Penrhyn Castle and the transatlantic slave trade

The Denbigh sugar plantation in Jamaica.

Behind the formidable architecture, Victorian grandeur and fine interiors, present day Penrhyn Castle’s foundations were built on a dark history. One of exploitation, Jamaican sugar fortunes and the transatlantic slave trade.

During the latter half of the 17th century Gifford Pennant, originally from Flintshire, began acquiring land in Jamaica and came to own one of the largest estates on the island – twenty times larger than the average. 

His son Edward (1672-1736) became Chief Justice of Jamaica; of Edward’s sons, Samuel (1709-50) became Lord Mayor of London, and John (d.1782) added even more to the Jamaican estate by a judicious marriage. 

By the 1700s the Pennant family had returned to Britain and by the time Richard Pennant (1739-1808) became the 1st baron Penrhyn, they were controlling their Jamaican properties by letter.

As the estate grew so did the numbers of enslaved people. By 1805 Richard Pennant owned nearly 1000 enslaved people across his four plantations in Jamaica,. This equated to an average of 250 people per plantation compared to the Jamaican average of 150.

12 Stories by Manon Steffan Ros. An artistic response to Penrhyn's history.
Words stitched on fabric. A quote taken from Lord Penrhyn's Jamaica letters.
12 Stories by Manon Steffan Ros. An artistic response to Penrhyn's history.

Pennant never visited Jamaica, but his frequent letters to and from his estate managers there show his close interest in the day-to-day running of his plantations, and his role in decision making. These can be studied at Bangor University Archives. The letters suggest an insight into Richard Pennant’s perceptions of slavery and the people he enslaved. Many readers today are struck by the way he regularly groups ‘the negroes and cattle’ together in his letters, as resources on which his profits depended.   

Pennant the improver?

Despite his links to slavery, he was known as Richard Pennant the Improver as Richard invested his fortune in his North Wales estate. 

Money from Jamaica paid for roads, railways, houses, schools and the Penrhyn Quarry once the largest slate quarry in the world, and changed the landscape of North Wales forever.

" The memory of his Lordship will long exist in the agriculture of North Wales, in the extensive traffic which has given employment and food to thousands, and in the opening of roads to and through the almost inaccessible mountains."
- Richard Pennant's Obituary, Gentleman’s Magazine (1808, p. 170)

Pennant the anti-abolitionist

Pennant became MP for Petersfield in 1761 and six years later he became one of the two MPs for Liverpool, which was by this time the major slave trade port of Britain. 

Through his family, business and political connections, Pennant became part of a powerful and influential pro-slavery network and held connections to virtually all the major absentee plantation owners in Britain.

Pennant became chairman of the West India Committee, an organisation of merchants and plantation owners, and from 1788 chaired a special sub-committee to organise opposition to abolition. 

Its tactics included sponsoring petitions to parliament and producing pamphlets that supported the slave trade and explained its economic benefits.

Richard used his position as MP for Liverpool to speak in the House of Commons against the abolition of the slave trade.

" If they passed the vote of abolition they actually struck at seventy millions of property, they ruined the colonies, and by destroying an essential nursery of seamen, gave up the dominion of the sea at a single glance "
- Richard Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn addresses Parliament discussion on the Abolition of Slavery (1789)

His parliamentary interventions are recorded in Hansard as he stridently fights against abolition. Pennant argued that by ending the trade, Britain would be destroying its training ground for young seamen, and he also firmly denied that the transportation of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was cruel. 

It is estimated that between 10-30% of those transported died on the journey.

Despite opposition, on 25 March 1807 Parliament outlawed the slave trade within the British empire. Although not in Richard Pennant’s lifetime, the transportation of enslaved people to Jamaica was outlawed in March 1808.

Slavery was finally outlawed in all British colonies between 1833 and 1838 and as the building of Penrhyn Castle came to an end, the Pennants received £14,683 17s 2d (around £1,3million today) for the freeing of 764 enslaved people in Jamaica.