Have you ever heard the phrase ‘I have been working like a slave’? The abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 in the UK and USA, although it was overlooked for some years in some places. For some time there was little sympathy for the memory of slavery. For example some public houses retained the name ‘The Black Boy’ and a road in Bristol, a port prominent in the slave trade, was called ‘Black Boy Hill’.
It is uncertain when local involvement in slavery commenced, but Sir George Somers who was born in Lyme Regis founded the colony of Bermuda in 1609. It may be that soon after this the trade grew. In the early days slavery was regarded as just another trade and members of all religious denominations were involved. William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania owned slaves in the 1690s. Before long slaves were brought to England as servants and the Uplyme Churchwardens accounts for 1649/50 show that a ‘Blackamoor’ was paid for cleaning the churchyard. King William III had a favourite black slave and a sculpture of him was displayed at Hampton Court.
Several local families were prominent in the slave trade, notably the Hallett, Burridge, Way and the Lyme Regis Gundry families and the Pinney’s of Bettiscombe.
Colonel John Hallett, a sugar planter, owned 220 acres and 84 slaves in 1680 and a marble floor in St Michael’s Cathedral, Bridgetown, Barbados is inscribed to him and his family. In his will he left his wife Mary six of his ‘house negroes’, his coach and four horses in Barbados and £400 from his Barbados estate. He also left his grandson Martin Bently £1,000 of Barbados money and to daughters Christian Farmer £1,500 and Katherine Farmer £100 to be ‘laid out’ in negroes for her, plus £60 of Barbados money. His kinswoman Judith Alford received £10 per annum and John Burridge also of Lyme £10. Axmouth church has a monument to Richard Hallett of Stedcombe, John Hallett of Bridgetown, Barbados, Southcott Hallett and Rich. Hothersall Hallett. In a will of 1691 a Richard Hallett gave his brother John and nephew Richard the right to sell his lands in Barbados and shares in ships and negroes. It has also been suggested that Raymond Hallett returned from Barbados to Lyme in 1699 with black servants and his wife Meliora brought one or two black maidservants. John Hallet of Stedcombe gave freedom to ‘my boy Virgil’ on his deathbed. Lyme Regis Court Sessions for 1702 record that ‘a black Negro servant of Mr Richard Halletts called “Ando” was accused of being riotously assembled in Broad Street’.
The Burridge family owned a boat Africa employed in the tobacco trade between London, Lyme and Virginia. John Burridge gave donations to a Lyme charity in 1703 and contributed to the upkeep of the Cobb. So those involved in the ‘triangular trade’ were often charitable at home. In 1705 the Burridge brothers and Benjamin Way sent a vessel Friendship to Jamaica, returning with sugar and two negroes. In 1706 they took part in two slaving ventures, with the London and the Dorset Brigantine, ships owned by Joseph Way of Bristol. John Burridge invested in the frigate Martha in 1709, captained by William Courtenay, son of Samuel, Mayor of Lyme in 1702. This delivered 160 slaves to Jamaica in 1710 and returned with sugar, cotton, wood, lime juice and ivory from the Guinea Coast. Also in 1710 the John & Robert owned by the Burridge family took 130 slaves to Virginia. John Burridge senior stepped down as Member of Parliament in 1710, to be succeeded by John junior until 1728, who was also Mayor of Lyme in 1726. At this time being engaged in slavery was no problem in reaching high office! John Burridge junior sent the Mary & Elizabeth to Virginia in 1712 with 113 slaves who were sold for £20 to £25 each. The ship returning to Lyme in 1713 with 10 cwt of ivory and 50 tons of tobacco for John senior, Robert Burridge and Nathaniel Gundry of Bridport. From 1713 all Burridge ships to the Guinea Coast started from Lyme. The Burridge family collected signatures in Lyme for a petition that the ‘trade of this port…depends…on Plantations…chiefly raised by Negroes from Africa’. A Samuel Courtenay provided 25 slaves at £18 each for John Burridge and 21 other merchants, with a surgeon hired for the voyage for £2-10s to care for them. In 1714 the Burridge ship John went to Guinea for 91 slaves, 82 of whom were sold to William Cogan for £1,719. Major Cogan of Barbados had been born in Lyme and shipped local rum in exchange for slaves. A cargo of rum was worth £1,909 in 1709. From 1718 Robert Burridge III handled all the family business and became a dealer in tobacco and freight to Virginia until 1740 when the business in Lyme as a port reduced. He paid interest at 5% on £33 to the poor of Lyme Regis and at his death interest on his investment of £100 was left in the same way.
Nathaniel Gundry also became Mayor of Lyme Regis, but as a tobacco merchant had sent 15 slaves from Barbados to Potomac in the Martha under John Wallis.
In 1718 the crew of a ship from Maryland were paid off at Lyme after delivering tobacco worth £1200. One crew member was ‘Harry’ a Negro owned by John Pitts, a Lyme merchant with shares in Burridge enterprises. John Burridge spent 10s 8d on sheepskins, spirits and tobacco for Harry. It has been suggested that Harry may have been employed as night watchman in port. Harry then went on a trip to Gambia and Maryland, with John Pitts paid a salary of £6-5s for him and over £4 for ‘Diet of Negro and servants’.
Much of this information has been drawn from The Forgotten Trade by Nigel Tattersfield and The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas.
Finally the abolition act was passed in 1807 and the House of Commons voted compensation of twenty million pounds (estimated at £37-10s per slave) to slave owners, but for many years there were complaints that this was insufficient. The attitudes of the country were very different to the present day. Unfortunately even Dissenters, who were later at the forefront for abolition, believed that trade and business were almost God given and that slaves were lower beings and could only be elevated by Christian baptism, but not of course to the level of businessmen. As late as 1867 Elias Cox, a leading local Non Conformist built a lighter for Mr. Briggs, the Harbour Master at Bridport Harbour. It was painted black and named The Black Slave, its purpose being to clean mud from the harbour.