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24 September 2014

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You are in: Devon > Abolition > Devon's plantation owners

Bishop Henry Philpotts

Bishop Philpotts benefited from slavery

Devon's plantation owners

What connects the Bishop of Exeter, a West Indian cricketer and the town of Modbury? They all have a connection with the plantation economy of the 17th and 18th Century which fuelled the transatlantic slave trade.

The British transatlantic slave trade was a very profitable business for those involved - but it was the owners of sugar plantations in the British West Indies who perhaps profited the most from the enslaved Africans who were shipped to their coast.

Among those who owe their wealth to these slave-run plantations were prominent people and families from Devon.

One such family were the Swetes from Modbury, who owned a plantation on the island of Antigua which produced sugar and rum.

The Devon Record Office in Exeter holds a set of accounts from the plantation dating back to 1737. The documents offer a unique insight into the life of slaves on the Antiguan estate.

Historian Lucy MacKeith has researched these papers for her booklet  'Local Black History – A Beginning in Devon'.

One is called 'A List of Negroes and their Value' which lists men, women, boys and girls.

Slave valuations from the Swete plantation

Valuations from the Swete plantation

"It's very painful to read," said Lucy. "What you read is a list of people and their values expressed in pounds ranging from £1 to £40. How can you value a person like that?

"In most cases a valuation was based on a person's ability to work."

In one set of accounts there are entries for payments made to 'a white man for returning a runaway slave'. 

For Lucy MacKeith it is important to uncover the human stories within these accounts.

"You'll find records of people being paid to flog someone because they tried to run away," she said.

There are also references to an enslaved man called Colla who is described as 'a notorious runaway'. 

"They have to pay for a new set of padlock and chains to hold him in place. So he becomes a liability in terms of these accounts.

Lucy MacKeith

Lucy MacKeith

"But for me it is the story of a black man on the Swete's estate in Antigua resisting the inhumane way he is being treated."

The Swete family lived in a large house called Old Traine in Modbury. Adrian Swete used some of his wealth to bring a water supply to the town in 1708.

In Antigua today there is a village called Swetes where the sugar plantation once stood. It is the birthplace of former West Indian fast bowler Curtly Ambrose.

The 1807 Act to abolish the British slave trade meant that the transportation of slaves for sale was outlawed. It did not, however, make slavery illegal on the British colonies.

It was only when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833 that British plantation owners had to free slaves.

The Act allowed for £20 billion to be paid in compensation to plantation owners who feared their livelihoods would suffer. No compensation was paid to the former slaves.

One beneficiary was Henry Philpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, who received £12,729, together with three partners, as compensation for the loss of 665 slaves.

The present day Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Reverend Michael Langrish, believes his predecessor may have been unaware that he owned slaves.

"It would seem that in the early 19th Century the government were trying to get people to invest in the sugar industry in the West Indies. Bishop Henry Philpotts was persuaded to join three other people in a consortium and they invested.

"Then when slavery was abolished they were compensated to the tune of £12,800 for the loss of the slaves they had owned.

Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter

Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter

"The really interesting thing is to know whether in fact he knew he ever had slaves until that point."

It's not known what Bishop Henry Philpotts did with his compensation money. He was already a wealthy man.

Philpotts spent a considerable amount restoring the palace behind Exeter Cathedral and built himself a large house in Torquay which is now the Palace Hotel.

What is undisputed is that life for slaves on some church-owned plantations was particularly hard. Life expectancy was as low as three years.

"We certainly know that one of the church's mission agencies, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, did treat their slaves very, very harshly indeed," said Bishop Langrish.

"We know of slaves being branded with the Society's name and of having a really rather short life expectation.

"It is terribly important we actually acknowledge and understand our own, and by our own I mean all of the churches, involvement in what was a disgraceful and very unattractive phase of our own history."

last updated: 08/07/2008 at 16:14
created: 28/02/2007

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