Your Ancestor – Slave or Slave owner ?

Sir James Esdaile

Portrait of Sir James Esdaile (1714-1793) by Sir Joshua Reynolds


If your ancestor was in the small minority of people who owned land or property then tracking them back beyond civil registration and the nineteenth century censuses may be relatively easy. If on the other hand they were among the 90% or so who were agricultural labourers in Britain, or the even higher proportion in Jamaica who were slaves, records are thin on the ground and difficult to find.

A new database, launched a couple of weeks ago provides a hugely valuable resource for those trying to track ancestors who owned slaves. Although the transatlantic slave trade was ended for the British Empire in 1807, this did not end slavery as such. It did lead to marginally better conditions for some slaves as their owners realised they could no longer easily replace those they mal-treated, worked to death or murdered. But for nearly another thirty years the abolitionists argued with the slave owners who wanted compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ should their work force be freed to leave or go to work for someone else.

In the scandalous compromise that was eventually agreed, not only were the slave owners paid compensation, but their enslaved workforce were converted into ‘apprentices’ and required to continue working for the same masters for an interim period before being given full freedom of movement and the right to sell their labour where they wished. In practice for many this meant either leaving to set up subsistence small holdings on any available scrub land they could find, or working for the same master for a tiny wage and suffering the additional insult of being required to pay rent for the hut in the slave village which they had previously occupied as part of their servitude.

One consequence of the decision to pay compensation, however, was that records had to be compiled of who owned how many slaves and where they were held. This resulted in the creation of the first comprehensive information on slave ownership on the Jamaican plantations. Some earlier records do exist but there are few complete sets of records before this period.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership website has now made these records available online.

“At the core of the project is a database containing the identity of all slave-owners in the British Caribbean at the time slavery ended. As the project unfolded, we amassed, analysed and incorporated information about the activities, affiliations and legacies of all the British slave-owners on the database, building the Encyclopedia of British Slave-Owners, which has now been made available online..”

 Not only does the database contain the names of the slave owners and the details of the compensation awarded, but where possible the researchers have added biographical details, and this is an on-going project to which we can all contribute as there is a mechanism for entering further information in your possession to send to the project team.

As yet there is not full integration of the records of slaves and slavery held at the National Archives with this project, but it is to be hoped this may one day be possible, and in the meantime this website includes useful links to other resources on slavery and the slave trade.

As an example of the kind of information you may find, I searched for my first cousin six times removed, Richard Lee – the son of Robert Cooper Lee – who had inherited a share of the Rose Hall estate in St Thomas in the Vale.

Parliamentary Papers p. 8.

Award split: £1424 8s 0d to each of Lee and Esdaile (seven-eighteenths each); £813 8s 11d to Thwaytes (four-eighteenths).

T71/855: awarded to Richard Lee, London, executor and trustee; James Esdaile and William Thwaytes, London, owners-in-fee. Wm Thwaytes received award as heir-at-law to Wm Thwaytes the claimant.

Clicking on the name of one of the claimants will take you to any biographical information known to the project (and to which you can contribute!). So for example for James Esdaile we find:

Son (and heir) of Sir James Esdaile the banker and brother of William Esdaile (q.v.).

  1. In 1789 the London grocers Davison & Newman bought a 4/18 share in Rose Hall; ‘the other owners were Sir James Esdaile [1714-93] and the Lee family, each of whom held a 7/18 share.’  Davison left his share to Abram Newman, who left it to his daughters, from whom William Thwaytes, the surviving partner bought it in 1811.  In Mr Thwaytes’ time, Richard Lee was the London agent of the estate, ‘taking over the sugar shipments’ [from Davison & Newman?] and rendering half-yearly accounts. After Mr Thwaytes’ death in 1834, his share passed to his heir-at-law, his nephew Wm Thwaytes,  and so out of the hands of the firm, because Thwaytes’s will (under which he left his freehold property including Rose Hall to his widow) was not attested, so his widow received only  a third-share as dower in her lifetime.


1. Owen Rutter, At the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown. A brief history of the firm of Messrs. Davison, Newman & Company now incorporated with the West India Produce Association Limited (London, Davison, Newman & Co., 1938), pp. 26-8, 34.

Previous readers of this website will remember the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown from an earlier posting.
The rich biographical information as well as the details of slave ownership and the amounts of compensation awarded provide invaluable background to a range of studies, genealogical, commercial, political  and economic.

Finally, if you want to try to match the slave owners to those they ‘owned’ you may find the images of the Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834, which are held on useful. From 1819 registers were compiled and sent to the Office for the Registry of Colonial Slaves in London. You can find the search form here.  Although you will have to register with Ancestry to view them there is no charge for reading these records.

14 thoughts on “Your Ancestor – Slave or Slave owner ?”

  1. Wendy Lee

    Thanks for this valuable information, Anne! By the way, my grandmother and her nine siblings were all born in the Rose Hall house in St. Thomas in the Vale. Their parents were Dugald Campbell and Lilias Jane Charliana (MacPhail) Campbell. Would you by any chance have any information about the ownership of Rose Hall between the time you are talking about (early 1800s) and the 1870s / 1880s?

    Wendy Lee

    1. Anne M Powers Post Author

      Sadly Wendy I don’t. Richard Lee seems to have owned shares in the estate until after emancipation, but I’m not sure if they were sold before his death in 1857. I don’t believe any of the Lee family ever lived there and I suspect that after Rose Fuller left Jamaica the house was probably mostly lived in by managers for the absentee owners. It would be worth posting the question on the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society Facebook page to see if anyone knows.
      kind regards,

  2. Lex Van Haart

    I had kept the notification of this blog-post marked in my e-mail, to read later; just did, and checked the database. Wow… You know, you expect – but still it is quite harsh when you see the numbers of people and the ‘compensation’ given. And 286 people for well over 5,500 pounds… that’s a lot.

    The little consolation and perhaps even a hint of pride, I can feel over this, stems from the facts that Lord Sligo freed his slaves shortly after his arrival (as newly appointed Governor), that he was considered ‘overly sympathetic’ to the newly liberated enslaved people; and, of course, that his efforts were remembered by naming the first free village on the island after him. I have seen from close-by how spastic the Dutch have acted on the call for openness over their part in the slave trade and slavery in the colonies; they should take an example from this. We can’t reverse history but we can at least learn from it and acknowledge what our ancestors did.

    Thank you Anne, for another great lead; it will help me to continue my research.
    Kind regards, Lex

  3. Anne M Powers Post Author

    Dear Lex,

    I’m very glad you’ve found it useful. What I particularly like about it is the feedback mechanism that means we can all contribute to expanding shared knowledge of those involved.

    kind regards,

  4. Sandra Taitt-eaddy

    I am the descendant of enslaved persons of the Harrison-Walke-Sober family of Barbados and England. I am part if their legacy of slavery. Claim 2034 Barbados was a contested claim so I am wondering if there are details about enslaved family in these files that Would be different from the slave registers. Also, the scope of the project while not about the enslaved, could be expanded to help us identify our slave ancestors, right?

    1. Anne M Powers Post Author

      Dear Sandra,
      The project being run under the title Legacies of British Slave-ownership is only dealing with the compensation records and does not hold any records of the enslaved people themselves. I don’t believe they currently have any plans to expand their remit. They direct searchers to the National Archives and you may already be aware of the slave registers held there.

      Apart from these sources, some estates kept records of the enslaved in detail (and for a few these records survive) but most did not. Sadly all that most planters were interested in was the number of workers, and their value to the plantation, not who they were. You might also like to check whether there are any local newspapers for the period you are interested in which might have advertisements for runaways – these can give valuable additional information, naming and often describing the enslaved person and who ‘owned’ them.

      Sorry not to be more helpful.
      kind regards,

  5. samuel m henriques

    Thank you all for posting. As I fly into San Francisco from New York its super interesting to read about the legacy of slavery in Jamaica and of course the neighboring islands. As a Henriques I can only wonder what life was like for my ancestors as slaves in and around Kingston.

    Sincerely, Samuel henriques

    1. Tracy Johnston

      Recommended reading – Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. The early Portuguese Jews left from Holland to the Caribbean including the Cohen Henriques family who later dropped the Cohen. My family have some ties with the Henriques family through marriage. My early ancestor Motta the Portuguese was a pirate as well and is mentioned in the same book.

  6. Florence Bell

    My mother’s father grand father was listed as coloured on Robert Farquhar’s plantation slave list. oral history indicated he was child of owner Farquhar at Cades Bay Antigua. Descendans of Farquhar married Sir Shaw Stewart who today have most likely benefited from the initial proceeds of Farquhar’s wealth. farquhar was paid a bit from Antigua and Grenada estates. Will left 2,00 british pounds. Daughter married 6th Baronet Sir Michael Shaw Stewart. Attempted contact with descendants. Heard from Lucinda Shaw Stewart as Sir Ludovic Shaw Stewart her son pass the correspondence over to me. Would be good if we continued the dialogue. I am thankful that they at least responded to m initial letter of tracing ancestors

  7. Paula Bremmer

    Thank you! I’ve been following your site for a few years. I have been doing research for a very long time and the Dalley’s of Hanover were a very secretive bunch. My Great Great Grandfather George Dalley died in Grange Hill leaving land behind as well as broken relationships. My Great Grandfather James met and fell in love with a woman that was considered to be of slave stock and my Great Grandfather was ostracized from the family. He picked up and moved to St. Margaret’s Bay. I am searching for additional info on George Buxton Dalley(married Elizabeth Chambers in 1810) and John Buxton Dalley-both were overseers. I believe George was on Fat Hog Quarter Estate. Hard to find info on FHQ,

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