Clive Aslet

The shock of discovering your ancestors were slave traders

Richard Atkinson’s family were deeply involved in the triangular trade, besides owning substantial sugar plantations in Jamaica

Slaves on a sugar plantation. (Getty Images)

If I had a slave owner in my family background I’d probably keep quiet about it. Richard Atkinson, in his remarkable first book, has gone to the other extreme. Not only did he seek out as much information as he could about the activities of his Georgian forebear, also called Richard Atkinson, but he’s made them the subject of this history.

Actually, he was as shocked by what he discovered as anyone. The quest started with a bundle of letters which he and his sister inherited from the wreck of a family fortune that had dwindled, by the 1970s, to a decrepit country house in Cumbria, where the brackets of orange fungus resembled botanical wallpaper, although it still contained a couple of stuffed crocodiles in the upstairs gallery. That house, Temple Sowerby, was sold, but eventually Atkinson got around to reading the correspondence. It contained a list of the names and monetary value of nearly 200 slaves on a Jamaican plantation in 1801.

What emerges is a three-dimensional portrait, not just of Richard Atkinson MP but his world — nefarious, buccaneering, amoral, but also containing a genuine love story. Atkinson was too clever and impatient to remain long in Westmorland and escaped to London, where we first see him working for Samuel Touchet, a merchant and MP for Shaftesbury. One of Touchet’s vessels, ironically named the Friendship, received letters of marque at the beginning of the Seven Years War, allowing it to attack enemy shipping. Touchet went one further and invaded Senegal, returning laden with booty. Don’t cheer this imperial blow against the French too enthusiastically: he was also involved in the triangular trade. Like others in this book, his fortunes went awry, and in 1763 he hanged himself from a bedpost.

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