James Ledekin’s description of the Bahamas

[2018: images from the “Thank You For Your Letter” project have been deleted to make space for new posts.  The images have been retained within Derbyshire County Council’s internal records system so that we may re-use them in the future.]
D37 M/H 20/14: Beaumont, Long Island, Bahamas

Mr Holland,

Sir I make no doubt yow was surprised at the steps I have taken, in leaving England for the Bahamas.  Indeed it was a thing unthought of untill I arrived in London; where I meet with a fri[e]nd of my cousins the honourable Mr Tattnall survayour general of the Bahamas, he made me proposals much superior to anything I was likely to meet with in England.  I left Portsmouth the 23rd February and arrived safe at Nassau in New Providence the 8th of April, after a very pleasant vo[y]age. I am now on one of the Bahamaine islands called Long Island about 60 leagues to the south of the Providence in 23 degrees north latitude just within the Tored Zone[1] so that by the time yow rec[e]ive this the sun would have been vertical. It is very hot but I have the pleasure to say that it so far agrees with me very well not having made one days illness since I came into the warm climate. The estate I live upon is called Beaumont [and] consists of a tract of land of 1200 acres, 200 of which is now cultivated with cotton and corn for provisions. My selling is to be one fifth of the clear profit which if it proves good crops will far exceed anything I could have got at home as a servant. The last yeare was said to make a very bad crope and yet the estate will cleare about £700.  In good years it will nearly double that.  I have also the liberty of putting what number of Negroes on the plantation I please and receive equal shares for them.  The country not cleared for cotton has the appearance of a much overgrown shrubbery consisting of many thousands of different trees and plants.  The land when cleared is full of rocks and caves, which any European at first would reasonably suppose incapable of bearing anything, but it is much the reverse of that. Where most rocky it produces most cotton and vegetation is so varied yow would think the place inchanted.

Land is the only thing that may be cheap. The best not above 3 guineas[2] per acre and there is various instances of such land the firs[t] year yow cleare it, for yow can have a crop the same year  producing £150 for every 10 acres. From that yow can easily see that if I had a cappitall of £1000 to begin with in six years tim[e] I should be able  to rais[e] a cappitall fortune.  There are severall that have don[e] that hence and now lives in England and have there [sic: their] plantations in the hands of proper agents .Most of the whit[e] people here are from America having removed at the beginning of the wars. They are all upon the same feeling  with regard to visiting or keeping company, provided they are of unexceptionable character, but if once tainted they are not looked upon any more.  The Blacks are all slaves principally from the coast of Guiany[3] who real[l]y lives comfortable if it is not there [sic] own fa[u]lt. At least min[e] have little neat hutts plastered on the out and in side with a plaster floare tha[t]ched with palmetto.  Their living is from the store one quart of Indian or Guiani corn[4] per day, which is as much as any person has occation for for bread indeed it is what I use myself and find that one quart makes me as much bread as I can eat and a pud[d]ing for dinner besid[e]s.  They have ground alowd them to raise what froots and vegitables they please and the liberty of reasing hoges[5] and poultry as many as they please and I doe asure yow that min[e] are well stock[e]d, they sell a great many and purchas[e] suger, tea, rum &c. I doe real[l]y think that their situation is much superiour to the poore in England at this present time.  Their work is generally don[e] by the task which in felling wood, cut[t]ing down cotton and weeding is 105 square feet which they always have finished by three, often befor[e] 2 o’clock in the afternoon. After that their time is total[l]y their own to doe what they please only they must not goe of[f] the plantation without leave asked and a permit given that clears them to the place they go.

Their clothing is 2 shuits per yeare such as are adapted for the climate. The house I live in is situated in a more romantick place than that of Sir Richard Awckwright[6] being built on an eminance whence I see the different rises and falls of the hills and dales cover[e]d with wood and besprinkled with plantations that has the most romantick appearance, besides my plantation goes to the shore on the north & south. Their [sic] I can have fish in great quantitys and many different sorts that I doe not know, neither doe I think they are anywhere discribed. There is also pineap[p]les grown anywhere if put into the grownd, cocoa nuts, al[l]igator pear, prickly d[itt]o [i.e. prickly pear] stare apples[7], gualvaes[8] and the fruit bearing pashion flow[e]r. There is also gum guiacum[9] socratin allows[10] caster nut and the thousands of other plants too tedious to menchon.  This island is much more health full than theWest Indies. The yellow fivare is not yet known here.  It is almost impossible it should be unhealthfull as the island is not above 8 or 9 mil[e]s broad in any part and about 100 longe so that we are clos[e]ly surrounded with the sea, and have the trade wind constantly blowing from east to west. My nephew James Thorpe is still at Mr Morewoods. I should esteem it a great favour if yow will be so kind as to give him yowr good councel occasionally as he is now, poare fellow, left without a monitor.  Should I settle here it is most probable I shall bring him also indeed I am offer[e]d 50 guine[a]s per year for him now to overlook a plantation, and the gentleman would instruct him himself.  But I first intend to settle myself and see how the climeat agrees with me before I send for him. Should he be with Mr Morewood at that tim[e], I hope they will not take it ill my sending for him when they see it is so much for his advantage. Their kindness to him I shall ever most greatfully acknowlege.

I should think here was a large field oppen for such a gentleman as Mr Auckwright, to have an agint to purchas[e] cotton for him here, the avrige price here this year is 1/6 per lb[11].  Was [he] to enter into the method of importing his own C[otton] [an]d sending out goods such as are fit for this trade I am certain he would make cent per cent [i.e. 100%] or even the settling a plantation here which to him would be nothing.  He would then earn at this cotton for 1/4th of what he must pay now.  I shall be very happy to have a few lines from yow direct for me at the Revd Mr Rennies, No3, Conway Street, Fitzroy Square, London and he will forward it.  I shall take the liberty of addressing a few lines to yow by the next conveyance.  My duty to Mrs Holland, Mr and Mrs Lockett, Miss Bilbie and all friends.  And believe me dear sir that I remain with due respect yowr much oblidged humble serv[an]t

Ja[me]s. Ledekin

Beaumonton Long Island
May 12th 1796

[1] TheTorrid Zone is an old term for the Tropical Zone, meaning any area where the sun comes directly overhead at some point (hence Ledekin’s reference to the sun being vertical).

[2] Here, “guinea” is used as a sum of money.  One guinea = one pound and one shilling (£1.05 in decimal currency).

[3] In this case,Guinea, referring not only to the modern-day republic of that name, but to a long strip of the West African coast, roughly fromSierra Leone toBenin.

[4] i.e. maize (sweetcorn) or guinea corn (sometimes called Indian millet).

[5] Hogs, i.e. pigs.

[6] Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) was one of the major industrialists of the eighteenth century, founding several mills in Derbyshire, including the world’s first water-powered cotton mill in Cromford.

[7] Star apples.

[8] Guavas.

[9] A genus of shrub, the gum of which was used to treat syphilis.

[10] i.e. the tree Aloe Socotrina, a plant with medicinal uses.

[11] i.e. £1 and 6 shillings per pound in weight (£2.86 per kilogram, in metric units).

5 thoughts on “James Ledekin’s description of the Bahamas

  1. It should be noted that this letter is NOT dated 1776! That needs to be removed and replaced with the proper date, which is probably 1796 (?)…. Ledekin speaks of American Loyalists, so it has to be after 1783/4.

    • Oh, well spotted. I have to hold my hand up to that one, I have simply mis-transcribed it. I just checked the original and can confirm that it is 1796, not 1776. The 9 is a bit splodged, and suffering from the intrusion of the “y” in “your” as Ledekin signs off, so it does look very much like a 7. As is so often the case with archives, a good understanding of the historical context leads to a better understanding of the content, so I am grateful to you for that. I have edited the post. I then went to edit the catalogue entry, only to find that it is correctly dated as 1796 on the catalogue. (Another archival principle broken – always check the catalogue carefully before you start!)

  2. I have been trying to find some records of African Servants in Derbyshire during Slavery times. I feel sure there must be some records, I have yet to find them though. Can you help?

    • Hi. That’s an interesting topic. You are of course right that there were African servants at work in Derbyshire, but tracing associated records may be tricky. The trouble is with records relating to domestic servants of any ethnicity, that although an affluent household would have had a need to keep a record of all kinds of expenditure including labour costs, there often wasn’t any perceived need to retain those records beyond their immediate use. Other types of record would have been differently handled: if a bundle of deeds went missing, for instance, or if a manor court roll went missing, the legal and logistical consequences could be disastrous – the same couldn’t be said for a list of servants. There was nothing resembling modern employment law, so far less of the red tape that has so often captured people’s details for posterity.

      That said, you will find some scattered references to this topic in our catalogue. For instance, some records relating to the Bate family of Foston/Scropton mention “the black boy Peter” in the 1680s, who I guess would be a domestic servant. (See
      http://calmview.derbyshire.gov.uk/calmview/overview.aspx?src=calmview.catalog&q=refno:D940/*+description:black). The Harpur-Crewe collection also includes more records relating to servants than you typically find in Derbyshire family archives – although these largely date from after the era of legal slavery, and I haven’t ever looked into the question of whether they had African servants (see http://calmview.derbyshire.gov.uk/calmview/overview.aspx?src=calmview.catalog&q=refno:D2375*+title:servants+title:wages+|refno:D2375*+title:list+title:servants).

      There’s no telling what you might find in a parish register, but much depends on luck. For instance, in the Bradley parish register is a record of the baptism of “Philip, a servant to Mr Meynell, a person of ripe years” on 10th April 1721, which states: “He was born (as he saith) at Cutumbe on the river Niger in Africa and was sold for a slave into Barbados and brought from there into England by the Lady Booth: A Blackmore man”. To return to Scropton for a moment, one of its parish registers records the baptism of Scipio, “the son of a stranger, living in the island of Barbados”, on November 19th 1722. And finally, the Chesterfield burial register for 1801 records the burial, on July 22, of “Mercury Mallows, a black man, servant to Josiah Jebb”, who was a local landowner.

      I’m no expert on this, so I ought to direct you to one. It’s been several years since I read the late Peter Fryer’s history of black people in Britain, “Staying Power”, but I do remember that it gives proper references – I wonder if that would be a good introduction to other kinds of archival sources that do survive, in repositories such as ours? We don’t have a copy in the Derbyshire Libraries collection, but your local library could arrange an Inter-Library Loan for a small charge. (Don’t get hopes up about Derbyshire content in Staying Power, though – I seem to recall that there is either none or very little!)

      A final thought: there were wealthy Derbyshire families that owned plantations in the Caribbean, so if you are looking at the question of whether slave-owners brought people back with them, to be re-classified as domestic servants, I suppose the immigration records created on behalf of central government might be useful. I have never tried anything like that, but suspect it might be one of those things that is easier said than done! At least the National Archives provides one of their excellent series of research guides: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/immigrants.htm .

  3. I put this letter up on the blog without any comment, and that needs to be remedied. It’s from a bundle of correspondence addressed to John Holland, a painter (and friend of Joseph Wright), who lived at Ford House in Stretton, near Chesterfield. Call me cynical, but I think the reason Ledekin paints such a rosy picture of life in the Bahamas is he’s looking for an investor: why else would he say that if only he could raise £1000, it would be a fortune in six years’ time? His remarks on how easy life is for the “Negroes” (a term in common use at the time, which we would not wish to censor) are vulnerable to the most obvious objection: if there were a good life to be had, it would have been just as profitable to use free labour. The lives of enslaved cotton pickers were invariably very difficult, and usually short – although he is right to say that the poor of England were struggling.

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