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As 12 Years A Slave hits our cinema screens, we discover how Gloucestershire was built on the riches of the slave trade

By The Citizen  |  Posted: January 18, 2014

12 Years A Slave is in cinemas now

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NAMES like Bakers Quay, High Orchard and Philpotts Warehouse are familiar to shoppers in Gloucester Docks.

Powerhouses of the Victorian canal boom, they also have connections to the slave trade, in the spotlight thanks to the recent release of Oscar-nominated blockbuster, 12 Years a Slave.

And Gloucestershire’s links to slavery do not end there – the son of a slave owned large tracts of the county.

Samuel Baker and Thomas Phillpotts developed Bakers Quay, thanks to money from Jamaican property and transporting West Indian goods – and they got more than £4,000 compensation when slavery was abolished in 1834.

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Baker and Philpotts imported sugar direct from the West Indies to Gloucester, developed a new quay and the High Orchard area, and allowed a railway to the Midlands to develop.

While they were ploughing the profits from an economy which relied on slavery into widening a stretch of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, Nathaniel Wells was a county sheriff in 1818 and a lieutenant of the Chepstow troop of the Loyal Monmouthshire Yeomanry Cavalry.

He was black and the son of a slave.

He owned substantial property in both Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, including the grand Piercefield House near Chepstow.

His fortune was made on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, in the sugar trade.

The diary of the landscape artist Joseph Farington, on April 24, 1803, recorded the change of ownership at Piercefield.

“Piercefield,” wrote Farington, “sold to Mr Wells, a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro.”

Nathaniel was the son of William Wells, who was born in Cardiff in 1730 – one of four sons of the Rev Nathaniel Wells. When William was 19 he went to the West Indies with his brother, who was also called Nathaniel, to make his fortune in the sugar trade.

They settled in St Christopher (St Kitts) and by 1753 William had established himself enough to marry.

But in 1759 his wife, Elizabeth, who was 13 years his senior, died.

Nathaniel was the result of a liaison between William and a black slave girl.

In 1765 he bought his first sugar plantations, called Vambells. In 1767 he added a further 96 acres and was said to be worth £60,000.

Nathaniel was born on September 10, 1779, into slavery.

His father had him baptised, so openly acknowledging that the children were his. It meant that although Nathaniel had been born a slave, and probably lived the first few years of his life as a slave, after his baptism in 1783 and some time before his father William Wells made his will in 1789, Nathaniel was singled out to be groomed as his father’s heir.

He was sent to England for his education at the age of 10, and on inheriting his father’s fortune benefited directly from the very trades that had seen him born a slave.

He was the first black person to acquire the status of sheriff in Britain. While he was to sell most of his St Kitts plantations and slaves, he was still assessed as having 89 slaves at the time of the emancipation in 1834.

Links to slavery in Gloucestershire are closer to home too. Gravestones across the county tell of many servants who worked here.

Thomas Bloomsbury’s grave in Newent tells of 55 years’ service of “a native of Africa”.

According to the Gloucestershire Records Office, the first record of a black person was at Bisley, when ‘John Davies ‘Ye Black’ was buried on November 22, 1603’. The first black person in the Forest of Dean was at Newnham at Easter in 1715.

And a tomb in English Bicknor church is inscribed with “Here lyeth ye body of Charles a black servant to Mr George Wyrall who departed this life ye 6 November 1721 aged about 24.”

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