The Heart of the Matter

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer & slave owner

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer and slave owner.

The recent revelations in our media about the treatment of British subjects that has become known as “the Windrush scandal” has rightly shocked many people. What decent person could fail to be horrified by the degrading and inhuman treatment of fellow citizens who should be approaching their later years as respected members of our society, not facing poverty, fear and deportation?

Something else has intensified my personal feelings of revulsion however. By coincidence, I have been researching and writing an article about the conduct of some slave-owners in the West Indies. Most, if not all, of the “Windrush generation,” are, almost certainly, the descendants of slaves who worked on British-owned plantations in the Caribbean. Having spent the last few weeks reading about the horrors of slavery in the Leeward Islands, I have watched my government treat them, not with the humility and contrition that might be expected, but with hostility and aggression. I never thought I would ever read about a British citizen fearing “the knock on the door in the night.” That fear, until recently, firmly belonged to people living under oppressive, totalitarian regimes.

Anyone who has read about the atrocities of the slave trade will feel that we owe the descendants of slaves a great deal. Citizenship, certainly. Arguably, Britain also owes them compensation in some form. Yet, just before this scandal broke, the Treasury revealed that although compensation had been paid, it was not to the victims of slavery but to its perpetrators. Last February it tweeted: “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

The government department clearly thought this was the cause of celebration, but the tweet was deleted the following day after it was received with some anger. As the historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian: “… the £20 million was paid out to the 46,000 slave owners, to compensate them for the loss of their human property. By one calculation that is the modern equivalent of about £17bn. Is this really something we should regard with collective pride?”

One of the families that received compensation for the loss of their slaves was the one I am researching. The Greene family were an important and respected dynasty in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. Benjamin Greene, the man who founded the famous Greene King brewery there in 1799, produced some distinguished descendants, including his eldest son, Benjamin Buck Greene, who became Governor of the Bank of England, and his great-grandsons, Hugh Carleton and Graham Greene, who were Director-General of the BBC and a highly-acclaimed novelist respectively.

By 1830, the Greenes had acquired several sugar plantations in St Kitts, Montserrat and Antigua, which they either owned or managed, eventually running eighteen estates. They made a great fortune out of sugar and, far from being ashamed of their involvement – the prevailing atmosphere in Britain at that time was in favour of abolition – Benjamin Greene dedicated himself to arguing the case for slavery to continue, claiming that slaves had better lives than the agricultural labourers who worked on his Suffolk estates. He even bought himself a newspaper in which to put his views forward. In contrast to the thousands of words in print debating the subject from the point of view of both slave-owners and abolitionists, the slaves themselves were forced to remain silent. They were rarely given a voice in either the official records or the printed media of the time. To catch a glimpse of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean, we must go back to a few decades before the Greene family became involved, to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):

“When I was in Montserrat I knew a negro man, named Emanuel Sankey, who endeavoured to escape from his miserable bondage by concealing himself on board of a London ship, but fate did not favour the poor oppressed man; for, being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master. This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ancle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and dropped it all over his back. … It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed, on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c, … were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over… I grant indeed, that slaves are sometimes, by half-feeding, half-clothing, over-working and stripes, reduced so low, that they are turned out as unfit for service, and left to perish in the woods, or expire on the dung-hill… It was almost constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations of the chastity of the female slaves… I have even known them gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.”

The official abolition of slavery in St Kitts did not immediately improve the situation for what were supposedly now “free” slaves. For several years, slavery was replaced with an “apprenticeship” system in which slaves over the age of six had to work for forty-six hours a week, scratching out a subsistence living in the time that was left to them. The resulting rebellion, when black labourers refused to work, was ruthlessly suppressed by a regiment of British soldiers shipped in from Barbados. British newspapers reported: “We regret to learn that an insurrection has broken out in St Kitts. The particulars we have not heard; but it appears the deluded wretches, on being fired on, charged en masse with the intention of overwhelming the military. They were, however, received with coolness, and bayonetted on the spot.”

Even in the dying years of slavery, the Greenes continued their ruthless treatment of their black workers. It does not seem to have ever been a source of shame to them. One of Benjamin’s sons, Charles, was reputed to have fathered thirteen children in his brief time managing the family estate in Nicola Town, St Kitts, before he died at the age of nineteen. In 1970, Hugh Carleton Greene wrote an article about “great-uncle Charles” for History Today, in a tone that now seems repellent:

“In the possession of my family is an inventory of slaves on some of Benjamin Greene’s estates prepared in 1819. On one estate alone there were 43 men, 43 women, 37 boys and 35 girls to a total value of nearly £15,000. Against their names are such comments as ‘ruptured’, ‘infirm’, ‘broken leg’, ‘one eye’, ‘wooden leg’, ‘elephantiasis’, ‘leprosy’, ‘subject to fits’, ‘eats dirt’ and ‘pregnant’. The girls about to be born would have been ripe for Charles fifteen years or so later. Whether the exact number of his children was thirteen one may never be able to find out: some there certainly were. … William’s diary makes many references to their riding excursions and to the nervousness of the negro workers when they broke into a gallop. One likes to think of Charles, like King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, dismounting and bestowing his casual favours on girls working in the fields. … Many of his children no doubt sank back into the great anonymous mass of negro labour.”

Benjamin Greene’s descendants were part of a liberal élite but, at best, they were wryly amused by their family’s exploitation of the black people on their Caribbean estates and almost wholly dismissive of them as fellow human beings. Hugh’s brother, the writer Graham Greene, worked for the Anti-slavery Society briefly, perhaps in an attempt to expiate his family’s sins, but it was hardly enough. The Greenes, along with 46,000 other slavers wanted compensation for the loss of their slave “stock.” The list of compensation claims, listed on the UCL Database of Slave Owners, is an example of how Britain has never addressed the crimes that it committed. As a nation, Britain still likes to think of its colonial era as a time of adventure and endeavour, rather than atrocity and oppression. We prefer to talk about abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson than to recall the horrendous exploits of people like the Greenes. Until Britain starts to face up to the crimes of its past, it cannot begin to repair the damage it has done in the world.

In recent years, people have been forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families and detained without due process. As Hugh Muir recently wrote in the Guardian “Behind the scandal were questionable philosophies, assumptions and attitudes, and it is those we need to unearth.”

We can find some of those philosophies, assumptions and attitudes in the history of Britain’s involvement with slavery.

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Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.

Kneller

“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

A List of Slaves

I was going to write about this, which I found in a slightly eccentric periodical called Fragmenta Genealogica, privately published in ca. 1906, but it’s only really necessary to read the document – and particularly the names of the slaves – to get the picture :