Slavery in Jamaica, records from a family of slave owners, 1686-1860 - Description

Papers Relating to the Jamaica Estates of the Goulbourn Family of Betchworth House


The Goulburn Papers at the Surrey History Centre, Woking, include a substantial number of manuscripts dealing with the family's Jamaican sugar estate, Amity Hall, and its white managers and slave workforce. Collectively, these manuscripts comprise one of the best sets of West Indian planters' records found in English county record offices. The Goulburns, originally from Cheshire, first acquired property in Jamaica in the seventeenth century, but their surviving family papers mainly cover the period from c.1750 to 1860. The brothers Edward and Henry Goulburn arrived in Jamaica in the 1750s. Edward set up a livestock holding called Bogue Pen in Vere parish, southern Jamaica. In 1762 the two brothers bought land in the same parish from Robert Scott. This was used to establish Amity Hall sugar plantation. Situated on the eastern banks of the Rio Minho river, about seven miles north of Carlisle Bay, it had very fertile land for sugar production. The estate had a maximum of 300 acres under sugar cultivation at any one time but covered a much larger area, amounting to over 2,000 acres by the time a schedule of the property was drawn up in 1852.

Edward and Henry Goulburn both died in 1765. Henry had no children. Amity Hall was inherited by Munbee Goulburn (1756/7-1793), Edward's son. Sarah Goulburn, Henry's widow, administered the estate until Munbee, who returned to England for an education at Eton and Oxford, reached the age of twenty-one. After Munbee's sudden death, the plantation was officially owned and operated by his wife, Susannah (d.1818). She passed the responsibility to her first son, Henry (1784-1856), who took full control of the property when he came of age in 1805. Henry remained the absentee proprietor of Amity Hall until his death, and was closely involved, through correspondence, in all aspects of its development. He never had the time to visit Jamaica, owing to ill health and the demands of his public positions in Britain. One of his brothers, however, visited Amity Hall on behalf of the family in early 1818. The records reproduced in this collection contain all of the surviving Jamaican material relating to the Goulburn family's interest in Amity Hall with the exception of some large deeds that proved impossible to film (304/J/Box 1/3-4 & Box 2/1). The Jamaican records are part of a larger collection of Goulburn Papers that include extensive material on Henry Goulburn's political career and his family property holdings in England.

Most of the material relating to Jamaica in the Goulburn Papers covers the period when the second Henry Goulburn, Munbee's son, was absentee owner, but some material is included for the years when his father and mother were the estate owners. These papers deal with an era of considerable change in Anglo-West Indian affairs. In the late eighteenth century, Jamaica was still an indispensable commercial part of the British Empire. Though Jamaica was not a monocultural economy, its agricultural and commercial life was largely based on slavery and sugar cultivation. During the half century after the American Revolution, abolitionism gained momentum in the Atlantic world. Long-drawn-out but ultimately successful campaigns led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and slave emancipation in most of the British Empire in 1834. During the period between these two abolitionist successes, planters aimed to improve the working and living conditions of slaves through policies of amelioration, but these were implemented patchily. After a brief period of Apprenticeship (1834-8) in which ex-slaves became apprentices, working mainly without wages for their former owners, full freedom for black people in the British Caribbean came in 1838. There was then a difficult transition period when free blacks settled into new work arrangements as waged labourers without acquiring full social or political rights. Over the decades when these developments occurred, many planters such as Goulburn were absentees, living a comfortable, sometimes lavish, life in upper middle class circles in Britain far away from the major source of their income in the tropical Caribbean. The management of sugar plantations was largely left to attorneys, estate managers or other agents who lived in the West Indies. Nevertheless, absentee proprietors corresponded in detail with these personnel about the policies that should be implemented with regard to labour organisation and sugar production.

The Goulburn Papers provide essential information on how one absentee planter coped with the issues of abolitionism, amelioration, slave emancipation, apprenticeship and full freedom for blacks in Jamaica. Henry Goulburn wrote at length on all of these issues, and received regular replies, with information and advice, from his Jamaican agents. In addition, statistics contained in the collection, dealing with work routines and commodity production, offer a detailed insight into the operations of a sugar estate. The Goulburn Papers, in short, comprise a rich collection of manuscripts that offer opportunities for serious research to various types of historian. They include solid data that can be investigated by demographic historians studying the increase and decrease of slave populations, especially the causes of illness and poor reproduction among the slaves. They include statistics and information on the conduct of the sugar trade that can be analysed by economic historians interested in the changing business relationship between Britain and her colonies. They contain observations on slavery and the slave trade, and on the religion, education and lifestyle of Jamaican blacks. This material can be examined by social historians charting ideological attitudes towards slavery, by labour historians looking at changing work practices on plantations, and by religious historians interested in the spread of Christianity to the Caribbean.

The Goulburn Papers reproduced in this edition include land patents, legal papers, mortgage assignments, plans of sugar estates, lists of plantation supplies, statistics on the slaves and livestock, journals of the daily employment of slaves and apprentices, sales accounts for produce, and, above, all, a long series of letters and accounts. Five sets of documents are particularly important. First, a letterbook covering the years from 1790 to 1811 includes copies of Munbee Goulburn's correspondence with his attorney in Jamaica, Thomas Gairdner, for the period from 5 January to 1 March 1791. It also includes Henry Goulburn's letters to his attorney, Thomas Samson, between 1 February 1805 and 2 December 1811 (304/J/1/1(1)). Second, a series of letters from Jamaica for the period 1793-1802 offers illuminating detail on the travails of a sugar plantation during the French revolutionary wars (304/J/1/2-9). Third, a long run of letters from Henry Goulburn and others to attornies, overseers and correspondents in Jamaica, with return letters from the recipients, is available for the period 1797-1854, with only one major gap between 1818 and 1825 (304/J/1/10-41). Fourth, a long sequence of estate accounts with attornies covers the period from 1802 to 1855 (304/J/Boxes 3-4). Fifth, sales accounts of sugar and rum and letters with factors acting on Goulburn's behalf for these sales in London and Liverpool are available for the years from 1794 to 1856 (304/J/Boxes 4-7).

Henry Goulburn

Henry Goulburn (1784-1856), the main owner documented in these records, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he made lifelong friends with contemporaries, such as the future Lord Palmerston, who were well connected in the upper echelons of British society. His adult life was mainly spent moving in such circles, though he never had the means to emulate the conspicuous consumption of some of his peers. He had lived in somewhat straitened circumstances after his father's death and, for most of his adult life, he had no income other than from his Jamaican property. In 1811 he married Jane Montagu, the third daughter of one of his mother's friends and of one of his political allies. (For their marriage settlement, see 304/J/Box 2.) The couple had four children ? three sons and one daughter. Goulburn led a contented domestic life and purchased a fine family home at Betchworth, Surrey in 1816. He and his family lived there apart from some years during the 1820s when he was based in Dublin.

Goulburn had a long parliamentary career as a Tory and Conservative M.P. for various seats held in succession: Horsham (1808-12); St. Germans (1812-18); West Looe (1818-26); Armagh (1826-31); and Cambridge University (1831-56). While serving in the House of Commons, he achieved solid ministerial positions. Between February 1810 and August 1812 he was Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs, where he dealt mainly with militia business. He then replaced Robert Peel as Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in the ministry of Lord Liverpool (1812-21). During this period he was a plenipotentiary sent to Ghent in the summer of 1814 to negotiate a peace treaty with the United States after the end of the War of 1812. At Westminster, he was familiar with colonial legislation and had dealings with both antislavery advocates and the West India Interest in Parliament. He was Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1821-7) and Chancellor of the Exchequer on two occasions ? in 1828-30 under the Duke of Wellington's administration and in 1841-6 under Sir Robert Peel's government. Peel remained a close friend throughout his adult life. Goulburn also served briefly as Secretary of State for Home Affairs for four months in 1834-5. He retired from political office after the collapse of Peel's second premiership in June 1846 and lived in genteel poverty in his old age.

A solid, unspectacular, cautious politician, with a keen sense of public duty, Goulburn was a pious member of the evangelical wing of the Church of England. He was adamantly opposed to Catholic Emancipation. Given his religious predilections, it was no surprise when, at the start of his parliamentary career, he sought patronage from the leading evangelical Tory, Spencer Perceval, an established family friend. Goulburn's life was full of time-consuming political commitments. He had an extensive official correspondence, and was responsible for preparing several parliamentary bills. During his first spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was responsible for policies of financial retrenchment. He accepted the Great Reform Act (1832) reluctantly. He expressed regret at the changes to the existing constitution but did not want to become associated with the ultra-Tories. Thereafter he was a committed Peelite, who received the reward for his political loyalty with his second spell at the Exchequer. Goulburn's work there was overshadowed by policies essentially devised by Peel himself. The two men disagreed over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, Peel being determined to press ahead with that policy and Goulburn warning him that it would not resolve the poverty and distress caused by the Irish potato famine.

Goulburn's ownership of slaves proved a moral burden for someone involved in public life. He was always sensitive to criticisms of the treatment of slaves by abolitionists, and was concerned that his own work force should be treated with kindness and humanity. In 1826, when he contested the seat of Cambridge University, the abolitionist Zachary Macaulay, former governor of the free black colony of Sierra Leone and a leading light of the Clapham Sect, wrote a series of letters to prominent Cambridge men accusing Goulburn of neglecting his slaves at Amity Hall, punishing them through overwork, and failing to secure them proper religious instruction. Goulburn defended himself in letters that explained how he had sacrificed his own income to maintain their support, and argued that he had no knowledge that his slaves were poorly treated or inadequately instructed in Christianity (304/A1/Box 22 & 23). The allegations were damaging, and no doubt contributed to his failure to win the seat in that election. Similar accusations were made against Goulburn, again partly by Macaulay, when he contested the same parliamentary seat during the Reform Bill crisis of 1831. On this occasion Goulburn enlisted the help of a rector of a church that bordered his Jamaican estate. The clergymen attested to the absentee owner's care for the spiritual and material welfare of his enslaved charges. This time Goulburn gained a victory to become M.P. for Cambridge University.

The finances of a sugar plantation

A recurrent theme in the documents concerns the financial problems encountered by the Goulburn family ? generally and in relation to their Jamaican property. In 1782 Munbee Goulburn, educated at Eton and Oxford, consolidated his position in English fashionable society by marrying the daughter of Viscount Chetwynd. This seems, however, to have been an unhappy marriage, for husband and wife were on the point of separating when he died. In addition, Munbee lived a profligate life. He maintained a country seat at Prinknash Park, Gloucestershire and a London town house in Great Cumberland Place, Marylebone that were beyond his means. In May 1784 he entered into a mortgage for Amity Hall and Bogue Pen with the London West India merchant firm Beeston, Long & Drake, in order to raise just over £3,000 to pay off debts (304/J/Box 1/4). But this barely scratched the surface of his financial problems: money difficulties dogged him for the rest of his life. Munbee Goulburn died intestate in 1794. He had accumulated debts extensive enough for his finances to be placed in Chancery. His widow struggled under this encumbrance for several years, but received legal help from the lawyer and future prime minister, Spencer Perceval. In 1801 a Chancery decision specified that she could receive a jointure of £800 per annum, but the Jamaican estate remained largely in debt.

When Henry Goulburn came of age, Amity Hall was worth only £15,000 even though £41,000 had been paid into the Court of Chancery from the sale of half of the sugar crop since his father's death (304/J/Box 7/1/8). Henry Goulburn was saddled with this difficult financial legacy, and he never made Amity Hall very profitable, despite repeated efforts to do so. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, all of his spare funds for Amity Hall were absorbed by the installation of a steam engine to speed up productivity in gathering the annual sugar crop and by purchase of additional slaves to maintain the work force. Between 1805 and 1819 Amity Hall's sugar crop averaged 340 hogsheads, yielding a net profit of £5,800. In the period 1820-33, the crop averaged 200 hogsheads and the profit was £1,850 (304/J/box 3). Goulburn's slave workers were not a particularly wealthy asset. As part of the compensation package for slave owners under the Emancipation Act, his 242 slaves were valued at £12,885. But he only received about a third of that sum in compensation. Modest annual profits were made at Amity Hall amounting to £960 in 1845, £1,512 in 1849, and £341 in 1850, but in 1847 a loss of £81 was incurred. At the end of 1852 Goulburn reckoned there was a balance against the estate of £1,000, and he gave instructions that bills of exchange drawn during 1853 should not exceed the value of produce sent home (304/J/1/39/29). He tried to sell the estate in 1852 and 1856, but was unsuccessful (see 304/J/Boxes 1 and 2.) The estate was finally sold in 1861.

Plantation management at Amity Hall

In the period from the French Revolution until slave emancipation in the British Empire, proprietors of sugar estates in the British Caribbean were under pressure from antislavery advocates to ameliorate the condition of their slaves. This was mainly carried out by improving their working and living arrangements and by providing moral and spiritual instruction, largely through the efforts of Christian missionaries. At the same time, owners needed to maintain the productivity on their plantations to keep up the income from, and thus the justification for maintaining, their West Indian estates. Goulburn was a reluctant instigator of amelioration, and his absentee management was not particularly successful. He himself, as already noted, never visited Jamaica, and so daily management of Amity Hall fell to his managers. B.W. Higman's book Plantation Jamaica 1750-1850: capital and control in a colonial society (Kingston, 2005) has recently shown that absentee owners could manage their estates effectively through the skills of resident attornies and managers. But Goulburn's stewardship of Amity Hall does not fit this positive appraisal. On the contrary, it shows an absentee proprietor reluctantly conceding initiatives for amelioration and carrying out management oversight with only partially successful policies.

William Samson, a resident working attorney, was in charge of the daily management of Amity Hall from 1805 to 1818. Productivity increased among the slave labourers in this period, with production averaging 300 hogsheads of sugar a year. Yet there were problems in maintaining an adequate work force because the slave population declined. When Goulburn's brother, Major Archibald, visited Amity Hall in 1818, he was critical of Samson's management, and noted that the slaves were producing a poor quality crop and were fed and housed inadequately (304/J/1/20[3a]). Samson was replaced by another manager, George Richards, who had overseen the neighbouring Bogue estate, where slave numbers increased under his stewardship. Amity Hall's slaves were allocated extra disused cane land for allotments, so that they could supply their own rations, but Goulburn insisted that they should maintain sugar output to protect his revenues from the estate. However, the policy proved difficult to implement. After his dismissal, Samson took with him a jobbing gang, whose work was crucial to maintaining output. These workers were not replaced. After several years under Richards's management, Goulburn was still concerned about the decline in production and the decrease in the slave population at Amity Hall from 267 in 1818 to 251 in 1825. An overseer's report of 1825 on the condition of the estate underscored the inefficiency and relaxed nature of the first gang's field work (304/J/1/21/142).

Goulburn responded to these problems by installing a new manager, Alexander Bayley, in March 1825. Bayley introduced contentious new work arrangements. He increased workloads; redefined gang responsibilities; and brought nursing mothers back into the cane fields. Overwork led to a slave strike: a white overseer working under Bayley flogged recalcitrant slaves, which helped to foment a work stoppage by the first gang and the millworkers in 1826. The overseer was dismissed and the leader of the strike was brought before the local Slave Court and given a four month sentence in a workhouse. The slaves gradually returned to work but found, in subsequent years, that they could bargain by disputing their workload, resorting to arson, and ending night work during the crop season. Bayley handled these problems by employing a jobbing gang, but this alternative workforce gave the slaves the opportunity to see what rewards they could bargain for.

While these difficulties occurred, Goulburn took few steps towards improving the moral and spiritual care of his enslaved black workers. In 1826 he argued that he could not afford £200 per year to spend on Christian instruction because of his poor income from Amity Hall. Nonetheless, he joined other absentee owners and clergymen in the Incorporated Society for the Instruction and Religious Conversion of the Negroes, and, under its auspices, helped to send a number of young Anglican curates to work in Jamaican parishes among the slaves. But he did not follow the example of other absentees and employ a curate at Amity Hall; nor did he promote the religious instruction of his slaves. A major change in his approach to the plantation management only came in 1831 when he responded to criticisms about his neglect of Amity Hall while trying to secure the parliamentary seat of Cambridge University. Goulburn immediately implemented new plantation rules which aimed to spread moral instruction among the enslaved and to ameliorate their condition through better clothing, the prohibition of night work, and rewards for married couples. These improvements were introduced in the final few years of slavery, and brought in reluctantly. As Mary Turner has written, 'Goulburn did not promote the amelioration programme on his estate until his failure to do so was made public. His prominence in the Incorporated Society for the Religious Instruction and Conversion of the Slaves served primarily as good political cover for his inactivity' ('Planter Profits and Slave Rewards: Amelioration Reconsidered' in Roderick A. McDonald, ed., West Indies accounts: essays on the history of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic economy in honour of Richard Sheridan [Kingston, 1996], p.248).

In July 1833, just over a year before emancipation, the Amity Hall workforce comprised 243 slaves. Nearly a third of these people were field labourers: forty-nine in the first gang undertook the heaviest manual work, digging cane holes and cutting the ripened sugar; sixteen worked in the second gang and fourteen in the third gang, which were responsible for less exacting manual tasks. The other slaves held varied positions: there were twelve drivers, cooks and nurses; sixteen tradesmen; thirty-five unemployed children; seventeen invalids; sixteen watchmen; two washerwomen; eight domestics; four doctors and midwives; twelve slaves in hospital; six pregnant women; two wainmen and boys; three absentees; two taking the day off; eleven minding stock; two fishermen and a boy; three slaves at the Great House; three deployed around the sugar works; and ten doing odd jobs (304/J/1/24).

Goulburn's attorney at Amity Hall did not expect great changes in working arrangements or behaviour to accompany the introduction of Apprenticeship. Jamaican apprentices were expected to work for forty-five hours a week for their former owners without pay, including four-and-a-half hours allocated to work on their provision grounds. Any extra work, however, had to be remunerated by agreed wages. The first day of Apprenticeship, 1 August 1834, passed quietly at Amity Hall; there were no disturbances. Nevertheless, the apprentices worked with reluctance during the first few months of the new system. To complete the annual sugar crop, it was necessary to pay them overtime to secure their labour. This was only achieved after repeated negotiations with apprentices, who guarded their own time extremely carefully. And it was only secured during the crop harvest. The attorney at Amity Hall, Evan McPherson, had no need to hire apprentices for additional work at other times of the year; nor did the apprentices wish to engage themselves at such times. Despite extra hired labour, the productivity of estate workers at Amity Hall proved disappointing. In February 1838, the apprentices withdrew their labour during the sugar harvest until they received the higher wages they had requested (304/J/1/25/13). Goulburn foresaw difficulties arising from the sudden end of Apprenticeship on 1 August 1838, two years before it was scheduled to finish for field workers. Yet he wanted the old and sickly blacks at Amity Hall to continue to receive subsistence and indulgences and there were no signs that he intended to use force or compulsion to evict free labourers from his estate (304/J/1/25/22).

With the arrival of full freedom, Goulburn's black workers refused to undertake field tasks at Amity Hall for a month. They only gradually resumed work in early September. They bargained for wage levels they thought appropriate for their work, and often turned out in the cane fields for only a few hours per day. The provision grounds at Amity Hall were the only place where the blacks would willingly work, partly because they needed to cultivate their own food resources there and partly because they could sell surplus fruit and vegetables in local markets. In 1839 McPherson offered wage rates to blacks far above what he had hoped to pay, in order to harvest the sugar crop; but even with generous wages, he found many blacks were unwilling to work. By June 1839, with Goulburn's backing, he started to charge black workers at Amity Hall 1s. 8d. per week for rent for cultivating provision grounds and the same amount for occupation of their houses (304/J/1/25/50). Goulburn and his attorney found generally that securing continuous work for sugar cultivation was difficult from the beginning of Apprenticeship and that the problems multiplied after blacks won their full freedom. Agricultural workers at Amity Hall may have lacked many civil rights and citizenship after 1838 but they held some trump cards when they needed to negotiate with employers over working hours and remuneration.

In the 1840s and 1850s the cultivated area of Amity Hall was reduced to around 200 acres; all the marginal land was abandoned and only the best acres were kept under sugar cane. Output was aided in these years by use of a plough for planting sugar and by a cane elevator or carrier to the sugar mill. These types of mechanical equipment made up for the reduction in labourers after 1838. In 1860, four years after Henry Goulburn's death, Amity Hall estate still produced 300 hogsheads of sugar and 200 puncheons of rum. This was the final year of production before Amity Hall was sold out of the Goulburn family.



Bibliographical note:

Brief biographical sketches of Henry Goulburn include D.R. Fisher, 'Goulburn, Henry' in R.G. Thorne, ed., History of Parliament: House of Commons, 1790-1820, 5 vols. (London, 1986), iv, pp.44-6, and G.F.R. Barker, rev. David Eastwood, 'Goulburn, Henry (1784-1856)' in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian H. Harrison, eds., Oxford dictionary of national biography, 60 vols. (Oxford, 2004), xxiii, pp.62-7. For a thorough study of Goulburn's public career, see Brian Jenkins, Henry Goulburn: a political biography (Liverpool, 1996). A detailed unpublished account of Goulburn's Jamaican properties can be found in G.S. Ramlackhansingh, Amity Hall 1760-1860: the geography of a Jamaican plantation (University of London M.Sc. Econ. thesis, 1966). This is closely based on this collection of the Goulburn Papers held at the Surrey History Centre, but it contains few footnote citations to the original source material. Details of the slave work force at Amity Hall are available in the Treasury Papers at the National Archives, Kew (the T71 series). Mary Turner has published two good articles drawing on the Goulburn Papers: 'Planter profits and slave rewards: amelioration reconsidered' in Roderick A. McDonald, ed., West Indies accounts: essays on the history of the British Caribbean and the Atlantic economy in honour of Richard Sheridan (Kingston, 1996); and 'Slave workers, subsistence and labour bargaining: Amity Hall, Jamaica, 1805-1832' in Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan, eds., The slaves' economy: independent production by slaves in the Americas (London, 1991). Helpful contextual material on Jamaican sugar plantations is available in J.R. Ward, British plantation slavery: the process of amelioration, 1750-1834 (Oxford, 1988).


To cite this resource:

Kenneth Morgan (2008) Papers relating to the Jamaican estates of the Goulburn family of Betchworth House : an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, Last updated: 20 April 2009.