Penrhyn Castle and slave trade history
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.
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.
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)
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.
Read our report on colonialism and historic slavery in the places and collections we care for and discover how we’re changing the way we approach these issues.
Penrhyn Castle is the former home of the Pennant family built on the proceeds of the North Wales slate industry and sugar plantations in Jamaica.
Learn more about the history of the Great Penrhyn Quarry Strike, 1900-03, the longest running industrial dispute in British history. Discover why it ripped apart a community.
Penrhyn Castle's Railway Museum is dedicated to industrial locomotives. Find out how these engines helped to build the Pennant family wealth at Penrhyn.
The castle exterior hides an opulent and lavishly decorated interior. A much-loved home to the Pennant family, learn about some of the glorious rooms you can see on your visit.