New ‘Recommended’ Category and some more resources for those researching slave owning ancestors

I have created a new Recommended category because recent posts have resulted in lots of them for books, resources and even a podcast. I was going to try and weave these into longer posts, but I have come to an impasse with the themes I have been exploring in my recent ones, i.e. Skeletons in the closet, Reflections and (possible) Parrallel Project.

With Skeletons in the closet, that’s because I am not sure that I will get any further back with my Russell and Webbe slave owning ancestors from Nevis unless someone else finds some new lead(s). And that’s because it seems like there’s not much in the way of early records about the settlers as a result of various fires, invasions and earthquakes that over the centuries have destroyed a lot of the original documents. When it comes to my reflections on the why of what I am doing on this blog and a (possible) parrallel project based on what I could do with it all, then the next step would be to take one rather than more pondering.

I may come back to both, if I don’t go down another rabbit hole. Either way, I thought I’d share some of what I have been recommended. I have already mentioned Episode 4 of 7 of Radio 4’s Descendants series that Ruth Hecht who I have been in touch participated in. She also recommended Alex Renton’s Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery book published last year. I have linked to the preview in Google but there is also a review in The Guardian that might help you decide whether this is one for you.

For reading link to my reflections mentioned above, my friend Ivan Pope ,of Attention Deficity substack infamy, has also recommended Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton. I think it’s being published in March this year, but there’s a review on Salvation South from last week that includes this snippet below:

There’s no book quite like Ancestor Trouble, Maud Newton’s exploration of family, how we define who we are, and how to truly reckon with our pasts. Her genealogical research includes marvellous stories; her exploration of the role of popular genetic websites asks some big questions; and her thinking deeply about what repair means goes in unexpected directions.

There’s also the accompanying America’s Ancestry Craze: Making sense of our family-tree obsession article by Maude Newton in Harpers mag you can read in the meantime.

Coming back to recommended resources for anyone researching slave owning ancestors, Ruth Hecht also introduced me to Christine Eickelmann who’s a research associate at Bristol University. She’s conducting a more scholarly enquiry into the enslaved people on the Mountravers Plantation in Nevis, West Indies (aka Pinney’s Estate). According to this record on the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) database, the Pinney family are connected to my Webbe ancestors via a business partnership:

James Tobin was born in London and educated at Westminster School. He first went to Nevis in 1758 to take care of his family’s plantation. In 1766 he returned to England and married Elizabeth nee Webbe, daughter of Nevis slave-owner George Webbe. They lived in Salisbury and had eight children. The Tobins left their three eldest sons in England when they returned to Nevis in 1777 to manage the Stoney Grove estate. The family returned to England in 1784 and settled in Bristol where Tobin and John Pinney established a firm of sugar factors. Tobin was a prominent pro-slavery campaigner, engaging in a pamphlet war with James Ramsay between 1785 and 1788. “As a planter and active member of the Bristol West India Association, Tobin was called in February 1790 to give evidence to the House of Commons inquiry into the slave trade. He argued that slavery was necessary to the plantation economy because free black men would not work on the estates, that slave numbers could not be supported by breeding and that therefore the slave trade was essential.

This echoes something touched upon in the Radio 4 programme mentioned above and what I have noticed with my own thin slice through Nevis plantation and slave owning families. And that’s how connected all the families are either through marriage, land ownership and leasing arrangements, and also commercial partnerships like the one mentioned above. That seems particularly true of slave owning families on Nevis, possibly because it is relatively small (slightly bigger than Guernsey and similar to the Isle of Sheppey of the Kent coast, but probably with less arable land for cash crops than both due to having mountain in the middle).

I also thought it interesting that one of the son’s of the James Tobin above was the political radical and abolitionist James Webbe Tobin, who was friend of leading literary men including the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. That’s another parrallel I have seen with my Madan ancestors, where not only are families split on either side of abolition but where there’s also a poetry connection, e.g. my ancestor Judith Maden (née Cowper) who was a poet and aunt to the abolitionist, poet and hymnwriter William Cowper. Coleridge though he was “the best modern poet” and Wordsworth also admired his poetry, which includes the famous Negro’s Complaint poem that was often quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggles in the USA. So more connections, other rabbit holes to go down and possible basis for Radio 4-type drama.

As another aside, I tend to link to the wiki on here as just a bookmark to show that those I mention are notable enough to have an entry. That’s also usually a note-to-self that those linked to aren’t much of a mystery and so not normally ones I explore further unless led to a alluring story via my link hopping, e.g. this one about ‘a Carib known as Madame Ouvernard‘ I found through the wiki for Sir Thomas Walker who married the sister of one of my Russell ancestors. She’s mentioned in NouvNouveau voyage aux iles de l’Amerique and Voyage du Chevalier Demarchais en Guinee, iles voisines, et a Cayenne, fait en 1725, 1726, et 1727 by missionary and ploymath Jean-Baptiste Labat. It’s one of the many accounts by French and English early explorers I have encountered as part of my wanderings trying to find out more about my slave owning ancestors. All fascinating in their own way even when just reading the wiki entries about the authors, but not hugely helpful in my grail-like quest for relevant ancestor BMD.

There’s another purpose for mentioning those with wiki entries, and that’s because doing so often results in visits from those who arrive thanks to Google. And some of them even get in touch with new discoveries. As mentioned to Christine, I have noticed that new discoveries found this way are normally the result of someone pointing out flaws in what I have published here rather than when – I am guessing – their findings tally with mine. I have mischievously considered writing nonsense about ancestors to encourage more of this, but that wouldn’t be in spirit of what I have been trying to do with this blog and how it is linked to the family tree collaboration my cousin Hamish and I co-host. But interesting idea for a plot device.

As ever another Shandean digression because what I was trying to do was share the following more authorative resources that Christine recommended, which might be helpful for those researching ancestors with early colonial connections to the Leeward Islands:

  • Burns, Sir Alan History of the British West Indies George Allen & Unwin, London 1965 [couldn’t find preview version on Google Books or version on]
  • Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies
  • Higham, CSS The Development of the Leeward Islands under the Restoration 1660-1688 Cambridge University Press, 1921 [Snippet view on Google]
  • Jeaffreson, John Cordy (ed) A Young Squire of the Seventeenth Century – From the Papers of Christopher Jeaffreson (AD 1676-1686) of Dullingham House, Cambridgeshire (2 Vols) Hurst & Blackett, London, 1878 [on]
  • Jefferson Papers, Hamilton College, NY [not sure how much is online]
  • Johnston, JRV ‘The Stapleton Sugar Plantations in the Leeward Islands’ in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol 48, 1996
  • Niddrie, David L ‘An Attempt at Planned Settlement in St Kitts in the Early Eighteenth Century’ in Caribbean Studies Vol 5, No 4 (Jan 1966), pp3-11, Institute of Caribbean Studies, UPR [apparently available online, and deals with early C18th settlement but recaps early history but I haven’t been able to locate it]
  • St Johnston, Sir Reginald (1881-1950) The French Invasion of St Kitts-Nevis

Funnily enough, I am pretty sure I saw a number of the above appear as references in wiki entries relating to the histories of St Kitts and Nevis, as well as other similar ones I came upon link hopping from one entry to another. And also as references on records in the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery (LBS) database. That’s why I still think the wiki can be good starting place, and I definitely recommend the LBS database even if I found Google a better way of finding relevant records on it than its own search tool; and it being focused on ‘legacies’ rather than how they might have originated.

Lastly, Dr. Madge Dresser at the University of West of England recommended The Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies for the period 1574 -1739 that appears to be available on The British History Online resource I also encountered a number of times through my obsessive Google searching.

She is the author of Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port Front (2016). It’s one of a number of similar books published more recently by academic social rhistorians about the English Slave Trade that I also came across via Google. Most are only available in Snippet View and so it’s difficult to find the sources for the anscestors they cite. And even when the references can be deduced, they are often based on the same souces of records contained in the resources mentioned above and linked to in my relevant posts (see here), as well as early narrative accounts that seem to be the basis of the fascinating stories I have discovered. That also inludes what appear to be some more romanticised versions I haven’t been able to track down yet, e.g. ‘Sir James Russell: Defender of Nevis’ by John William Damer Powell in United Empire XXII who also wrote about Bristol Privateers and Ships of War. Who knows, maybe it’s a ripping yarn or even basis for one, but may just be yet another rabbit hole and one that might not reveal any more than my recent trawl. And it’s that spin of the wheel that maintains my interest.

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