Henry Goulburn’s Jamaican Estate
Henry Goulburn was one of Surrey’s plantation owners and an important figure in many ways. He purchased the Betchworth Estate (including East Betchworth Manor, near Dorking) in 1816, requiring a seat near London for his Parliamentary duties. He became a Member of Parliament in 1808, and was appointed under-secretary for war and colonies in 1812, commissioner for peace negotiations with the United States in 1814 and was Chancellor of the Exchequer during 1828-30 and again in 1841-46.
Much of Goulburn’s political correspondence, with the Prime Ministers and other politicians of his time in particular, is held by the Surrey History Centre (under the reference 304). Fortunately, the correspondence with his plantation in Jamaica exists too, including the records of the supplies required from Britain and reports on the condition of the estate, such as lists of the numbers and names of slaves. In 1825, there were 254 slaves; in 1839 – five years after abolition came into effect – the journal records both the names and the rate of pay of all of the newly-freed ‘negroes’. There were 232 in total; most of them were cane-cutters employed at 2/6 a day.
The reason that so many of letters still survive among Goulburn’s papers is that they were extensively copied and drafted, so that no information would be lost, whatever happened during the long and often risky transit between Jamaica and Britain.
Along with the Betchworth Estate, Goulburn’s properties included a plantation on the island of Jamaica, called Amity Hall, in the parish of Vere (upon colonisation in 1655 Jamaica was split into parishes), until the plantation was sold in 1861 by Henry’s eldest surviving son, Edward.
Like many of the British owners of West Indian plantations – around a third in 1774 – Goulburn was an absentee owner and never actually visited his plot of over 2,000 acres. In common with many British entrepreneurs and landowners, Goulburn also had agents and attorneys on site in one or more British colonies to manage the slaves, but being an absentee owner was not ideal for many reasons.
When Henry’s sent his brother to inspect the plantation on his behalf, the feedback he received led Amity Hall to a change of management in 1818. Goulburn was not happy with the previous manager Thomas Samson who had a reputation for cruelty and severity. Goulburn explained to Samson that he has been dissatisfied with his inhumane treatment of the slaves, in a letter written from Downing Street on 1st June, 1818 (a copy of the letter is held at Surrey History Centre, SHC Ref. 304/J/1/19/77).
By contrast to Charles Long and James Scarlett, Henry Goulburn’s absent approach led him to problems. However, some of his correspondence reveals iother issues. During the run-up to the General Elections in 1826 and 1831, with Goulburn bidding to be elected to the Cambridge University seat in Parliament, revelations about Goulburn’s human property became public. This was a real point of disrepute for the Cambridge students, many of whom were strongly opposed to slavery, and undoubtedly contributed to Goulburn’s loss of the election.
Henry Goulburn’s plantation proved a huge blight on his career when well-known abolitionist Zachary Macaulay, of Clapham, wrote to the President of Queens’ College, Cambridge and published articles exposing his possession of slaves and their alleged harsh treatment. He also circulated letters widely in Cambridge, even among the University Senate.
Goulburn communicated irritably with Macaulay himself and confronted him about the sources behind allegations but it was a case of Goulburn relying on his critics for a true picture of matters on his Jamaican estates. His humanitarian concerns for the well-being of his slaves were of no use if there was an ocean between them.
Anonymous letters from an apparent witness accused Goulburn of neglecting the religious education and instruction of the slaves (SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/2/1-6; -/24). So Goulburn wrote to both the Bishop of Jamaica and the Reverend John Smith. The letters drew attention to some problems on the plantation, but they dispelled the rumours that Goulburn’s slaves lacked good religious teaching: ‘I have to express my satisfaction at the progress made by your negroes when I visited the parish,’ wrote the Bishop of Jamaica to Goulburn on 19th March, 1832, referring to one of the many inspections he personally made of both children and adults to check on their progress in learning the catechism and prayers (for the bishop’s letters, see SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/42-4).
These fascinating letters reveal that the bishop had worries of a different kind. They were written during the Jamaican uprising, and reading the bishop’s words of caution and unhappiness on the subject of the uprising is extraordinary. Though the state of Christian instruction at Amity Hall was good, the bishop mentions ‘one desperate character’ called Roger, who he recommends expelling from the parish, calling him ‘utterly irreclaimable’ (9th February 1832). Perhaps he was one of the more vocal rebels?
According to another letter (19th March 1832), the parish of Vere ‘fortunately escaped the late Insurrection’ but the Bishop laments ‘the present state of fearful excitement and Imitation in the colony & the violent manner in which this long-agitated question is discussed in England’.
On 7th April 1832, the Bishop further writes, ‘The present convulsed & excited state of this colony in consequence of recent events makes it very difficult for the minister of religion to do his duty… violent discussion of this subject in England always produces bad effects here & lends only to impede the progress of that civilisation which, to be secure, must be gradual, consistent with the safety & preservation of these islands.’ Finally, in a warning directed straight to Goulburn, ‘We labor under many disadvantages from the total absence of proprietors’.
Financially the Amity Hall plantation was not as profitable as Henry Goulburn had hoped, and he had discussed the possibility of selling it with his representatives in Jamaica. According to the Goulburn papers (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/21/6) Amity Hall was growing less and less profitable by the year. In the period 1811-18 the income derived from the plantation was £6715, but in the period 1819-25 that shrank to only £2606. Perhaps Goulburn’s estate was suffering from a downturn in the productivity of his slaves since the abolition of the trade in 1807?
Want to learn more in vivid detail about Henry Goulburn’s problems while running his Jamaican estate? Click here to learn more about issues to do with slavery in the West Indies and at Amity Hall.
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
Rev. J.W. Cunningham to Henry Goulburn, 1831 (SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/16/1-2; 304/A1/2/8/20/1-2).
Correspondence between Zachary Macaulay and Henry Goulburn, 1831 (SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/2/1-6; 304/A1/2/8/24).
Correspondence between Henry Goulburn and the Bishop of Jamaica, 1831-2 (SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/41; -/43; -/44; -/46).
Correspondence between Henry Goulburn and Rev. J. Smith, 1831-2 (SHC Ref. 304/A1/2/8/42; -/44; -/45).
Correspondence between Henry Goulburn and George Elridge concerning sale of Amity Hall Estate, Jamaica (SHC Ref. 304/J/Box1).
Correspondence relating to former attorney Thomas Samson during his period in England: between Samson’s deputy, George Elridge and Henry Goulburn, 1816-7 (SHC Ref. 304/J/Box7).
Entitled ‘Sugar produced & Income derived from Amity Hall Estate in the following years:’ (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/21/6).
Bimonthly Journal of Labour on Amity Hall Estate, 1825-31: includes lists of Negro slaves and calculations of sugar production and profit (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/23/1-17).
Bimonthly Journal of Labour on Amity Hall Estate, 1833-7 (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/24/1-126).
Journal of Labour on Amity Hall Estate, from 1839, now including payment schedule (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/25/1-67).
Journal of Labour on Amity Hall Estate, July 1839, counting 232 labourers (SHC Ref. 304/J/1/25/59).
R.J. Warner’s letters from HMS FAWN offshore at Port Royal describing the uprising in Jamaica, 1864-5 (SHC Ref. 1487/161/1-3).
Details of Henry Goulburn’s Jamaican estates can be found in the records of the Slave Compensation Commission, see his entry on the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership website.