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24 September 2014
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Bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act

Roger Evans

Somerset and slavery

By contributor Roger Evans
Somerset historian, writer and raconteur Roger Evans talks about the county's associations with slavery.

Roger spoke to BBC Somerset Sound's Jo Phillips on Friday, 23 March, 2007. Click on the audio link below to listen to the interview:

audio Interview: Roger Evans >
Audio and Video links on this page require Realplayer

Deep in the Somerset countryside, well away from the unseemly trade in human beings, wealthy families built their grand homes using the profits from plantations which benefitted from the slave trade.

King Weston House
King Weston House

Henry Hobhouse, whose family were slave traders, acquired property in Castle Cary.

Caleb Dickinson, owner of a Jamaican plantation, purchased King Weston House near Somerton, and the Helyar family, owners of sugar plantations in Jamaica, lived at Coker Court in East Coker near Yeovil.

The Tudway family of Wells owned plantations in Antigua, although they rarely, if ever, visited the islands, where they would have witnessed the appalling conditions under which the slaves survived. Just two of their plantations recorded 583 slaves in bondage.

Somerset rebels sold into slavery

The wealth of these few families depended on slavery. Elsewhere in the county, there was strong support for the abolition of the slave trade.

Slavery by the British began in the mid-17th century. By 1685, at the time of the Monmouth Rebellion, it was in full swing.

After the Battle of Sedgemoor and the ensuing Bloody Assizes, when hundreds were hung, drawn and quartered, the King granted permission for convicted rebels to be taken into slavery.

Coker Court
Coker Court

With hundreds of Somerset men being transported, local feeling against slavery ran high. These were not the wealthy landowners, but yeoman of strong religious convictions, condemned into slavery. 

In total, 612 Somerset men were transported into slavery. They sailed in eight ships to the West Indies.

Many died during the voyage. Some died on the quayside awaiting their auction.

Within four years, the survivors were granted free pardons but most lacked the fare home.

Those who returned told their families and communities of life as a slave. No wonder then that it was Bridgwater which was the first town, in 1785, to petition parliament for the abolition of slavery.

View a list of Bridgwater-area men transported into slavery in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format:

Bridgwater's petition

There was a time when Bridgwater, as a port, had been more significant than Bristol. With the boom in the slave trade, Bristol blossomed whilst Bridgwater wilted.

There was undoubtedly envy, and the traders of Bridgwater would have been delighted to see the abolition of slavery at Bristol's expense.

The combination of that bitterness, the hatred of slavery (from the handed-down memories of Bridgwater men transported into slavery), together with the influence of the local Quakers, led to a petition being sent from the townspeople to Parliament calling for the abolition of the African slave trade.

Bridgwater
Bridgwater

George White, a local clergyman, and John Chubb had suggested to William Tuckett, the mayor of Bridgwater, that the petition should be raised.

The petition was drawn up and was presented to Parliament by the town's two MPs: Lord Ann Poulett and Alexander Hood, Lord Bridport.

In Parliament, the petition was ordered to "lie on the table" - in other words, unworthy of debate.

Too many people of wealth stood to lose too much if slavery were to be abolished, fearing it would "throw the West India islands into convulsions and soon complete their utter ruin".

The petition failed in one respect but succeeded in another. It proved to be the first of many whose combined effect created a groundswell of anti-slavery feeling, which in 1807 brought an end to British involvement in the trade.

View the text of the petition in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format:

A slave speaks out in Bridgwater

Whilst British involvement had ceased, slavery in the southern states continued. 

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland and taken from his mother whilst young.

He had several masters, some whipped him but one taught him to read and write. 

Eventually he escaped. Disguised as a free-black sailor, he reached New York.

The publication of his life story brought him fame. He became a leading abolitionist and advisor to Abraham Lincoln, who encouraged him to tour and tell his story.

His travels brought him to Somerset where he delivered a lecture in Bridgwater.

Bridgwater
Bridgwater

On 31 August 1846, he told how in the southern slave states, he was still considered a runaway slave, how everything he did was dictated by his owners, how three million black slaves were denied the right of marriage, how there were 71 crimes for which blacks could be executed but only one for whites, how slaves were branded with hot irons, and how runaways were nailed to the wall by their ears.

He then appealed to his audience to do everything in their power to hasten the abolition of slavery.

The result of this was yet another petition, this time from the townsfolk of Bridgwater, Somerset to the people of Bridgewater, Massachusetts - one of the free states where slavery had already been abolished. 

An exchange of cordial letters followed, the first of which was signed by no fewer than 1,200 Bridgwater residents, with mutual admiration being expressed at great length, and Massachusetts explaining how slavery was not practised in that state.

The exchanges were simply gestures which no doubt left the people of Bridgwater, Somerset feeling much better about themselves and the people of Massachusetts feeling frustrated at their namesake's lack of understanding.

View a list of the 1,200 signatories of the petition sent from Bridgwater, Somerset to the township of Bridgewater, Massachusetts in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format:

William Jolley Nicholls

Some wrote letters, others took more positive action in the battle against slavery.

In Bridgwater's Bristol Road cemetery is the grave of William Jolley Nicholls. On his tombstone is engraved "fought in the American Civil War for the abolition of slavery". 

Aged 79 when he died, he was wounded in the Civil War and took part in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.

last updated: 23/03/07
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Abolition - 1807

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