Black slavery and rural Britain

This summer I went to two places in Britain that had unexpected connections with eighteenth and nineteenth-century slavery. Since it’s Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about what these places tell us about the impact of the slave trade on Britain.

The first place I want to talk about is Ullapool, a small village in the far north-west of Scotland. The current village was founded as a herring port in 1788, although there’d been a settlement around there much earlier.

Street in Ullapool

Ullapool Museum has interesting displays, including on the ups and downs of the fishing trade. Many of these were connected to the movement or loss of herring shoals, but not all. One slump came in the early nineteenth century. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade led to a sharp drop in demand: barrels of salted herrings had been one of the main ways of feeding slaves on the slave trading ships. The people of Ullapool may well never have seen an African person: but their economy and lives benefited indirectly from slave labour.

That’s one corner of Britain. The other place, more than 600 miles away, is Madehurst, on the edge of the South Downs in West Sussex. I grew up in Madehurst, which is a tiny village, of only just over 100 people and so obscure that some pupils at my school in Chichester, ten miles away, had never heard of it. One of the few amenities that Madehurst does have is its church, St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene, Madehurst

Inside the church, there’s a remarkable memorial stone.

Roque Ferdinand memorial 2
Roque Ferdinand memorial (Photo © Alice Cossar)


The inscription of the stone reads:

In a grave beneath are deposited the Remains of ROQUE FERDINAND a Native of the ISLAND of BONAVISTA who died May 7. 1789 Aged 67.

He came to England with SIR GEORGE THOMAS BART late GOVERNOR of the LEWARD ISLANDS and served him and his succeeding Family with unremitted Zeal Affection and Honesty Fifty two Years.

This Stone is erected as a Token of Regard and in Commemoration of his Worth by SIR GEORGE THOMAS A: D: 1789.

When I was growing up this memorial seemed an interesting tie to the outside world for a very sleepy parish. It’s only quite recently that I’ve realised that Roque Ferdinand was a slave.

Or rather an ex-slave. In the third volume of Vere Langford Oliver, The history of the island of Antigua, one of the Leeward Caribbees in the West Indies, from the first settlement in 1635 to the present time (London, 1894), there’s a section about the Thomas family. It includes (p. 129) the will of Sir George Thomas, the first baronet and former governor of the Leeward Islands, who by that time was living in Yapton in Sussex. In this will, dated from 1773, Sir George states: “My cook Roque Ferdinando to be free & to have £20 a year.”

In the same will, Sir George leaves his plantations and slaves in Antigua to his son, William, the second baronet and after that to his son-in-law Arthur Freeman. He also disinherited his grandson, George Thomas, the later third baronet, “on account of his marriage with a foreign woman”.

The younger Sir George Thomas, however, was still prosperous enough to create an estate for himself in Madehurst and build himself a fancy house there, Dale Park. The third baronet, despite his disinheritance, also had continued connections with the slave trade. At the time of Roque’s death in 1789, the younger Sir George owned estates in Antigua. He became an MP and several times tried to become governor of the Leeward Islands. Sir George sold his Antigua estate in 1802, but his son, Sir William Lewis George Thomas, 4th Baronet was compensated in 1833 for Jamaican slaves that his wife had inherited.

There’s a lot of information available about the Thomases; there may be more about Roque that someone with more knowledge of eighteenth-century records could find. For a slave, he was relatively fortunate: not forced into the hardest labour and eventually freed. But his life had still been traumatic. I suspect “Bonavista” was the Cape Verde island of Boa Vista, which might explain Roque’s non-English sounding name. If that’s right, then his ancestors had already been enslaved and relocated by the Portuguese. Roque himself was presumably born around 1722. By 1737, at the latest, at the age of fifteen or less, he was acquired by the Thomas family.

What happened to him then and where was he taken? Sir George Thomas, the first baronet, was deputy governor of Pennsylvania in 1738-1747, then governor of the Leeward Islands in 1753-1766, before returning to England. Was Roque shipped around all these places as required, before ending up in Sussex?

And what happened to Roque after 1774, when the elder Sir George died? Presumably he was freed, as Sir George’s will wanted. The fact that he was buried in Madehurst suggests a continuing connection with the area and with the younger Sir George in particular. Did Roque become his cook, although now as a free man? It seems to me likely, if we’re to take his fifty-two years of service seriously. But was Roque really motivated solely by “zeal” and “affection”? He would have been in his early fifties when he was freed, after at least thirty years of servitude, thousands of miles away from any family and friends he might once have had, in an obscure corner of Sussex. Did he stick with the Thomas family because that was the only life he knew? And how did the other inhabitants of Madehurst and Dale Park treat him?

Unless someone finds more information (and I’d be very interested if someone did), we can only speculate about some aspects of Roque’s life. But I’ve talked about him and about the fishermen of Ullapool because histories of British slavery often focus on cities where the slave trade was prominent. The hoped-for memorial to enslaved Africans would be in Hyde Park in London. Projects such as the UCL Legacies of British Slave ownership are beginning to show the wider impact of slavery beyond a few key cities. But it’s also via incidental references across the UK that we can begin to see just how significant the slave trade and Black Africans were to the history of many different corners of Britain.

4 thoughts on “Black slavery and rural Britain

  1. Having lived with my aunt in Madehurst, I later took my friend Ben Bousquet to see this monument, as he was very interested to see this monument plaque to Roque Ferdinand, as a black slave in 18th century Sussex always fascinated me. He was an amateur historian interested in black presence in Britain.


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