The North East’s last slave owners

William Vane, the first Duke of Cleveland
Photo from wikimedia commons

Covid-willing, heritage fans can enjoy a day out at Raby Castle near Darlington, drinking in its mediaeval turreted splendour and the lush tranquility of its 200 acre deer park. The great halls are stuffed to the gills with treasures that speak of dynasties of nobility. Over the years it was paid for by land, rent and slavery.  

The castle’s slave-owning First Duke of Cleveland was not alone.  Slavery was widespread and as commonplace as the sugar in your tea. 

The world transatlantic slave trade shipped over 12 million Africans across 350 years to plantations in the Caribbean and Americas. Millions more were born in the destination territories. By the 1760s British slave ships carried 40,000 captive Africans across the Atlantic every year and Britain was the biggest slaver in the world.  

It took centuries of struggle by survivors and other abolitionists to end slavery.  In 1807 the transatlantic trade was abolished and slave ownership was banned in most British territories by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. 

There remained the matter of compensation -  to the slave owners, not the slaves – provided in the Slave Compensation Act of 1837. The government rustled up £20 million -  up to £100 billion at today’s value – to free slaves from their masters. Amounting to 40% of the Treasury’s annual receipts, it nearly bankrupted the Country and the British taxpayer only cleared the debt in 2015.  

The bureaucracy that compensation required left a trove of historical records which have been researched by the Legacies of British-slave Ownership (LBS)  project at University College, London. Their database on the claimants at the bitter end of slavery gives us an insight into the last slave owners of the North East.  

While we tend to associate slavery with cities in the west of England like Liverpool and Bristol, the North East had its fair share of slave owners as the LBS database attests. 

From a look at the LBS database, by the time of compensation in 1837, at least 32 owners in the North East owned 5984 slaves and received £103,510 for their freedom.  That’s £11.6 million in today’s money.  The average value of £17 a soul compares to £27 a year wages for an English farm labourer at the time. 

The records show owners across the region: in Newcastle and Gateshead; Durham and Darlington; Sunderland and Stockton. 

The names of slave owners are still common in the region today: Young, Austin, Munro, McDonald, Murray. 

The vast majority of their slaves were in the British Caribbean. The claimants for compensation mostly owned sugar or tobacco plantations or were merchants or in the slavery business. 

This was just the last generation of slave owners and countless went before, like Captain Thomas King from Skelton who transported 22,000 Africans into bondage on his ships between 1781 and 1808. In one voyage 50 slaves died.  

Or the grandfather of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Graham Clarke, at the centre of a group of slave owner families in the North East.  

We only have to look at the names of plantations like Durham and of slaves like Cleveland to see the deep-rooted connections with the slave economies. 

The scale of slavery was matched only by the owners’ double standards.  Like the anti-slavery campaigner James Mather of South Shields who, in a feat of moral contortionism, lodged a claim on behalf of his slave-owning wife, Grace Ainsley.  He received £2,469 for 121 slaves at their plantations in Jamaica. 

Then there was the self-styled radical and slave owner Augustus Hardin Beaumont, who ran radical newspapers, called for the emancipation of the slaves as well as compensation for owners, and took part in violently suppressing Jamaica’s Sharpe Rebellion of 1831. Moving to Newcastle, he became involved in pre-Chartist radicalism. He won claims for 252 slaves, many of whom weren’t his.  

Even men of the cloth were complicit, like Rev William Smoult Temple of Aycliffe, Durham, Rector of Dinsdale. He received £1192. 0s. 2d payout for 109 slaves on the Clermont Estate in Jamaica. 

Another cleric was Rev Edward Cooke who won compensation of £6,076 for 595 slaves in the Virgin Islands.   

The religious connection is unsurprising when we recall that the Church of England, upholder of the nation’s moral code, was itself steeped in slavery. 

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPG) owned slaves on its two Codrington plantations in Barbados for 93 years until slavery’s abolition. 

By 1740 40% of Codrington slaves died within three years of arrival under a suspected ‘work to death’ regime. 

On the SPG board of trustees at the time was Thomas Thurlow, the Bishop of Durham. 

The SPG received £8,823.8s.9d in compensation for 411 slaves at its Codrington plantation. 

The Duke of Cleveland and his son Lord Poulett received £4854 for their 233 slaves in Barbados. 

On his death the Duke left £1 million, plus £1,250,000 million in personal property and £1million in silver plate and jewels. 

The National Trust has published a list of its properties that have links to slavery. It amounts to one-third of their portfolio. According to the Independent, some Trust members threatened to tear up their subscriptions in protest at the very mention of slavery. 

Raby Castle is not owned by the National Trust but by the Duke’s family the Vanes, currently Baron Barnard, the dukedom becoming extinct after the fourth generation. There’s no mention on the castle’s website of the slavery connection so visitors can have their tea and cake in the stables cafeteria in happy ignorance.  

While the deer bask in the autumn heatwave, in the cool of nearby St Mary’s Church, Staindrop, the white-marble statue of the Duke slumbers on,  a monument to the bloated hypocrisy of the age. 

The Church of England in 2006 apologised for its links to slavery and has recently called for dialogue over statues with connections to the trade, since the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol in June. 

The SPG is still in existence, renamed as the United Society, a registered charity with 2019 revenues of £3.1 million.  

For the LBS project, the database of the last slave owners was only the start. They are now organising the records of the slaves themselves, to help the public search for their captive ancestors.  

The project has also embarked on a reparations research programme as part of their public service.  

The reparations issue isn’t new. It was raised in 1996 in the House of Lords, to be hotly opposed by Lord Guisborough, descendant of Robert Chaloner of Guisborough (slaves: 281; compensation: £6,363.14s.7d; location: Barbados). 

There remain calls for reparations to Caribbean states from CARICOM and to descendants of the Caribbean diaspora from UK campaigners, restitution for an injustice that has tripped down the generations as deprivation and racism, and distorted ex-slave economies. 

Will the careful apologies and silence on reparations be our own double-think contribution to Britain’s slavery heritage? Our very own bloated hypocrisy?  

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