The Georgian Papers Programme: Slave Trade, Slavery and Abolition in the Royal Archives, c. 1785–1810
The award of a Georgian Papers Programme Fellowship, funded by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, provided an invaluable opportunity to trace how leading members of the British royal family and household responded to debates on slavery, Africa and abolition in the aftermath of the American War of Independence. Whilst the value of collections in the Royal Archives for tracing dynastic matters and affairs of State is well-known, my research in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle focused on the way in which the Georgian Papers provide an insight into contemporary debates on slavery and other aspects of social, economic and colonial history. References to the Atlantic slave trade, West Africa, slavery, and civil and military affairs in the West Indies are numerous, providing clear evidence of the diversity and potential of these archives.
Against a backdrop of growing abolitionist and anti-abolitionist debate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the letters of George III, Prince William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV), and Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, shed light on royal responses to contemporary debates on the slave trade, slavery and abolition. One of the themes which emerges in correspondence between c. 1785 and 1810 is the relationship between the slave trade and slavery and the economic contribution of the West Indies to British prosperity. In a letter written on board HMS Pegasus in 1787, Prince William (later Duke of Clarence) characterised enslaved men, women and children as financial assets when he informed his father that the ‘trade in slaves at this island [Dominica] is very great owing to our supplying the French with that valuable commodity’. Four months later, his comments on Grenada emphasised how ‘the Island is the largest and most fruitful of the British Windward possessions, as the average crop in every kind is reckoned to amount to the value of 30000 hogsheads of sugar…’. Debate also focused on how to protect British interests in the West Indies in a period of ongoing maritime warfare. Two years before the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, Lord Camden wrote to George III setting out a proposal to ‘prevent the Enrichment, by British Capital of those Colonies & Settlements which have been conquered by your Majesty’s army, during the present war…’. As he was concerned that these possessions ‘may possibly be restored, at a general Peace’, he proposed that ‘it would be expedient to prohibit the Importation of slaves for the Cultivation of fresh Land into such Colonies or Settlements, & only to permit the Importation of those slaves which are necessary to keep up the present Stock by License from the Governors of such Colonies…’. In his response on 1 May 1805, George III emphasised that he had no objection to the proposal, providing that no precedents were set ‘that would disgrace the honour and justice of the British Legislature which has ever fostered the British Islands and has no more right from ideas of false phylanthropy [sic] to affect the property of British settlers than it would have to prevent the cultivation of land in Great Britain’.
After the abolition of the British slave trade, some consideration of the economic and strategic importance of West Africa emerges in correspondence between George III and his ministers. In 1808, Lord Castlereagh wrote to the king explaining that ‘In consequence of the Act lately pass’d for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the changes thereby occasion’d in the Commercial Intercourse of your Majesty’s Subjects with the Coast of Africa, It has been deem’d Expedient to Institute an Enquiry into the possibility of opening Trade in other articles with that Continent…’. Sierra Leone, transferred from the Sierra Leone Company to British Crown control on 1 January 1808, played a central role in initiatives to gather intelligence on the coastline, landscape, economies and natural resources of West Africa. On 23 August 1808, George III had approved the appointment of Captain Edward Henry Columbine who as ‘an officer of science, & great professional knowledge’ was considered to have the necessary skills ‘for surveying all The coast of Africa to which the Trade of the African Company and The Sierra Leone Company have extended’.
The idea that Africa could provide valuable agricultural commodities for export to Europe was not new. The Sierra Leone Company, a chartered trading company, experimented with the cultivation and export of African commodities from 1791. The Company aimed to attack the Atlantic slave trade on its supply side in West Africa by persuading Africans to cultivate and export the natural resources of their land in place of trading in enslaved men, women and children. As George III’s interest in plants, cultivation and farming was well-known, the Company chairman wrote to Sir Evan Nepean (under-secretary of state for Home affairs) in 1793 and requested that ‘application might be made to his Majesty for a few tropical plants from the Royal Gardens at Kew as well as from the Collection brought home by Captain Bligh…’ By 1794, the Company had received ‘several valuable articles of tropical cultivation, through his Majesty’s permission … particularly the bread-fruit tree…’. George III was no doubt aware of the long-running and contentious debates surrounding the Sierra Leone Company. In 1799, his third son, the Duke of Clarence, delivered a vitriolic speech in the House of Lords which attacked the abolitionist-inspired Company. His speech, published with the support of ‘the West India Merchants and Planters, together with the Mercantile Interest of Liverpool’ emphasised ‘the vast importance of the West India Settlements’ and ridiculed the directors of the Company for losing most of their investment capital and operating a business which imported African goods worth £4,000 per year whilst expending £10,000 per year.
As early as 1785, Prince William’s comments on the West Indies reflected the pro-slavery argument that slaves were better off than some groups of people in Britain. In a letter to his father dated 4 August 1785, he recorded his views on people he observed during a voyage to Scotland. He commented that ‘I think the inhabitants here are in a more miserable state than the negroes in the West Indies’. In a letter to his brother George, Prince of Wales, in March 1786, he complained bitterly about the limits on his own personal freedom and bemoaned how he was kept ‘under like a slave’. The abolitionist views of Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, were in marked contrast to the attitudes of the Duke of Clarence. In his role as President of the African Institution, formed in 1807, he was closely involved in an organisation that was committed to ‘promoting civilization and improvement in Africa’. Sierra Leone was central to the work the African Institution, as the Crown colony was used as a base from which Royal Navy patrols intercepted illegal slave ships and released tens of thousands of former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Rare manuscript collections held at the Sierra Leone Public Archives include Registers of Liberated Africans, which document the names and personal characteristics of enslaved Africans released at Freetown from 1808.
The catalogues of the Royal Library also illustrate the rich and varied subject matter of books to which George III had access. Poems on the Abolition of the Slave Trade by James Montgomery, James Graeme and E. Benger published in 1810, was presented to George III by Robert Bowyer, a publisher and painter of miniatures. In a letter dated 16 February 1810, Bowyer explained that ‘Having just completed a most beautifully embellished Volume of Poems (which have been written expressly for the occasion) on the Abolition of the slave trade, a measure which must have so much accorded with those feelings of humanity & kindness which have ever been so conspicuous in your Majesty’s disposition, I would most humbly flatter myself with the hope that your Majesty will deign to accept a Copy of this my new publication…’ Books currently held in the Royal Library also include pro-slavery publications. The examples I examined during the period of the Georgian Papers Programme Fellowship included no marginalia by George III, but further research may yield examples of books with annotations.
The period I spent at the Royal Archives only scratched the surface of the contents of the Georgian Papers, but demonstrated nonetheless their rich potential for tracing attitudes to slavery and the slave trade. I would like to thank the staff of the Royal Archives for their excellent support and advice during my Fellowship, as well as the Omohundro Institute for the opportunity to undertake this fascinating period of research at Windsor Castle.
Material in this article is cited with the permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I would also like to thank Kathryn Ellis, Nicholas Evans, Jan Jensen, Robin Law, Joyce Lorimer and David Richardson for their helpful comments on a draft of this article.
Michael Brock, ‘William IV (1765–1837)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29451, accessed 16 Jan 2017]; A. W. Purdue, ‘William Frederick, Prince, second duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1776–1834)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29457, accessed 16 Jan 2017].
The Royal Archives [hereafter RA], GEO/MAIN/44732-44735, Correspondence to and from, and also papers re, the Duke of Clarence 1779-1830, Prince William to George III, 7 January 1787.
RA, GEO/MAIN/44760, Correspondence to and from, and also papers re, the Duke of Clarence 1779-1830, Prince William to George III, 20 May 1787.
RA, GEO/MAIN/11666-11667, GEO III Calendar, Mar 1805 – Jan 1806, Lord Camden to George III, 1805.
Transcript in A. Aspinall, ed., The Later Correspondence of George III, Volume Four, 1802-1807 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 322
RA, GEO/MAIN/13847, GEO III Calendar July 23 1808 – Feb. 28 1809, Lord Castlereagh to George III, 30 August 1808.
RA, GEO/MAIN/13391-13392, GEO III Calendar, Jan. 1 – July 22 1808, Lord Castlereagh to George III, 16 February 1808 and George III to Lord Castlereagh, 17 February 1808.
RA, GEO/MAIN/13831-13832, GEO III Calendar July 23 1808 – Feb. 28 1809, Lord Mulgrave to George III, 22 August 1808 and George III to Lord Mulgrave, 23 August 1808.
Robin Law, Suzanne Schwarz and Silke Strickrodt, ‘Introduction’, in Robin Law, Suzanne Schwarz & Silke Strickrodt, eds., Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade & Slavery in Atlantic Africa (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2013), pp. 1-27.
Suzanne Schwarz, ‘A Just and Honourable Commerce’: Abolitionist Experimentation in Sierra Leone in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Annual Lecture 2013 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2014); Suzanne Schwarz, ‘Commerce, Civilization and Christianity: The Development of the Sierra Leone Company’, in David Richardson, Suzanne Schwarz and Anthony Tibbles, eds., Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), pp. 252-76.
The National Archives, CO 267/10, Sierra Leone Original Correspondence, Henry Thornton to Sir Evan Nepean, 30 July 1793, p. 19; Elizabeth Sparrow, ‘Nepean, Sir Evan, first baronet (1752–1822)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19894, accessed 21 Jan 2017]; ‘Nepean, Evan (1752-1822), of Loders Court, Dorset’ [http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/nepean-evan-1752-1822, accessed 22 Jan 2017]
Substance of the Report Delivered by the Court of Directors of the Sierra Leone Company, to the General Court of Proprietors, on Thursday the 27th March, 1794 (London: James Phillips, 1794), p. 50.
Substance of the speech of His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, in the House of Lords, On the Motion for the Recommitment of the Slave Trade Limitation Bill, on the Fifth Day of July, 1799, 4th edition (London: C. Whittingham, 1799), pp. 11, 16-17. A copy of this publication is held in the Royal Library collections at Windsor Castle, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN
A similar argument was used over forty years later by Hugh Crow, a former Liverpool slave ship captain, in his autobiography. Hugh Crow, Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool (London: Frank Cass, 1970 ), pp. 175-76.
RA, GEO/MAIN/44679-44690, Correspondence to and from, and also papers re, the Duke of Clarence 1779-1830, Prince William to George III, 4 August 1785.
RA, GEO/MAIN/44705-44706, Correspondence to and from, and also papers re, the Duke of Clarence 1779-1830, Prince William to George, Prince of Wales, 1 March 1786.
Report of the Committee of the African Institution, Read to the General Meeting on the 15th of July, 1807 (London: Ellerton and Henderson, 1811), pp. 1-5. For correspondence, see RA, GEO/ADD/23, Gloucester Papers, Additional MSS, Georgian 23, 1801-1844.
Suzanne Schwarz, ‘Reconstructing the Life Histories of Liberated Africans: Sierra Leone in the Early Nineteenth Century’, History in Africa 39 (2012), pp. 175-209. For access to digitised copies of Registers of Liberated Africans, see British Library Endangered Archives Programme, EAP 443, ‘Nineteenth Century Documents of the Sierra Leone Public Archives’
Deborah Graham-Vernon, ‘Bowyer, Robert (1758–1834)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3091, accessed 16 Jan 2017].
RA, GEO/MAIN/14946, GEO III Calendar, Oct. 1809 – April 1810: Robert Bowyer to George III, 16 February 1810. A copy of this book is currently held in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 1051697