Field Notes: Researching the Dawkins Family

Hi, my name is James Dawkins and I am a PhD student at University College London working on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project.  My study is tentatively titled ‘The Presence of the Dawkins Family in Jamaica:  Estate Acquisition, Management and Slave-ownership’, and forms part of the second phase of LBS’s broader 3 year project which will investigate the structure and significance of British Slave-ownership between 1763-1833.

The primary objectives of my project are to identify members of the Dawkins family who were actively involved in the specified period of British slavery and to explore their:

  • Procurement and co-ordination of landed property in Jamaica
  • Transmission of wealth from colony to metropole
  • Investment of these profits in Britain

My study also seeks to recover the histories of the enslaved, examining their demographic composition, occupational allocation, and spatial distribution across the Parnassus, Friendship and Old Plantation sugar estates located in the parish of Clarendon.

Initial scoping of primary and secondary source materials indicates that successive generations of the family invested their slaving wealth in landed estates in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and North Wales, contests for political seats, the construction and expansion of large country houses, and the purchase of exotic objects, paintings and literature which adorned there places of residence.

Findings from my study will be used to develop clearer understandings of the socio-economic and cultural activities of the Dawkins family; identify, clarify and confirm where they invested their slave-owning riches; and to generate a more informed understanding of the lives of those labouring upon their Jamaican estates.  Therefore, helping to discern the extent to which transatlantic slavery contributed to the evolving culture of taste amongst Britain’s absentee slave-owning class, and the contribution of this human form of commerce the nation’s 19th century industrial development, will be the contribution of my research.

I am currently in the process of scoping available resources and recently visited Jamaica to view the Dawkins Plantation Papers, held at the National Library in Kingston, and the crop accounts, land grant records, and slave registers, housed at the National Archives in Spanish Town.  The majority of the work I undertook at both locations consisted of searching and indexing these materials for information that will help to provide an insight on the acquisition, investment and management of the family’s wealth in Jamaica.  The members of staff at both institutions were very helpful and offered me assistance and guidance whenever I required it.  As a side note, the National Archives contains an extensive library of indispensable books on Jamaican and Caribbean slavery which are free for public use.  If you decide to visit the archives I highly recommend putting several hours aside in order to search through their collection which may contain a few gems you may have not come across.

In terms of the primary source materials, the Dawkins manuscripts comprise wills, diaries and legal correspondence making them particularly useful in aiding my comprehension of the social dimensions of the family’s activities on the island.  On the other hand, the archive material was largely quantitative/economic, listing the numbers, gender and ages of the enslaved on each of the family’s estates, the size of each plantation and pen, and the volumes of sugar, rum and molasses produced at periodic intervals on their lands.  Due to time limitations and the extensiveness of these sources, I did not manage to catalogue as much information as I would have liked.  However, I now know where to locate some of the most vital sources to my study and am hoping to take another trip out to Jamaica towards the end of this year.