Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Black History Month: Charles Waterton and slavery

Charles Waterton, the pioneering naturalist, explorer and conservationist of Walton Hall near Wakefield, also spent seven years as a manager of sugar plantations and enslaved people in Guiana in South America.

In 2019 Wakefield Museums & Castles began a research project to learn more about Waterton’s involvement with the practice of slavery. This final post in our Black History Month series outlines what we know so far and our plans for further research and changes to our galleries.


Charles Waterton by Charles Willson Peale in 1824. By this time Waterton had stopped working on plantations and returned to Europe, never to return to South America.


In the 1790s, Britain took over the control of Guiana from the Dutch. The land in the new colony was perfect for growing sugar and so had the potential to make lots of money for British investors. The Waterton family were among the many British people who rushed to buy land there, from wealthy merchants to poorer families. These sugar plantations exploited enslaved people to maximise profits.



The Waterton family and slavery

Waterton’s father and uncle each owned a plantation in Guiana:

              La Jalousie & Fellowship bought by Charles’ uncle, Christopher in 1797. In 1835 it had 292 enslaved persons.

              Walton Hall plantation bought by Charles’ father in 1805. It was sold in 1817 with 287 enslaved persons.

In his book, Essays on Natural History, Charles Waterton writes about how his family became involved in sugar and slavery:

Our family found its way to the New World in the following manner: - My father's sister [Anne] was remarkably handsome. As she was one day walking in the streets of Wakefield, a gentleman, by name [Michael] Daly, from Demerara, met her accidentally, and fell desperately in love with her: they were married in due course of time, although the family was very much averse to the match. Soon after this, my father's younger brother [Christopher], who had no hopes at home on account of the penal laws, followed his sister to Demerara, and settled there.

Source: Waterton, Charles; Natural History Essays

The penal laws restricted Catholic involvement in government and business. Waterton and his family were Catholics. Despite his aristocratic home and heritage, Waterton was unable to use his title as a Lord. He also couldn’t work as a judge, officer in the army, or become an MP.


Charles Waterton’s involvement with slavery

Aged 22, Waterton was sent to administer the plantations and the enslaved workforce on behalf of his family. He did this job for seven years (1805 – 1812). He might have received a salary for this work, but it is likely he was sent out in order to avoid paying someone outside of the family.

Charles’ father died in 1805, shortly after his arrival in Guiana, and Christopher died in 1809. Waterton then managed the plantations on behalf of his brothers and cousins. He didn’t actually own the plantations, which went to his brother after their father and uncle’s deaths. Instead, Charles inherited the family home, Walton Hall in Wakefield.

Walton Hall near Wakefield in 1830. Waterton’s father remodelled the house in the 1760s, long before he invested in slavery and sugar.

In 1833 Waterton was challenged over his family’s involvement with slavery. He wrote: 

I never possessed a slave in my life, or any part of a plantation. From 1807 to 1812, at intervals, I administered the estate of an uncle, and others; during the period, the yellow fever and tertian ague kept giving me frequent hints that there was not much pleasure to be expected from being ‘surrounded by slaves and attendants’

Waterton, Charles; Mag of Nat Hist.  July 7 1833. P.394

 Waterton finished working as a planation manager in 1812 and began his first ‘wandering’ in South America:

In the month of April, 1812, my father (Thomas) and uncle (Christopher) being dead, I delivered over the estates to those concerned in them, and never more put foot upon them. In my subsequent visits to Guiana, having no other object in view than that of natural history, I merely stayed a day or two in the town of Stabroek (now called George Town), to procure what necessaries I wanted; and then I hastened up into the forest of the interior, as the Wanderings will show.


Waterton riding a caiman out of the Essequibo River in Demerara by Captain Edwin Jones, 1820s. Daddy Quashi, a formerly enslaved man, can be seen pulling on the baited rope with members of an Amerindian tribe.

Waterton on slavery

Waterton never campaigned to end slavery but he did speak out against it. In his book, Wanderings in South America, he writes against the practice but defends the treatment of enslaved people by plantation managers:

slavery can never be defended; he whose heart is not of iron can never wish to be able to defend it: while he heaves a sigh for the poor negro in captivity, he wishes from his soul that the traffic had been stifled in its birth; but unfortunately, the governments of Europe nourished it, and now that they are exerting themselves to do away with the evil, and ensure liberty to the sons of Africa, the situation of the plantation slaves is depicted as truly deplorable, and their condition wretched. It is not so. A Briton’s heart, proverbially kind and generous, is not changed by climate, or its streams of compassion dried up by the scorching heat of a Demerara sun; he cheers his Negroes in labour, comforts them in sickness. Is kind to them in old age, never forgets that they are fellow creatures.

Source: Waterton, Charles; Wanderings in South America

In 1807 the transportation of enslaved people from Africa was abolished in the British Empire after a nationwide campaign. However, it did not end the practice of slavery in the colonies and the anti-slavery campaign focused on the treatment of slaves within the plantations. Waterton did not like this argument and wrote of kind treatment towards enslaved people. However, we do not know what conditions were actually like on the plantations he managed.

We do know that he taught taxidermy to John Edmonstone, who was enslaved to Charles Edmonstone, Waterton’s friend and future father in law, and that some formerly enslaved people accompanied Waterton on his famous expeditions in the rainforest.

When Britain finally abolished slavery in 1833, those that owned enslaved people received compensation from the government. The loan needed to pay the compensation was so big it was only paid off in 2015. As Waterton himself had not owned a plantation or any shares in enslaved people, he did not receive compensation, but some family members on his uncle’s side did.


Slavery and Wakefield Museum

Wakefield Museum does discuss anti-slavery and anti-racism campaigns in the Wakefield Stories gallery but does not currently explore Waterton’s relationship with the practice of slavery.

We believe that this aspect of Waterton’s life should be discussed within Wakefield Museum. We will be presenting the known facts about Waterton and slavery on a display panel and will be adding ‘Plantation Manager’ to the list of descriptive words to describe Waterton.

Wakefield Museums & Castles are now speaking to academics at the University of Leeds in order to try and verify our understanding of Waterton’s involvement with slavery and conduct further research, particularly into the conditions for the enslaved people on the Waterton family plantations. We hope to address these topics and start a deeper conversation in more detail in 2021.


This is the last post in our Black History Month 2020 series, although we continue to work towards researching and interpreting Wakefield’s links to slavery and its legacy.

Previous posts

John Edmonstone

Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone

Sugar nippers not shackles:slavery in local history collections


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