Bertie Entwisle, Slave-Owner (1732-1803)

Slavery plaque

The word ‘slavery’ is more likely to conjure up images of Alabama cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses, of films and TV programmes Roots, Gone With The Wind and 12 Years A Slave, rather than images of Jamaica or Barbados in the 18th century. This is not an accident. That geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history.

Thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, swept those uncomfortable chapters of their 17th and 18th centuries family history under the carpet. Today, across the country, there are heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describing former slave traders as West India merchants, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term West India planter.

Slavery Abolition Act, 1833

In 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it had taken another 26 years to effect the emancipation of those enslaved.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. What is less well known is that the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. The Slave Compensation Commission was the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners and administer the distribution of the £20m the government had raised to pay them off. That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn.

This compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. The British Government took out a £15 million loan from bankers to pay the slave-owners. This wasn’t cleared until 2015! Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

The National Archives in Kew have 1,631 volumes of leather-bound ledgers and neatly tied bundles of letters that have lain in the archives for 180 years, for the most part unexamined. They are the records and the correspondence of the Slave Compensation Commission, the T71 files. These records are an unintended by-product of the Slavery Abolition Act. They represent a near complete census of British slavery as it was on 1 August 1834, the day slavery “ended”. For that one day we have a full list of Britain’s slave owners. All of them.

The T71s tell us how many slaves each person owned, where those slaves lived and toiled, and how much compensation the owners received for them. Although the existence of the T71s was never a secret, it was not until 2010 that a team from University College London began to systematically analyse them. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, which is still continuing, is led by Professor Catherine Hall and Dr Nick Draper, and the picture of slave ownership that has emerged from their work is not what anyone was expecting.

Leg irons
‘Humane’ leg irons found in a Liverpool cellar, probably a relic of slave trade

The large slave owners, the men of the ‘West India interest’, who owned huge estates from which they drew vast fortunes, appear in the files of the Commission. Slave ownership, it appears, was far more common than has previously been presumed. Many of these middle-class slave owners had just a few slaves, possessed no land in the Caribbean and rented their slaves out to landowners, in work gangs. These bit-players were home county vicars, iron manufacturers from the Midlands and lots and lots of widows. About 40% of the slave owners living in the colonies were women. Then, as now, women tended to outlive their husbands and simply inherited human property through their partner’s wills.

The geographic spread of the slave owners who were resident in Britain in 1834 was almost as unexpected as the gender breakdown. Slavery was once thought of as an activity largely limited to the ports from which the ships of the triangular trade set sail, Bristol, London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Yet there were slave owners across the country, from Cornwall to the Orkneys. In proportion to population, the highest rates of slave ownership are found in Scotland.

‘Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions’ a Whig politician slipping £20 million out of John Bull’s pocket.

The T71 files have now been converted into an online database; a free, publicly available resource. [1]

By inputting the Entwisle surname into this database we found details of one slave-owner who was certainly no ‘bit-player’! He was Bertie Entwisle, a merchant and slave-owner of Antigua, born 1732, son of John Entwisle of Liverpool: married to Sarah Jeafferson. In 1777, during the American Revolution, Bertie was described as ‘Surveyor of His Majesty’s Customs at St Johns, Antigua’.

It seems likely that Bertie’s father, John Entwisle, was one of the Liverpool merchants or ‘privateers’ with a 1/40 share in the vessel Le Lion d’Or which had been captured from the French in 1749 and converted into a whaling vessel, The Golden Lion. Besides whaling, the ship seems to have been heavily involved in the transportation of slaves during the mid-18th century.

Bertie Entwisle died in 1803, leaving interest in his estates and enslaved people in the West Indies mainly to his sister’s son, Ralph Peters of Southport.

In November 1835 Ralph Peters, as trustee, claimed a total of over £7000 in compensation for the loss of 454 slaves from these estates in Antigua: Jolly Hill St Mary, Barnacle Point St George’s and Golden Grove, St John’s. In February 1836 he made a further claim for £1457 5s 8d for 64 slaves he had an interest in at Clifton Hill on St Vincent.

[Eileen Cowen, member 241 and Editor]

Back to top