Mon | Feb 19, 2018

Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: the legacy of slavery and sugar (Part 4)

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 12:00 AM

You didn't need to own several plantations, thousands of acres of arable land, and hundreds of slaves to make a fortune in Jamaica in the era of slavery and sugar. Gilbert Heathcote achieved it by dint of working hard, getting his own way, and with the help of six brothers.

Born in 1652 to a modestly successful ironmonger from an ancient Derbyshire family in Chesterfield, he was, in the words of historian Nuala Zahedieh, "to progress from counting house to country house" over a lifespan of 83 years.

At 15, he was bound to a merchant ship then sent later to Stockholm for his early exposure at 19 to the world of the trader. By the time he returned to London in 1681, he was importing wine from Spain and sourcing minerals and a variety of raw materials needed by the navy. Within the next decade, he became one of the most prominent merchants in London.

Three brothers Josiah, John and William had settled in Port Royal and begun trading in their own and their brother, Gilbert's, name. By 1690, the Heathcotes were leading importers and commission agents, and despite the calamitous Port Royal earthquake two years later, it is recorded that Gilbert imported 8,000 pounds worth of sugar, ginger, and indigo from Jamaica.

The government of Great Britain appointed him Jamaica's agent to solicit its affairs, thus providing him with valuable contracts and remittances. An early responsibility was to assist in the naval defence of the island. He procured credit of £6,000 to purchase man-of-war vessels, and between 1701 and 1706, he advanced an average of £12,000 annually towards maintaining Jamaica's naval force. His own foray into (merchant) navy endeavours consisted of investing in the Eagle and Marlborough on slaving voyages to Guinea in Africa. Apparently, this extension of his mercantile activities was short-lived as the risks were deemed too great.

His revenue as the agent in Jamaica and the export of foodstuffs was to receive a lucrative boost after 1713. The Treaty of Utrecht gave Britain a 30-year exclusive contract to supply 4,800 slaves and 500 tons of merchandise to Spain's Caribbean colonies every year. In return, a certain fee had to be paid to the Spanish crown. This concession was known as the Asiento and had been in existence for decades already.

Gilbert Heathcote profited from this arrangement, as well as gaining entry into traditionally closed Spanish colonial markets. However, in 1730, the British government of the day gave the contract to Heathcote's rival the South Sea Company.

Leaving his brother abroad to manage the family's burgeoning Jamaican enterprises, Gilbert Heathcote became extremely active in promoting his mercantile interests in London. He spearheaded a group of merchants and financiers to end the monopoly of the once-powerful East India Company so he could trade in the East Indies; he convinced Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia, when visiting London to grant him the exclusive privilege of importing tobacco into that country; he obtained supply contracts and remunerative official posts for his brother, Caleb, in New York. As a founding member of the Bank of England in 1694 and a frequent consultant to the British Treasury, he was to wield enormous influence on affairs of the day.

focus on politics

Heathcote's enthusiasm soon focused on politics, and he sat in Parliament under four royal reigns. Despite often violent opposition to his views, he became lord mayor of London in 1710. The tradition of the lord mayor riding on horseback through the streets of the city ended that year when Heathcote was unsaddled by a drunken flower girl. At one point during this time, he faced challenges to his political actions to the extent that there was even a rumour that his Tory opponents plotted to assassinate him.

Josiah Gilbert, the most active of his brothers in Jamaica, had risen to prominence in the island since his arrival in 1688, becoming a respected church warden and member of the Assembly. While trading was the original focus of his energies, he eventually began supervising plantations for absentee owners. He and his brother, Gilbert, entered into an agreement to manage Bybrook for the Helyar family, but this was dissolved in 1698 acrimoniously, probably as a result of questionable expenses they had incurred.

The Heathcotes owned warehouses in Port Royal at the time of the 1692 earthquake but afterwards concentrated their activities in Kingston, with landholdings on Prince Street, Orange Street, and four properties on Harbour Street, presumably to accommodate wharves. They also had land in St Catherine, St Andrew, and St Thomas-in-the-East.

Josiah, on behalf of himself and his brother, presented an impassioned plea on his return to Britain in 1703 to discourage the resettlement of Port Royal to the Council of Trade and Plantations, the forerunner of the Colonial office in London. He pointed out that "the place being so very small, there is no room upon it to build convenient dwelling and store houses ...".

On the other hand, he said Kingston was "the most commodious place of that island for the seat of trade" and "is reckoned the pleasantest, plentifullest and healthiest precinct". He warned of the possibility of another earthquake in Port Royal as a place to live and carry on trade and emphasised its vulnerability to an enemy attack. Kingston was a place where merchants and others would be able "to keep one or more horses" to augment the much more easily defensible harbour and town. In closing, he admitted that his house and storehouses in Kingston made him more "partial" to the mainland town.

Gilbert Heathcote was knighted at the beginning of the 18th century and made a baron in1732. As his wealth grew, he bought land in Lincolnshire and five other counties, demonstrating the power and strength of the landed class by building Normanton Park, a large Palladium-styled house on 400 acres. Normanton Park was to be a monument to his success. He died at 83, his fortune then estimated to be over £700,000 pounds, making him "the richest commoner in England".

Parsimonious in life, Sir Gilbert Heathcote left only £500 to the poor of Chesterfield, where he was born. On his memorial in the church where he was buried, it noted: "a friend to the rights and liberties of mankind". Nuala Zahediah, the historian, adds: "Although the slaves whose labour so much of their (Heathcotes) wrath was

founded might flinch at this."

• Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to