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You are in: Wear > Abolition > Wearside and the slave trade

Slavery posters in Durham University library.

Slavery posters at Durham Uni library

Wearside and the slave trade

Look and you will find - local historian Neil Sinclair from Sunderland shares his discoveries into the history of the slave trade in Wearside.

In the past it has been assumed that Sunderland had little connection with the slave trade. 

However research in this year of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire has shown that, like many other areas of North East England, Sunderland and the surrounding area had links both with plantations using enslaved Africans in the West Indies, through the Hilton family, and with the abolition campaign.

James Field Stanfield. Image: Sunderland Museums

There was popular support on Wearside for the campaign to abolish the slave trade. In the 1790s there was also support in Sunderland for the boycott of West Indian sugar and local grocers stocked East Indian sugar instead.

James Field Stanfield, a Sunderland resident during the 1790s, played a significant role of in the anti-slavery movement. Sir Ralph Milbanke, a local MP, also played an active role in the parliamentary campaign for abolition.

Slave Owners: The Hiltons

The Hiltons were a prominent North East family who owned Hilton Castle, which still stands close to the north bank of the Wear. The name of many of the family and the Castle had changed to Hylton by the 19th century.

Detail of entry in sugar trade logs.

Trade in sugar logged

By 1619 Henry Hilton, a younger son of Sir William Hilton, was living in South Shields. 

Robert Surtees in History and Antiquities of the County Palatinate of Durham records that one of Henry's descendants, Ralph Hilton, had settled in Jamaica by the 1740s.

Several members of the Hilton family went on to own sugar plantations in Jamaica.  The many people with Hylton surnames in Jamaica today are descendants of the enslaved Africans on these plantations.

The Seaham Hall Connection

In 1791 Sir Ralph Milbanke was elected an MP for the County Durham constituency, (which then included Sunderland) and moved his home to Seaham Hall.

He took up the cause of abolition of the slave trade and was soon in correspondence with John Dodgson, a Darlington Quaker who had organised a petition against the trade.

Seaham Hall. By Terry Smith.

Seaham Hall

In March 1792, Milbanke's wife wrote that the only reason that he was remaining in London was because he wished to take part in the vote against the slave trade.

Sir Ralph continued to support William Wilberforce's bills to abolish the slave trade.

When James Field Stanfield published his combined edition of his Guinea Voyage works in 1808, to mark the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, it was dedicated to Milbanke, whom Stanfield records as seconding Wilberforce's successful bill.

Because of the family connection with William Wilberforce, Sir Ralph's daughter, Anne Isabella (the future Lady Byron), was asked by a friend in 1811 to interest Wilberforce in the case of Forster Charlton. Charlton had been committed to Morpeth Gaol for agitation against slavery.

Seaham hall in Londonderry's hands

After Sir Ralph ceased to be an MP, Seaham Hall passed in 1821 into the ownership of Lord Stuart who later became the Third Marquess of Londonderry.

His brother, the Second Marquess of Londonderry had also been active in the movement to restrict the foreign slave trade and the continuing illegal British trade.

Better known as Lord Castlereagh, he was foreign secretary from 1812 to 1822.  A map of Castlereagh's in the Durham County Records Office collection is annotated with observations on the Portuguese and Spanish slave trade.

As foreign secretary, Castlereagh was responsible for negotiating treaties which restricted the Portuguese and Spanish slave trade and prevented British slave ships from sailing under the Spanish flag.

last updated: 10/03/2008 at 15:11
created: 09/05/2007

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