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Penrhyn Castle and slave trade history

Watercolour shown as black and white photographic image. Giving location of Jamaica illustration of hills, palms, water and boats. From Penrhyn collection
‘A prospect of Port Antonio in the parish of Portland, Jamaica’, watercolour | © National Trust

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. Find out how wealth gained from the transatlantic slave trade was used to build Penrhyn Castle and invested in the local community.

Acquisition of Jamaican land

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 – 20 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.

Return to Britain

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.

Oil painting on canvas, Richard Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn of Penrhyn (1739 - 1808) by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792)
Richard Pennant, 1st Baron Penrhyn of Penrhyn (1739 - 1808)by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (Plympton 1723 - London 1792) | © National Trust Images

The estate expands

As the estate grew so did the numbers of enslaved people. By 1805 Richard Pennant owned nearly 1,000 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.

Distant management

Never having visited Jamaica himself or experienced slavery first hand, Pennant’s letters of instruction to estate managers give a blunt insight into his attitudes to plantation life and the enslaved people he owned.

Described not as people, he refers to his possessions as ‘chattels’, grouping enslaved people and cattle under the same term. Whether from compassion, or to protect his assets, in one letter this analogy is clear as he states:

'I do not wish the cattle nor the negroes to be overworked’

- Richard Pennant

Pennant the improver?

Despite his links to slavery, he was known as Richard Pennant the Improver as he 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.

The West India Committee

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.

Pennant 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)

Parliamentary interventions

His parliamentary interventions fighting against abolition were recorded in Hansard. 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 and 30% of those transported died on the journey.

Slavery becomes outlawed

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 itself 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 £1.3 million today) for the freeing of 764 enslaved people in Jamaica.

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