coakly lettsom

The Abolitionist who owned a thousand slaves

Near where I live in London, a well known opponent of slavery had a mansion in the early nineteenth century. But somehow, despite his best intentions, this noble abolitionist ended up owning a thousand slaves. So, how did that unfortunate situation arise?

I recently bought a small magazine from February 1825 from an antique dealer that included a feature on Grove Hill, the mansion built by John Coakley Lettsom. Here I am with the magazine below. And it revealed an intriguing story about an abolitionist who unintentionally ended up owning an awful lot of slaves.

This prosperous gentleman was born to a slave owning father and an Irish mother in what is now the British Virgin Islands, a group of Caribbean islands to the right of Puerto Rico if you look at a map.

He was sent off to England as a child where, under the care of a guardian, he eventually studied medicine and became a doctor. Then the news came of a large inheritance back in the Caribbean as both his father and older brother had died. The brother had spent a large part of their father’s legacy but…a hundred slaves were left on the family plantation.

Now, John Coakley Lettsom had become a Quaker in England. And consequently an abolitionist – as that Christian denomination opposed slavery. So the first thing he did was to liberate all his father’s slaves – which left him penniless. He then set up as a doctor and eventually earned enough money to return from the Caribbean to England.

His self-sacrifice as an abolitionist who had stuck true to his principles got him very favourable publicity in London. England, at this time, was turning very much against the ownership of slaves. In contrast to the Americas where slavery would persist until the mid-century, slavery was officially outlawed in legislation passed in 1807 and 1833. Throughout the British Empire, it became illegal to own other human beings.

Lettsom built a large mansion outside London called Grove Hill – on a high point where you could see the city in the distance. As London has expanded, the area today is just another borough of south London. His mansion was demolished not long after his death and a row of very fine Regency houses built, many of which are still there.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Just before he died, fate played a cruel trick on Lettsom. His son Pickering Lettsom went to live in the British Virgin Islands, where his father had been born, and married a rich woman. Tragically, Pickering died a month after the marriage and his wife not long after. They left everything in their will to John back in London including….a thousand slaves that Pickering’s wealthy wife owned.

Before the exasperated abolitionist could free all these newly acquired slaves, he himself died in 1815. So having begun his career by freeing a hundred slaves to widespread public approval in England, he ended his life accidentally owning a thousand!

Below is a picture of the abolitionist at home with his family in Camberwell before learning about his windfall of a thousand slaves.

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923

Lewis Powell – the handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.

Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.

In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.

Lewis Powell – handsome but violent

Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

DISCOVER MORE: the real American Nazis!

Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.

Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.

The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.

READ MORE: Comparing Roman and American slavery

Here is Lewis Powell in his 1860s male model glory!

American Roman slavery

Roman slavery and American slavery – how were they different?

So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…

American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!

First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.

The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.

American slavery
American slavery

So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?

The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.

In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.

DISCOVER: The real history of American Nazis

Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.

This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.

Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:

  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
  • Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
  • You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
  • Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery

American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:

  • You were an African American in the southern states
  • You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south

Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.

For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.

Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.

I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.

The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.

DISCOVER: The handsome chap who killed Lincoln

American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.

Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads.  It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.

This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.

Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century.  By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.

Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.

Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.

Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.

Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.