Records of enslaved people

The following guide contains language which you may find offensive.

Between the early 16th and mid-19th century, at least 12 million African people were enslaved and taken to the Americas.  These individuals were used as enforced labour in areas of major industry including the cultivation of sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee, on plantations, and in gold and silver mines.

British involvement in the trade in enslaved African people began as early as the 16th century but expanded in the 18th century.  British traders in enslaved African people were involved in what has become termed ‘The Transatlantic Slave Trade’.  Sailing to Africa from British ports, these slave traders exchanged goods manufactured in Europe for enslaved Africans, sailing what became known as ‘The Middle Passage’ to the Americas to sell these individuals in European colonies.  Treated as cargo, barbaric conditions resulted in many dying during the passage. These ships then returned to Britain loaded with the products of enslaved labour, commodities such as sugar and rum. Out of the 12 million people enslaved, at least one third were transported in British ships.

Those who survived the passage then faced a life of brutality, treated as property, and forced into gruelling work.  Separated from their families, often stripped of their name and cultural identity, they were subject to repression and harsh punishment.

British trading ships took part in the slave trade until its abolition in 1807, although illegal trading continued for a further 60 years.

Records of enslaved people in Derbyshire Record Office collections

Despite being a landlocked and rural county, Derbyshire was home to people involved in both slavery and its abolition.

The Fitzherbert family’s connection to the West Indies begins in the eighteenth century, when William FitzHerbert of Tissington Hall (1712-1772) inherited the Turner’s Hall plantation in Barbados from his wife’s family, the Alleynes.  This connection was strengthened when the father in law of Sir William Fitzherbert (1748-1791), William Philp Perrin, died leaving three properties in Jamaica to the FitzHerbert family: Vere, Blue Mountain and Grange Hall.

The FitzHerbert collection includes material relating to the general running of these estates, the trade in enslaved labour and its abolition. Most significant are the inventories and annual lists of enslaved people, which list those in enforced labour on plantations in a given year.

Inventory and Appraisement of Vere Plantation, 1777 [D239/M/E/18032]

These inventories record the name, occupation, value, and ‘condition’ (usually health) of each enslaved person.  Through these lists it can also be possible to track individual enslaved people across several inventories.  With the help of our volunteers we are working towards producing a name index of those enslaved people listed in these inventories.

Vere Plantation inventory, 1785 [D238/M/E/18054]

Although the very basic information within these records can help us identify individuals, it relates only to an element of life for enslaved people on a plantation and does not provide any information on the life of these individuals before or after enslavement. It’s important to remember that these are the records of the enslaver and so do not represent the lives of the enslaved from their own perspective.

Naming of enslaved people

Inventory and appraisement of Blue Mountain plantation, 1759 [D239/M/E/16386]

Inventories offer the opportunity to research naming patterns of enslaved people on plantations.  In an inventory for the Blue Mountain Plantation, Jamaica, we find the use of Ghanaian Akan day names such as Cudjoe and Cuffee, classical names such as Mercury and Caesar, English colloquial names including Frank and Peggy, and place names such as Cambridge and York.

We do not know from these records who was responsible for naming individuals. It would seem fair to assume that pejorative names were assigned by enslavers but at what point in a person’s enslavement is not known.

Records of abolition

Sir Robert John Wilmot Horton (1784-1841), son of Sir Robert Wilmot, 2nd Baronet of Osmaston, Derby, was a pamphleteer and letter-writer, member of parliament, Under Secretary of State for the Colonies (1821-1828) and Governor of Ceylon (1831-1837). He took an interest in the subject of slavery and was in correspondence with figures within the abolitionist movement such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Buxton.

Wilmot Horton supported the decision to abolish the trade in 1807 but favoured a gradual approach so as not to injure the economic interests of the enslavers. In 1826 he published a pamphlet called “The West India Question Practically Considered” which argued against measures to allow enslaved people the right to manumit themselves against the wishes of their enslavers.  The pamphlet provoked numerous responses, many of which are now preserved in this collection, including that of Revd Thomas Gisborne (1758-1846), an abolitionist from Derby.

Both the FitzHerbert and Wilmot-Horton papers include evidence of the fight for freedom by enslaved people, albeit from the enslavers’ perspective.

The Wilmot-Horton papers are a good source for information on the slave trade and its abolition, but as with the Fitzherbert collection, not on individual enslaved people.

General rules for claims for compensation on the abolition of slavery, 1834 [D239/M/E/24067]

The cotton mills of the Derwent Valley

The Derwent Valley, running from Matlock Bath to Derby, was the birthplace of the factory system and a leader in the industrialisation of cotton textile production in Britain.  This highly profitable industry was fed by raw cotton from the Americas much of this being produced by enslaved labour.

The main cotton mill owners in the Derwent Valley were the Arkwright family of Cromford, The Strutts of Belper and the Evans family of Darley Abbey.

In recent years our colleagues in the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site Partnership have been researching these collections to uncover the valley’s links to the slave trade and its abolition as part of the Global Cotton Connections Project. Research completed so far shows that the mill owners were not direct investors in plantations yet did trade with plantation owners who used enforced labour in the production of raw cotton.  Research in on-going and once shared, we will add information on the links these manufacturers had to enslaved labour overseas, the slave trade and its abolition, to our catalogues and guide.

Further collections

The papers of the Gell family include records relating to the family’s involvement with the British South Africa (BSA) Company. Through a Royal Charter of 1889, the BSA was given responsibility to expand the British Empire in southern Africa by colonising north of the Limpopo River, maintain law and order and develop settlements for European settlers in Africa.

Philip Lyttelton Gell (1852-1926) held various positions within the BSA company, as Director, Chairman and President. Gell’s papers are valuable evidence of early twentieth-century colonialism and can tell us about the exploitation of enslaved people in Bulozi (later the Protectorate of Barotseland, now part of Zambia), the history of labour in the area, and the effects of capitalist penetration.

The Harpur family of Calke Abbey had connections to the slave trade through marriage.  Edward, the son of 4th Baronet Sir John Harpur (1679-1741) married Mary Newton, daughter of Samuel Newton of Staffordshire.  The Newton family owned the Newton Plantation in Barbados. It is not known how much, if any, of the material in the Harpur-Crewe collection relates to the Newton Plantation and so further research is required.

Samples of cloth made from cotton grown by “Free Labor”, mid 19th century, part of a series of objects collected by the Franklin and Gell families [D8760/F/OBJ/13]

Search the record office catalogue using the terms including ‘Ethnic groups’, Slavery’, ‘Slave’, ‘Forced labour’, Oppression’, ‘Abolition’ for other records relating to the slave trade and its abolition within our collection.

Language in original records

Historical records reflect the period in which they were created. Language within records once in common use and seen as acceptable is now offensive, pejorative, and discriminatory.

To ensure accuracy, transparency, and representation in our record descriptions and to recognise the role these records have in providing evidence of the oppression, subjugation, marginalisation, and violence committed against individuals and communities, original creator language has been retained. You will therefore find pejorative words within the item descriptions. As mentioned above our collections have been indexed and our online catalogue can be searched using these less offensive terms.

The record office is committed to making the records relating to the trade in enslaved people held within our collection more visible and to ensure that these records are catalogued in a way which respects the communities to which they relate. We are working to achieve this through the improvement of catalogue descriptions, removing and/or contextualising offensive terminology, and removing institutional bias from how material is catalogued.

Further reading

How to look for the records of Enslaved people and slave owners“, The National Archives

How to look for records of Slavery and the British transatlantic slave trade“, The National Archives

Understanding the role of the slave trade in shaping British history The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, University College London

3 thoughts on “Records of enslaved people

  1. Pingback: A Maroon victory in Jamaica & improving our catalogues | Derbyshire Record Office

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