Monthly Archives: February 2012

Blue dye, linen underwear and Wright of Derby

José Mariano da Conceicao Velloso - O fazendeiro do Brazil - cultivadorIndigo cultivation in Brazil

By José Mariano da Conceição Velloso [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We think of Jamaica as the great home of sugar production in the eighteenth century, which of course it was, but in the early days of colonisation and well into the eighteenth century indigo was also an important crop. Although the image above is from Brazil, the method of cultivation and the use of slave labour was much the same in Jamaica.

Originating in India the indigofera tinctoria plant came to replace the use of woad for blue dye in medieval Europe, and the colour is perhaps most familiar to us now for its use in dying denim jeans, although synthetic dyes now widely replace natural indigo.

To make the dye the plant is usually cut and placed into large fermentation vats for about 15 hours after which the yellow liquid can be used immediately for dying cloth, which turns blue as it is removed on contact with the air. Alternatively the liquid is strained off through a series of large vats and agitated to oxygenate it until it changes colour and finally precipitates out as flakes. The pulp is strained, boiled with fresh water to remove impurities and filtered through coarse linen or woollen bags, until finally it can be cut into cakes and air dried ready for transport or sale.

Indian indigo dye lump

Modern Indigo block from India

Photo by Evan Izer (Palladian) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There was huge demand for blue dye in the eighteenth century and although the East India Company developed cultivation in Bengal that would eventually displace other areas, indigo was cultivated in Jamaica from the second half of the seventeenth century as a possible alternative to tobacco and one needing a smaller labour force than sugar, labour that was mostly required for cutting and processing the plants.

When Thomas Modyford surveyed Jamaica in 1670 he recorded “49 Indigo works which may produce about 49,000 weight of Indigo per annum, to which many more works are daily adding”.

The Newcastle Courant for Wednesday 15 October 1712 reported that “Yesterday arrived the Providence Galley from Jamaica, but last from Shields, laden with Sugar, Cacao, Indigo etc.”

Twenty years later the Derby Mercury of Thursday, 24 August 1732 reported a serious shortage of indigo with the arrival of a ship at Bristol ten days earlier.  “The last Ship arrived here from Jamaica has brought but one small Barrel of Indigo, that Commodity being very scarce there, so that we shall receive but very little, if any, this Year which is likely to make a great Alteration in the Price, Indigo being already in very great Demand here.”

At just about this time when there was a scarcity of Indigo from Jamaica, South Carolina was developing an industry to displace Jamaica as a main exporter, while Jamaica increasingly found greater profit to be made by the export of sugar. Nevertheless, it was still possible to make a good living as an Indigo planter which remained a minor export crop along with cocoa, ginger and pimento.

Dyeing blue linen

Take half a pound of indigo, and grind it well with a little lime water into an impalpable paste. Put it into 10 gallons of cold water, and add half a pound of Potash. 1 lb green copperas, 3 lbs quicklime. Let the whole stand till there forms on the surface a copper coloured head, and the liquor underneath appears yellow-green. Dip the linen in this liquor till it has acquired the shade of colour desired.

Josiah Wedgwood’s Commonplace Book n.d., page 44 Wedgwood MS 39-28408. (

Linen was widely used for shirts and underwear and perhaps surprisingly it was sometimes dyed blue, whether for fashion or because it showed the dirt less is unclear. There is a set of blue dyed linen panniers – hoops for supporting a skirt – illustrated in the fascinating “The History of Underclothes” by C Willett and Phillis Cunnington (Dover, 1992), and a wonderful seventeenth century description of young women running a race in their differently coloured drawers.

For the more up-market uses of indigo you have only to look at the wonderful portraits by Joseph Wright of Derby in which so many of the prosperous provincial ladies wore blue satin.

And while I’m on the subject of Joseph Wright, The Derby Museums and Art Gallery are opening a newly refurbished gallery displaying Wright’s works on February 25th 2012. Do visit if you can.

Lost at Sea

Aivasovsky Ivan Constantinovich The Shipwreck

 The Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Given the dangers of travel by sea in the 18th century it has always amazed me how frequently people crossed the Atlantic.  Sea captains like Stephen Blankett made regular trips to Jamaica every year, and it was on ships such as his that hopefuls travelled out looking to make their fortune, and colonists travelled home.  Britons sent their Jamaican born children “back home” to be educated, to enter mainstream society, and to marry.  Many fled the heat and disease hoping to make a full recovery in the cooler climate of England.  Not everyone made it.

On the 25th of July 1782 a fleet left Bluefields Bay Jamaica for England, it included the Ville-de-Paris, which had been the flagship of the Comte de Grasse during the American Revolutionary war and had been captured by Admiral Rodney, and on board the British Queen with Captain James Hodge were John Ellis his wife Elizabeth and their niece Anna Maria making her first trip to England.

The British Queen was a ship of 350 tons with a crew of 45 and 20 carriage guns, which in 1761 had been owned by “Peter Impaud, Elias Benjamin de la Fontain, Daniel Vialars and others of London, merchants” when she was issued with letters of marque against the French. In May 1776 she had been included in a fleet of transports taking troops and wagons to Canada, and another record refers to her making a trip to Greenland. In 1777 she had been surveyed at Deptford and found fit for service as a transport ship. In 1780 her then owners, Wilkinson and Company, offered her to the government to carry stores to Jamaica and it is possible she was returning with the fleet from this latest episode in July 1782.

John Ellis had married Elizabeth Palmer in 1754.  They had two sons John and Charles Rose who were already in England. Ellis was one of the largest landowners in Jamaica, son of George Ellis and Anne Beckford he had inherited the Newry plantation in St Mary, half of the Sixteen Mile Walk plantation and a share in Palm plantation in St Thomas in the Vale. In 1752 he bought Montpelier from the widow of Francis Sadler Hals. When his brother George died in 1753 leaving a pregnant wife, he acquired about another £30,000 of property on the grounds that his brother’s Will had failed to make provision for any possible children.

In the days before weather forecasts and mass communications ships captains relied on a combination of luck and experience when it came to avoiding extremes of weather.  By 1782 it was well understood that there was a hurricane season in the Caribbean, but there was no way of predicting when or where specific storms would strike. The route frequently taken by ships sailing back to England was heading north out of the Caribbean and up the coast of America before striking out across the Atlantic.

It seems that the fleet had got roughly to the latitude of Boston when in the early hours of the morning of the 17th of September the storm hit them.  Initial reports in the British press during October and November concentrated mainly on the fate of the Ville-de-Paris.

A Captain Cox who arrived in London in early December reported having seen the ship after the storm and that she had lost her main and mizzen masts and that the crew had thrown all the guns overboard and sealed up the gun ports. The ship had been pooped, that is hit by a huge wave on her stern which had carried away a large part of the structure, however the crew had used sail canvas to seal the ship and when last seen by Captain Cox she had been heading for the Azores under jury rig.  However a report in the Leeds Intelligencer on 24 December 1782 said that “the Sylph cutter, which sailed to the Western Islands near two months ago to look after the Ville-de-Paris and the Glorieux men of war is returned to Spithead, without having obtained any intelligence of them.”

News of the ill-fated Ellis family was finally reported in the Hereford Journal on the 9th of January 1783.

“William Shotton, late servant to John Ellis, Esq of St Mary’s, Jamaica, who took his passage from that island, in the month of July last, for London, on board the British Queen, Captain Hodge relates the following melancholy tale: That they sailed from Jamaica on the 15th of  July, under convoy of the Ramillies ; that his said Master, together with his wife and two nieces, two boys his wards, and four servants were on board; that they met with nothing particular on the passage till the 17th of September, when at three o’clock in the morning in lat.42 there came on a violent gale of wind, accompanied by a swelling sea which strained the ship almost to a wreck, and caused her to make so much water, that the pumps were obliged to be kept incessantly going.  At three o’clock in the afternoon it laid the ship on her beam ends, and carried away her mizzen mast, with various other things, off the deck, and at the same instant washed the said William Shotton overboard, and likewise his wife, who then happened to have fast hold of his clothes; but having both got hold of the wreck and entangled themselves with the ropes, they floated in this situation for near two days, and were then providentially taken up by the ship Catherine, Captain McLey, bound from Cork to New York. They were afterwards taken by an American priveteer, and carried to the Havannah, from whence they obtained a passage to Philadelphia, and from that place to New York, where he embarked on board the Minerva Captain McAddams, which is arrived at Portsmouth. Whilst they remained on the wreck, he frequently saw the ship on her beam ends: but being much exhausted and struck with heavy seas, the ship disappeared to him, so that he cannot say for certain whether she righted or sank, but is inclined to believe from her distressed state, and having six feet water in her hold, she must have inevitably sunk. He could not learn any thing of her from the Catherine‘s people after he was recovered.  He further adds, that he saw several ships founder during the gale, but could not learn their names.”

The Wreck of the Assurance

It would seem horribly unlucky that ships which had safely crossed the Atlantic avoiding such storms, and possible capture by an enemy, should end up being wrecked within sight of home.  But this is what happened to the naval frigate HMS Assurance which was stranded off the Needles on 24 April, 1753 and which was carrying Edward Trelawney the former Governor of Jamaica. Trelawny had been Governor from April 1738 to September 1752.  It was under him that peace had finally been achieved with the Maroons, and his term as Governor was one of the longest and most successful of 18th-century Jamaica until failing health brought about his return to England. During his time in Jamaica his tact and natural diplomacy largely brought an end to the squabbles that had characterised the Jamaican Assembly. With his departure this accord sadly came to an end.

Trelawny survived the wreck of the Assurance and arrived back in London four days after the shipwreck.  He died at Hungerford Park on 16th January 1754.  A Customs report was lodged relating to a small amount of Rum and other goods saved from the wreck.

22 August 1753 In order to your command signified by Mr Freemantle in his letter of 18th inst. we beg leave to Report that the Rum & and other sundry Goods saved out of the Assurance, Man of War, stranded on this Island were first brought by the persons who took them up floating in the sea to the Custom House & delivered to Mr Wilkinson as a perquisite of Admiralty in case they should not be claimed but as there was not then room in our Warehouse to contain them we lodged the said Goods in a Warehouse hired of Mr George Mackenzie at 12/6 per week [1]

It was possible to insure cargo against loss, indeed there was a thriving insurance industry by the middle of the 18th-century, and many of the letters that survive in the correspondence of absentee planters and plantation factors and commission agents relate to the insuring of cargo.  However the best that an individual could do when contemplating a transatlantic voyage was to write a Will and say their prayers.

There are many brief Wills in the collections held at the National Archive at Kew that were written by sailors, both in the Navy and merchant service, leaving their few possessions to wife, mother, or close friend.  By the end of the 18th-century so common was the practice that printed Will forms were provided, such as the one completed by Robert Kelly of the Alarm in 1798[2] leaving everything to his sister “Sarah Rex of number 6 Armory Lane, Portsmouth in the county of Hampshire”.

Of course sailors in the Royal Navy faced a variety of risks at sea, but everyone who crossed the Atlantic encountered the dangers of tempest, uncharted reefs, ships undermined by ship worm which disintegrated in heavy weather, and the ever present possibility of human error.

Some lucky ones like Trelawney survived shipwreck, many more like the Ellis family were lost at sea.





Collector to Board Letters Book 1753 – 1764 National Archives ref:CUST 61/2

[2] National Archives, Kew, ADM/48/51

The Story of a Mourning Brooch


One of the delights of running a website like this is when a reader gets in touch to provide further information relating to something they have read here.

When I wrote about Marchant Tubb and his wife Ann in one of my earliest pieces I was not then certain who his wife was. I did know that she had previously been married to Stephen Morant and had a daughter called Mary Powell Morant.

The reader who contacted me collects mourning brooches such as this lovely Georgian example made for Mary Powell Royall to commemorate her mother, and where possible researches the person commemorated. By a piece of clever detective work, decoding the coat of arms on the tomb that Marchant Tubb had erected for his wife, my informant was able to show that Stephen Morant’s wife Ann was called Ann Anderson and that they were married in Jamaica on the 4th of June 1737.

Ann Morant gave birth to two children, Stephen and Mary Powell Morant, before her husband died on 30 October 1742. Mary Powell Morant was baptised when she was eight months old, her baptism being recorded in the register for St Thomas in the East “Christen’d at Wheelersfield in Plantain Garden River a female child of Stephen Morant and Ann his wife aged 8 months 2 days and named Mary Powell whose Godfathers are Messrs Thomas Wheeler and Richard Swarton ye first of ’em being represented by Mr Gibbons Hodgins and Godmothers Mrs Mary Crames and Mrs Elizabeth Swarton, ye first of ’em being represented by Mrs Mary Cussans the father and mother being present.”

On the 14th of February 1745 Ann Morant remarried to Samuel Wheeler who in turn died about 1755. Some time after this she married her third husband, the surgeon Marchant Tubb, but sadly neither I nor my informant have been able to track down a record of this marriage which I am sure took place in Jamaica. By 1768 Marchant and Ann Tubb were in England together with their daughter Mary Powell Morant.

Mary Powell Morant was a considerable heiress and when after her mother’s death she decided to marry Joseph Royall in 1782, her stepfather took great care to ensure that the marriage settlement protected her rights, for as a femme couverte she might have lost control of it all to her husband. It provided further considerable work for the lawyers when, within a very short space of time, she left her husband and returned to live with Marchant Tubb. Temperamentally it seems the couple were completely unsuited, at least according to Mary ‘s very close friend Frances Lee who wrote to her brother “And what do you think is come to pass? Mr and Mrs Royall are separated by mutual Consent. They each complain of the violence of the others Disposition. Mrs R. is returned to her father whom she no longer calls Tubby. The marriage was concluded in such haste that I am not the least surprised at the separation – I pity neither.”

When Marchant Tubb died Mary inherited the share of the Wheelersfield estate that had come to him via his marriage, and on her death in 1816 she in turn left it to Frances Lee. There is no specific mention in Mary’s will of items of jewellery or the mourning brooch, although she did leave all her clothes to Elizabeth Pack (formerly Elizabeth Harrison) the black servant who had come to England with the Lee family in 1771.

There is one further little mystery that my informant found as a result of the researches into the mourning brooch. On 22 June 1739 a child called James Morant was baptised at Wheelersfield in St Thomas in the East said to be aged one year ten months and eight days old, the son of Stephen Morant and Ann Gowing. Stephen Morant was present at the baptism but Ann Gowing was not, and his godmother was Mrs Ann Morant. The infant James Morant appears to have been born about two and a half months after the marriage of his father to Ann Anderson.

Exactly one month later the adjacent record in the parish register shows the marriage of Ann Gowing to James Frazier a bricklayer. The marriage was by special licence rather than by banns which means that someone was able to put up the money for the licence and it took place in the house of Mr Roger Wood with Mr Richard Jephcott a millwright standing in place of the bride’s father.

Illegitimate children were of course very common in Jamaica, and in this case it would appear that Stephen Morant’s new wife was entirely happy to stand godmother for his illegitimate child, and that provision was being made for his mother. There is no mention in the parish register (which does generally record colour) of Ann Gowing’s colour or status, and therefore it seems possible that she was a poor white girl, perhaps a servant, rather than a slave or “housekeeper” to Stephen Morant.

Whatever the actions of Mary Powell Morant’s father, the brooch she had made to commemorate her mother and the tomb created by her stepfather for his wife are tributes to someone who was clearly very much loved during her lifetime.

The Sugar Barons – Book Review


Matthew Parker’s book The Sugar Barons tells the history of three families in the West Indies and does so in a way that covers a wide sweep of the history of the Caribbean from the mid 17th century to the early 19th century. It is a compelling read and extremely well researched.

Quoting a number of contemporary sources Matthew Parker describes the background to the context in which sugar would become so important, and the early settlements in Barbados peopled by royalist prisoners of war shipped out of the country by Cromwell. By 1649 rebellion in the poor white population and a fall in their numbers when indentured servants found no land available for them in Barbados, led to the rise of slavery as a means of providing the large labour force needed for the cultivation of sugar. In discussing slavery Parker says “Sugar did not cause slavery in the British Caribbean” and he demonstrates the conditions that led the Barbados sugar planters increasingly to use slave labour, and the international context in which this was set. He shows the rise of the sugar planters in the context of British and international politics and conflict from the mid 17th century onwards.

The founder of the first family empire Parker discusses was James Drax  a former Roundhead leader who developed plantations in Barbados. Drax Hall which he built sometime in the early 1650s still stands, the oldest surviving Jacobean mansion in the American colonies.

After covering the establishment of the colony in Barbados, Parker describes the invasion of Jamaica and the rise there of the Beckford family. The third family who form the focus of this book were the Codringtons. In the migration of colonists from Barbados to Jamaica they not only extended personal fortunes but also took cultivation and production techniques with them that helped to boost sugar production and make Jamaica the most important of the sugar colonies.

Earthquake, hurricane, and epidemic disease all shaped the experience of the Sugar Barons as did the fear and experience of slave uprisings and the Maroon wars in Jamaica. In spite of all this the rising demand in Europe for sugar, and its by product rum, not only created fortunes but also led to the rise of the important West Indian sugar lobby in London.

Matthew Parker not only covers the rise of these three important colonial families but also their decline as absentee landlords failed to manage their estates well, spent their fortunes rashly, and did not adapt to changing international conditions. Nevertheless he argues that “The success of the sugar industry helped shape the modern world. After all, the landscape of Jamaica was dominated by ‘dark satanic mills’ long before that of England. The far flung trading system that shifted the sugar and rum to their distant markets and supplied the islands with machinery, raw materials and luxury items, issued in an era of global commerce, long supply chains, and ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources…. The legacy of the sugar Barons for Britain is about more than just the resulting riches…. The sugar empire also helped to define the country’s role in the world and what it meant to be ‘British’ “.

The endpapers include a map showing the West Indies and the Spanish Main about 1700, there are several other maps, and there are a number of black and white illustrations of the places and people described in the book. There are also three outline family trees for the Drax, Codrington and Beckford families, and a chronology of contemporary events setting the family stories in a wider context.

Matthew Parker’s book is a compelling read, thoroughly well researched, and a brilliant introduction to the history of the Caribbean  and the rise not only of the Sugar Barons but of the modern world.


 Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons Family, Corruption, Empire and War, Hutchinson, London 2011. ISBN 9780091925833 Hardback.

And just out in paperback, Windmill Books, ISBN-10: 0099558459 ISBN-13: 978-0099558453