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Louisa Parker researching Dorset's past
Dorset’s hidden black history
By Louisa Adjoa Parker
The Black History in Dorset Project aims to explore the experiences of black people in Dorset. Behind the project is British-Ghanaian poet and historian Louisa Adjoa Parker. Here she describes Dorset’s slave trade past.
Louisa Adjoa Parker is a British-Ghanaian poet and historian who lives in Lyme Regis.
For many, Dorset might seem like an unlikely place to study black history. It is a mainly rural county, with picturesque seaside villages and rolling green velvet hills.
Images of Dorset take us back to a supposed ‘golden age’, a time of tea in the afternoon and cricket on the village green.
Yet what we assume to be Englishness is often actually linked to a multicultural past. Tea, coffee and sugar, for instance, have historical connections with black and Asian people.
Louisa Adjoa Parker
Black history has until recently focused on large cities and ports such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. But all coastal areas have witnessed the arrival of people from all over the globe.
Many ports in Dorset for instance were involved with the slave trade, which brought black people to the county.
Dorset slave trading families
So what has happened to the descendants of the slave plantations and the slave owners? Some of them are still living here today, for example, the Draxes and the Halletts.
The wealth gained from the plantations in Jamaica funded a life of luxury for the white Beckford family, some of whom lived in Stepleton, Dorset.
At the end of slavery in 1834, the family received over £200,000 as compensation for their losses. The black Beckfords received nothing.
The Drax family at Charborough near Poole made their fortune from the seventeenth century sugar plantations and rum trade.
The Drax Estate in Dorset
Henry Drax was said to be the second largest entrepreneur of Barbados in 1680. He shipped home as much as £5,000 worth of sugar each year.
The Halletts were another family that had much involvement in the slave trade. In 1699, Richard Hallett brought a retinue of black servants with him when he returned to his family estate in Lyme Regis.
The legend of the screaming skull
The Pinneys also brought slaves to their Dorset farmhouse, giving rise to the legend of the screaming skull at Bettiscombe. This story has become of the most famous pieces of Dorset folklore.
According to the legend, anyone who removes the skull from Bettiscombe would die within a year.
The house, meanwhile, would be ‘rocked to its foundations’. The legend states that the skull belonged to a faithful black servant of the Pinney family.
But Dorset families weren’t just slave owners – many Dorset residents actively campaigned to bring the slave trade to an end.
One well known Dorset abolitionist was Thomas Foxwell Buxton. He was president of the Anti-Slavery Society and was involved with Quaker campaigns against the trade.
Buxton appears in the famous Anti-slavery convention painting and was an abolitionist who worked alongside Wilberforce and Clarkson.
William Forster from Bradpole in Dorset was another abolitionist with Quaker beliefs. He wrote on a visit to America that:
“Slavery is abominably bad under its mildest manifestations. Its effect everywhere is distressing and degrading.”
In 1833, during the battle in Parliament to abolish slavery, Forster wrote to his son William about the people of Bridport’s response to signing petitions:
“Almost everybody seemed ready to give their names with their whole hearts. Many who could not write seemed as if they thought the blood of all the Negroes would be on them if they did not make their mark.”
The Black History in Dorset Project
The Black History in Dorset Project builds on earlier initiatives to explore multiculturalism in Dorset, such as the Lyme Regis Museum’s work in 2004.
It is funded by the Heritage Lottery fund, and being run by Development Education in Dorset (DEED).
The project coincides with the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
It will involve a series of talks and workshops on local black history, a full-length book, a learning pack for local schools and an exhibition which goes on tour of local venues in May.
If you would like to add your story to the project, contact me on email@example.com.
last updated: 03/10/07
Have Your Say
Add your story to the Black History in Dorset Project here on BBC Dorset.