Monthly talk: Dr Todd Gray – Devon and slave plantations

Our speaker at the November monthly meeting attracted what was probably our largest ever attendance of 56, including eight potential new members.  They were richly rewarded for their decision to venture out on a day of very uncertain weather.

Dr Todd Gray MBE is a distinguished historian of Devon with a long list of publications often focusing on what he described as ‘history that hurts’, researching into uncomfortable subjects which can challenge his readers.  His recent books include Blackshirts in Devon, Looting in Wartime Britain and Not One of Us.

He began by giving some background to the reasons for his research, which began more than thirty years ago, into this topic.  He was first encouraged to engage in research on this topic by Maya Angelou.  Slavery is an emotive subject which can polarise opinions.  Dr Gray has often had a hostile reception when he has challenged strongly held views.  He related instances when he ventured to question the evidence on which various assertions were based, and encountered abuse.  This was the case following the publication of his book Devon’s Last Slave Owners.  Hostility can come from those who tend to play down the atrocities of the slave plantations or prefer to focus on the enslavement of white people, while others assert the need to acknowledge ‘white guilt’ and argue that Devon played a leading role in the slave trade.  He maintains that his aim is purely to consider the evidence and to encourage people to think rather than to proclaim ‘truth’.  One of his main assertions is that conclusions should be made after the evidence is examined, not beforehand.

Dr Gray outlined some of the bold assertions about Devon’s relationship with slavery.  As examples, it is claimed by some that Devon was responsible for more slave voyages than any other county, that slaves were sold on all the quays of Devon, and that wealth from slave plantations funded the building of many of the great country houses across the county.  His talk cast light on some of these but there is scope for much more research yet.

History is far more complicated and interesting than many realise.  Todd discussed the history of a mixed race woman living in Dawlish who owned slaves in the Caribbean.  The England cricketer Devon Malcolm has his name because many owners of enslaved people named them after a place or a day of the week, adding to the dehumanisation of men and women which was inherent in slavery, and so these names became part of the tradition.

The first evidence of a black person (from India in this instance) in Devon is recorded in 1484 in Dartmouth.  Over the years, parish registers record black people in many ways such as ‘negro’ or ‘blackamore’.  They are often described as ‘servants’ but precisely what this status meant is unclear: were they ‘free’ and able to change their employer, or were they ‘slaves’?  It is impossible to know.

The records show that Devon ports accounted for just 0.3% of all the 12,000 recorded voyages of ships carrying enslaved people between Africa and the Americas, and there is no evidence of any people being sold as slaves on Devon’s quaysides.  None of this takes away from the reality of slavery but should alter the perceptions of this county’s role in that trade in people.

An often overlooked aspect of Devon’s role in the much broader picture of slavery is the large number of Devonians who were taken into slavery in North Africa by ‘barbary pirates’.  The raids on our coastal communities were a major concern to local people and authorities from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  Over that period, it is estimated that 1.25 million white people from Europe were enslaved, with possibly 20,000 coming from Devon.  In a similar period, it is estimated that between 10 and 16 million African people were enslaved.

Rather than growing rich from trading the ‘commodity’ of enslaved people, Devon’s wealth in this period comes overwhelmingly from the cloth trade, and sales were nearly all to Europe rather than the Americas as is sometimes asserted.  There was certainly trade in products (rum, sugar, cotton) which originate substantially from the labour of enslaved people in the plantations.  And there were also cargoes of such products which found their way to Devon ports after being captured from French or Spanish ships by privateers.

There continues to be much controversy over the way in which slavery was made illegal in British controlled territories.  The 1833 Act provided for vast sums of compensation to be paid to the owners of slaves – but none to the enslaved people themselves.  Of the 34,000 owners who received compensation, 34 were resident in this county.  Of those 34, just three received 51% of the total awarded.  Lord Rolle was a major beneficiary.  (His story is a fascinating tale in its own right but space does not allow for it to be told here!)

One ‘post script’ to this tale may resonate with many of us today.  While there appears to have been relatively few Devon residents who owned enslaved people before 1833, following abolition, the beneficiaries of compensation and their heirs, seem to have moved to live in this area in significant numbers, bringing their wealth derived from slave ownership with them.  They bought property with sea views and enjoyed the good climate and lifestyle.  This was the case for Sidmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Exmouth – and Dawlish.

Dr Gray reminded us that slavery continues to be a pressing issue in our society – including in Devon.   Modern slavery takes many forms and is often hidden in plain sight.  It is beyond question that the trade and exploitation of enslaved people between Africa, Europe and the Americas was morally abhorrent and on a vast, industrial scale, but world history has many other examples of slavery – in the Roman empire, of indigenous peoples in the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas, in many African societies, Nazi exploitation based on race, Soviet labour camps and the UN’s estimate of one million Uighur Muslims being forcibly detained in China’s labour camps today.

All that Dr Gray had to say demonstrates how important the study of history is to our society, and that we should never shy away from careful and objective examination of the evidence.

John Vick