the story is missing, at least to us.

Thomas Cyrus marriage

Record of the marriage of Thomas Cyrus, “a Black” and Martha Lee in Manchester in 1822. Source: Anglican Parish Registers, Manchester Cathedral

LBS’s work is organized around slave-ownership: the sources we use irreducibly privilege their stories over those of the enslaved people. But on occasions these same sources give an oblique glimpse of different lives: and when that happens we hope that in recording the fragments we find, we can provide a start-point for further exploration by others, as well as mark the presence and passing in Britain of the individual himself or herself.

Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond

By: Nick Draper

Kristy Warren and Kate Donington (for two days) and Nick Draper (for one day) attended the Repairing the Past, Imagining the Future: Reparations and Beyond conference, organised by University of Edinburgh in collaboration with Wheelock College (Boston, US) in Edinburgh 5th and 6th November.  The conference was ambitious, combining academics and activists from the Caribbean, North America, South Africa, and Europe, and addressing not only the British Atlantic but the francophone and Dutch worlds. Historians were in a distinct minority. The number of proposals submitted in response to the Call for Papers led the organisers to organise parallel sessions around a handful of set-piece plenaries: this allowed a wide range of issues to be covered but inevitably forced the audience to choose among attractive conflicting alternatives.  Verene Shepherd of UWI Mona and Chair of the Jamaica National Committee opened the conference with a powerful keynote address re-stating and amplifying CARICOM’s arguments and evidence, which among other responses drew an intense exchange with representatives of pan-African reparations activists based in Britain; Verene later came back to the issue to stress the importance to CARICOM and the National Committees of grass-roots movements.  Her keynote was followed by a strong plenary panel on the state of play in the US among African American campaigners.

On Thursday afternoon, Nick attended panels on ‘Reparative Histories’ (at which Anita Rupprecht and Cathy Bergin with characteristic subtlety explored linkages between slavery and the imagining of the current refugee crisis and US memorialisation respectively) and on ‘International Law’, as well as giving a paper on LBS’s work in the economic history panel alongside Nuala Zahedieh.  The Law panel, which was noticeably well-attended, featured an innovative approach to jurisdiction-[s]hopping by Jean Allain of Queen’s Belfast, and what appeared to be a very important contribution by Kate Bracegirdle of  University of Sheffield on ‘unjust enrichment’ as a legal basis of claim over slavery: this appears to offer a solution to some of the difficulties of locus standi that have to date undermined in the courts reparations claims based on damage to the descendants of enslaved Africans.

On Friday, Kristy and Kate presented on the importance of teaching reparative histories using the Local Roots / Global Routes project as an example of how that might work in practice. They shared the ‘Educational Impacts’ panel with Warren C. Hope, who presented on need to imagine a new educational paradigm in order to address the academic achievement gap experienced by African Americans. While Amos N. Jones assessed the case for reparations using segregated education as an example.

Kristy attended the panel on the ‘Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World’ which featured presentations from Fabienne Viala concerning the impact of white French supremacy on the ways and extent to which slavery is remembered; Kate Hodgson gave an historical overview of Haitian responses to reparations from the nineteenth century to the present day; and Magali Bessone explored the limits of tort law in the attempt to achieve reparations for slavery.  The day wrapped up with a public lecture by Hilary Beckles outlining the case against Britain for reparations for Caribbean slavery and its legacies.

The fact that a conference of this scale and reach could be mounted in Britain indicates that the question of reparations – for which grassroots campaigners have been working for years both in the Caribbean and Britain – is now for the first time entering academic discourse here.

Footage from the conference is available on Ustream

Henry Redhead Yorke: Politics and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1790-1813

By Amanda Goodrich, The Open University

Recently at the What’s Happening in Black History III Conference held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, David Killingray and Ryan Hanley raised important issues about how we write ‘black history’ and who we study.  Both suggested that we need to dig deep in the archives, and find more and different black people in order to develop a broader perspective. For example, not all black people in Britain in the late eighteenth century were formerly enslaved Africans and nor were they all focused on slavery and abolition.  Hanley noted, though, that the difficulty of finding such people and the paucity of evidence about their lives presents a problem for historians. In common with the poor, women and others in the eighteenth century, black people in Britain tended to live on the fringes of society, they wrote little or nothing and anything they did write, or any record of their lives, is unlikely to have survived. There is much absent and much silence where the historian needs evidence and this means that it is often possible to reconstruct only a rather two dimensional and incomplete narrative.

Letters From FranceI am writing a book on just such an individual, Henry Redhead Yorke (1771/2-1813), a black political writer and agitator of the French Revolutionary period, little-known today. He became a revolutionary radical in 1792 but then after a spell in prison for his activities he performed a complete volte face and took up an ultra-loyalist Tory position.  We know this because he published much political writing and his arrest and trial are well-documented.   However, Yorke appears not to have left any personal letters, diaries or memoirs except an epistolary travelogue of a visit to France in 1802.  Finding evidence of his personal life required chasing threads through a motley collection of sources with many dead ends and false leads along the way.  Some of the questions this research generated illustrate the problems Hanley and Killingray identified.

Barbuda Satellite Map


The first such question was where did Yorke originate from?  After much detective work I discovered that his father was Samuel Redhead an estate manager for the Codrington family and sugar plantation owner in Antigua and his mother was an enslaved woman from Barbuda a poor, barren island, 30 miles north of Antigua. Yorke was born into the slave society on the island and was raised there until he was six. The only white person on the island would have been his visiting father who divided his time between Barbuda and Antigua (where he had children with another enslaved woman).


Antigua and BarbudaYorke was, then, an illegitimate Creole[1] and brought up with two other illegitimate children of his parents and probably a few children of either of them, all of mixed African and European descent. Samuel Redhead never married Yorke’s mother, he had been married years before to a white woman from a wealthy and established Antiguan family of English descent.  They had five children before she died in 1742.  Yorke was not Henry Redhead’s surname but one he attempted to adopt in 1792, the reason for this remains a mystery. He ended up being called ‘Redhead’ or ‘Yorke’, or Redhead Yorke, not quite one thing or another – the motif of his life.

So another question arises about parentage; was Samuel Redhead Yorke’s father? Yorke’s eldest step-brother was thirty-five when he was born and his father was sixty-nine and described in the sources as, ‘enfeebled’, shortly after Yorke’s birth. In his will Redhead left legacies to his illegitimate Barbudan children but referred to Yorke and his brother as ‘my natural or reputed sons’.  This seems to suggest uncertainty as to paternity but it was common at the time to identify the offspring of planters and enslaved women in this way.

Perhaps Henry’s real father was a Yorke, but there is no evidence of this. Samuel Redhead did take Yorke to England aged six to be educated as a gentleman which presumably he paid for.  This certainly implies paternity, but contemporary letters suggest that Yorke’s mother made false claims as to the paternity of her children and that  it was she who wanted her children to be educated in England. Unfortunately, we have no records from either her or Redhead to clarify the position.

Was Yorke free?  Samuel Redhead bought the freedom of Henry’s mother from her owner, Sir William Codrington, in 1771 and that should mean Henry was born free. But the rules about what emancipation actually meant in the West Indies at that time are unclear and vary from colony to colony. According to the contemporary writer, Bryan Edwards, manumission did not mean a complete or immediate status change to a free citizen with all the rights that might endow and certainly not to first generation offspring of manumitted enslaved people. All the inhabitants of Barbuda were enslaved except managers such as Redhead, and there was no way to make a living in such a slave economy. So on Barbuda, Yorke would have lived as more or less an enslaved person, but in England, within the Gentry milieu he was situated, it would have been assumed he was free.

Henry Redhead Yorke by James Ward, published by and after William Hay mezzotint, published 21 July 1796 NPG D4949 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Henry Redhead Yorke by James Ward © National Portrait Gallery, London

Was he ‘black’? Yorke was of ‘mixed race’[2], but does that class him as ‘black’ in terms of black history? I presume so but how different was the ‘mixed race’ experience from the ‘black’ African experience in Britain? Determining Yorke’s skin colour was not easy due to the lack of photography in his lifetime.  He did not mention it in his writings and was described by contemporaries as ‘a mulatto’, a ‘half caste’, and ‘of West Indian origin’. Two mezzotints of Yorke survive and in both he appears to have a dark skin tone. A curator at the National Portrait Gallery has confirmed that the mezzotints reflect contemporary representations of ‘mixed race’ as far as can be determined from such old black and white images.

The final question for now, then, is who was Henry Redhead Yorke? Someone committed to politics, albeit changeable politics, but working out his identity and his sense of self, is much more difficult. As an illegitimate ‘English’ gentleman of mixed African and European descent originally from a slave society in the West Indies, he clearly he had a ‘multi-layered’, ‘hybrid’ identity as historians might describe it. Only fragments as to his personal views and life can be gleaned from his published writings and these are difficult to piece together. Thus, as with many such individuals only an incomplete history of Yorke can be compiled, his story is one of absence as much as presence. Yet he gained a voice, asserted agency and made his mark on the society within which he lived.

I would argue that such micro histories of little known individuals are important. They may not alone provide conclusive answers to the big historical questions but they contribute to our understanding of the lives of ordinary people; those of excluded or low status, the poor, women, and ethnic minorities. Moreover, in developing the histories of political, cultural or social groups and movements in the past historians need, at least in part, to explore the individual histories of those involved. This may seem obvious but it is not actually what most historians do, or have done in the past as the work of E.P. Thompson illustrates. To return to  the original point perhaps we need now to expand our exploration of black history in Britain, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to incorporate those who were, black, or of ‘mixed race’, enslaved, or  not, in order to find a more accurate representation of the complexities of British culture and society.


[1] During the time in question, in the British context, this word was used to describe a person born in the Caribbean regardless of ethnicity. However, it had other meanings in other regions and at other times, most commonly to indicate mixed orgins.

[2] This term is being used by the author as the discussion refers to modern debates concerning ‘mixed race’ identity; it is still considered an official ethnicity category by the UK Office for National Statistics. However, the term is contested by some as it is linked to a history of thinking that implies it is possible to have pure ‘races’.