Henry de la Beche defends slavery

December 4, 2020 2 Comments
Anon., Sir Henry de la Beche
(c1819) (National Museum of Wales)

If you were a financial beneficiary of a Caribbean sugar plantation dependent on slave labour, how would you react to the movement to abolish slavery?  Fight the movement aggressively in order to defend your interests?  Keep your head down and wait to collect your government compensation?  Admit the rightness of the movement’s cause, and ‘disinvest’?  Henry de la Beche did none of these things.  His response is a particularly interesting one.

Last week the Welsh Government published its audit of public commemoration in Wales of people associated with slavery and the slave trade.   It’s intended as a source of information and discussion about how these people, almost all of them men, should be remembered in future.  The main spark for the work was the Black Lives Matter movement and the removal and dunking in the river Avon of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston

But the issue was alive well before 2020.  One of the main engines of change has been the painstaking work in University College London, through the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project, to document the slave holdings of those who were given financial compensation by the British government when slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and elsewhere in 1833.  When I was preparing the book Wales in a hundred objects (drawing on the UCL research) I was struck by how deeply rooted slavery was in Welsh society, and how many people had an interest in it – interest in the sense of awareness and concern, but also in the sense of direct or indirect financial self-interest.  So far only one ‘dethroning’ has taken place in Wales that is comparable to the downfall of Colston in Bristol – the removal from Cardiff City Hall of the heroic statue of the vicious governor of Trinidad, Sir Thomas Picton.  But the Welsh Government’s report may lead to more scrutiny, and more actions.

The report, coordinated by Gaynor Legall, looks at monuments, street names and building names associated with black people and the slave trade.  (It includes records of abolitionists, and a few black people, like the fascinating John Ystumllyn, who lived in north Wales during the age of slavery.)  The list is long and detailed, and it will open many eyes, even the eyes of experienced historians.  One name that jumped out for me was a Swansea figure of major importance, Henry de la Beche.

Alexander Craig, Sir Henry de la Beche (c1845)
(National Museum of Wales)

De la Beche is mostly remembered today – and commemorated in Swansea street names – as a pioneer of geological surveying.  He was born in London in 1796.  His father, Thomas, was an army officer and a social climber – he changed the family name from plain ‘Beach’ to ‘De la Beche’.  He also inherited from his father a slave plantation, Halse Hall, in Clarendon, Jamaica.  As a young man Henry lived for a while in Lyme Regis and developed a taste for geology, partly through his acquaintance with Mary Anning.  He joined the Geological Society of London in 1817, became a keen fossil-hunter, and researched and published geological accounts of various locations, including Jamaica, as well as general books on geology.  His breakthrough was the realization that systematic geological surveying, as well as adding to scientific knowledge, could also accelerate the commercial exploitation of minerals.  First he persuaded the Ordnance Survey to set up a geological survey branch in 1835, and to employ him as its chief geological surveyor.  Then, in 1845, he convinced the government to recognize the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland as a separate body, with himself as Director.  Now known as the British Geological Survey, it’s the world’s earliest national geological survey organisation.

Sir Henry De la Beche with his two daughters
(c1853)

In 1837 De la Beche, understanding the importance of geological research to the development of the South Wales coalfield, gained permission from the director of the Ordnance Survey to move the geological survey from London to Swansea.  With the help of a group of talented assistants he succeeded by 1844 in completing the mapping of south Wales in great detail.  In Swansea he was elected in 1839 as an honorary member of the Royal Institution of South Wales, and joined its network of leading scientists and engineers.  He had known its first President, the naturalist Lewis Weston Dillwyn, for fifteen years, and Bessie, his elder daughter, later married Dillwyn’s son, Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn.  In many respects De la Beche was a progressive, by the standards of his age, but in the case of slavery self-interest blinded his better instincts (interestingly the Dillwyn family, of Quaker ancestry, were firm abolitionists).

Halse Hall Great House

De la Beche had inherited the Jamaican plantations after the premature death of his father in 1801.  When he came of age he started to benefit personally from the profits they produced.  He was unready to forego them, though his conscience, and the opinions of his friends, started to weigh on him.  In response to a challenge from a friend, William Conybeare, he wrote in a letter on 8 January 1824, ‘You know that I am a well-wisher to the slave population, but I wish their condition to be gradually bettered, not suddenly’ (NMW, De La Beche papers).

De la Beche set out for Jamaica, pragmatic fieldworker that he was, to make his geological survey of the island, but also to ascertain ‘the facts’ about the enslaved workers on his plantation.  He spent a year there, from December 1823 to December 1824.  In 1825 he published a 63-page pamphlet, Notes on the present condition of negroes in Jamaica, summarizing his findings.  It isn’t easy reading.  You can almost hear the author trying to struggle with his own conscience as he builds a wobbly case to support a rickety argument.  The problems begin in the preface: 

I entered on this investigation with a sincere desire to ascertain facts, and with no other prepossession than the dislike of slavery natural to every Englishman, and which I trust the accidental circumstance of inheriting West Indian property does not necessarily obliterate: I can truly say with Bryan Edwards [a leading opponent of abolition], ‘that I am no friend to slavery in any shape, or under any modification’; but the question in this case is not whether slavery in itself be the object of our love or hate, but how the existing state of things in our West India colonies can be changed with justice and safety to all the parties interested. 

Bagging cotton

De la Beche is aware that some of his readers will find this unacceptable, but he trusts that at least some of them ‘will not think it an inevitable condition of the possession of colonial property, that the owner must be a lover of slavery, or an enemy to truth’. 

At the time of De la Beche’s visit Halse Hall owned 207 mainly ‘creole’ slaves, mostly born on the plantation.  They are woken at five o’clock by the bell of the ‘head driver’, and start work at daybreak.  Breakfast is at nine, and dinner at half past twelve, though the negroes skip the meal and spend their time tending their ‘provision grounds’.  Work resumes and continues without a break until half an hour after sunset, after which the slaves can ‘spend the evening as they think proper’.  De la Beche is proud that his drivers don’t carry whips, as they do on other plantations, and punishments are carried out by their overseers.  The head driver at Halse Hill, we’re assured, ‘is an intelligent, human and steady man’.  Failure to complete digging the allotted number of cane-holes leads to withdrawal of rum and sugar rations.  ‘Weakly adults’ and children perform lighter duties.  At crop time – four months of the year, and apparently a ‘merry time’ for the slaves – the workforce is split into two shifts, and work continues day and night.  (He doesn’t mention the fact in his pamphlet, but De la Beche rewarded good behaviour among his slaves by awarding medals ‘for good conduct’.)

Fishpot of split bamboo,
in foreground at Brailsford’s

Ninety barrels of herrings are imported each year to feed the slaves, and are served out to then weekly.  They also receive ‘guinea corn’ throughout the year.  Other foods, like maize and potatoes, the slaves are expected to produce from their provision grounds (though some of these are ten miles away).

For clothes each negro receives annually ‘a black hat, a Kilmarnock cap, a handkerchief, a knife, some tape, nine skeins of thread, and some needles’ – more than sufficient, alleges De la Beche, to supply slaves with ‘working dresses’ throughout the year.  On Sundays and holidays they wear dresses ‘often exceeding in value those possessed by the generality of European peasantry’, adorned with necklaces, rings and brooches.

Negro man carrying
plantains on a pole

Pregnant and post-natal women are excused labour, as are children up to the age of six years.  Holidays amount to one day at Easter and two at Christmas, and Sundays and some Saturdays.  There is a hospital, ‘attended regularly by a white medical man’, where malingering is discouraged by docking Saturday and Sunday holidays.  Slaves’ houses are ‘generally comfortable on the interior’.  Furniture ‘depends upon their means’: industrious negroes may have a cupboard or sideboard as well as a table and chairs.  Punishments take the form of stoppage of allowances, the stocks, switching and whipping (for men, only in ‘bad cases’).  The overseer keeps a punishment book.

De la Beche laments that the slaves prefer ‘polygamy and promiscuous intercourse’ to marriage – a practice unlikely to change, he says, until ‘they have imbibed proper moral and religious feelings’ after instruction from Rev. Crofts, the resident Wesleyan missionary.  Abortion is common.  It is attributed, astonishingly, to a feeling that ‘child-bearing will interfere with the pursuit of their favourite amusements’.  Slaves attend religious service, but De la Beche admits that ‘Obeahism’, the ‘superstitious dread of the power of certain men’ and a belief in ghosts are still common.

Sugar estate: negroes cutting cane

Having described the regime on his own plantation, De la Beche goes on to sketch how slaves are treated on other Jamaican plantations.  The comparison always favours his own practices as the more enlightened and humane.

De la Beche ends his pamphlet with his thoughts on ending slavery.  He regrets that discussion has become polarised, between firm defenders of slavery and outright abolitionists, and advocates a kind of middle way, what he calls ‘the amelioration of the slave system’.  He avoids engaging directly with the abolitionist case, and only emphasises how difficult it will be to satisfy the objections of the slave owners.  If slaves are able to buy their own freedom, only a few will choose to do so, leaving the owner with ‘the worthless and unprofitable’, and unable to make a profit.

It may be said that the persons so liberated would still work for wages, many of them would probably do so as tradesmen, but the difficulty would be to hold out a sufficient inducement to them to perform agricultural labour, an exemption from which at present constitutes their idea of freedom.

Rather than finish with his own judgement, he leans on the opinion of the Tory Foreign Secretary George Canning, a man who had compared black people to Frankenstein’s monster and who, according to William Cobbett, had only one political aim, to ‘prevent any change in the system’:

Four Jamaican figures talking at a fence

To those who, professing to advocate the cause of humanity and justice, would by a too precipitate zeal put to risk the great interests for which they contend, the eloquent language of a distinguished statesman cannot be too frequently repeated.

‘The question is not – it cannot be made – a question of right, of humanity, of morality merely.  It is a question which contemplates a change, great and difficult beyond example; one almost beyond the power of man to accomplish; a change in the condition and circumstances of an entire class of our fellow creatures; the recasting, as it were, of a whole generation of mankind.  If this be not a question requiring deliberation –cautious and fearful deliberation – I know not what can be so.  We must proceed in it with the extremest circumspection; we must watch the signs of the times, taking advantage of every favourable occurrence; but reserving a discretion and freedom of action, which it would be madness wantonly to throw away.’

Driver, cold morning

By the 1830s the end of the Jamaican slave economy was in sight.  Escapes and riots by slaves became more common, abolitionists were winning the moral argument, and profits from sugar were in decline.  Finally, in 1833 Parliament legislated to abolish slavery, though not before promising lavish public compensation, £20m in total, to the owners for the loss of their human property.  De la Beche failed to benefit from this government subsidy.  Instead it went to Hibbert & Co., the owners of the original mortgage taken out by De la Beche’s father.  By the early 1830s, his estate, which had always been saddled with debt, had failed, and his income from slavery ceased – which is why he was keen to receive a salary from the Ordnance Survey in 1832. 

So in the end, as it turned out, Henry de la Beche could have spared himself and the world his self-serving presentation of ‘the facts’ and his justification for owning slaves.

The drawings above were made by William Berryman in Jamaica between 1808 and 1815. Berryman was a talented draughtsman and watercolourist, and took a particular interest in depicting the black and creole people of the island. His works are now in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Henry de la Beche, silver medal
‘Halse Hall, Jamaica: reward for good conduct’ (1823)

Comments (2)

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  1. Karmen Thomas says:

    I was aware through my own research on De La Beche that he was connected to and benefited financially from slavery through his father’s ownership of a plantation, and his own subsequent ownership, but your research goes much deeper. Fascinating to almost feel the moral confusion the De la Beche felt regarding slave ownership. Your piece reveals a picture of a man that knows he is engaging in a grave wrongdoing but the temptation of financial gain is too strong..

    An interesting but depressing read.

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