Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe


Talk by Dr Todd Gray on 17 February 2022

Todd began his talk by saying that this was a difficult topic and a most divisive one in Devon and elsewhere in the country.  He showed an image of the front cover of his book of an American actor who had performed in Exeter and Plymouth.  The caption for the image quotes it as “Ira Aldridge as ‘The Captive Slave’, by John Philip Simpson, 1827.  This celebrated American actor, known as the African Roscius, performed across Devon in the 1840s and 1850s in plays including Thomas Morton’s The Slave (1818).”  Todd said the book had had good coverage in newspapers but on-line there was sheer hatred directed at him and in the emails he had received.  It was very much a case that an individual’s opinion matters more than evidence, and is more important than facts.  It is especially difficult for Todd working on Devon, but every county will be different.  One debate which has emerged is whether statues should be taken down. 


For a book that he is currently working on to do with parish taxes he needs to work out the role of women in the parish as none are listed as officials.  He showed images of the original documents where men are evidently the parish officials but where women may be feeding the information to them.  The role of the historian is to be objective and unbiased.  He spoke about meeting Charlene White (a TV newsreader) who had pursued her family history and found that that her several times great grandfather was a slave owner.  Mixed race people had owned slaves which she had found difficult to reconcile.


Todd showed several images, one of glamorous black women, and another of workers in the cotton fields and a Freedom Day picture.  He said that people get annoyed because the images don’t portray the horror that they think should be portrayed.  He showed an image of the Hawkins’ coat of arms in Barnstaple which includes a black person.  He talked about white slavery in North Africa, and slavery based on race and outlined slaving voyages, estates, and trade in goods which are three things he has been working on.


Todd then went on to outline what is claimed and the assumptions that are made but where the evidence contradicts them.  There were known slave voyages in Devon and Cornwall but Devon was less involved in these but more involved in privateering.  In a Devon context more white Devonians were enslaved in North Africa than West Africans were enslaved in Devon.  Devon’s economy was dominated by the cloth industry.  No study has been made of Devon’s trade in slave goods from 1619 to 1834 but what work there is suggests Devon was most active in the late 1600s and early 1700s.


Todd spoke about country houses built on the profits from slavery and found that the majority of 2,000 plus were not involved.  He spoke about meeting Maya Angelou who came to Devon in 1993 who encouraged him to work on the slave trade and the result was his book Devon and the Slave Trade.  Another book of his which explored another difficult subject was Not One of Us.


Todd spoke about the types of names given to slaves and said that “Devon” was commonly used.  He went on to talk about 1 August 1834 which was the day of emancipation and where slave owners were compensated (but not the slaves themselves).  34,000 plus were given compensation with 34 of them in Devon which angers people and Todd gets abused because of it.  A question which was considered for the book was what was considered as being Devonian – resident in the county or visiting?  He found that it was common for visitors to go to seaside resorts, and some retired to Devon and out of the 34, only six had been born in Devon.  Todd talked about the Porter brothers, one at Winslade House and the other at Rockbeare House.  Also the Rolles, father and son.  Denys Rolle fathered eight children and went to Florida and his son Lord John Rolle found it too expensive to own slaves and tried to make them free – not necessarily for philanthropic reasons but because it was costing him too much money.  At first he met with opposition from the authorities but was eventually successful and granted a portion of land to each of the former slaves.  In gratitude many of them took the name of Rolle although they were not descended from him.  A letter of praise purporting to be from them had appeared in the Western Morning News.


Of the houses in Devon built with the profits of slavery Todd identified the following: Shute, near Colyton;  Follaton House, near Totnes;  Glenthorne, Countisbury;  Millcombe House on Lundy;  Peak House, Sidmouth;  and Stoodleigh Court, Stoodleigh.


Todd spoke about black presence in Devon where there have been small numbers, and Cornwall where there have been more than you would expect.  He ended his talk by saying that the question of empire is likely to be more of a topic for the future.


. . . .


Todd’s book Devon’s Last Slave-Owners, Plantations, Compensation and the Enslaved, 1834 published by The Mint Press in 2021 is a thoroughly researched volume of the evidence surrounding this subject.


Most talks are now on the second Thursday of a month. All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at LEONARDO Hotel Exeter, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                              The nearest car parks are the Triangle Car Park (at the rear of Leonardo Hotel) and the Summerland Gate Car Park (next to Vue Cinema). Parking at the Triangle Car Park is, unfortunately, no longer free in the evenings.

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