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Anthony Gambrill | How slavery and sugar helped elect a British PM

Published:Thursday | May 18, 2017 | 12:00 AM

A University College of London team led by Dr Nick Draper has spent several years compiling 46,000 records of some 3,000 of those British families paid compensation for their 'loss of property' at Emancipation. This wealth has been traced to many stately homes, some industrial investments, the early beginnings of merchant banks, to raising families into the ranks of society and providing financial support for political careers. The team even showed ex-prime minister David Cameron's family reward in the late 1700s for freeing 200 slaves on Grange estate. He has declined to comment.

Of more relevance to present-day discourse is the family of W.E. Gladstone, one of Britain's most significant 19th-century politicians. Sir John Gladstone (1764-1851), W.E. Gladstone's father, enjoyed early success by becoming familiar in his shipping apprenticeship with the Baltic trade. By the time he was only 22, he joined a partnership in Liverpool diversifying into Virginia tobacco and American grain. Fifteen years later, he joined his brothers entering into shipping insurance, ship owning, warehouses and Lancashire real estate.

His West Indies ventures began with trading sugar and cotton, but in 1803, he made his first purchase of a sugar estate in Demerara, Guyana. It was to be the first of several, subsequently adding Jamaican plantations by means of foreclosing on a mortgage. One such was Holland in St Elizabeth, which was producing sugar, rum, logwood, and cattle. Supplied with water from the YS River, Holland had its own wharf on the Black River to transport its wares. Today, we enjoy the natural beauty of Bamboo Walk, which was created to keep the slave owners and their slaves a little more comfortable as they made their way to Lacovia, the then capital of St Elizabeth.

The Jamaica Assembly agreed to grant free land in about 1783 to the Loyalists, who were expelled after the American Revolution. It was to be the southern section of Holland Estate consisting of 30,000 to 40,000 acres. A government surveyor, George Murray, was appointed, but soon agreed that no "living creature, besides fish, frogs, Dutchmen and amphibious animals can exist in the district". One Black River resident believed that at least half of the land was habitable, and the Loyalists who had successfully grown rice in the past saw it as eminently suitable. However, they had no financial resources, and the Assembly was not prepared to undertake the draining of the swamp. Holland Estate remained intact.

Sir John Gladstone never visited the West Indies, but played a prominent role defending the interests of the planters. He must have been somewhat of a maverick among his peers as he preferred investing, not in Britain's industrial evolution, but in West Indian estates. He disregarded the anti-slavery movement, continued after Emancipation to cultivate his plantation in Guyana in particular, finally withdrawing from the West Indies in the middle of the 19th century. His attempt to make the apprentice system work eventually failed and, ultimately, he introduced Indian indentured labour in Demerara.

Sir John Gladstone was reared in the strict Scottish tradition, and in addition to his business pursuits, attempted with little success to fashion a political career. For this, he turned to his son; in fact, he had to dissuade William from taking holy orders.

For the first 30 years of his life, William Ewart Gladstone was dependent on his father for his income and political expenses, much of it deriving from his father's plantations. Following his election at Newark in 1832 at the age of 23, it is not surprising that his maiden speech in Parliament was in defence of slavery.




Although subsequently he was to express concern with the physical and religious conditions of the slaves, his main objection was to protect the financial interest of his father and other slave owners. While claiming a deep interest in slavery as a question of justice of humanity and religion, he gave priority to defending his father's record as a plantation owner.

Ultimately, the key to Emancipation was compensation. By the beginning of the 1830s, sugar prices were falling. Slave revolts in Jamaica were increasing, and West Indian planters' influence in Parliament was declining. But compensation had to be substantial and had to include apprenticeship. It was £20 million.

Although not directly involved in the claim, William Gladstone enjoyed the benefit of his father's award of just over £100 (modern equivalent of £83 million) for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations. His father eventually divested himself of his West Indian estates to devote his endeavours to sugar in India. At one point, William wanted to go to the Caribbean to investigate conditions on his father's plantations, but permission was denied.

Gladstone was to be prime minister for four terms, finally resigning in 1894. He married into the Glynne family of Flintshire in Wales, which his father had bailed out. Howarden Castle was the ancestral home where William Gladstone lived until he died in 1898.

It is ironic that in the not-too-distant past, 'Gladstone' was a favourite christening name given to male babies preferably expected to grow into successful, upstanding citizens.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to