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Anthony Gambrill | Slavery, sugar and the founding of an aristocratic dynasty

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Henry Lascelles began accumulating his wealth by unscrupulously exploiting his position as the Barbadian customs collector in 1715, then securing a lucrative victualling contract for supplying the Royal Navy in the Caribbean. It was only after many plantations in the West Indies, including Jamaica, collapsed into debt in the late 1700s that the Lascelles family became landowners and acquired slaves.

He and his brothers were to be accused of defrauding the Crown of its sugar duties and conniving at the smuggling of French sugars. Over time, however, assisted by political allies, all charges were dropped.

Henry Lascelles described securing the navy contracts for victualling as "a branch of business which, through good management (I reckon), I chiefly made my fortune by". He and his siblings in Barbados quickly developed a profitable trading business with a London counterpart devoted to importing sugar. His commercial activities included investing in a "factory ship" off the West Coast of Africa to collect and disburse slaves. However, it was the Lascelles loan portfolio, which was, ultimately, be the source of their steadily increasing wealth.

After only 20 years in Bridgetown, Henry Lascelles returned to England worth as much as half a million pounds. He died tragically in 1753 by suicide, slashing his throat, arms and stomach. It can only be conjectured that the burden of his complex English and West Indian empire eventually shattered his mental health.




On Henry's death, his estate was largely shared between his two eldest sons, Edwin and Daniel. Daniel was expected by his father to take over the management of the family's West Indian enterprises, while Edwin received a university education, briefly serving in the army and before his election to Parliament. Daniel, now aged 25, however, was disowned by his father when he married one Elizabeth Southwick "clandestinely". Within four months, the marriage was to end in divorce, supposedly because she "had entered into and lived in an unlawful familiarity with Henry Parminter of Lincolns Inn ...". It is not known if this allegation was true, but she was granted a modest financial settlement, later dying in poverty.

Reconciled with his father, Daniel was sent on a tour of France and Italy, presumably to further his education before being readmitted into the Lascelles firm. By now, the Lascelles were beginning to concentrate on making loans with increasing regularity to West Indian plantation owners. Author James Walvin summarised their success as follows: "Finance, commerce, colonial governance, military politics, and metropolitan influence (to say nothing of greased palms) all came together in a complex financial/political brew in the Atlantic dealings of the Lascelles family."

Daniel Lascelles died in 1784 without leaving an heir, and in that year, his brother, Edwin, assumed control. The Lascelles interests became focused on ownership of estates where mortgage payments could no longer be kept up or loans repaid. The single-heaviest burden of debt was owed by the Harvie brothers in Jamaica.

Coincidentally, there had been an independent line of Lascelleses known to have lived in Jamaica in the 18th century. In 1675, a James Lascelles was customs controller at Ferry Road. And an Anne Lascelles in 1743 probably married Tobias Smollett while he was serving as a surgeon on a Royal Navy vessel in the West Indies. Smollett later wrote the novel, Roderick Random, which was a huge successful satire on English society. Unfortunately, his zeal drained his financial resources and he had to fall back on Anne's income from her Jamaican estates.


Cede direct ownership


The Scottish Harvie brothers, John and Alexander, after 10 years in the export- import trade in Barbados, opted to enter the rich slave trade in Jamaica, initially backed by credit from the Lascelleses. The momentum of a sugar boom after 1740 led to them over-extending their credit, and despite their illiquidity, they began investing in Jamaican land. Unable to meet their obligations, the Harvie family had to cede direct ownership of their plantations to Lascelles. Most of these seven holdings comprised undeveloped land. These included the cattle pens of Mammee Ridge (St Ann) and Angel's Pen (St Catherine) and sugar estates at Williamsfield (now part of St Catherine), and Nightingale Grove (St Dorothy, also now part of St Catherine).

By 1848, the Jamaican properties had been sold. Of the two producing sugar, the owners were compensated nearly £5,000 for the release of 344 slaves. The Lascelleses were compensated in all more than £26,000 after Emancipation for six plantations in Barbados and Jamaica. While the last of their Jamaican properties were sold in the 1800s, not until 1935 did the Lascelleses dispose of their last Barbadian property.

Harewood House, the Lascelles ancestral home in north Yorkshire described by Sir Hilary Beckles as "a monument to the profitability of slavery", was begun by Edwin Lascelles in 1759 but not completed until 1771. Considered to be one of the 10 foremost historic homes in Britain, it remains the residence of the eighth earl of Harewood. The family entered into royal circles when, in 1992, Viscount Henry Lascelles married Princess Mary, the daughter of George V. Frequently the setting for television films, Harewood House is open to the public for most of the year.

The Lascelleses opposed abolition. Even as late as 1832, the second Earl Harewood declared to a gathering, "I, among others, am a sufferer; but I am not a sufferer equal to those who may have nothing but their West Indian property to depend upon." As a sufferer, he is hardly likely to attract much sympathy considering his family extracted a fortune from the West Indies for more than a hundred years from slavery and sugar.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to