The West Indies: slavery, plantations and trade, 1759-1832 - Description

Jamaican Material in the Slebech Papers; an Introduction

Provenance and Significance of the Material

The Slebech Papers form a collection of documents, most of which were deposited in the 1930s with the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and include records dating back to the medieval period. This online version and the earlier microfilm edition, which reproduce only the Jamaican material in the Slebech Papers, comprise an important archival resource for the history of West Indian trade and plantations during the slavery era.

These Jamaica-related documents cover the period from the Seven Years' War through to the end of the Napoleonic wars. They focus on the sugar plantations, West Indian shipping, trade and finance, and the social, cultural and political views of Nathaniel Phillips, who was first a resident sugar merchant and planter in Jamaica and later an absentee in London. During Phillips' lifetime (1733-1813), Jamaica was the largest and wealthiest of the British Caribbean islands. It was the major single destination in British America for the delivery of African slaves in the eighteenth century, absorbing nearly 850,000 Africans during that period. Most of these people ended up working on sugar plantations. Networks of business partners, credit advances, mortgages, annuities, loans and ship-ownership underpinned the British commercial investment in Jamaica. By the era of the American and French revolutions, transatlantic commercial connections with Jamaica were increasingly sustained by the wealth acquired by an absentee class of partners. All these elements of the British involvement in the Caribbean are richly illustrated in the papers gathered together in this online version, which is supplemented in the microfilm edition by a smaller group of records held at the Dyfed Archives Service, Pembrokeshire Area Record Office, Haverfordwest.

Nathaniel Phillips in Jamaica

Who was Nathaniel Phillips, how did he acquire his wealth, and what do his manuscripts reveal about the West Indian 'plantocracy'? Nathaniel Phillips was born in England in 1733, the illegitimate son of a merchant trading between London and Kingston, Jamaica. Following in his father's footsteps, he arrived at Kingston on 29 April 1759. He used his father's connections to join a partnership with the Kingston merchant, James Mailhet, who imported 'dry' goods ? manufactures of various kinds ? from London and provisions from southern Ireland. Mailhet was well connected with substantial London merchant firms such as Hilton & Biscoe, David Barclay & Sons and William Gomm & Sons. Mailhet supplied remittances for goods received to these firms and expected them to honour his bills of exchange. But trade depended on credit advances from London merchants; and, at Mailhet's death in December 1759, he and Phillips owed over £8,300 to three large London merchant firms.

Single young Englishmen who lived for spells in the Caribbean invariably looked to marry into money. Nathaniel Phillips soon decided to follow suit; and there is no doubt that he did so largely to further his financial stake in West Indian society. In 1761 Phillips wanted to buy a half share in Pleasant Hill plantation, situated about 2½ miles from Port Morant in the rich, fertile sugar district of St. Thomas in the East, a south-eastern Jamaican parish. Pleasant Hill comprised about 985 acres, including 350 acres in cane and pasturage. In the early 1760s it had 120 slaves and was expected to make 100 hogsheads (approx. 90,000 kilogrammes) of sugar and 50-60 puncheons (approx. 26,000-31,000 litres) of rum per year. It had both a cattle mill and a water mill. Phillips had been offered a competitive price for purchasing Pleasant Hill, and this explains why he pursued this particular property. He had enough money to pay for his half share. To raise the remaining sum he courted Ann, the daughter of Colonel Richard Swarton, who owned the other half of the property. Nathaniel Phillips and Ann Swarton married on 15 June 1761. Phillips gained £3,000 in Jamaican currency as a dowry from his wife. He became factor for Pleasant Hill, which Colonel Swarton bequeathed to Ann and her heirs. Colonel Swarton died on 30 June 1762 and Phillips served as executor of his estate. Nathaniel and Ann had two daughters but Ann died in 1767 giving birth to a son, who died in infancy. Nathaniel then sent his daughters back to England to be cared for by his illegitimate sister.

Nathaniel Phillips worked hard in Jamaica and purchased three further properties in St. Thomas in the East: two sugar plantations, known as Phillipsfield and Suffolk Park; and Boxford Lodge, a livestock pen. However, for Phillips and others like him, an island such as Jamaica was regarded as a place for temporary residence. His goal was to make his fortune and retire to live as an absentee planter in Britain, for most the preferred location to enjoy and invest money made in the Caribbean. Thus the West Indian plantocracy did not usually aspire to be a Creole elite; they regarded Britain as their home and saw Caribbean investments as a means for advancing their socio-economic status in the mother country. But the unpredictability of trade, the prevalence of debt, the high incidence of disease and heavy mortality among both the black and white population made the West Indies a difficult area for economic and human survival. Only by persistence, luck and shrewd business practices could merchants and planters flourish in the eighteenth-century Caribbean.

Phillips' Return to Britain

It took Phillips over a quarter of a century to reach a position where he had made sufficient money to become an absentee. He visited London between 1770 and 1775 and again in 1784-1785 but returned to Jamaica after these trips. The watershed in British imperial affairs that came with the loss of the American colonies in 1783 probably stimulated him to take stock of his affairs. In the following year he valued his Jamaican property at £140,638 (see NLW item no. 11524). Within a few years he found himself in a position to abandon living in Jamaica. Phillips left Kingston permanently in 1789 with around £20,000 together with a loan from his friends, the Hibberts, who were wealthy slave-owners and merchants, and their friends and bankers, the Bolderos. On returning home to England, Phillips drew up an inventory and valuation of his Jamaican estates, slaves, stocks, stores and legal documents. According to that calculation, his Jamaican properties were worth around £160,000 Jamaica currency, to which should be added ownership of 706 slaves valued at nearly £50,000 (see no. 11523).

Phillips settled down to a comfortable life in London, though he had neither funds nor the connections to live as one of the really grand absentee planters such as William Beckford. His business headquarters were in Mincing Lane in the City, and he lived mainly in the Marylebone area, a part of London replete with other absentees and coffee-houses where West Indian merchants met to discuss business and public affairs. He became a founding member of the West India Committee, the organization established in 1775 to represent the absentee planter interest in Britain. Immediately after returning to London in 1789, he protested against the antislavery agitation that was then gathering steam. He supported the petitions and memorials written to defend West Indian interests. These petitions were frequently presented to Parliament in the early years of the French Revolution, when the plantocracy felt increasingly threatened by the growth and spread of antislavery ideas throughout British society and by the impact of republican ideas in British intellectual circles.

Absentee planters often kept a town house in the metropolis, as did Phillips, or in one of the major provincial cities like Bristol, where absentees such as John Pinney clustered. But they also hankered after a British country estate and the gentility it bestowed on its owner in an age when land was closely equated with social, and often political, power. Nathaniel Phillips was no exception to this rule. In 1793, he bought a landed estate at Slebech, near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, from a bankrupt pro-slaver. This property comprised Slebech Hall, a coach house, and over 600 acres of parkland and woodland. The park dated back to the twelfth century, when it had been home to the Knights Order of St. John. Henceforth Phillips divided his time between Slebech Hall and London. He never returned to Jamaica but left his plantation and commercial affairs there in the hands of attorneys and managers. Once he became an absentee, he made no attempt to enlarge his holdings in Jamaica or to supervise their improvements. Nevertheless, he seems to have turned around the economic fortunes of the Slebech estate, which provided a modest income for his family.

Phillips lived in London with a daughter from his first marriage. She kept house for him, assisted by several servants. But Phillips was not a lonely, ageing widower. His diary shows that he maintained a social round of visits to London clubs and theatres and had a mistress and liaisons with other women. In 1796 he remarried, to a woman forty years his junior. With this second wife, Mary, the daughter of a country vicar, he had two sons (Nathaniel and Edward Augustus) and two daughters (Mary Dorothea and Louisa Catharine). Neither son had issue. The two daughters married into the nobility. In old age, Nathaniel Phillips tried to gain the parliamentary seat for Haverfordwest, but without success. He died in 1813.

In his will Phillips bequeathed a sum of £10,000 to his wife together with £500 annually payable at the Royal Exchange in London secured on his Jamaican estates. He also left money to his children and grandchildren. The remainder of his estate was entrusted to four of his London associates to hold in trust until his elder son, Nathaniel, came of age at twenty-one and could claim his inheritance (see no. 3578, no. 3343 and no. 3291). After his death, Phillips' heirs continued to operate the Jamaican estates at a distance; but they were spendthrifts, and the plantations declined in output and significance after the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. These plantations later ceased to produce sugar, though their fortunes improved temporarily when they were converted to banana production in the late nineteenth century.

Arrangement of the Material

The Jamaican material in the Slebech Papers provides a rounded portrait of Nathaniel Phillips' career in Jamaica and his life as an absentee planter. All the surviving manuscripts deposited at the National Library of Wales relating to these aspects of his life are reproduced in this edition. A substantial part of the Slebech Papers relates to the Welsh estate records of that property, but these are not included here. The archives room at the National Library of Wales has a detailed in-house typescript description of the entire Slebech Papers. This includes assigned numbers for the miscellaneous material included therein. While for the microfilm edition the sequence of the Jamaican material within the Slebech Papers is retained, as is the original numbering of documents, an attempt has been made in this online version to rearrange the material thematically. Thus the documents reproduced here retain largely the integrity of their original sequence when catalogued. Researchers wanting to combine the Caribbean and Welsh portions of the Slebech Papers should therefore be able to do so conveniently.

Summary of the Contents

Nathaniel Phillips' early years in Jamaica are documented through various documents relating to his father and to their Jamaican partner, James Mailhet (see no. 9463, no. 9292, no. 3326, and no. 9399). His father's will and plans for disposing of his estates are available (see nos. 3334-3336, no. 3338, and no. 3325), as are the will and inventory of his father-in-law Richard Swarton (see nos. 3327, 3328-3333). The sugar trade between Phillips' Jamaican properties and London merchants left a trail of letters (see nos. 9027-9046, nos. 9293-9299, nos. 8882-8901, and nos. 9212-9214). These provide details on the quantity and quality of sugar output, the problems of shipment, the sale of sugar in the metropolis and the business arrangements between Phillips and his merchant correspondents. Phillips' Jamaican diaries for the years between 1776 and 1789 are also included (see nos. 9405-9419), supplemented by further diaries that he kept on voyages between England and Jamaica in 1775, 1784 and 1789 (see nos. 9402-9404).

There is extensive correspondence between Phillips and the London merchants John Purrier and Thomas Hibbert (see nos. 9047-9066, nos. 8539-8577, nos. 9385-9396, nos. 8578-8638, and nos. 9634-9652). Similar material is available for Phillips' dealings with Hibbert & Fuhr (later Hibbert, Fuhr & Hibbert) of London (see nos. 9096-9108, nos. 8192-8341, nos. 11552-11568, nos. 9124-9200, and nos. 8855-8863) and Hibbert, Purrier & Horton (see nos. 11685-11791, and nos. 8639-8721).

A number of documents illustrate the commercial transactions conducted by Phillips in Jamaica between 1759 and 1793. Prominent among them are two letter books covering 1759-1778 and 1775-1792 (see no. 11485, and no. 11484). These throw light on a number of areas of interest: commodity prices and shipments; the role of credit in trade; freight arrangements and charges; mercantile practices; insurance details for cargoes of sugar and rum; invoices of goods shipped to Jamaica; the sugar economy; trade with the Spanish and French Caribbean; shipping arrangements; the purchase of slaves; and accounts in England.

Correspondence between Phillips and his agents during the era of the American and French revolutions includes much commentary on the treatment of slaves on Phillips' plantations, especially in relation to their work and health. The letters also range discursively on various topics that concerned West Indian planters: their fears of slave insurrections, the spread of libertarian ideas, the impact of the large slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (1791), military and naval movements in the West Indies, the French maritime presence in the Caribbean, and the strength of anti-slave trade agitation in Britain in the late 1780s (see nos. 9109-9116, nos. 9215-9250, nos. 9201-9211, and nos. 11569-11616). Pro-slavery pamphlets outlining the defence of slavery and the slave trade in the 1790s are also available (see item nos. 11532-11541).

Another series of documents contains material on Phillips' Jamaican estates, especially for the 1780s and 1790s. They include conveyances and leases of land and slaves (see nos. 7511-7517), boiling house and still-house books for Phillipsfield and Pleasant Hill (see nos. 11495-11498), instructions by Phillips to his attorneys and agents in Jamaica (see nos. 8864-8881) and details of the age, value, occupations and health of his slaves in 1789 (see no. 11523). Return letters to Phillips from Jamaica about the state of his sugar plantations are also available (see nos. 9109-9116, and nos. 8342-8440). These include details about the hiring of 'jobbing' slaves and efforts made to inoculate slaves against smallpox. Clothing allowances for slaves are itemised (see no. 9503). All black children were examined every Sunday morning to check that they were free of infectious diseases such as yaws. Their meals were prepared in kitchens by older black females, who also prepared food for the infirm and elderly slaves (see no. 8874).

Further details about the later management of Phillips' Jamaican properties, their slaves and stock can be gleaned from documents held at the Pembrokeshire Area Record Office (reel 12). These records selectively trace the development of these properties up to the early twentieth century. In 1909, Jamaica's United Fruit Company Ltd leased parts of Phillipsfield and Pleasant Hill plantations. This company managed the estates on behalf of the de Rutzen family, which had inherited these properties in the mid-Victorian period (reel 12, D/RTP/SLE/105). Slebech Park and estate in Wales remain in the hands of the Phillips family, some 200 years after Nathaniel Phillips bought them.

Bibliographical Note

Clare Taylor has written several articles that include material on the Jamaican estates of Nathaniel Phillips: 'Aspects of planter society in the British West Indies before emancipation,' National Library of Wales journal, 20 (1978): 361-372; 'Planter attitudes to the American and French revolutions,' National Library of Wales journal, 21 (1979): 113-130; 'Planter comment on slave revolts in 18th-tcentury Jamaica,' Slavery and abolition, 3 (1982): 243-53; 'The journal of an absentee proprietor, Nathaniel Phillips of Slebech,' Journal of Caribbean history, 18 (1984): 67-82; and 'The perils of a West Indian heiress : case studies of the heiresses of Nathaniel Phillips of Slebech,' Welsh history review, 12 (1985): 495-513. I have drawn extensively on these articles for my introduction. Dr Taylor has also published a series of short notes on Nathaniel Phillips and his Jamaican interests in back issues of the Jamaican Historical Society bulletin, especially vols. 3 and 7-11. These are the only detailed studies of the Jamaican material in the Slebech Papers, though occasional references to some documents can be found in studies by other historians. A plan of the works on Phillipsfield plantation in 1836 is reproduced in B.W. Higman, Jamaica surveyed : plantation maps and plans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Kingston, 1988), p.136.

Composed 2004.


To cite this resource:

Morgan, Kenneth (2004) Jamaican material in the Slebech papers : an introduction, Last updated: 5 March 2009.