Honiton history: What has the slave trade to do with us?
PUBLISHED: 17:00 05 May 2017
Over the last 10 years, Tony Simpson has been researching East Devon's links with the slave trade, which was abolished in 1807.
‘What has slavery to do with us?’ asked the woman in a Honiton coffee shop looking at a £2 commemorative coin in her change.
It was 2007 and the commemorative coin marked the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Her question set me thinking; I began collecting evidence and received many invitations to discuss slavery with local organisations in Honiton and East Devon, who contributed more than £600 to free people from modern slavery.
The British slave trade began in Devon with the slaving voyages of Sir John Hawkins, of Plymouth, in 1562. Historian Todd Gray records several dozen slave ships set off from Devon ports in the 17th and 18th centuries before the trade became centred on Liverpool and Bristol. There are records of slave owners and slaves at Devon Record Office (Heritage Centre) from 1619 including a ‘black boy’ at Blundells School, Tiverton, and the burial of ‘Katheren the blackamoor servant of Sir William Pole’ of Shute. The Poles represented Honiton in Parliament during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
Later, generations of Devon plantation owners enjoyed huge profits from slave-produced cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and cotton. This enabled many of them and their families to enjoy an enviable lifestyle, fine houses and estates until slavery was abolished in 1833. Up to 80 plantation owners or their heirs with Devon links were compensated for the loss of thousands of slaves from a Treasury fund of £20million. The slaves received nothing. Claims poured in from Honiton, Ottery St Mary, Budleigh Salterton, Cullompton and other places in East Devon. Some involved distinguished locals.
Hugh Duncan Bailee, Conservative MP for Honiton between 1835-1847 would have had no difficulty paying for his Parliamentary seat. Bailee and his brother claimed over £40,000 for the loss of 1600 slaves on 17 plantations in the Caribbean and British Guinea. Sir William Pole claimed £5,296 with his business partner Henry Compton, in compensation from the Government for the loss of 340 slaves on two plantations on St Kitts. When Bishop Henry Philpott consecrated St Paul’s Church, in Honiton, in 1838, he and three partners claimed £12,729 for 665 slaves in Jamaica, though the plantations may have belonged to his late brother.
Prior to a meeting in a chapel near Bicton Park, I learned that John Rolle, who became Lord Rolle of Stevenstone and Bicton, the most extensive landed property in Devon, received £4,333 for 377 slaves. This was the largest slave holding on the Bahamas which became known as Rollestown. I addressed several meetings in Sidmouth where, in 1832, the poet Elisabeth Barratt Browning was living when she wrote several anti-slavery poems. Her family were West Indian Slavers who had owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. Emmanuel Lousada, a wealthy Sidmouth entrepreneur and High Sheriff for Devon who built High Peak House and Connaught Gardens, received almost £7,000 for the freedom of 334 slaves on plantations in Jamaica and Barbados.
At a Women’s Institute branch at Axmouth, I visited the local church which has ‘an imposing edifice (which) dominates the interior... to the memory of Richard Hallett of Stedcombe House who prospered from the sugar trade in Barbados’. I suggested the church alter the description to record that Hallett was a slave owner who in 1699 brought back slaves to serve at Stedcombe including Ando and Martha. He also left £100 to ‘my daughter Katherine to be laid out in negroes for her’ and a steel collar for a child.
There were large claims from the relatives of plantation owners including women. Caroline Robley, from Tiverton, was the widow of a planter who owned more than 1,600 slaves on plantations in St Vincent and Tobago. She was left compensation of more than £34,000. The largest claim I came across was that of Thomas and Henry Porter, of Rockbeare, – the sons of another High Sheriff of Devon - who shared £55,000 for the loss of more than 1,000 slaves in British Guiana. That is equivalent to over £4million today.
After the founding of the Campaign for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, there were anti-slavery meetings and petitions in Exeter and many Devon towns including Honiton, Tiverton and Cullompton. In March 1792 a petition to the House of Commons, signed by Honiton’s Portreeve and a hundred locals, referred to ‘that most horrible traffic in human flesh... and bloodshed, cruelty and oppression, than has ever at any period of history stained the annals of human events’.
We still use the use the term ‘traffic’ to discuss the trade in various forms of slavery today which is estimated to affect more than 25 million people. A resolution passed by Devon County Council ‘acknowledges the historical involvement of Devon, its ports , its people, its landowners and industries in the Atlantic Slave Trade (and) opposes all forms of contemporary slavery and exploitation’. At a conference at Sandy Park in 2015, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police Shaun Sawyer said “Modern slavery, in all its forms, is a hidden crime: recent government research estimates between 10,000 - 13,000 potential victims in the UK.”
He added: “Modern slavery is happening in Devon ...in our fields, factories, towns, homes or economic supply chains.”
At Honiton museum, there is a rough made wooden plaque once attached to a house in New Street with the words ‘Sturge Anti Slavery Depot’ on it. Joseph Sturge was a prominent grain merchant who founded the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society in 1839, the forerunner of today’s Anti Slavery International (ASI) which recently campaigned successfully for the Modern Slavery Act. It appears that over two centuries ago Honitonians not only campaigned against the British slave trade but were also involved in the campaign to end slavery throughout the world.