Skeletons in the closet?

I am been busy trying to both restructure this site and categorise the blog posts in a more meaningful way (see more on this on the Family Indices, Categories and Related Resources index page). That includes creating new categories, including Skeletons in the closet. That’s because family history can reveal not only the good, but also the bad and even downright ugly. Sadly, that includes those involved in slavery.

I haven’t found many who were, but that is partly the result of feeling less connected to ancestors the further back I go, so after a certain point I’m generally not looking beyond more basic family tree info, i.e. who begat who. But also because I have been more interested in those ancestors that are less well documented and, therefore, more of a mystery. That hasn’t seemingly included those owning or trading slaves (so far). However, I thought it important to create a category about those ancestors I’ve found that were, as well and as those involved in equally unedifying and nefarious activities.

One example are my Fitzherbert ancestors. On the wiki entry of my 5x gt. grandfather Sir William FitzHerbert, 1st Bt (1748 – 1791), it states that he married Sarah Perrin in 1777 and through her inherited five plantations in Jamaica (the four sugar plantations of Blue Mountain, Forest, Grange Hill and Vere, and also the coffee plantation of Retrieve Mountain). He also has a record on the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery pages hosted by University College London (UCL), which shows that these estates actually appear to have passed to his son Sir Henry Fitzherbert, 3rd bart (my 4x gt. grandfather). I knew little until recently about Sarah Perrin’s family other than her father was William Perrin.

But I recently also discovered a record for a William Perrin on Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery pages mentioned above. It show he died in 1759, leaving his property to his son William Philip Perrin (1742-1820). The record also includes details of his will that mentions his wife Frances and daughter Sarah, who I am guessing is the one that married Sir William Fitzherbert mentioned above. I am also guessing that William Philip Perrin died without issue because his father’s will states that his daughter (Sarah) would inherit what was left of his estate in that case.

The National Archives has more detailed information on the planatations of William Perrin (senior), although nothing about his ancestry. The record about him is based on the ‘West Indian Papers’ held at the Debyshire Records Office and explains how he made his fortune as a merchant at Kingston in the first decades of the 18th century – probably acquiring most of his plantations through foreclosures of loans (hence why they are scattered about the island). In 1739 he goes to England, leaving one of his partners as his attorney who he replaces later after a falling out. He leaves Jamacia in 1739 and dies in 1759 (apparently without having returned to Jamaica), leaving his fortune to his son William Philp Perrin. That fortune was about £60,000 which was apparently large, even by Jamican standards. The National Archives also goes onto explain how that fortune probably came about:

Perrin’s career gives a useful illustration of some aspects of Jamaica’s early history. The colony was taken by the English in 1655 but for various reasons sugar planting did not become well established there until the 18th century. The island’s period of greatest prosperity began with a marked increase in the price of sugar about the middle of the century. At the same time there was stagnation or decline in the contraband trade to the Spanish American colonies which until then had been one of the main activities of the Kingston merchants; it is in this that Perrin had probably made most of his money. So merchants turn from trade to planting, and because of the high price of sugar, planters could afford to leave the colony and live as absentees in England. Absentee ownership is common throughout the British West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, and particularly from the middle of the 18th century. By the 1760s about a third of Jamaican plantations belonged to absentees, and by the 1820s about 80%. Most of the big collections of West Indian papers in British record offices start with this increase in absenteeism round about the 1750s and 1760s.

The papers of William Phillip Perrin were acquired by Cambridge University in 2015. Dr Richard Benjamin, head of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, had the following to say in The Guardian about them rightly being made available to the general public:

The Perrin papers add another layer of information to the narrative of the transatlantic slave trade, which can be both disturbing and distressing, especially when humans are so calmly and callously treated as cargo. While adding to our understanding of the mechanics of the transatlantic slave trade, they also highlight uncomfortable truths – that greed, power and a misguided sense of superiority made up its dark heart.

The Guardian, Thu 13 Aug 2015

Certainly, none of my Perrin and Fitzherbert ancestors involved with plantations and slavery come out of this well. But given the generational maths of genealogy, it shouldn’t be too surprising that some my ancestors profited in this way. Perhaps that’s the double edged sword of discovering rich and powerful ancestors. On one hand it helps you go further back because their families are better documented (or at least those they married into), but it potentially involves having to confront some of those uncomfortable truths mentioned above, i.e. when you find out how they became so rich and powerful in the first place. Even more so when all that was gained was the result of the untold misery and suffering of those they enslaved.

Previously, this wasn’t something I wanted to dwell on particulary (see more here). But given contemporary discussion about Britain facing up to its hidden slavery history, I thought it important to explore the role my ancestors played in it. And not least because I didn’t want my family history research to be seen as some kind of ancestor trophy hunting, which only focused on the great and the good.

According to the National Archives, Britain was one of the two most ‘successful’ slave-trading countries accounting
for about 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. It was most dominant between 1640 and 1807, but Britain’s role can traced back to John Hawkins who is considered to be the first English slave trader having left England in
1562 on the first of three slaving voyages. That time frame represents a number of generations of ancestors that could have been involved. And so that will be one of the areas I will be looking more closely at as part of researching those generations, along with trying to find out more about the family histories of those that were.

For example, I know little about the Perrin family mentioned above, e.g. how my ancestor William came to be a merchant in Jamaica in the first place. I have subsequently found a Marriage certificate of William Perrin and Frances Rooker dated 22nd July in 1738. There’s an record showing William Perrin (1700 – 1759) married to Frances Rooker (1706 – 1773) whose daughter Sarah married Sir William FitzHerbert (so maybe there’s some trees in the ecosystem or similar that show earlier generations).

I also found a blog post by Anne M Powers that suggests William married Frances in London (Saint Vedast Foster Lane aka Saint Vedast-alias-Foster, a church in Foster Lane, in the City of London). And that between 1740 and 1747 five children were born to them and baptised in Westminster, of whom only William Philp Perrin and Sarah survived to adulthood. That almost tallies with the dates above showing William (senior) left Jamaica in 1739.

The post goes on to explore some of Frances Rooker’s family connections to Perrin and Rothery families, but also how her sister Mary married the renowned theatre manager Benjamin Victor and her father being the clockmaker Richard Rooker (who has a record at the British Museum). His son, also called Richard, was apprenticed to him. According to the post, this didn’t appear to suit him because by 1759 he was keeping a grocery in Water Lane, High Holborn and renting a room in the house of Sarah Metyard. That would end up making him a witness to the gruesome muder of Ann Nailor, which Sarah Metyard and her daughter were later executed for (see more on this here). And so the irony of the opening sentence of the post by Anne M Powers is not lost:

Sometimes in family history research wandering down an unrelated byway reveals a story you could not have invented.

That wandering down an unrelated byway aside, this is likely to be the first of a few posts linked to the role of my ancestors in the slave trade.

2 thoughts on “Skeletons in the closet?

  1. Hi Justin, Happy New Year! Since u r creating new categories, here’s one- Looking for a Connection. There are a number in Billy’s book, one whole chapter of 1 family in my book and also from my book, the first possible family member who came to The colonies to Delaware. I am sure there r others. Maybe we would get some action. Regards, Alan

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Great idea. I will make a dedicated post. Think that is better than my previous one called Gealogical Dead End. It’s more invitational for want of better word ;)

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