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The transatlantic slave trade: our city, its heritage and its people

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When drawing from academic work that traces forgotten histories we can learn much about Brighton’s past – but as we build a picture of the town 200 years ago we should strive for accuracy – and remember the extraordinary part played by its people.

Brighton was an abolition town. Archive copies of the Brighton Gazette and the Brighton Guardian offer a glimpse of the anti-slavery attitudes of its people.  In the 1820s and 30s it seems that the Old Ship Hotel on Ship Street hosted numerous public meetings on the issue of abolition. A short distance away at Friends Meeting House, Quakers hosted similar gatherings. George Faithfull, a non-conformist preacher at the Ship Street Chapel (later re-named Holy Trinity Church), was resolute in his anti-slavery campaigning. Propelling the abolitionist views was an 1824 pamphlet called ‘Immediate not Gradual Emancipation’ by Elizabeth Heyrick. Her call for a nationwide boycott on West Indian sugar had seen Brighton grocery stores lead the way by refusing to stock it. (1)

Reported in the Gazette for Tuesday 16th November 1830, at 6.30pm, (despite ‘the tempestuous state of the weather’), an anti-slavery public meeting took place at the Old Ship. It was agreed that a petition would be submitted to ‘the Legislature’ resolving slavery ‘as repugnant to justice, humanity and sound policy [and]  to the principles of the British constitution and to the spirit of the Christian religion’. (2) The meeting voted to form The Brighton Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and decided that demand in the town and its vicinity was sufficient for the formation of an anti-slavery ‘Ladies society’. Brighton grocer Isaac Bass had proposed the motion. (3)

As fascinating and uplifting as these historical snippets are, they feel eerily relevant to the city in 2020. Early in June, council leaders were quoted in the press suggesting the city was built on the profits of slavery. (4) Some stretched the historical record to imply Brighton and Hove’s Georgian buildings owe their very existence to the slave trade.  

The integrity of the historical record depends on facts. It is certainly a fact that in 1836 the British government began paying out £20m (about £16bn today) in compensation to 46,000 British slave owner claimants (or beneficiaries of slave owners listed in a will) as “recompense” for losing their “property”. Many had already grown rich on the profits of the trade and now grew obscenely richer as a consequence of abolition. Of those compensated, a search of the database set up by University of London (UCL) Legacies of British Slave-ownership project reveals 19 people – receiving a combined total of £153,422 (about £17m today) – as having an actual Brighton address. (5)It goes without saying that 19 out of 46,000 British nationals compensated is a tiny number. As for the wealth that ‘built’ Brighton, local historian Peter Crowhurst points out that there is no consensus amongst historians on the extent of the impact of slave trade profits on the British economy (6) (although there is no doubt that the nation’s increasing dependence on sugar and cotton meant the nation benefitted enormously from slavery). Certainly, the initial wave of Brighton’s development, which took place between 1790 and 1820, occurred too early to have benefited from any finance derived from the compensation payments. More broadly, if we were to trace the links between the nation’s historic buildings, the money that built them, the wealthy people that once lived or worked inside them and the capital accrued from Britain’s imperial conquests it would result in a crime-map covering the length and breadth of the land. (7)

In the case of Brighton’s links with any slavery profiteer developers, historians identify just one – a Mr J.B. Otto, who owned a West Indies plantation and built Kemp Town’s Royal Crescent across the years 1799 to 1801. Otto doesn’t appear on the UCL database (by 1836 he had either died or sold his interests). (8) However, academics at the University of Brighton (UOB) seem to imply a far greater complicity between the city’s built environment and the profits of West Indies slavery. Pondering the significance of the Royal Pavilion’s Orientalist architecture (and its architectural references throughout the city), the UOB academics argue that this ‘colonially derived exoticism’ obscures the wealth derived from slavery. This wealth, ‘extracted from the other side of the Atlantic’, also ‘congealed’, say the academics ‘in the city’s brick and flint’. Although their essay uncovers fascinating and moving stories (the sections on the 1831 Tortola rebellion and Brighton resident and plantation owner Caroline Anderson; on Elisabeth Heyrick, Isaac Bass and the Old Ship abolitionists make essential reading), (9): it offers no further detail on its ‘brick and flint’ assertion. This is a shame. The essay’s utilisation of the UCL database and its focus on Brighton is indeed the source of those comments made by council leaders in June. As such, the stance taken by council leaders was inaccurate and unnecessarily divisive. (10)      

Perhaps, in 2020, a more unifying message would be to note that living amidst a Georgian town (developed courtesy of a range of wealthy investors) were actual, living citizens who contributed heart and soul to the fight against slavery.  When they met – in the Old Ship, the Friends Meeting House, the Ship Street Chapel and in many other locations – they demonstrated the decency of ordinary people. Arguably it was Britain’s imperial interests that lay behind the abolition movement (by the early 1800s the slave trade was less important and so, through the role given to William Wilberforce, taking the moral high ground served those needs far better). (11) But in Brighton the radical mood appears far closer to Heyrick’s militant demand for immediate emancipation and influenced by the likes of former slave turned abolition campaigner Ottobah Cugoano. (12)

Some might say Brighton’s ‘Ship Street’ radicals were small in number – that, really, a more apt characterisation of the town would centre on wealthy slave traders and an indifferent or complicit mass of townsfolk (that, collectively, the city of today should be ashamed of its past). However, another historical snippet suggests such a characterisation would be wrong. On 13th of December 1832, the people of Brighton elected their own members of Parliament for the first time. In fact, the two MPs they elected were radicals; persons known to the town as holders of extremely liberal ideals. They supported, among other things, (13) the abolition of ‘unmerited pensions and sinecures’, the further widening of the right to vote and… (you guessed it), the abolition of slavery. (14) One was Isaac Newton Wigney, son of a local banker. The other was the non-conformist preacher of Ship Street, George Faithfull. (15)

In 1832 the right to vote was still highly limited. (16) Nonetheless, those who lent their vote to the anti-slavery, pro-democracy radicals Wigney and Faithfull were just the tip of the iceberg. It was a voter turnout that spearheaded the hunger for social justice and universal suffrage that would soon animate the Chartist period to come. For Brighton’s citizenry, the fact that Britain’s ruling elite had profited from slavery and now resisted extending the franchise to every man and woman was indeed repugnant. (17)

Reminding ourselves of any links Brighton had with the transatlantic slave trade is no bad thing. But too often the past is selectively plundered to make a political point (however well-intentioned that point might be). When tracing forgotten histories let’s be sure to tell the stories of everyday citizens who lived and worked here, who held extraordinarily liberal views for their time, and who campaigned tirelessly for the immediate abolition of slavery. (18)


Notes

1. This article has benefited greatly from content within an essay by academics at University of Brighton: Reparative histories: tracing narratives of black resistance and white entitlement. Dr Bergin and Dr Rupprecht’s essay can be accessed at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0306396818770853.  

Indicating that Brighton grocers were at the forefront of boycotts, Bergin and Rupprecht’s essay notes that Heyricks’s preface of her pamphlet included news of the Brighton grocers refusing to stock the sugar. See: Reparative Histories p34: ‘Heyrick’s incendiary pamphlet, written in the wake of the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, was prefaced with an advertisement informing readers that Brighton’s grocers were already refusing to sell West Indian sugar’.
2. Brighton Gazette, Nov 16th 1830: (also referred to in Bergin and Rupprecht’s essay).
3.  Many would argue that The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (and its earlier version) were a far cry from a principled crusade; See endnote 11 and, https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190491673.001.0001/acprof-9780190491673 

The son of grocer Isaac Bass (Isaac Gray Bass) later became Mayor of Brighton in 1856.  
4  ‘It is troubling that many of the city’s buildings exist because of that brutal trade’ (Cllr Platts, Argus 23rd June 2020). See: https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/18534029.column-future-brighton-relies-us-evaluating-past/, and ‘We must recognise that, as a Georgian town, our wealth and comfort is built on the sugar trade and enslavement’ (Cllr Appich, Argus 12th June 2020). See: https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/18515000.brighton-council-pledges-anti-racist-ahead-protests/ Arguably, Cllr Appich’s remark is part of a general confusion on these matters. The development of Georgian Brighton (1790-1820) has become muddled with the slave owner compensation payments of 1836-38.                                      

5. The Brighton Society spoke to local historian Peter Crowhurst. He traces the roots of Cllr’s Platts and Appich’s statements back to UOLs Bergin and Rupprecht essay. The essay stated ‘Perhaps it is unsurprising that a significant number of awardees of slave compensation lived in, or owned properties in, Brighton’ [my emphasis]. When checking UCLs database, Peter noted 19 slave owners/beneficiaries (who had a Brighton address rather than just ‘links’ with Brighton) who had received compensation (this number rises to 31 if we were to include individuals described as ‘of Brighton’ or those who were either trustees or mortgagees). In her Argus column, Cllr Platts mentions her shock at University of Brighton research stating ‘69 slave-owners and former slave-owners’ with address links to Brighton or Hove had ‘received substantial financial compensation on abolition of slavery in the 1830s’. Cllr Platts was quoting a university website news post. See: https://www.brighton.ac.uk/about-us/news-and-events/news/2019/01-23-tracing-brightons-forgotten-slave-owners.aspx

6.  The Brighton Society is grateful for the input of local historian Peter Crowhurst.
7.  On ‘capital accrued’ (from slave or wage slave labour exploitation) Marx said (in 1887) ‘If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek [then]capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. On the broader point, Nick Tyson raises interesting questions See: Regency Town House July 2020 newsletter article: ‘Change Is Needed Now: Exploitative profits underpin much of our entire City’s development’. On the matter of tracing Brighton’s links to the profits of all colonial exploitation and of removing certain effigies and street signs Nick Tyson says ‘if we start down this line where is the logical endpoint? What of the architectural ‘iconography’ that we’ve inherited from the past? Should we be considering the demolition of the historic terraces… ?’ [my emphasis] 
8. JB Otto is mentioned by Sue Berry in her acclaimed book ‘Georgian Brighton’ (p99).
9 ‘Reparative histories: Tracing narratives of black resistance and white entitlement’. Dr Bergin and Dr Rupprecht’s essay can be accessed at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0306396818770853. Rebellions in French Saint-Domingue (leading to the formation of Haiti) in 1795 and British Tortola (an unsuccessful rebellion in 1831) were of huge significance as Bergin and Rupprecht rightly point out.   
10. See endnote 4.
11. Even today, the prevailing narrative is often one in which slavery was abolished by Wilberforce. CLR James’s book The Black Jacobins points out the cold imperial/economic forces that discreetly sanctioned the official abolition movement. Importantly, James shows how the 13 years long rebellion of former slaves against French colonial rule on the West Indies island of Saint-Domingue was a game-changer.
12.  Ottobah Cugoano was an African abolitionist who was active in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Captured and sold into slavery at the age of 13 in present-day Ghana, he was shipped to Grenada.
13.  ‘Faithfull, the more radical of the two, also wanted to disband the army and slash the amount spent on the Civil List’. See: https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2012/12/13/brightons-first-mps/

It is important to note that, as radical as he was, Faithfull’s many supporters were disappointed at how, in the 1840s, his views swung to a conservative outlook on the question of female suffrage. See: https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/mp-of-the-month-george-faithfull/
14.  Abolition, not of the trade – which had been abolished in 1802, but of slavery itself.
15.  See: https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2012/12/13/brightons-first-mps/

16.  The decisive shunt forward came in 1918 when all men over the age of 21 and all women over the age of 30 (with property) were given a say.
17.  A Note: At this point in the 19th century ruling elite notions of ‘race’ were shaped by attitudes toward social status, hence (for example) slaves taken from Africa and the unwashed poor of east London were both depicted as ‘a race apart’ (see: https://www.newstatesman.com/node/153394). The title of Bergin and Rupprecht’s essay indicates a more ‘black and white’ perspective of the 1830s.
18.   The Brighton grocer Isaac Bass went on to attend the world Anti Slavery Convention in 1840.


 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. good read : i am reading “ship of death” by Billy Smith currently = though no link directly with brighton, it does discuss the altruistic endeavours in 1792 to start a slave-free colony Bolama off Guinea-Bissau

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  3. This is a superb article and very welcome. I’m especially pleased to see that it draws on Peter Crowhurst’s forensic analysis of the UCL database. The UCL database is a valuable resource but it needs to be used with care. UCL is at pains to point out that the database INCLUDES slave owners, it does not consist solely of slave owners. Moreover, the vast majority of the Brighton connections identified in the database relate only to the Victorian period. The database itself provides no evidence of slavers’ involvement in Brighton’s Georgian development.
    That doesn’t mean there were no slavers involved in Brighton’s Georgian development, it means that, aside from J. B. Otto, we don’t know if there were. So it is surprising that Brighton & Hove council’s website states: “We must recognise that as a Georgian town our wealth and comfort is built on the sugar trade and enslavement…..We can’t be blinkered to the fact that moving around the city our BME residents see memorials to historic racism and oppression.”
    Brighton historians have never been shy of decribing the backgrounds of the people involved in the town’s development. That, after all, is how we know about Otto (who in some sources is described as a ‘West Indian merchant’ rather than a plantation owner).
    History is never complete: new sources of information constantly emerge. Some unpleasant truths about Brighton and Hove’s history may yet be uncovered. But in the meantime we must draw a clear distinction between fact and supposition.

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