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Sugar and Slavery exhibition: were there really any kindly slave owners?

The exhibition at Penrhyn Castle in north Wales made John Unsworth angry at the idea that there were "good slave owners"

Issue No. 2051

Slaves cutting cane in Jamaica in 1824, part of the Swansea exhibition

Slaves cutting cane in Jamaica in 1824, part of the Swansea exhibition

This exhibition is housed in the former stable block of the mock medieval Penrhyn Castle near Bangor, north Wales.

The estate has been in the Pennant family since 1765, when Richard Pennant (the first Lord Penrhyn), a Liverpool slave merchant, married the heiress of the Penrhyn estate.

It has taken the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade to highlight the fact that this enormous pile of a building was built with proceeds from slavery.

A quote by professor Merfyn Jones sums up Richard Pennant as “quintessentially a Liverpool merchant, one of the particular breed of merchant princes grown wealthy on the slave trade, that most primitive system of capital accumulation”.

But Pennant liked to portray himself as a slave owner with a heart – “they [slaves] should not be overworked and they should be treated with tenderness when they are ill, and with humanity and attention at all times,” he wrote to his plantation managers.

Generally slave owners worked their slaves hard. Was Pennant different – or was he just protecting his investments as is suggested in another part of the exhibition?

It’s pretty clear that Pennant’s motive was to preserve his capital, not to liberate them.

The sheer profitability of the trade comes over, with mention that the value of exports from Jamaica were five times greater than those from the American colonies.

One exhibition board tells us that by the late 18th century, Liverpool merchants realised that abolition was only a matter of time, due to changing public attitudes – so they diversified their investments.

But Pennant defended slavery to the last.

He told parliament, “Were the house to vote for abolition they would actually strike at £70 million worth of property, they would ruin the colonies, and by destroying an essential nursery of seamen, would give away the domination of the sea at a stroke.”

Scandalously, the Pennant family received £14,683 in compensation for lost assets, after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833.

You won’t find a satisfactory explanation here for the ending of the slave trade and then slavery itself.

There is only one passing mention of slave resistance, and not a single mention of the Maroons slave movement on Jamaica – surprising given that Pennant’s Denbigh Plantation was one of the biggest slave estates in Jamaica.

But there are real positives here. The artefacts – sugar barrels, slave chains, double neck braces and iron wrist bracelets – bring the horrors of the trade alive, especially when contrasted with the genteel plantation tea service.

And at the end of the exhibition is a display of work resulting from a link up between local primary school children and children in Jamaica.

There is a great anti-racist DVD playing, based on work done when the poet Benjamin Zephaniah visited the Ysgol Llanllechid school.

Sugar and Slavery exhibition, Penrhyn Castle, north Wales continues until 4 November.

For visiting arrangements go to

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Tue 15 May 2007, 18:31 BST
Issue No. 2051
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