Researching Female Slave-owners at the Huntington Library

By: Hannah Young

Having been granted a W.M. Keck Foundation Fellowship, I am currently in the midst of a three month research trip to San Marino’s beautiful Huntington Library. Using material from the extensive Stowe Papers, the Library’s largest single collection, I hope to expand on work already undertaken on Jamaican slaveholder Anna Eliza Elletson Brydges, Duchess of Chandos and her daughter, Anna Eliza (Brydges) Grenville, Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos. [1]

Through examining diaries, correspondence and a range of family and legal papers I hope to be able to use the experience of these women to investigate the gendered nature of property-ownership and transmission and interrogate the significant, but circumscribed, role women played in the complicated webs of plantation-ownership and inheritance. Keen to adopt a holistic approach to the history of slavery and slave-ownership, I also hope locate the slave-ownership of the Anna Elizas within their wider familial experience, socially, culturally and politically. This will allow me to examine the extent to which slave-owning was integrated into a woman’s life and lifestyle, by exploring how exactly slave-ownership figured in the lives of those aristocratic women who engaged in it. Did it play a part in the construction of their wider identity and, if so, how?

Currently about a third of the way of my time here, (that’s according to my diary – I have no idea where that time has gone!) any initial thoughts are extremely rudimentary. However, the experience has certainly been fruitful and I have already discovered a great deal that provides food for thought. Looking, for example, at the personal correspondence of Anna Eliza (Brydges) Grenville, has been particularly illuminating. Born into the highest echelons of elite society, Anna Eliza had a network of friends and associates across the British Empire. What is especially interesting, however, is the manner in which her vision of empire is constructed. The West Indies as a colonial space is noticeably absent. Rather, empire is the site of naval supremacy and military success. Whilst the fear of disease and death underpins much of Anna Eliza’s  trans-imperial correspondence, it is also clear that empire was important to her as a place which offered the possibility of personal and national triumph. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her status as a Jamaican absentee, the brutal reality of West Indian slavery remains entirely missing from this triumphalist picture.

Noticeably, the first instance I have come across of Anna Eliza, mentioning her Jamaican estate comes in a discussion concerning Hope Plantation’s compensation claim. £6630 5S 6D was ultimately successfully claimed by George Neville Grenville, the uncle of her husband Richard Grenville, and John Campbell, a trustee of their marriage settlement, for 379 people enslaved on Hope, a property Anna Eliza had inherited from her mother.  ‘I am greatly disappointed at what you say respecting the appropriation of the Compensation Money for the Hope Estate’, she wrote to husband Richard Grenville in 1835. ‘I was fully aware that the Estate being in Settlement both Chandos’s [her son’s] Trustees & myself had a right to give in our Claims but I would not do that or even allude to it’ she angrily admonished, unimpressed with how the Duke had spent the compensation money. She had believed that ‘the best thing for all Parties’ would be to use the money ‘to clear off Mr Humphries entirely & regain the property.’[2] Here Anna Eliza was speaking of Middleton, a different Jamaican plantation that the Duke himself had independently purchased; she became quite irate when she became aware that this had not been the case.

This brief snapshot gives us a quick insight into the extremely complex, and inherently gendered, nature of property ownership in the early nineteenth century, particularly amongst the aristocracy. The common law principle of coverture may have been emblematic of women’s marginalisation within the British legal system, but the laws of equity ensured that women like Anna Eliza could access property.Indeed, Anna Eliza was quite aware that she had a right to claim for the enslaved people on Hope Estate, who were by law her property. That she made a conscious decision not to, however, suggests that notions of individual and familial ownership cannot always be entirely distinguished. For Anna Eliza, any personal interest was subsumed within a familial one; she acted as she believed was best not just for herself but for the whole. That she was unafraid to chastise her husband when she believed he was not acting in the best interests of the family also suggests that this attitude cannot simply be attributed to her position as a woman. It does, however, demonstrate that in the early nineteenth century the relationship between family, identity and property, including that in enslaved people, was a complex and contested one.

[1] Guide to British Historical Manuscripts in the Huntington Library. San Marion: Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1982. p.145.

[2] Huntington Library STG Box 74/44, Anna Eliza to Richard Grenville, September 15th 1835.