Untold lives blog

22 posts categorized "Slavery"

15 April 2014

Zanzibar brawl

31 March 1860, a sultry afternoon in the beautiful beach town of Zanzibar. Monsieur Frédérick Rochiez, a French grocer, was having a quiet siesta and enjoying his peaceful life in this quasi-paradise.  His tranquillity was broken by the intrusion of a group of rowdy English sailors who barged in asking for brandy.  When they were told there was none, the drunken seamen went on a rampage, vandalizing the shop and helping themselves with any booze they could lay their hands on.  After the shop was wrecked, they ran away with crates of wines as well as cash stolen from the till.

Two drunken sailors Calcutta
   ‘Lall Bazaar, Calcutta.’ [WD 4336]  1860s.   Images Online

M. Rochiez incurred a substantial financial loss by this wilful looting and pillaging.   He lodged a complaint via French Consul M. Derché to Lt-Col Christopher Palmer Rigby, British Consul at Zanzibar, demanding an apology and compensation.

The British authorities felt this was French ‘extortion’, a deliberate put-up job to frame the English.  Rigby immediately launched a personal attack on the character and conduct of the French diplomats in Zanzibar.  In his letter dated 1 June 1861 to the Secretary of State for India he wrote: “I beg to state that the present French Consul (Monsieur Derché) was born and bred in the Levant…  he is now about to leave by the first opportunity, and the present Chancellier who is appointed to succeed him, is a Pole, who is stated to have deserted from the ranks of the Russian Army in the Crimea by feigning death during an action.  He lives in a most disreputable manner, and bears a very indifferent character…”.

The complaint about the drunken English sailors was not unprecedented.  The English and French had been bickering with each other for several years since both nations established their consular offices on the island.  

The wine shop brawl quickly escalated to a serious accusation of slave trafficking.  The British on Zanzibar, charged with the duty of the abolition of slave trade, captured and confiscated the Famosa Estrella, a ship under Spanish colours.  The ship was consigned to a notorious slave agent named Buona Ventura Mas, who had long carried on an extensive traffic in slaves with both Cuba and La Réunion.   The British claimed that “Buona Ventura Mas was the Agent here for the two slave dealing houses of Vidal Frères, and Regis & Co” both supported by the French Consul which proclaimed to provide French protection to the ships and subjects of any Roman Catholic State, including Spanish and Portuguese.

Just next to the French territory of La Réunion sits Mauritius, a British possession in 1861. Hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers were shipped across the Indian Ocean to work in the British plantations on Mauritius under the conditions hardly any better than those of slaves under French protection.

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers

Further reading:
India Office Records/ L/PS/9/37-38 Zanzibar correspondence


28 March 2014

Somewhere between freedom and slavery: runaway slaves in Britain’s Indian Navy

On 28 March 1854 the Persian Gulf Resident, Captain Arnold Kemball, wrote to the Government of Bombay, reporting that a coal shoveller on the East India Company’s steam frigate Akbar, moored at the Persian port of Bushire, had deserted his post. Kemball explained that the man was a runaway slave who had formerly lived in Bushire. Initially assumed to have been re-enslaved by his master, later reports confirmed that the man had in fact returned to his wife and child, who he had been compelled to leave behind in his search for freedom. Kemball requested guidance from the Government. Could he allow the man to be re-enslaved by his old master in Bushire? Or did the man remain under British protection?

  Bushire from the sea
From Travels in Assyria, Media, and Persia (British Library T 8304)  NocSee on flickr


  The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar was not unique to Indian naval vessels. Slaves and manumitted slaves frequently made up the bulk of the crews employed on these ships. In his reply to Kemball’s query, the Governor at Bombay said that, according to the Akbar’s own commander, Lieutenant Balfour, European sailors in his crew numbered no more than twenty-two men, while ‘Seedees’ [Sidis: the name frequently used to describe the Africans in the Navy’s service] – most of whom were runaway slaves – numbered fifty. “I am assured,” the Governor wrote “ that the majority of our seamen on board our steamers are at this very time Africans and that the greater of their numbers are fugitive slaves.” 

Extract of a letter, dated 5 March 1855, from Henry Anderson to George Edmonstone,

Extract of a letter, dated 5 March 1855, from Henry Anderson, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, to George Edmonstone, Secretary to the Government of India (IOR/R/15/1/149) Noc

These statistics underline one aspect of the legacy of the Indian Ocean slave trade which was, arguably, at its peak during the mid-nineteenth century: itinerant African men, who had been taken from the place of their ancestral roots and frequently shorn of their familial ties, and who subsequently used Indian naval vessels as a means of absconding from their masters in order to obtain their freedom. This helped make the ports of the Gulf and north western shores of the Indian Ocean important tarrying points populated by a diverse mix peoples:  including Africans, Indians, Arabs, and Persians.

The case of the coal trimmer on the Akbar set a precedent for future, similar cases. The Governor ruled that, if the man had deserted his vessel, as the coal trimmer on the Akbar had, then the British had no influence over the man’s fate at the hands of local authorities.

Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project  Cc-by

Qatar Digital Library

24 March 2014

Meet the Benthams: an extraordinary Georgian family

The British Library has joined the Transcribe Bentham initiative, and needs your help to uncover the secret life of Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, reformer, and Georgian gentleman.  Transcribe Bentham, an online scholarly crowdsourcing project, invites members of the public to explore and transcribe the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham.  Since its launch in 2010, Transcribe Bentham’s online volunteers have made important discoveries in UCL’s collection of digitised Bentham manuscripts, for instance in relation to his most famous invention—the Panopticon prison.

The British Library is digitising its own collection of Bentham papers and these are now being made available on Transcribe Bentham to complement UCL’s own on-going digitisation programme, virtually reuniting the two Bentham collections for the first time since Bentham’s death.  Volunteers do not need any specialist equipment or expert knowledge to begin participating—just a willingness to get to grips with 18th and 19th century handwriting and to type what they read into a text box using a specially-adapted transcription toolbar.  

  Pseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774
NocPseudo-Voltaire (John Lind) to Jeremy Bentham, sent in 1774 (British Library Add MS 33537 f.294r)

Whilst the UCL collection contains mainly philosophical writings, in the British Library collection there is potential to uncover Bentham’s more personal side, as it contains thousands of letters.  Bentham was described by Jose del Valle, the Guatemalan politician, as the ‘Legislator of the world’ and such a title is certainly justified by the sheer number of nationally and internationally important figures with whom he corresponded.  Within the British Library’s collection are letters from the French general Lafayette, the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, and Alexander I, Emperor of Russia.  But the collection also contains a great deal of personal correspondence, and volunteers will encounter Jeremy’s extended family: his mother, Alicia; his step-mother, Sarah; his brother, Samuel, the renowned naval architect; his step-brother Charles Abbot, later 1st Baron Colchester, Speaker of the House of Commons; his nephew George, the famous botanist; and the patriarch of the family, Jeremiah Bentham.  There is even a letter from Jeremiah to Jeremy’s headmaster at Westminster School, complaining about the alleged plundering of his son’s book case by some older ‘lads’.  

   Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books

Jeremiah Bentham’s letter to Mr Cooper, complaining about the theft of little Jeremy’s school books (British Library Add MS 33537 f. 37r)  Noc

Because some of this correspondence has not been read since its original composition, discoveries made by volunteers have the potential to fundamentally shape and illuminate our understanding of Bentham’s life and relationships (the definitive biography of Bentham still remains unwritten).  Once completed, transcripts are presented alongside the original manuscript image in a digital repository, freely accessible to anyone interested in researching Bentham.  In addition, any volunteers who produce transcripts that are subsequently used in the new edition of Bentham’s Collected Works, currently being prepared by the Bentham Project at UCL and published by Oxford University Press, will receive full credit for their contribution in the particular volume’s acknowledgements.

Kris Grint
Research Associate, Bentham Project, Faculty of Laws, UCL   Cc-by

Visit the Transcribe Bentham  Transcription Desk today

Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter @TranscriBentham

Further reading:

Jeremy Bentham, Selected Writings, ed. by Stephen Engelmann (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)

Philip Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009)


14 March 2014

The talented Mr Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was a Victorian scholar who is today best known for the invention of photography, specifically the process whereby a negative is used to make any number of positive images onto photographic paper.

  Programme of Reading Camera Club with photo of Fox Talbot
British Library: Fox Talbot Collection   Noc

What is perhaps not so well known is that Talbot excelled in and made significant contributions to many diverse fields of research including Assyriology, astronomy, botany, etymology, mathematics, philology, photography, photolithography, and science.  He also found time for a short political career, business ventures, management of the family estate and raising a family.

The British Library has catalogued Talbot’s notebooks plus 4,000 additional items including books, pocket notebooks, pamphlets, published papers, patents, loose notes, printers’ proofs, accounts, invoices, receipts, herbaria and other material. These additional items will soon be released to researchers and Untold Lives will be highlighting material showing different sides of Talbot and his life and times.  We start today with Talbot’s short political career.

Although Talbot was only involved in politics from 1832 to 1835, those years were a time of great social and political change in England. Standing as a candidate for parliamentary reform in the 1831 election, Talbot received just 39 votes. However, this was out of a total number of 129 entitled voters so the result was deemed a success by political reformers and a song was written in his honour.  

Words of song written in honour of Fox Talbot

 British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  Noc

  Talbot’s copy of the 1831 electoral resultNocBritish Library: Fox Talbot Collection
Talbot’s copy of the 1831 electoral result with those who voted for him highlighted in red. There was no secret ballot so those eligible to vote could be bribed or coerced especially if the candidate was their landlord.

The 1831 Parliamentary reform bill failed and another election was held in 1832. Talbot was elected supporting the reformist Whig government. From 1832 to 1834 several important bills were passed including the Reform Act of 1832 which extended the voting franchise; the Agricultural Labourers Act 1832 which regulated wages and set a minimum wage; and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

  Printed letter to voters in Chippenham about the Reform BillNoc British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  This document dated 5 April 1831 shows that one of the ideas of the Reform Act of 1832 had already been decided upon - the right to vote depending up on the ownership of property to the value of £10. Though this bill was much criticised it did extend the voting franchise and paved the way for further reforms.

Document entitled The Labour Rate British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  The list of wages for employable people, at the bottom of the page, includes boys as young as 10. Noc


Document calling for Talbot’s attendance in Parliament for the slavery vote British Library: Fox Talbot Collection  Slavery Abolition Act 1833 The document calls for Talbot’s attendance in Parliament for the slavery vote and hints at the machinations of political life at the time. Noc

Interference from King William IV meant that several governments were formed and then dissolved in quick succession 1832-1834. In this speech made in 1834 Talbot warns of economic and social damage resulting from this instability and the threat this poses to the effective implementation of the reforms just passed.

Speech made by Talbot in 1834

British Library: Fox Talbot CollectionNoc

Talbot became disillusioned with politics and when an election was called in 1835 he declined to stand for re-election and thereafter maintained only a mild interest in politics.

Jonathan Pledge
Cataloguer, Historical Papers  Cc-by


06 November 2013

Black Georgians? An ‘Affrican’ in Georgian London

Our new exhibition, ‘Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain’, which opens at the British Library later this week, might not seem to have much in common with the harsh world of Atlantic slavery.  In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is greeted by a ‘dead silence’ when she asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram about the slave trade – a silence which the critic Edward Said famously interpreted as a sign that ‘one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both’.  But the life of Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) suggests otherwise.

Portrait of Ignatius SanchoNoc

Sancho was born on an Atlantic slave ship, was brought to England from the Spanish West Indies at the age of two, and grew up as a household servant in Greenwich (though still, in English law, with the status of a slave – it wasn’t until 1772 that Lord Mansfield’s judgement established the legal precedent that no man could be a slave on English soil).  The Duke of Montagu took an interest in Sancho and paid for his education, and after the Duke’s death in 1749 his widow took him into her service as her butler, leaving him a small annuity which eventually enabled him to set up in business as a grocer in Westminster.  He became well known in London’s literary and artistic circles (Gainsborough painted his portrait; Sterne corresponded with him), and a collection of his letters was published posthumously in 1782.

Sancho blazed a trail for black Africans in Britain.  He was the first black man to vote in a British parliamentary election, the first to publish any critique of slavery and the slave trade – preceding by some years the autobiography of the ex-slave and anti-slavery activist Olaudah Equiano – and the first to be accepted into London literary society.  Even Thomas Jefferson, who complained that his letters were the product of a ‘wild and extravagant’ imagination, admitted that Sancho held ‘the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgement’.

The British Library has recently acquired the archive of Sancho’s letters to his friend and patron William Stevenson.  These are the only manuscripts by Sancho that are known to survive, and the largest single collection of letters by any black Anglo-African of this period.  In one unpublished letter, Sancho describes himself as ‘an Affrican – with two ffs if you please – and proud am I to be of a country that knows no Politicians nor Lawyers’.  To learn more about this exciting new acquisition, come along to the British Library Conference Centre this Friday, 8 November, at 18:45, when Prof Vincent Carretta, editor of Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (2004), will be giving a public lecture on ‘Ignatius Sancho: Britain’s First African Man of Letters’.

Arnold Hunt
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts  Cc-by


24 September 2013

Endangered Archives Programme reveals Untold Lives

13th century Arabic manuscripts in the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library, East Jerusalem; rock inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus mountains in Libya; records of the sale of slaves on the island of St Vincent in the West Indies; photos of Andean culture from Peru; Buddhist manuscripts from Bhutan – all of these and more have been preserved through funding from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

Saqras dancers of the Diablada DanceEAP298/14/4/34 Saqras dancers of the Diablada Dance. Torres Belon Stadium, Puno, Peru  Noc

The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), sponsored by the charitable foundation Arcadia, was set up in 2004 and will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. During this time 214 projects have been funded in countries around the world: from Azerbaijan and Argentina, to Vietnam and Zambia, vulnerable archival material has been preserved. This is achieved through the relocation of the documents to a safe local archival home where possible, digitising the material, and depositing copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely, either by visiting the local archives, visiting the British Library, or viewing them online through the EAP website. To date, the digital collections from 35 projects are available online.

  Tshamdrak Temple - Thor bu sTon pa'i skyes rabs
EAP310/4/2/23 – Tshamdrak Temple - Thor bu sTon pa'i skyes rabs  Noc


St Helena Banns of MarriageOne of the more popular items that has been viewed online is the Banns of Marriage (1849-1924) from the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. The island’s archives in Jamestown hold records from its first years as an English colony, with the earliest documents dating from 1673 and including East India Company records through to 1834. After 1834 and the transition to direct Crown rule, the records follow the standard pattern of similar colonies. The Banns of Marriage are remarkable in allowing an insight into people’s lives at this time and are of great interest to people researching their family history.





EAP524/2/3/1 Banns of Marriage (1849-1924)   Noc


Volumes of St Helena Ordinances
EAP524 St Helena Ordinances Noc

Pile of documents in a poor condition










Do you know of any collections that merit preservation? The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 1 November 2013 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website.

Cathy Collins
EAP Grants Administrator  Cc-by

Further reading:

More about EAP

13th century Arabic manuscripts in Al-Aqsa Mosque Library
Rock inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus mountains
Sale of slaves on St Vincent
Photos of Andean culture, Peru
Buddhist manuscripts from Bhutan


23 August 2013

Bournville – A Confection of Industrial Relations

In the British Library’s stall of social history, the curious Cadbury company provides a chocolate box of interests.  The Cadbury family of Birmingham grew their cocoa products empire throughout the 19th century and this led them to building not only a factory but a whole factory town.  In fact, Bournville was a conspicuously composed community that worked wonderfully. 

By the 1930s, the company’s complex of neighbourhoods hired 9,000 workers but the Quaker ethos of the owners gave the staff, and their families, a wide range of social services that would not have been affordable by local government.  You probably know that Cadbury’s provided housing, classroom education, health care, swimming and other sports, and music.  But they ran summer camps for boys, a seaside holiday camp for families, Continental holidays, and the firm even taught adults Esperanto!

Photo of the school band
From pamphlets about the Bournville Works (BL, 08248.m.9.) Noc

In 1934’s English Journey travelogue, J B Priestley appreciated the paternalist benevolence that the company served up, but he still thought it a politically sour spoonful.  Perhaps the lack of even one public house offended his nature (Bournville’s still pub-less).   But if you want to form your own opinion of Cadbury’s town built of cocoa beans, the British Library offers many morsels of its history. 

The Bournville reading room had “every kind of newspaper and magazine.” While it’s unlikely they stocked the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, the jazz fans’ weekly Melody Maker, or any timely tip-sheet for horse racing aficionados, it was probably a good resource nonetheless.

In 1936 Cadbury’s published a magazine, The Cococub News (P.P.5793.bch) and many pamphlets, including a generously illustrated guide to the factory and the lifestyle of their workers’ community (YD.2013.b.490).  The Library has a collection of similar items, which form a good sampler of their works, 1913-1948 (08248.m.9).  And the Bournville Village Trust today publishes In View (ZK.9.b.29447).

In the wake of interest in the Cadbury legacy are two recent novels from Pan Books : Annie Murray’s The Bells of Bournville Green (LT.2009.x.517) and Chocolate Girls (H.2003/1412).  Modern overviews of the company can be found in Deborah Cadbury’s Chocolate Wars : From Cadbury to Kraft – 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry (YC.2010.a.15674), Paul Chrystal’s Cadbury and Fry Through Time (YK.2013.a.9579), and John Bradley’s Cadbury’s Purple Reign : The Story Behind Chocolate’s Best-Loved Brand (YC.2008.b.1108).  But for an acrid taste of the supply chain, there’s Catherine Higgs’ Chocolate Islands : Cocoa, Slavery and Colonial Africa (YC.2013.a.4010).

Andy Simons, Printed Historical Sources, 1914-present  Cc-by


28 June 2013

Dorothy Little – slave owner

In 1833, following the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, £20 million was awarded to the slave-owners in order to compensate for their loss. However, the recipients of this compensation were not simply the owners of vast West Indian plantations. Men, and women, of much more modest means also claimed compensation for their enslaved servants.

Cartoon of a Whig politician slipping £20 million out of John Bull's pocket













 A Whig politician slipping £20 million out of John Bull's pocket from a cartoon called 'Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions' by radical print-maker C. J. Grant.  Reproduced here by kind permission of the UCL Art Collection: UCL, EPC8032.


One of these women was Dorothy Little, a 70 year old widow who lived in Clifton, near Bristol. In 1833 she claimed £297 1s 6d for 13 Jamaican slaves and wrote multiple letters to the Slavery Compensation Commission asking for information and advice.

Dorothy Little’s letters demonstrate an active involvement in the slave compensation process. It is clear that she was acutely aware of the position she found herself in. ‘There is a wide difference between the situations of those who... are Owners of Slaves only and those who are owners of Estates and also of the Slaves,’ she noted. As a slave-holder who owned no land she was in a particularly vulnerable position. Indeed, since women constituted a large proportion of non-land-holding slave-owners they were, on the whole, disproportionately affected by the privileging of land in the compensation process. Dorothy Little clearly recognised this: ‘Your Petitioner…believes that there are many in her situation, but they are principally Widows and Orphans and she is sorry to perceive that the large Proprietors have not had the generosity to put forward their peculiar situation’.

Despite politics supposedly being a masculine domain, Dorothy Little is unashamed to reveal that she has ‘with the greatest attention read every debate in the House of Commons on the West India question’.  Indeed, she felt so passionately about the fact that in her view the compensation punished those who did not own land that she sent a petition to Lord Stanley, the colonial secretary, voicing her concerns. She questions why she cannot be given ‘£100 a piece for [her slaves]…which is the sum the French received for theirs in America’, demonstrating that her considerable knowledge extended to global as well as domestic politics.

However, the language she employed in her letters was inherently gendered. She deliberately and persistently used her position as an elderly widow to present herself as vulnerable and in need of protection. In asserting that ‘it is quite inconsistent with the character of the noble Englishman to reduce aged widows to beggary by forcibly taking their property from them’, Dorothy Little is fundamentally grounding her argument in early 19th century conceptions of masculinity and femininity. The proper role of the ‘noble Englishman’ was to provide for any dependents- primarily women and children- who were wholly reliant on him for financial support.

Dorothy Little was thus an intelligent, informed and strong-willed woman who simultaneously both challenged, reinforced and manipulated early nineteenth century notions conceptions about masculinity, femininity and the role of women in order to achieve her ends. This end, it should not be forgotten, was receiving money in order to compensate for the loss of property in people.

Hannah Young
PhD student on UCL's Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project with a particular interest in women slave-owners and relationships of power, gender and property.

Further reading:

Legacies of British Slave-Ownership

Records of the Slavery Compensation Commission are held at The National Archives in series T 71. Papers concerning Dorothy Little’s claim are in TNA: T 71/1608.

Hilary Beckles,  Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society Kingston: Ian Randle, 1999.


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