Play brings back echoes of Dorset’s slaving past

BurntOut Theatre's performance of Muscovado at Bridport Arts Centre

Bridport Arts Centre recently hosted a performance of Muscovado by BurntOut Theatre, a scorching new play about slavery in 19th-century Barbados. Described as “a heady mix of sexual intrigue, piercing choral music and extreme racial tension”, the production offered an unflinching portrayal of life on a sugar plantation in 1808.

Several West Dorset families made fortunes in the slave trade. Bridport historian Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard reflects on the area’s connections to the West Indies.

We think of the Merchant Adventurers of Bristol, London and Liverpool as being involved in the slave trade, but what about Dorset? What evidence is there here?

Lyme Regis, Bridport, Weymouth and Poole had trading links to Newfoundland and West Africa going back to the 15th century. Sir George Somers of Lyme and Whitchurch Canonicorum was trading in the area when he was shipwrecked in a storm off Bermuda in 1609. He died on the island in 1610 and his body was brought home in a barrel to be buried in the church of St Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch. His ordeal on the “Isle of Devils” was written up in a popular pamphlet, which circulated in Jacobean London and came to the attention of a certain playwright, one William Shakespeare. The tale inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest.

The early 1600s saw a rise in the merchant classes and interest in trade routes all over the world. The East India Company received a Royal Charter from Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600 and was the first of a burst of joint stock companies formed by landowners, merchants and aristocrats. The Virginia Company of 1607, which sent the first settlers to Jamestown, included the Dare family from Lyme Regis.

All over the country, people were restless and seeking new adventures, many seeing this as a golden opportunity to leave their old life behind and look for something new. 1620 saw The Mayflower sailing from Plymouth and the Pilgrim Fathers settling in Massachusetts; Dorset families wanting a new life quickly followed them. 1630, the Mary and John sailed with a group of West Dorset families, who settled in what was to become Dorchester, Massachusetts. The group were organised by John We think of the Merchant Adventurers of Bristol, London and Liverpool as being involved in the slave trade, but what about Dorset? What evidence is there here?

In 1627 the William and John landed in Barbados with some 50 settlers. On the way they captured a Portuguese vessel and 10 black enslaved Africans were taken on board, becoming the island’s first slaves. These first white settlers included Hildip, Hilliard, Drax and Hallett: all were to play an important role in the development of the island in the sugar industry and slave trade, becoming some of the initial sugar barons and producers of “white gold”. Sugar cane cultivation rapidly spread from Barbados to other islands of the West Indies, including Jamaica and Nevis.

After the failure of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, many Dorset men were transported to Nevis, including Azariah Pinney who became one of the most important planters of his generation and whose family went on to own Bettiscombe Manor and build Racedown House. Racedown, on the lip of the Marshwood Vale, was where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived in the earliest days of their friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1795 John Pinney let Racedown to the Wordsworths rent-free. Wordsworth liked the Axminster carpet in the dining room but was dismayed by the poverty of the area, which had many tramps and beggars, some of whom were so poor they stole the garden fence for firewood.

Photograph by Barrett and Co, Bridport, c. 1870, showing Charmouth House on the right, owned by the Burridge family
Photograph by Barrett and Co, Bridport, c. 1870, showing Charmouth House on the right, owned by the Burridge family

Local merchants and ship owners, such as the Burridge family from Lyme Regis, were trading with Guinea, the West Indies and Virginia in the 1600s and 1700s. The Burridges used many ports for their ships, including London and Liverpool, but some of their African voyages left from Lyme Regis itself. In 1713 their ship John Frigate set off from Lyme, calling at Ireland, Barbados, America, returning to Africa and then back to Barbados with 91 slaves. The ship stayed in the Caribbean for several months, before returning to Lyme after a voyage that lasted three years. There is a memorial to the Burridge family in the floor of St Michael’s Church in Lyme. It records that John Burridge, who died in 1733, was MP for the town and mayor of Lyme Regis three times.

John Hallett from Lyme Regis was one of the first settlers in Barbados. In 1673 he was listed as one of the “Eminent Planters” with 300 acres on the island. His son Richard returned to live in Lyme Regis in 1699, bringing black servants with him. In 1702 the Lyme Regis Town Court recorded that “a Black Negro Servt. of Mr Rich d Hallett called Ando” was accused of rioting in Broad Street alongside other persons.

Trading as a merchant in the town, Hallet bought the Stedcombe estate in Axmouth, just over the border in Devon. Descendants of the family owned most of the parish for nearly 200 years.

Next time I will look at the Pinney and Drax families and those who were given fortunes in compensation for owning slaves when slavery was abolished in the 1830s.

Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard runs family history courses at Marsh Barn in Bridport.
In July she has several sessions at Dillington House in Ilminster. Contact 01308 425710.

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