Llanelli and the Slave Trade

We have been reminded recently of how imperialism, colonialism and, in particular, the slave trade have impacted on our history and heritage. Indeed, much of what we see around us will have had some kind of link to these factors.

Chris Evans in his book ‘Slave Wales’ shows how it was Wales that revolutionised the copper industry in the 18th century. Spearheaded by Welsh copper producers, largely those in the Swansea area, 41% of the global output by the end of that century was smelted in Wales. We have been sadly long aware that exports to African markets were closely linked to the slave trade. For example, the West Indian rum and sugar plantations needed copper vats and containers, and manillas (horse-shoe- shaped bangles) and copper rods were used as currency by the slave traders. Swansea’s White Rock works had a manilla house for that purpose.

It is clear that some of the main players in the local copper trade were slave owners. Pascoe St Leger Grenfell of Swansea copper smelters ‘Pascoe Grenfell and Sons’ was awarded with his partners the compensation payment of £4,121 for the enslaved people on the Hazelymph estate in St James (216 slaves), a sugar plantation in Jamaica. In addition he was an unsuccessful claimant for the St Elizabeth estate in Jamaica with 131 slaves.

The same claim involved Rees Goring Thomas of a local land-owning family after whom is named Goring Road in Llanelli. His partner James Esdaile of ‘James Esdaile and Sons’, London Bankers, was also a slave owner with 216 slaves on the Jamaican Rose Hill estate.

Nearer home most of us know the background of Sir John Cowell-Stepney, soldier, owner of the Stepney estate, politician, and a developer of the town of Llanelli. Coleshill Terrace and Glevering Street stand as a painful reminder of how Ann Cowell, owner of the Swamps slave plantation in Jamaica, included Sir John as a beneficiary in her will. The income from the slaves amounted to £2,200 in 1823.

Perhaps less well-known is the influence of a group of slave owners in the development of the copper industry in the town. In 1830 the London based English Copper Company established the Cambrian Works in Llanelli. The background of the directors is illuminating. We know from the legacies of British slave-ownership that a number of them were slave owners with plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Demerara. One of the slave owning directors, John Stewart, was elected Tory MP for Lymington at the 1832 general election. Unsurprisingly he presented a petition to the Commons against the abolition of slavery.

Cambrian Copperworks ~ aerial photograph courtesy Doug SimpsonThe Cambrian Copper Works lasted from 1831 to 1841, but then continued as a lead and silver works until 1898 when it was bought by the Welsh Tinplate & Metal Stamping Co Ltd. The proprietors of the Cambrian Works were ‘Mary Glascott and Sons’. Glascott with her sons George and Thomas were brass founders in Whitechapel London and in July 1835 (after Britain had abolished slavery in most of its colonies) joined with a group of partners to form the ‘Company of Proprietors of the Royal Copper Mines of Cobre’ with a head office in London. An indenture, kindly shared with me by Chris Evans, names Mary Glascott, George Glascott, and Thomas Glascott as the proprietors along with an array of slave owning families including Rees Goring Thomas, Pascoe and Riversdale Grenfell and others living in Cuba with slave owning links to Trinidad and Antigua. The group’s auditor was solicitor Alexander Druce, a partner in the Llanelly Copperworks Company. Despite the London addresses the company ‘signalled the formal absorption of the Cobre mines into the Welsh copper industry’ (Evans).

1871 Wood Engraving Cobre Copper Mine ~ Public DomainCopper mining at El Cobre, on the Sierra Maestra in the south east of Cuba, stretched back to the sixteenth century. The new company reopened the disused mines abandoned by the Spanish, and it was Cornish miners who first provided the technological and labouring workforce at El Cobre. Their earnings were high but conditions were poor. In a humid climate and accommodated in flimsy houses with no protection from flies and mosquitoes, their numbers were depleted by yellow fever to such an extent that reinforcements from Wales (paid less than the Cornishmen) were introduced but ultimately the company resorted to African slave labour.

Despite the 1830s being the decade of official slave emancipation it is not surprising that a company led by so many slave owners would be open to the use of slave labour. In 1841 the number of workers at El Cobre had risen to 750, of whom 480 were slaves. It seems the treatment of slaves in Cuba was no different from that experienced in other parts of the West Indies. Diary extracts from Cornish miners, who were shocked at the brutality, reveal a savage regime of beating, flogging and torture.

The combination of British capital, Cornish and Welsh expertise and slave labour resulted in the transformation of El Cobre. The company’s growth was phenomenal with shares being exchanged at £40 apiece on the London market and a monthly profit of £12,000.

Complicity was widespread both in the El Cobre project and in the links between the copper industry and slavery. The ore coming into Swansea was landed at the dock’s dedicated Cobre wharf and an auction sale was held weekly attended by all the copper masters. Listed among the local companies that bought copper ore regularly in the auction from El Cobre was Nevill and Druce’s copper works company in Llanelli. They also imported Cuban ore directly into their Copperworks Dock. The Company’s first partnership included, among others, Ralph Allan Daniell, a Cornish merchant and banker and joint owner of 153 slaves in Barbados.

I was certainly surprised in my research by the extent of slave ownership in Llanelli’s copper industry. It mirrors the dark British national picture of slave ownership which resulted in vast personal fortunes and huge profits from unbelievable suffering. A recognition of this and the historical attitudes to race that accompanied slavery are necessary if we are to properly understand our heritage.

See also Llanelli and the Slave Trade