This is what a receipt for 52 slaves looks like.
Found in the archives at Tunbridge Wells Museum at first glance, it looks like any other property contract of 1818 – handwritten on parchment, signed and sealed with wax. Yet, attached at the end is a shocking list of 52 slaves. Ranging in age from a year old baby named Saturday to a 46-year-old field hand named Petronie, these slaves were sold with Trinidadian plantation land by British investors in 1818.
Although Britain’s national role in the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1807, slavery in Trinidad and other colonies persisted until the Slavery Abolition Act, 1838. At the point of abolition in the colonies, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain. These absentee slave owners were geographically spread across the country and a town like Royal Tunbridge Wells was no different.
William Lushington of Tunbridge Wells signed this contract for selling Trinidadian land and slaves. His Father, William Lushington the elder, established a West India merchant firm in the late 1700s. For a period, the firm grew rich trading in sugar grown by slaves and was financed by the bank Boldero & Lushington. With the bank’s collapse in 1812, the bank’s receivers started to call in William’s debts, triggering the sale.
The contract itself offers only basic information about the enslaved people being sold such as their given names, ages and occupations. The cruel custom of attributing slaves with high cultural status, classical names such as Hippolyta, Plato and Cleopatra, can also be seen.
The majority of the slaves were described as field hands, with a few working as cook, watchman, foreman, sick nurse and mule boy. Four ‘runaways’ were also recorded. Fugitive slaves remained the legal property of their owners and if caught were subject to violent punishments such as whipping, branding or execution. The ‘future progeny’ of slave women – their children – were also considered a financial asset in the contract and were squabbled over by the Lushingtons and the bank’s receivers.
How many of these enslaved people survived slavery to see abolition in Trinidad? We might never know. What is clear however is that when abolition finally came in 1838, it was the slave owners who were awarded compensation – a staggering total payout of £20m (£16bn in today’s money) by the British government .
The monumental research by University College London into the impact of British slave-ownership enabled me to delve further into the Lushingtons and their Tunbridge Wells connection. Despite his bankruptcy, William Lushington was able to leave a modest fortune and at least two slave plantations to his daughters Charlotte and Augusta Lushington of Tunbridge Wells. With abolition, the sisters made a compensation claim for the freeing of their 218 slaves in Grenada and Trinidad totalling over £7000.
Most likely it is through Charlotte and Augusta, who were buried locally at Trinity Church, that this contract came to Tunbridge Wells and was donated to the Museum. The Lushingtons’ legacy of slave ownership is part of a local and often obscured history yet to be explored. As after all, there are 16 other slave owners of Tunbridge Wells claiming compensation in 1838, including a Reverend and a High Sheriff of Kent.