Slavery in Wessex from Britannia Prima to Brexit

First of all, let me apologise for bringing Brexit into everything. As you will see, there is a reason for this, it wasn't just to make the title alliterate (though that was part of it).

The recorded history of slavery in the British Isles begins in Roman times, though it probably existed long before then. According to Tacitus, Calgacus, leader of Caledonia, warned that the punishment for defeat by the invading Romans would be slavery. Britannia Prima, the Roman province roughly corresponding to Alfred's Wessex, was a mining district, as we have seen, so it is likely that slaves would be sentenced to a life of hard labour in the mines.

Slavery continued long after the Romans departed. Saint Patrick, who may have been born in the Romano-British settlement of Portus Abonae (modern-day Sea Mills in Bristol), was sold as a slave to the Irish, part of a thriving trade between the two lands. King Ine's law code later decreed that any Wessaxon selling another Wessaxon into slavery was to pay a wergild as a penalty.

Nevertheless, the Domesday book records that at the time of its compilation, some 10% of the population of England were slaves. Perhaps surprisingly, given the overall negative effects of the conquest on English freedom, outright slavery declined over the following century, and was non-existent by 1200. However, English people living in the Welsh marches were subject to border raids by the Welsh, who continued to press captives into forced labour.

From the 17th Century, penal transportation led to a new kind of slavery, with people being shipped off to new colonies in the Americas and Oceania as slaves or indentured servants, often for relatively trivial offences such as vagrancy (which, among other injustices, led to many Romanies being enslaved merely for pursuing their traditional nomadic way of life). In Wessex, the main destination for bondsmen was the area around Chesapeake Bay, in service to disaffected Cavaliers. The area is a shallow estuary with a humid subtropical climate, making it attractive to mosquitoes, and so many of these indentured servants ended up dying of malaria.

Bristol was, of course, a hub for the notorious transatlantic slave trade. Many places around the city are, controversially, named after slave trader Edward Colston, and there is a statue of him in the city centre. Concert venue the Colston Hall, which had been boycotted by artists such as Massive Attack in protest, announced that it would be changing its name in 2020, though the new name has yet to be announced at the time of writing.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1807, though it was not until 1838 that all slaves in the British empire were finally emancipated. The Bishop of Exeter was among those slaveholders compensated by the British government for the loss of their "property". The Royal Navy became active in enforcing abolition, aggressively pursuing West African slave ships and Barbary pirates.

I wish I could say that was the end of the story. But sadly, human traffic continues well into our own century. According to the charity Anti-Slavery International, the government estimates that there are tens of thousands of people living in slavery in the UK today. Moreover, the same charity warns that Brexit has the potential to weaken existing protections against slavery if it results in withdrawal from Europe-wide criminal justice initiatives such as Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. It is sincerely to be hoped that decades of progress in this area are not undone by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Wessex Attractions: Notgrove Long Barrow

Four-and-a-half miles west of Bourton-on-the-Water, accessible from a signposted lay-by on the A436, lies one of Gloucestershire's most ancient and neglected monuments. Notgrove Long Barrow is a burial site believed to date back to the early Neolithic period. The barrow is of the Cotswold-Severn type, one of 19 such barrows in Wessex and South Wales, which are characterised by a rotunda at one end, surrounded by a dry wall made of the local stone. It measures approximately 46 metres by 30 metres, and is oriented east-west.

Excavations in 1881 and 1934-5 unearthed human and animal remains, including skeletons of a crouching man and a young woman, and an almost complete skeleton of a calf. Also found were beads made of shale and bone, half a bone ring, and neolithic pottery shards in the Peterborough style. These finds are now held in the Cheltenham Museum. Local legend told of a golden coffin buried there, but this is a fairly common folklore motif, and needless to say, no trace of such a coffin was found.

Unfortunately, these excavations completely destroyed the shape of the barrow, so that it is barely recognisable today. It was eventually filled in some time in the late 1970s, but by then, the damage had already been done. Visitors often report that the site appears overgrown, but this is on the advice of English Heritage's ecologist, to provide a haven for butterflies and wild flowers that had become endangered locally by modern agricultural practices. If a part of Wessex's human history has been lost, then at least other species, such as harebells and cowslips. can be left to flourish.

Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 2

Barbary Pirates and the Birth of the US

For International Talk Like A Pirate Day, we present the second part of this article. Part 1 can be found here.

When peace was declared with England's enemies, privateers at a loose end slipped easily into straightforward piracy. In 1609, Captain Thomas Salkeld, a heavy-drinking reprobate from Barnstaple, became known as the Pirate King of Lundy, after seizing the island and enslaving prisoners from captured shipping. Despite many bitter experiences in the 1620s, Barnstaple gave licence to 8 shipowners, who between them operated 14 ships. Whatever measures were employed were very unsuccessful. in ending the chaotic mayhem in the Bristol Channel. in 1627, another illegal occupier of the Isle of Puffins was Jan Janszoon, a Dutch renegade who hoisted an Ottoman flag over his ill-gotten occupation.

In 1627, a ship's boy from Minehead, whose name, unfortunately, was not recorded, was captured by raiding "Turks" (as we saw in part 1, the name "Turks" was applied indiscriminately to people from North Africa and the Near East). He was taken to Algiers, pressed into service, and forcibly converted to Islam. He was eventually freed at sea by an English warship, still wearing Muslim attire. He was chastised by local clergy for not becoming a martyr to his faith, and made to undergo a service of penance by local clergy. On a Sunday in May 1628, he was apparently subjected to long, pedantic and, to him, incomprehensible sermons by priests from Bagborough and Luccombe, under the watchful eye of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

In 1649, Robert Blake, the redoubtable Parliamentary defender of Taunton in the Civil War, was appointed Admiral by Cromwell. In that same year, the depredations of the Barbary pirates was so severe that it was enacted that one shilling in every pound paid in customs duty was to be allocated to the redemption of captives.

Earlier in 1646, there had been negotiations in Algiers led by Edmond Cason, a representative of the Barbary Company. to purchase the release of 244 prisoners of the Bey. These negotiations were followed by the treacheries, misunderstandings and violations which then characterised the politics of both Christian and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean.

Blake's duties in the Mediterranean initially focussed on warfare with the Dutch, and a watching brief on the likely hostile acts of both France and Spain, However, when Blake learned in 1654 of a great concentration of Corsair vessels at Tunis, he requested authority to "sieze, surprise and sink and destroy all ships belonging to the King of Tunis that we shall meet." He "stayed not for an answer", but arrived at La Goulette, the port of Tunis, on 7 February 1655. There he found no great concentration of ships, and his requests to the ruling Bey for the return of the captured ship Princess and the release of captives were rudely refused. After some reconnoitring and revictualling in Sicily, he located nine well-protected Corsair ships at Porto Farina, a Tunisian arsenal, and these he set effectively on fire, destrying all with the loss of only 25 English lives.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the mixture of appeasement and aggression used in relations with the Corsair ports. Sometimes England had recognized consular officials operating in places like Algiers at the same time as captured English slaves were being tortured in nearby prisons. In 1628, soon after the accession of Charles I, a royal proclamation was issued demanding that the Corsair ports and their ships shuld be immune from any attacks by English vessels. This craven surrender excited enormous indignation in suffering ports such as Exeter, Plymouth and Dartmouth. One petition blamed the Jews who financed many lucrative piratic operations from North Africa. Seemingly no faith was entirely unable to avoid being drawn into the conflict.

As the Stuart monarchs Charles II and James I were keen sailors, and in James's case a competent admiral, it must have been especially irksome that their efforts to deal with the problem were largely unsuccessful. However, during Charles's reign, in 1675, a naval expedition led by Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough managed to negotiate a treaty with Tunis, and to bombard Tripoli into submission.

Fot the next century, British ships were largely protected from the depredations of Barbary corsairs. But once the United States of America broke free from British rule, they lost the protection that went with it. In 1784, Morocco, which had been the first nation to recognise the USA, became the first nation to sieze one of its vessels, the brigantine Betsey. The Spanish government managed to negotiate the release of the hostages, but the repercussions lead to the realisation that the US Revenue-Marine (forerunner to the present-day coastguard) was not sufficient to protect American maritime interests, and to the foundation in 1794 of the US Navy. The navy fought two wars against the Barbary states, the first from 1801-5 and the second in 1815. It was an English Vice-Admiral, Edward Pellew, who eventually subdued them, though. In 1816, he led a fleet of British and Dutch warships in a bombardment of Algiers, which secured the release of some 1200 Christian slaves. For this, he was created the 1st Viscount Exmouth, thus bringing the Wessex connection full-circle.

Going Underground: Mining and Quarrying in Wessex

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea being a tin trader who brought the boy Jesus to Glastonbury will be the subject of its own article in due course, and so lies outside he scope of this post, but it does testify to the antiquity of Wessex's mining history. Since prehistoric times, Wessex's mineral resources have been a major source of her wealth.

Wheal Betsy engine house, near Mary Tavy, Devon.

The British Isles have long been thought to be the Tin Islands mentioned by Herodotus, and remains of iron age tin mines have been found on Dartmoor. Extraction was probably through the use of stone hammers, antler picks and wooden wedges. Many churches in Devon feature the symbol of the "tinners' rabbits", three rabbits or hares chasing each other in a circle. The same symbol appears in Asia, originating in China and associated with Buddhism. There is some debate as to whether it was brought to Devon by traders travelling the Silk Road, or whether it appeared independently as a motif from insular Celtic art.

Roof boss at St Pancras Church, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon. Note the way each rabbit appears to have two ears, yet there are only three ears in total.

In Roman times, the Mendips were a major source of lead. Pigs (ingots) of lead from Charterhouse have been found as far afield as France, stamped with their place of origin and the names of emperors from the first and second centuries AD.

The Mendips were also mined for calamine, a generic name for the zinc ores nowadays known by their specific names of smithsonite and hemimorphite, to distinguish them from the disgusting pink gloop that many of us will have had smeared all over us as kids when we had chicken pox. These ores are mixed with copper to form brass, an alloy which was in great demand from the 16th century, when brass combs came to be preferred for wool-carding.

The Free Mine exhibit at the Dean Heritage Centre.

Whilst coal has been mined in the British Isles since at least Roman times, used for smelting iron and making bronze, the industrial revolution massively increased the demand. The needs of mining drove the invention of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine - which of course required coal to power it, creating a cycle of production and consumption. Coal mining was mostly confined to the northern half of Wessex: the Forest of Dean, the Oxfordshire- Berkshire coalfield, south Gloucestershire and north Somerset. A small amount also took place in Devon, particularly of lignite, or brown coal, a low-grade coal used mainly in electricity generation. The Forest of Dean was specifically exempted from the 1946 Coal Nationalisation Act, and freeminer Rich Daniels currently operates Hopewell Colliery, the last working coal mine in Wessex, though it is nowadays more of a tourist attraction than a genuine contibution to Wessex's energy needs.

As well as mining, Wessex also has a long history of quarrying for stone, sand and gravel. Jim Gunter, who comes from a long line of Cotswold stonemasons, very kindly sent me some information on some tools used in quarrying. The illustration above comes from County Relics: An Account of Some Old Tools and Properties Once Belonging to English craftsmen and husbandmen saved from destruction and now described with their users and their stories by H J Massingham & Thomas Hennell (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2011). The slat-pick shown used to be known in the Cotswolds as a Pittaway, which was also the surname of Jim's great-grandmother. This is not a coincidence - it speaks to a familial connection with our Society's treasurer.

Hamstone wall from tithe barn, Haslebury Mill, Somerset (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Cotswold stone is not the only honey-coloured limestone from Wessex. Ham Hill stone from Somerset (sometimes shortened to Hamstone) has been described by Simon Jenkins as "the loveliest building material in England". There were once 24 small quarries on Ham Hill, but now the number is down to just two. As well as being used as a building material, Hamstone was burned locally in kilns for the manufacture of lime.

Portland Stone is arguably one of Wessex's best-known exports. The Cenotaph in Whitehall (above) and the UN headquarters in New York are among the high-status structures made from this Jurassic limestone, but the oldest known example is local: Rufis Castle on the Isle of Portland. Originally built in 1080, walls from the mid-15th century still survive today. However, stone quarrying on the Isle has certainly been going on a lot longer than that, as several Roman sarcophagi made from blocks of Portland stone have been unearthed in Dorset over the years.

A blog post such as this can barely do justice to such a vast and fascinating subject. I hope that you will click on some of the links embedded in this post, and maybe visit some of the attractions whose websites provided much of the information for this article.

Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 1

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took to the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.

Othello, Act 5, Scene 2

Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor of Venice, having abjured his religion, was credited with unswerving loyalty to the state of Venice, with whom he had taken service. The seemingly everlasting conflict between Islam and Christendom did not merely envelop the Mediterranean and Middle East, but soon extended to Western Europe, pirate galleys reaching as far as Iceland. Wessex was certainly not immune from pillaging and plunder. Extensive records, especially from the 17th century, show that authorities often fought a losing battle against the marauders--on one occasion, 50 men, women and children walking along the coast at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall were next heard of in the slave market in Algiers.

The Barbary Pirates who crewed most of the galleys which plagued our shores took their name from the Berbers of the Mahgreb hinterland; but in fact their bases at Tunis, Algiers and Sallee were independent cities, offering for a time a vague alliegance to the Caliphate of Baghdad. Later, these brigands tended to be referred to by the catch-all name of 'Turks'.

Thomas Norton, a Devon merchant captain, was captured by pirates in 1620. He escaped to Sallee where "he (went) to sea on his own account and (was) credited to exceed the Turks in cruelty to his own countrymen".

Sometimes captives were able to gain freedom by overpowering their captors, occasionally because the corsairs with their rowed galleys were unfamiliar with the skills needed to handle captured sailing ships. John Rawlins, captain of a small Plymouth barque, was captured in 1621, sold on to the renegade Ramanda Rais (real name Henry Chandler), and employed as a pilot. Rawlins managed to win over the motley crew of slaves and renegades, and stage a mutiny with a cry of "God, King James, and St George for England". With what must have been enormous courage and leadership, he sailed the ship safely back to Plymouth.

It is difficult for us to conceive that often the same people and places indulged in trade, war and piracy simultaneously, The Christian powers of Genoa, Venice and Catalonia were early in the field. Although both Christians and Muslims encouraged religious fervour for their activities, people frequently changed their religious alliegance in order to save their skins and/or make some money.

On 18th August 1625, the Mayor of Bristol declared that Ilfracombe was threatened by Turkish ships from Lundy Island and there were reports of three pirate ships at large in the Bristol Channel. After an enquiry was held, Captain Harris of HMS Phoenix refuted this alarming information, but a Nicholas Cullen maintained that the Turks had been there a fortnight, adding that "I saw the Turkish ship lying the road off Lundy."

The merchants and shipowners of Exeter, Plymouth, Barnstaple, Dartmouth and other places in a petition to the Lords of the Council, dated September 2 1636, stated that the pirates had become so numerous and terrible in their ships, and so well piloted into the Channel by English and Irish captives, that they dared not send their vessels to see, seamen refused to go, and fishermen refrained from taking fish. A few years later, the number of slaves had greatly increased, as appears by a petition, dated October 3 1640, to His Majesty. stating that at that time, there were no less than 3000 poor English in miserable captivity, undergoing divers and most insufferable labours, such as rowing in galleys, drawing carts, grinding in mills, with divers such unchristian-like works most lamentable to express, and most burdensome to undergo, withal suffering much hunger and many blows on their bare bodies, by which cruelty many, not being able to undergo it, have been forced to turn Mohammedan.

RF Playfair (Smith, Elder 1884)

Queen Elizabeth I was, no doubt, angered by piratical incursions into her realm. She wrote: "Inasmuch at that cost of Devonshyre and Cornwall is by report much hanted by pyrattes and Rovers to cause on or too apt vessells be made redy with all spede iit some ports ther abouts." Her frugality suggested that the necessary expenditure to be obtained from captured men and ships.

The story of the Barbary pirates is endlessly fascinating, but there was a plethora of other disreputable maritime activities going on simultaneously. In particular the privateers, privately owned and manned armed vessels given letters of marque to prey on shipping of hostile foreign powers. Wessex seamen in numbers made a great deal of fairly dubious wealth from signing up for expeditions.

To be continued...