West Indian slavery and the Tuckett family both feature in my forthcoming book about a real-life criminal case in Taunton in Somerset[ref]Pen&Sword, spring 2016[/ref], so I was interested to come across this episode concerning William Tuckett, who was mayor of Bridgwater, some twelve miles up the road from Taunton.
In 1785, George White, a local clergyman, and John Chubb, suggested to William Tuckett that a petition against slavery be drawn up and presented to Parliament. It was the earliest such protest by a borough against the African slave trade[ref]There had been a petition by the Society of Friends two years previously.[/ref].
The humble petition of the inhabitants of Bridgwater showeth, that your petitioners, reflecting with the deepest sensibility on the deplorable condition of that part of the human species, the African Negros, who by the most flagitious means are reduced to slavery and misery in the British colonies, beg leave to address this honourable house in their behalf, and to express a just abhorrence of a system of oppression, which no prospect of private gain, no consideration of public advantage, no plea of political expediency, can sufficiently justify or excuse. That, satisfied as your petitioners are that this inhuman system meets with the general execration of mankind, they flatter themselves the day is not far distant when it will be universally abolished. And they most ardently hope to see a British parliament, by the extinction of that sanguinary traffic, extend the blessings of liberty to millions beyond this realm, hold up to an enlightened world a glorious and merciful example, and stand foremost in the defence of the violated rights of human nature.
After its presentation by the Honourable Anne Poulett and Alexander Hood (later Lord Bridport) the petition was ordered to “lie on the table” – meaning that the House would politely ignore it. Indeed, Poulett and Hood reported that “there did not appear the least disposition to pay any further attention to it. Every one , almost, says that the abolition of the slave-trade must throw the West Indian islands into convulsions, and soon complete their utter ruin. Thus, they will not trust Providence for its protection in so pious an undertaking.”[ref]Esther Copley, A History of Slavery and Its Abolition. London, Houston & Stoneman, 1839[/ref]
The history of the end of slavery is full of complexities and contradictions, ironies and hypocrisies. This little footnote in that history is no different.
I have been unable to find out anything further about White and Chubb, the instigators of the petition but William Tuckett, who started his career as a solicitor, was a notable figure.
In 1765, aged 28, he was appointed Stamp Act distributor on St Kitts in the West Indies. The Act, which imposed a direct tax on legal documents, magazines and newspapers in the American and West Indian colonies in order to pay for the Seven Years War, provoked resistance and led to the famous rallying cry “No taxation without representation”.
William Tuckett became the quarry for a mob of 500 white colonists who, infuriated by the tax, forced him to resign. He fled, humiliated and in fear of his life, to the nearby island of Nevis.[Ref]Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1766. An account is given in 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, Mitchel and Hughes, 1894.[/ref]
While on St Kitts and Nevis, Tuckett would have seen slavery at first hand. His opinions on it are not known, and it is entirely possible that he privately supported its continuation while outwardly siding with White and Chubb and the residents of Bridgwater.
The town was once a greater trading port than Bristol, whose wealth had soared as a result of its trade in slaves, so envy of their near neighbours perhaps played a part in local residents’ sentiment against slavery. No doubt there was also genuine religious opposition too, and there may also have been a legacy of community resentment at the fate of over 600 Somerset men who were enslaved and transported for their involvement in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. These men undoubtedly suffered greatly – and died from their treatment in great numbers – and although they were pardoned after four years their experiences may have encouraged Bridgwater to identify strongly with the fate of enslaved Africans.
Under the surface, however, while William Tuckett outwardly supported the petitioners, it is likely that at least part of his personal fortune came from slavery. Some may have come was from his wife, Martha Lowman, the daughter of Moses Lowman, a Methodist preacher from Clapham and a planter on the island of St Vincent, and from his mother Frances Webbe.
In 1772, William Tuckett was said to have returned to England from the West Indies a rich man.
Extract of a letter from Bridgwater, July 23
On Monday last Wm. Tuckett, Esq., lately arrived from the West Indies, having amassed a considerable fortune in those parts, was unanimously elected to the office of Recorder of our ancient Corporation.[ref]Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 30 July 1772[/ref]
In the West Indies it was difficult to make money without getting your hands dirty with the business of slavery, either by investing in it in one way or another, or by legally assisting others to do so.
As a further irony, other members of the Webbe family were firm Abolitionists. James Webbe Tobin[ref]Known as “Blind Tobin[/ref], the son of Elizabeth Webbe and James Tobin, who owned the Stoney Grove Estate, and 175 enslaved people, on Nevis, was an avowed Abolitionist.[ref]The Legacies of British Slave-ownership shows that George Webbe, a likely relative of William Tuckett’s through his mother Frances Webbe, was compensated £107 16s 2d for 10 enslaved people on Nevis.[/ref]
William Tuckett’s son, George, followed his father into the law, and was appointed Solicitor General of Grenada in 1801. He served at the bar in Jamaica, and was much later, and only for a brief time, acting Chief Justice of Jamaica during the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. At various times in his life he made pleas for compassion for slaves, and prided himself on his humane feelings. He plays a large role in my book so it was, for me, a surprise and a disappointment, to discover that he actually owned some at the time of Abolition in 1834. While resident in England, he was awarded £128 7s 1d in compensation for the loss of five enslaved people in Spanish Town, Jamaica. I have no idea whether these people were “purchased” by him or inherited from others.[ref]George Tuckett’s brother and sister do not appear to have claimed for compensation, which is not to say that they never owned slaves.[/ref]
For most people, the issue of slavery does not pose a moral dilemma. It is just wrong, no question. But perhaps, as we look back at this time, we forget that slavery’s entanglement with income, wealth and status made it, for some, almost impossible to do the right thing. This is not to excuse them. This was a brutal, pernicious and evil practice. But human nature being what it is, and the overdog doing what it always does, I cannot be surprised that people were economical with the truth on this issue.
It calls to mind (my mind at least) our attitude to taxes and benefits. Most people, I think, view the oppression of the poor, both working and non-working, as wrong and cruel. But if asked, by a government, to contribute more of their own money and possessions to alleviate this situation, most of us decline. While voluntary donation gives us a good feeling, forcible removal of money makes us resentful. And at the back of our minds is thought that it is these people’s own inadequacies, which we assume they cannot alter or improve, and not our own actions or failings, that have landed them in their situation in life.
As David Olusoga explored in last night’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, the plight of the slaves was sometimes blamed on their racial inferiority. The actions of the slave owners was actually for the benefit of these unfortunate simpletons.
People will do almost anything to rationalise dodgy moral stances when to change them will hurt financially. As I contemplated the dual strands of “humanity” and support for slavery that I found in George Tuckett, my sad conclusion was, “It was ever thus.”