Remembering slavery in Tunbridge Wells' collection

Slave conveyance letter

October's Object of the Month comes from the museum’s Collection Development Manger, Liz Douglas. This legal document from the archives records the sale of plantation land in Trinidad along with 52 enslaved people in 1815. Listing one-year-old babies through to a 46-year-old field hand, this document exposes the human cost of slavery and a local story of slave ownership. In British law, slaves were considered property, like machinery or cattle that could be treated as their owners wished. As growing sugar was highly labour intensive, slaves were forcibly brought to work on plantations in the Caribbean to increase profits.

William Lushington and his son, of London and latterly of Tunbridge Wells, established a thriving West India merchant firm in the late 1700s, which relied upon the bank of his brother Sir Stephen Lushington (Boldero & Lushington) for capital investment and loans. After Sir Stephen's death the bank fell into trouble and collapsed in 1812. This meant that Boldero & Lushington's receivers, as named in these legal documents, started to call in William's debts, with this plantation in Trinidad treated as one of his assets.

On this Trinidadian plantation, the majority of the slaves laboured as field hands, with a few of them 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 death.  Even the ‘future progeny’ of slave women, that is their children, were treated as a lucrative financial asset. Within this document, this ‘asset’ is squabbled over by the Lushingtons and the bank’s receivers.

So little is known about the lives of slaves, with documents such as these only offering rare glimpses of their names, ages and occupations. Perhaps some of these enslaved people survived the high mortality rates to see abolition in 1834. Yet, with abolition, it was the slave-owners who were awarded compensation by the British government. Between 1835-1836 the daughters of William Lushington – Charlotte and Augusta of Tunbridge Wells – claimed over £7000 (equivalent to about £350,000 today) in reparation for the freeing of their 218 slaves in Grenada and Trinidad. Liz says: I chose this document as my Object of the Month to remember the extensive legacy of British slave-ownership as well as the lives that it devastated.

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