Penrhyn Castle. Photograph © Tom Hostler
Much of the social life of Western Europe in the 18th century depended on the products of slave labour. In homes and coffee houses, people met over coffee, chocolate or tea, sweetened with Caribbean sugar. They wore clothes made from American cotton and smoked pipes filled with Virginian tobacco. They used furniture made from mahogany and other tropical woods.
Although the profit and loss on individual voyages could vary, many merchants and investors made fortunes from the trade. Many landowners also had estates in the Caribbean, which provided them with large incomes. Though historians disagree about the extent, the profits of slavery and slaving stimulated European economic growth and the growth of capitalism. In particular, the demand for goods to trade in Africa and the goods, particularly cotton, brought back from the Americas encouraged trade and industry in the Midlands and North-West England, the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
The income from slavery and the slave trade made many people wealthy. They built large houses and were able to invest in a wide range of activities, including banking and industry, as well as supporting charitable institutions. Here are a few examples.
The Gladstones in Liverpool
The Gladstone family had strong connections with slavery. John Gladstone (1764-1851), had large estates in Jamaica and British Guyana and was Chairman of the West India Association. John Gladstone was active in obtaining compensation for slave owners and himself received 93,526.
Penrhyn Castle near Bangor in North Wales was built for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant. He was a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner who lived in Britain. Penrhyn was designed by Thomas Hopper in 1827 as a vast Neo-Norman castle. It is now owned by the National Trust.
Lady Home in London
Elizabeth Countess of Home was the daughter and heiress of a Jamaican plantation owner. Her first husband died in 1732 and she moved to England and married William, 8th Earl of Home, in 1742. She was a leading member of London society and in 1774 commissioned Robert Adam, the most fashionable architect of the time, to design a house for her in Portman Square. It was one of the grandest houses in London.
Amongst her neighbours in Portman Square were many wealthy people who had profited from slavery including William Beckford, Erle Drax, Lord Maynard and Sir Peter Parker. Admiral Rodney, an opponent of abolition, was another neighbour.
Thomas Leyland in Liverpool
Thomas Leyland founded the Bank of Leyland and Bullin in 1807. Originally a dealer in food stuffs, he was one of the most active Liverpool slave merchants. Between 1782 and 1807 he was responsible for transporting nearly 3,500 Africans to Jamaica alone. His partner, Bullin, was also a slave trader.
Leyland was reckoned to be one of the three wealthiest men in Liverpool and in 1826 his fortune amounted to 736,531. Leyland and Bullin's Bank was absorbed by the North and South Wales Bank in 1901 and became part of the Midland Bank (now HSBC) in 1908.
Many of the investors and promoters of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway derived much of their wealth from property in the West Indies. These included:
- John Moss, chairman of the committee promoting the railway and later deputy chairman of the company, owned vast sugar plantations in Demerara
- John Gladstone had large estates in Jamaica and British Guyana and received large compensation when slavery was abolished
- General Sir Isaac Gascoyne, MP for Liverpool, 1796-1832, was one of most outspoken opponents of the abolition of the slave trade
Richard Pennant, later Lord Penrhyn, inherited the largest estate in Jamaica. He devoted much of the profits of his plantations to developing the slate quarries of North Wales. He was MP for Liverpool 1767-80 and 1784-90 and spoke forcibly against the campaign to abolish the slave trade.
The Bluecoat Chambers
The Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool was originally built as a charity school in 1717. It was 'Dedicated to the promotion of Christian Charity and the training of boys in the principles of the Anglican Church.' The chief supporter of the scheme was Bryan Blundell, who had founded the school in 1708.
Blundell was involved in the Virginian tobacco trade, but was also listed amongst the 'Company of Merchants trading to Africa' in 1752. He also transported poor English people to work as indentured labourers in the North American colonies. Blundell was Mayor of Liverpool in 1721.