Surrey in the West Indies
Early Black Surrey residents such as Cesar Picton and John Springfield never experienced the life of a slave on West Indian plantations, but, up until the mid-19th century, many Black people found themselves in Britain through being enslaved, via their ‘owner’ or employer, from estates in the West Indies or North America.
Picton and Springfield partly owe their successful establishment in the community to the fact that they were never enslaved. There was no question over their freedom and service to a master was not necessarily the most natural choice of employment for them in Britain, as it was for many of the Black people who had been brought by sea from the West Indian plantations to yet another foreign country.
The West Indies were colonised by a number of fleets from Europe, namely the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires. It was no longer a question of exploration and discovery of the New World but of cultivating the land, competing with other empires and making land one’s own.
The manuscripts of the journal of John Taylor, a ship’s clerk from the Isle of Wight, describe the abundance and diversity of fauna and flora in Jamaica in the 17th century; many animals were not native but were brought by the Spaniards in previous years. The islands changed hands a number of times and saw many settlers, keen to cultivate the land for exotic crops, like cane sugar, ginger, tobacco, and dyes.
Barbados, Jamaica, Bermuda, Montserrat, Grenada and other smaller territories were colonised by the British, and there were a number of British plantations built in the North American continent, though the Wars of Independence (1775-83) took them out of British hands.
Slavery was already customary on the African continent before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, but its nature changed when the Portuguese and, later, the Dutch, Spanish, French and British became involved. Slaves were displaced by huge distances and the imperial forces of the European powers intentionally changed the cultural landscape of Africa to create trade opportunities that might suit them.
Like the Dutch colonials in the East Indies, the Europeans hoped to accustom the African continent to European dress, metals and other commodities, so that they could profit once the indigenous people were dependent on them and their products. In particular, new mining techniques were brought to the copper and gold mines of North Africa, along with steam-powered ships to the trade on the continent’s longer and more navigable rivers.
The search for rivers which could take cargo ships long distances into the continental mainland was also the pretext for David Livingstone and his 1858 expedition. This was funded by the British government, though Livingstone’s real encouragement was bringing an end to the slave trade which cursed so many people.
It seems that the purpose of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was profit-driven and to keep up with the many economic rivals in Europe. At the approach of the industrial era it became more and more important to voice a claim to economic strength and independence, but slavery brought moral issues to the fore in an age during which Britain was arguably preoccupied with profit and competing with her neighbours.
The Surrey situation
Records relating to Surrey at this time give us an insight, not only into the impact made by the presence of Black people in Britain, but also into the consideration given to the enslaved ‘negroes’ hundreds of miles away. The events in Africa and the West Indies were the source of discussion, disagreement and dissent in many areas of society.
Some protected slavery whilst others were far less comfortable with it; both sides had their reasons. Corners of the British Empire like the West Indian colonies and the Britain’s African occupations were of consideration to international traders, land-owners and religious reformers alike; it is difficult to say who was interested first.
The wider story of Black people in Britain would not be complete without an account of local opinion on the abolition of slavery. As for Surrey, the well-known Surrey estates housed many upper-class landowners who capitalised on the trend for growing sugar and tobacco among other resources in the West Indies. Many had political connections, and their well-documented life stories form an important part of the history of British West Indian exploits.
Land in the West Indies was hard to come by, Sir Poynings More Bt of Loseley was informed in an undated mid 17th century report (SHC ref LM/2022). Poynings More was the MP for Haslemere and Guildford, and an ancestor of the present More-Molyneux family of Loseley Park, near Guildford. The report, forecasting costs and profits of setting up a plantation venture in Barbados, lists among the capital costs a sum of £880 for ‘the buying in’ of 40 Black slaves ‘at 22£ [Pounds] each’, for the harsh labour of clearing an 150 acre site of large timber trees ready for the plantation of sugar, cotton, ginger, pepper and indigo. African enslaved labour could be hired from Dutch traders at this period, when tracts of the island were still ‘unfallen’. The report advises that 30 acres could grow timber and 40 acres could be for livestock, with an estimated that it would cost £2600 (Pounds) over three years before any profit would be made.
Sir Poynings More of Loseley may well have been the recipient of the report, held in the Loseley Manuscripts collection at Surrey History Centre, but there is no evidence that he undertook an investment, which would have been an enormously costly enterprise.
Sources at Surrey History Centre:
Account of Captain Robert Matthew’s 1698 commission to Guinea and Montserrat (SHC ref LM/1324/16-20 part of an archival subseries ‘Executorships possibly carried out by Thomas Molyneux’ (E.10.5)).
A report on plantations in Barbados, nd [17th century] (SHC ref LM/2022). Download a pdf () copy of a transcript of the report.
A copy of Malachy Postlethwayt’s 1758 tract, ‘The Importance of the African Expedition Considered’ in the Loseley collection (SHC ref LM/2127).
Laver, Ann, Sugar, Slaves & Surrey (Dissertation, Guildford: University of Surrey, 2001).
Postlethwayt, Macaulay, The Importance of the African Expedition Considered (London: ‘printed by C. Sey in Newgate St. and sold by M. Cooper in Pater-Noster Row, 1758’). (SHC ref: LM/2127).
Macdonald, Roderick A., West Indies Accounts (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies, 1996).