Primary Evidence: Glimpses into Stories of Hackney and British Slave-ownership

By: Mike Watson 

Starting out as the Research Intern for the “Local Roots/ Global Routes” project, I headed straight to the Hackney Archives at Dalston CLR James Library to get to grips with the primary resources available to me. With the help of the staff at the archives I was able to locate and read a selection of documents that contribute to our understanding of histories of Hackney and its transatlantic links to slavery and abolition in the Caribbean.

Lease for 14 years 8 Apr 1816, M3183 Hackney Archives

Lease for 14 years. 8 Apr 1816. M3183 Hackney Archives

Firstly, I came across a legal contract for the lease of a house in what is now London Fields, Hackney from a Joseph Williams to a Christopher Jackson, a man with links to Caribbean plantation societies.  In the lease Jackson is described as a “sugar factor”.[1] Jackson also appears in the Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers database as a ‘factor’.[2] As a mercantile agent, it is likely that he received sugar from planters in the British Caribbean and was responsible for the warehousing and sale of sugar in Britain. He was an active component in the routes of production, distribution and consumptionof slave-produced commodities. The contract is dated 1816, nine years after the abolition of the trade in what Sidney Mintz has called the ‘false commodity’ of enslaved human beings.[3]  Despite this, slave labour continued in the Caribbean and the sale of sugar remained lucrative in Britain. Thinking about how histories of slavery can be presented to a young audience, it may be helpful to use a tangible and everyday object such as sugar to investigate the brutal conditions in which these commodities were produced, how they were distributed and the ways in which wealth accumulated from the sale of these commodities impacted on the local area.

Chancery Petition 1809, M4108 Hackney Archives

 Chancery Petition 1809, M4108 Hackney Archives

A petition from 1809 refers to a Henrietta Hiatt of Dalston who is requesting a new guardian so that she is able to “assent or otherwise to a proposal of marriage made by William Hyde”. Henrietta Hiatt, “the natural daughter of John Hiatt of Dalston by Phillis Hall”, the petition states, “came to England from Jamaica where she was born, about six or eight years ago”. Alongside the investigation of local histories of Hackney and its relationship with slave ownership, the project also aims to research the historical black presence in Hackney. When inquiring about the local area I was amazed to discover that Joanna Vassa, the daughter of the African writer Olaudah Equiano, who wrote an autobiography narrating his experiences as a slave, had lived in Hackney and was buried in Abney Park Cemetery. My research into the Hiatts continues, as there is discussion on whether or not Henrietta Hiatt was mixed-race. If this is the case, it raises questions about Henrietta’s ancestry as well as her experiences living in early nineteenth century Hackney and Britain. Furthermore, as a teenager who has born in colonial Jamaica and migrated to Britain after 10-12 years, Henrietta Hiatt’s story could provide a human perspective to inform an understanding of Hackney’s place within the Atlantic world.

Marriage Settlement 1776, M4050 Hackney Archives

Marriage Settlement 1776, M4050 Hackney Archives

The document that I found the most interesting was the 1776 Marriage Settlement contract of Charles Allmond and Ann Harvey, both residents of Hoxton. The contract details the inheritance by Ann Harvey of “one half lot of land in the said parish of Kingston” from her deceased brother “Charles Harvey of the parish of Kingston in the island of Jamaica”. Alongside the inheritance of “all houses, outhouses, edifices, erections, buildings, paths, casements, profits, commodities, advantages, (and) rights”, by Ann Harvey the contract also details the inheritance of “negroe or other slaves”.  Nicholas Draper, in his analysis of slave-ownership and compensation in Britain has shown how inheritance and marriage ‘created the bulk of slave-owners living in Britain in the 1830s’.[4]  The source above provides further evidence that in the mid-to late eighteenth century, familial ties linked members of metropolitan British society across the Atlantic with land and enslaved people in the West Indies.

Marriage Settlement 1776, section. The bottom left corner reads Child named [blank]

Marriage Settlement 1776 , M4050 Hackney Archives(section).
The bottom corner reads; “Child named [blank]”

Unusually for a contract that is primarily concerned with the legal rights to property, we are provided with an avenue of exploration with regards to the enslaved themselves. One of the difficulties of engaging with primary source material that relates to slavery is that it often originates from those who owned enslaved people or from the colonial or metropolitan power. As a result, it can feel as though the histories of enslaved people have been lost or that the point of view of slave-owners are being privileged in academic discussion. However, the contract does mention two individual members of the enslaved as part of the inheritance; a “woman slave named Kitty together with her female child named…”. At this point in the text, there is a large blank space where the name of the child is absent. It is unusual for individual enslaved people to be mentioned in British legal documentation. The inclusion of Kitty and her child in the contract raises questions about how they figured in relation to the merchant Charles Harvey and why they were mentioned specifically in the marriage settlement.

This small selection of a lease contract, a chancery petition and a marriage settlement provide only glimpses into the complex stories of the institutions, commodities and people that were linked to British slave-ownership. Initially, I have been struck by the entirely ordinary ways in which slavery intersected with the everyday lives of people living in Hackney in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In my research so far, I have been conscious in trying to find a broad base of primary evidence that can be interpreted, critiqued and understood by young people. It may be the case that not all of these pieces are used in the final outcome as I am still in the early stages of my research That said, I hope I have introduced ways in which primary resources, such as those considered above, can inform and enrich discussion of the place of slavery in both local and global histories.

[1] A factor is a metropolitan agent who is in charge of possessing the commodities and selling them at the best price available.

[2] Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers Database Accessed: 25/03/14.

[3] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power The Place of Sugar In Modern History (New York, Penguin Group, 1986), p .43.

[4] Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 118.