False teeth, slavery and propaganda

The eighteenth century false teeth of Archbishop Dillon


On the 29th October 1794 the good folk of Derbyshire could read news of the international situation in the pages of the Derby Mercury. They were also warned of forgeries of Bank of England £10 and £20 notes found to be in circulation – amounts no doubt well beyond the dreams of many of the paper’s readers. They could peruse advertisements for an “Infallible ointment for the itch” (probably scabies); consider the virtues of the Elixir of Bordana for gout and rheumatism at three shillings a bottle, or discover where to purchase Balsam of Honey effective for coughs, consumption etc.

Tucked among these homely items was one of the more shocking stories of the evils of slavery.

A planter’s wife was walking on the quayside observing a newly arrived shipload of slaves from Africa when she noticed a young woman with a particularly good set of white teeth. As her own front teeth were rotten, doubtless from over consumption of the sugar that had made her family rich, she enquired whether the young woman’s teeth could be implanted in her own gums. On being told they could, she had the young woman seized. The terrified girl found her teeth being forcibly removed despite her screams and struggles and they were given to the planter’s wife.

History did not of course record the sequel. After the immediate pain and trauma the poor victim was now forced to go through life with her looks ruined and her ability to eat whatever meagre food she was given impaired. Her value as a slave was diminished and she was probably condemned to work as a field slave rather than as a more prestigious house slave.

And the planter’s wife – did her implants work? Almost certainly not, though they might have been made into a set of false teeth for show.

There was experimental work in dentistry being done in the late eighteenth century, for example by John Hunter in London. The forced migration of French dentists escaping the terror of the French Revolution changed dentistry in both England and America and the technology of false teeth was improving from the wooden or ivory sets (which tended to rot) which were mainly for show and were removed at mealtimes, to porcelain sets with gold springs  such as those of Archbishop Dillon pictured above, that could actually be used for eating. Improvements in dentistry and dental technology in the nineteenth century followed on the heels of the damage done to teeth by the mass availability of sugar and refined carbohydrates.

There is one other thing to consider about this story in the Derby Mercury, in which no details of names or places were given, for it was part of the propaganda war being waged against the cruelties of slavery. Did it actually happen?

Sadly however, propaganda or not, it is all too likely to have been true.



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