Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


Blackheath and Slavery
Seán Mac Mathúna

Slavery and London

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African slave - a short biography

The Equiano Foundation Online

Web resources on slavery

Olaudah Equiano: The life of Gustavus Vassa selections

Slaves on a British sugar plantation in Antigua

Enriched slaving merchants used their profits to buy land and titles, symbols of status and power Joan Anim-Addo in Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham.

I have always wondered why the rich and privileged had built their houses overlooking Blackheath common in the UK capital, London. A little bit of research came up with the answer: It was because of it's closeness to London's docks with it's connections to the sugar trade, which for most of it's history, depended on the slave labour of Africans on the plantations in the Caribbean. London merchants were the main businessmen to profit from the sugar trade, handling some 75% of the sugar imported according to Joan Anim-Addo, writing in Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham.(1) Many slave traders and sugar merchants lived in comfortable mansions that were built around Blackheath common. It is strange that there is no official acknowledgment of this in the history of Deptford and Greenwich.

A number of local residents of the Lewisham area profited directly from the slave trade and it's business connections with the Caribbean. One such man was John Thomson, son of Maurice Thomson, a resident of the Manor House in Lee for at least three years after the death of his father. Maurice Thomson had been appointed a commissioner in the Navy and Customs in 1654. His wife, Francis Annesley also came from a family closely involved with trade in the West Indies. Another resident of the Manor House at Lee with connections to slavery was William Coleman who lived their around 1750.

Baring Road in South East London is named after the slave trader Francis Baring. He is said to have his first money trading in slaves when he was just 16, indicating his family's immense wealth and business connections with the West Indies. It was this family that was later to develop their business into the present day Barings Bank, that was destroyed by the the trading of Nick Leeson in 1995. Speculation in the slave trade helped made the bank and speculation on the international money markets destroyed it.

At least 20 merchants who lived around the edge of Blackheath in the 18th century were closely involved in the slave trade. These include:

  • John Angerstein, the founder of Lloyd's of London, who owned a third share in a slave estate in Grenada, on of the islands ceded to England after the Anglo-French Seven Years War (1756-1763). Angerstein built Woodlands House at Blackheath between 1772 and 1774, where his family remained until the 1780's. He is buried in St. John's Church in Blackheath;
  • Ambrose Crowley, an iron merchant who was living in Greenwich in 1704. He made his fortune producing manacles, ankle irons and collars, essential for securing the slaves from their journey from Africa in barbaric conditions.
  • William Innes of Grotes Place who was a leading West Indian merchant and supporter of the slave trade;
  • Duncan Campbell, the overseer of the prison hulk system and another Greenwich resident was a plantation owner in Jamaica. He was an uncle of Captain William's Blyth wife. It was Campbell who recommended Bligh for the command of The Bounty.
  • Thomas King of Dartmouth Grove, a partner in a firm of slave agents in Camden, Calvert & King;
  • Francis Abbatt, the founder of the Blackheath Golf Club;
  • Samuel and Thomas Fludyer, who were partners in a well-known firm of merchants that traded in the Caribbean around 1763. Samuel Fludyer lived at Dacre House in Blackheath and was reputed to have spent £1500 on his campaign to get "elected" to Parliament in 1754 - which probably means the money was spent on bribing electors - a common practice before the secret ballot was introduced in 1867. By 1761, he was a baronet and Lord Mayor of London;

William Wilberforce who led the parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery in Britain from 1789 to 1807

We should not forget the shipbuilders of Deptford who made many of the ships that were involved in the slave trade and England's imperialist adventures abroad. One family appeared to have dominated Kentish shipbuilding along the Thames - the Pett family who had been master shipbuilders since the time of Edward VI (reigned 1461-1483). The woodland that provided much of trees for this shipbuilding was named after them: Pett's Wood near Chislehurst in Kent. The Pett family had been involved in building ships for Drake's expedition to the Caribbean in 1595 according to Jess Steele writing in Turning the Tide. (2).

There are four statues on the front of Deptford's old town hall in New Cross Road. Three of them are connected with slavery in the West Indies: Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and Oliver Cromwell. In 1652, Cromwell had been a regular visitor to Deptford to oversee the building of two ships The James and The Diamond - built solely it seems, for expeditions to the Caribbean aimed at displacing Spanish power in the region. Maurice Thomson, a resident of the Manor House at Lee mentioned earlier, was said to have been a personal friend of Cromwell's and involved in these expeditions. They were part of a network of businessmen interested in the vast wealth that could be derived from the sugar/slave trade.

Under Cromwell, the English Navy seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and established Barbados as a centre for the trading in slaves. The Spanish had wiped out the original inhabitants of the island, the Arawaks (who gave there name Xaimaca to the island), and they had replaced them with slaves brought from Africa - a practice eagerly pursued by traders from London which brought them vast profits. By 1664, Jamaica had been established as a major sugar producing island.

After the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, a new slave-trading company was set up called the Royal Adventurers into Africa. The company had the support of Charles, and it is a fact that the British royals were first members of a European royal family to visit West Africa - in this case, of course, on slave business - when Prince Rupert, the brother of Charles visited the region to inquire about further business. Rupert was the President of the company, and the King's sister, Princess Henrietta also had a share, as did the Queen Mother, and another famous resident of South London, Samuel Pepys, who has a road and school named after him in South London.

Most of the business at first done by this company was in Guinea - hence the origin of the currency still known in the UK as a "Guinea" - in fact the use of this coin - with all its links to the history of slavery, carried on in the UK until the abolition of the old shilling in 1967. When the company was wound up in 1672, it was succeeded by the Royal African Company (RAC), with gold and slavery as it's main business. The Governor and largest shareholder was James, Duke of York, and other prominent shareholders included over the years, 15 lord mayors of London, and 25 sheriffs of London, including the so-called "philosopher of liberty", John Locke, who had a total of £600 invested in this company which sold human beings as mere objects of property. Between 1672 and 1689, the company exported just under 90,000 slaves into the West Indies. A further 75,000 slaves were sent to British North America, and sold onto plantations in the 13 colonies, between 1673 and 1725, according to Hugh Thomas, writing in his excellent book The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (3).

The hidden history of South London's close relationship to the Slave trade is thus still evident with street names, pub names and statues in Deptford, New Cross and Lewisham. Whilst l am not suggesting that the statues be removed from the front of Deptford's old town hall, certain street names could be changed - instead of Baring Road for example, it could be Olaudah Equiano Road or even William Wilberforce Street etc. A statue could be put up to commemorate the arrival of the first slaves in Deptford in 1535, and the local history of the area rewritten to include this shameful chapter in London's history.


1 Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, ibid, pp42-45
2 Turning the Tide, p 22. Jess Steele, Deptford, London, UK, 1993
3 The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870, Hugh Thomas, Picador, London, UK, 1997.

© 1998