This is Part II of Kate Donington’s discussion of the histories and legacies of British slave ownership. See here for Part I (‘The Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project’).
My PhD focuses on one of the staunchest advocates of slave-compensation, George Hibbert (1757-1837). George was a sugar commission agent, a merchant, a financier, he supplied plantation goods and luxuries from home to his correspondents. Head of a commercial house which was recognised as the first in the Jamaica trade, he represented the London West India interest as an M.P., acted as Chairman for the Society of West India Planters and Merchants and was Agent for Jamaica (1812-1831). He was instrumental in the transformation of the Isle of Dogs into the West India Docks. He helped to found the London Institution and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. He was a botanist, philanthropist, cultural connoisseur and eventually a country gentleman. He was also a plantation and slave-owner who defended and prolonged the institution in a career which spanned the duration of the campaigns for both the abolition of the slave trade and finally slavery.
Hibbert cannot be understood without embedding him within the family and kinship networks which structured his world. The centrality of both family and kin to the study of eighteenth century business formations has been explored to great effect not least in Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff’s Family Fortunes (1987). The extent to which this text would influence my work was unknown to me until I began to unpick these complicated relationships. This process began the old fashioned way with pen, paper and a family tree. This document still remains at the centre of my research, not least of all necessary for navigating the many individuals who shared the family practice of inheriting names. Once each Thomas, Robert and George Hibbert had been identified and placed within the family formation the work began of reconstituting how these relationships operated, within what contexts and across which colonial spaces.
The Hibbert family and their associates were located within some of the key sites which made up the heartlands of the slavery business; Manchester, Liverpool, London and Jamaica. They began as Manchester cotton merchants; their cotton was delivered to Liverpool where it was then shipped to the coast of Africa and traded for enslaved people whose final destination was the plantations of the British West Indies. Like many commercial families the Hibberts saw the colonies as a source of potential wealth and sent their eldest son Thomas (1710-1780) to Jamaica in 1734. Thomas founded what would become a Transatlantic business empire. Thomas’ work in the colonies was supported and expanded through a series of key alliances made through his siblings’ marriages at home. A key factor in these unions was the role of Unitarianism; the close-knit world of Manchester’s non-conformist commercial elite ensured that business contacts and profit remained within a few hands.
By the time George took his place within the family firm, his kith and kin were represented among a number of the most profitable aspects of the multivalent slavery business. His uncle had branched into the transportation, insurance and distribution of sugar, as well as money lending and had opened up a commercial house in London. The wealth produced from these ventures had enabled the family to both marry into, as well as purchase land in Jamaica. In two generations they had become a dominant force there owning sizeable estates, large enslaved workforces and with interests in scores more properties through the system of debt and credit which characterised the plantation society. Economic success was followed by political power with those resident in the colonies becoming members of both the judiciary and the Jamaica Assembly. At home in England the acquisition of country houses and civic power consolidated the Hibberts’ position.
The Hibbert family story is complicated through the existence of characters whose narratives do not fit easily into the traditional racial binaries of colonised and coloniser. The family patriarch Thomas conducted a thirty year relationship with a free woman of colour, Charity Harry, and their daughter Jane (1756-1784) was sent to England to be educated. Jane converted to Quakerism, a decision which saw her excluded from the family circle, and had set her mind to returning to Jamaica to free her mother’s enslaved workers when she died aged twenty-eight following childbirth. Jane and George were born within a year of each other but were separated by geography, race, gender, religion and legitimacy. Their parallel stories offer an opportunity to think about family through these various lenses and ask what it meant to be a Hibbert during the period.
This question finds alternative meaning when considering who else was connected through the Hibbert family name. Also implicated by name are those who passed through the Hibberts hands as the human cargo necessary for their slave factorage and plantation businesses. The slave registers for Jamaica record thousands of instances in which ‘Hibbert’ appears within the person’s given name between the period 1817-1832. Not part of the family but central to the maintenance of it, their names act as a reminder of the brutal means through which the Hibberts came to power. These Hibberts whilst lesser known to history are the fundamental connection between Britain and its slave colonies.
– Kate Donington
Website dedicated to the history of the Hibbert family: http://www.georgehibbert.com/
Help and advice on searching the Slave Registers through Ancestry.com: http://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/Satellite?c=Learning_C&childpagename=UKLearningCenter%2FLearning_C%2FPageDefault&pagename=LearningWrapper&cid=1265124613024