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.).
- 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 Ancestry.co.uk 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.