Stephanie Kirkpatrick, curator, with Nicole Roberts, a local poet whoopened the exhibition and who contributed to 'Richmond Voices'. Courtesy of the Museum of Richmond.
Eighteenth century Richmond was home to slave trade financiers, abolitionist campaigners, Black slaves and servants, and one enslaved man who became the lover of a Duchess. Babs Guthrie went to find out more about their intertwining histories.
The Museum of Richmond’s exhibition, “Trading in Lives: The Richmond Connection” was opened by local patron HRH The Princess Alexandra on April 23rd 2007. The show will run until at least 29th July. But with many large central London museums putting on huge events to mark the Abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, what does a small local museum have to add?
Researcher Valerie Boyes spoke of the difficulties faced by the museum team when they decided they wanted the Museum of Richmond to be a part of the bicentenary commemoration.
She said “We felt we should do something, but had to be sure we could make it relevant for local communities. We just weren’t sure if the connections were there”. Once she started researching however, it was more a case of how to edit her material rather than eke it out.
A small display also appears in Richmond Parish Church describing how the church worked both for and against the Abolition movement. Courtesy of the Museum of Richmond.
The exhibition consists of a modest seven graphics panels and one display case. Musical accompaniment is provided by Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth century resident of Richmond, formerly a slave, but latterly a grocer, composer, letter writer and popular society figure.
His dances and minuets have been recorded by musician Paul Freeman on studio rendered harpsichord. They help to set the eighteenth century scene with their hauntingly refined refrains.
The first panel in “Trading in Human Lives” puts slavery in its historical context; it discusses human bondage throughout history and describes the squalid conditions of life for many in the 18th Century. It asks and answers the uncomfortable leading question “So why was the Trans-Atlantic trade so deplorable, even in these harsh times?”.
The story then moves to the Lascelles family, headed up by Henry Lascelles, a prominent player in the financial markets of the eighteenth century. He lived and died in Richmond and made a vast fortune out of the West Indies trade.
Princess Alexandra views the exhibtion. Courtesy of the Museum of Richmond.
It was he who, with a consortium of British Merchants, set up the infamous floating factories. These were ships moored off the African coast which received slaves from the forts of Cape Coast on the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Henry was not a plantation owner. Instead he was a financial backer, maintaining the African forts and lending money to the plantation owners. As a result of the instability of the slave trade, his heirs ended up in possession of 22 plantations in payment of their bankrupt owners’ debts. One of these, on Tobago, was named Richmond and the plantation house still stands today as a Tourist Guesthouse.
There were also black slaves and servants present in Richmond. Most were to all extents and purposes invisible, some made cameo appearances in portraits or literature, others were baptised and referenced in the parish registers.
Then there were those like Julius Soubise whose mistress was the Duchess Kitty Queensbury. Kitty was known to have lavished money and attention on Julius, whom she named for a well known dashing French general. As a result of their close relationship they were mocked by polite society, leaving a testimony of satirical cartoons and gossip to record their passing.
Ignatius Sancho, whose music accompanies the exhibition, was also a local. Orphaned on a slave ship, at the age of two Sancho was given to three sisters in Greenwich, who resisted educating him as they wished to keep him domesticated. Nevertheless, encouraged and eventually employed by the Montague family who lived on the banks of the Thames in Richmond, he went on to lead a full and well documented life. The panel contains quotes from his letters, which were published posthumously in 1782, and show him to be both cultured and politically aware.
The last two panels bring us back to the present, looking at the legacy of the slave trade firstly from the perspectives of the people of Ghana, whose ancestors were siphoned off by Henry Lascelles’ floating factories and secondly from that of the African and Caribbean population of Richmond.
Giving these communities the final say is an effective and instructive method of consolidating all that went before positively, without sounding trite. The general feeling expressed here seems to be optimistic: that that was then and this is now, we want to learn from the past and move on and, by using these lessons, to help those still suffering.
Objects in the case at the end of the exhibition give pause for reflection. Tea cups and china remind the visitor that it was a nations’ sweet tooth that drove the cruel trade. A copy of the memoirs of Richmond resident Gilbert Wakefield recalls his ceaseless fight for abolition. There’s also a carved wooden sentinel from Ghana, sold as a souvenir of the slave forts to visiting tourists.
Though small, the research that has gone into this exhibition makes it a valuable addition to what we know about slave trading Britain.
Education packs are available with this exhibition for Key Stage 2 and 3 pupils.