The Slave Trade

Whitehaven, like many towns and cities throughout the world has a shameful past regarding slavery. This human trade in Whitehaven was deemed a necessity due to the increased demand for sugar and rum. Traders supplied the slaves to the Caribbean plantations by ship. The same ships would return home loaded with sugar and rum. For 10 years Whitehaven was associated with this trade, until a movement for the abolition of slavery began around 1769.

Whitehaven’s prosperity 1688 - c1750 was based on importing tobacco for re-export, and exporting textiles, shoes, clothing, horse equipment and iron goods to Virginia and the West Indies, and coal more locally.  Sir John Lowther was instrumental in attracting maritime expertise into Whitehaven (and in improving the port).

The transatlantic slave trade dates back to the sixteenth century and, though Britain did not initiate it, British merchants developed the sophisticated structures that enabled its expansion. Initially Britain supplied slaves for the Spanish and Portuguese colonists in America. After the establishment of British settlements in the Caribbean and North America, British slave traders increasingly supplied British colonies.

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, millions of black people from numerous African countries were taken across the Atlantic to work on the plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of America.

The products of their slave labour were then shipped back to Europe. The trade was dominated by Britain, particularly during the 18th century. Between 1710 and 1810, 1.75 million slaves were imported into British possessions in the Americas. Ships operated out of British ports, principally Liverpool, London and Bristol, but Lancaster and Whitehaven were also involved.

Ships departed from British ports for Africa taking manufactured goods which were then exchanged for slaves. Slaves were bought from African traders and European entrepreneurs working in West Africa. During the terrible voyage of the 'Middle Passage' across the Atlantic, on average, one in eight of the slaves being transported died. After the 'Middle Passage' the slaves were sold to plantation owners in the West.

Cheap labour was central to the economic prosperity of the plantations. The British government encouraged the slave trade through the provision of royal charters to trading companies and also through giving the Royal Navy instructions to police the trade. The government and its agencies were involved in the regulation and control of the trade in Africa, on the sea and in the plantations.

As the number of slaves outnumbered the settlers, complex rules and legal codes came into play to ensure control of the slave population by the governments and settlers in the Caribbean and the Americas. The number of people involved in this activity was enormous, ranging from those who had simply a share in a ship (which must have included many people with money to invest), the merchants and manufacturers, the captains and crews of the ships, the people who organised the supply of slaves in Africa and the plantation owners who purchased them.

Isaac Milner, a native of Whitehaven, but a resident of London, was encouraged by Lowther to persuade Whitehaven merchants to become involved in the Africa trade.  Merchants like the Lutwidges, Hows, Flemings and Speddings were involved not only in the trans-Atlantic trade but also in a trade between the West Indies and the coast of America.  The slave trade should probably be seen as an attempt at economic diversification capitalising on existing contacts with the Americas, when the tobacco trade declined.  During the 1730s and 1740s Whitehaven’s tobacco trade was very successful – second only to London. The slave trade seems to have functioned prior to 1720 and again after 1750 when Glasgow dominated the tobacco trade.

Between 1710-1721 Thomas Lutwidge Sr fitted out 5/8 ships.  (His nephew Walter Lutwidge was also involved). He was initially involved in the wine trade and later in tobacco and sugar trade, so slave trading was an extension of his American interests.  His first slave venture The Swift, failed because the 95 slaves on board were taken by a French privateer.

Thomas Rumball fitted out one out of the eight ships and was Master on five of the ships.

1750-1769 investment in slave trade was dominated by a small number of the commercial elite of Whitehaven along with old Ships Masters.  Ships had multiple owners: eg. The Venus of Whitehaven in 1763 had 12 co-owners.  The owners were generally local to Whitehaven.

The Jefferson family owned 2 ships in the second decade of the 19th century.  The Thetis (161 tons) and Doris (133 tons) – both built in Whitehaven.  They later purchased a number of other ships, some locally built.  Rum, sugar and molasses were brought back from the West Indies. Much of the sugar and rum came from the Yeaman estate in Antigua which was owned by the Jeffersons.  The round trip from Whitehaven to the West Indies took 5-6 months, so two trips could be made in a year.  They bought York Plantation in Antigua in 1832. The conveyance includes the transfer of slaves (including children).  There are also other references to slaves amongst the Jefferson papers.

Slave trading was a risky venture – everything needed to be in place for the three legs of the voyage (with maximum cargoes on each leg).  The whole voyage often lasted over one year.  The success of the voyage was very dependent upon the skills of the Sailing Master who was crucial both in relation to safe sailing and as negotiator over the purchase of cargoes.   At Whitehaven 7 Sailing Masters were responsible for commanding 60% of the voyages 1750-69.  When everything worked it was highly profitable, but often it did not work out.

Initially Whitehaven traders, sailors and fitters were ‘strangers’ to the skills necessary due to inexperience.  Other disadvantages included: the town was distant from the supply of many of the goods destined for sale in West Africa.; the lack of returning ships made it difficult for Whitehaven traders to keep up to date with developments in Africa and the Americas; the lack of sugar refining opportunities in Whitehaven was a disadvantage to slave traders as sugar was vital for the Americas-Whitehaven leg.  Because of the difficulties in acquiring cargoes for the first and third legs, the importance of the Middle Passage for profit was essential.

Cumbrians were involved in the slave trade and the institution of slavery in a number of ways. Whitehaven was the only Cumbrian port involved in the Triangular Trade, and that was only for a relatively few years during the 18th century. However Cumbrian traders and mariners were also involved in the slave trade at other ports - in particular Lancaster and Liverpool - and Cumbrian merchants who traded with the West Indies and the Americas were probably trading commodities that had used slave labour (such as sugar, tobacco and rum).

Some products manufactured in Cumbria were exported to Africa as part of the Triangular Trade. In addition some Cumbrian landowners owned slaves through their ownership of plantations in the Caribbean. A small number of Black people lived in Cumbria in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and some of these may have arrived in Britain as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

Many Cumbrians were also involved in the abolition of the slave trade, and one of the leading abolitionists, William Wilberforce, spent many summer holidays in the Lake District.

Whitehaven’s prosperity between 1688 and c1750 was based on importing tobacco for re-export and exporting textiles, shoes, clothing, horse equipment and iron goods to Virginia and the West Indies, and coal more locally.

Sir John Lowther was instrumental in both improving the facilities of the port and in attracting maritime expertise into the town. Isaac Milner, a native of Whitehaven but a resident of London, was encouraged by Sir John to persuade Whitehaven merchants to become involved in the Africa trade.

Merchants like the Lutwidges, Hows, Flemings and Speddings were involved not only in the transatlantic trade but also in a trade between the West Indies and the coast of America. The slave trade should probably be seen as an attempt at economic diversification by merchants with connections in America, at times when the coal and tobacco trades declined. The slave trade seems to have functioned prior to 1720 and again after 1750.

During the 1730s and 1740s, Whitehaven’s tobacco trade was very successful - second only to London - but during the 1750s, Glasgow dominated the trade. The Whitehaven slave trade lasted from 1710-1769 during which 69 slave voyages were fitted out:

  • 1710-1721 8 ships involved in slave voyages
  • 1722-1749 0 ships involved in the slave trade
  • 1750-1759 18 ships involved in slave voyages
  • 1760-1769 43 ships involved in slave voyages

In comparison 1250 ships departed from Liverpool, 500 ships from London and 470 ships from Bristol between 1750 - 1769. 86 ships departed from Lancaster between 1757-76.

Between 1710-1721 Thomas Lutwidge (Senior) with his nephew Walter Lutwidge, fitted out 5 of the 8 ships involved in the slave trade. He was initially involved in the wine trade and later in the tobacco and sugar trade, so slave trading was an extension of his American interests. His first slave venture, The Swift, failed because the 95 slaves on board were taken by a French privateer. His letter books (1739-49) which are available at Whitehaven Record Office (YDX79) include references to his interests in the trade. In 1749 he was in correspondence with John Hardman of Liverpool about using some of his ships which were lying idle at Liverpool for slaving in Guinea. Thomas Rumball fitted out one of the eight ships and was Master on five of the ships.

Between 1750-1769 investment in the slave trade was shared between Whitehaven traders and old Sailing Masters, meaning that quite a large number of Whitehaven people had a stake in the slave trade. Many ships had multiple owners: for example, in 1763, Venus of Whitehaven had 12 co-owners.

Perhaps the most famous of the Whitehaven ships was King George, the subject of the Beilby Goblet - a model at the Beacon Museum, Whitehaven. The goblet was designed and made by William Beilby in 1763. The goblet is adorned with the coat of arms of King George III on one side. On the other is a painting of a sailing ship, and the words, "Success to the African Trade of Whitehaven". The goblet had been made to commemorate the launch of the ship King George in 1763.

In the early part of his career, John Paul Jones was third mate on board the King George III. Jones did not enjoy his experiences during his time aboard. He is reported to have spoken of the dislike of, "this abominable trade" of human flesh.

Slavery was loathed by many of the residents of Whitehaven. One such resident, a William Miller (1816-56), who was a tanner by trade, was a strong supporter of the anti slavery movement. His upbringing as a Quaker played a great part in his beliefs on this trade in human flesh. He organised meetings with the public to encourage the ending of slavery throughout the western world.

Mr Miller is regarded as an influential figure who helped contribute to the ending of this awful trade. The anti slavery movement swept through Whitehaven at an astounding pace, picking up supporters from every quarter.

The first time a black slave was permitted to share a white person’s burial plot in England happened in Whitehaven in 1700. The Whitehaven burial in St Nicholas’ churchyard, of the slave called Jane, was in defiance of the then law stating that no African could be buried in a churchyard. The burial was that of the slave servant of Mildred Gale, grandmother of the first US president, George Washington.

All Africans were buried in mass or communal graves. They weren’t allowed to marry without permission, travel or meet in groups and in 1695 the British brought in a law stating that no African could be buried in a churchyard. Mildred Gale was 300 years ahead of her time – as was Whitehaven regarding this burial.

Her burial was marked by a tall dark headstone about 5ft high. It is now located about 10ft from the back wall of St Nicholas Church, looking on to Duke Street. Mildred's defiance was proclaimed to all the world:
Died 1700. Mildred Gale nee Warner of Warner Hall Virginia, wife of George Gale merchant of Whitehaven, Here also lie with her, her baby daughter and her African slave Jane.
Between 1700 and 1796, 47 black people (8 were female) were baptised, many as adults at St Nicholas Church in Whitehaven.  Some are referred to as being servants of named local people.

Cato Robinson was baptised in Whitehaven in Jan 1773 as an adult.  He was in the employ of Mr John Hartley.  By the time of his marriage to Mary Sharp in St James’s Church, Whitehaven in 1778, he had become a brewer.  His children, Mary and Joseph were baptised in Whitehaven in 1779 and 1781 respectively.  Cato died thirteen years after the birth of his son.  He was buried as a ‘Negro pauper’ in Workington in 1794.

On 11th November 1830, a petition was put to Parliament by the residents of Whitehaven. It read:
"to take the Subject of Slavery into their serious Consideration, and with all Expedition to adopt such Measures as may, with Safety to all concerned, put an End to it."
In 2007, to mark the historic Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was introduced into parliament by William Wilberforce, Whitehaven said sorry for its involvement. Councillor Geoff Blackwell from Copeland Borough Council said, "The port of Whitehaven had been used for slavery. Now with our enlightened age we can say sorry to all those families and people who were involved, transported to other countries to act as slaves."

The Whitehaven Slave Trade
The Whitehaven Slave Trade

TRENDING ON HERETOFORE

Jackie Sewell



ABOUT WHITEHAVEN
Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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