Success, sugar and slaves: the uncomfortable story of slaveholder Simon Taylor

Simon Taylor became one of the wealthiest slaveholders in the British Empire. Today he is almost forgotten but, writes Christer Petley in BBC History Revealed, men like him must be remembered – even if to do so may feel difficult and discomfiting

Woodcut illustration of labour on a sugar plantation in the West Indies, 1725

Two days before Christmas 1739, in the busy port-town of Kingston, Jamaica, Simon Taylor was born. His father was a successful merchant who had emigrated to the colony from Scotland, and his mother was the daughter of one of the island’s most prosperous English settlers. Taylor was born into privilege at the beating commercial heart of the wealthiest part of Britain’s 18th-century empire.

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That wealth was based on sugar. As Taylor was being baptised in the Anglican church near the bustling Kingston dockside, lush green fields of sugar cane sprawled out behind the expanding mini-metropolis.

Looming above were the Blue Mountains, the highest part of a forested tropical interior, and beyond in the eastern, northern and western parishes of the Caribbean island was a frontier. Mile upon mile of fertile land, along low coastal plains and in the wide river valleys – this was land in the process of being bought-up, surveyed, cleared and cultivated.

It was being transformed into more lucrative sugar plantations for the benefit of ambitious risk-taking British entrepreneurs. Sugar created the wealth of the white Jamaican elite, but it also created one of the most unequal societies in human history.

The dangerous physical labour of cultivation was being done by slaves, imported into Jamaica via the slave trade from West Africa. Many systems of forced labour have existed before and since, but the Atlantic slave trade was especially violent and deadly. It was also distinctively divisive, characterised by stark racism: black people were enslaved, white people were not.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, at least 12.5 million captive Africans were forcibly boarded onto merchant ships bound for the New World, where they toiled for the profit of Europeans. Almost a quarter of them left on vessels heading for the British sugar islands in the Caribbean, where Jamaica would be the primary destination.

Building an empire

This was the colonial world into which Simon Taylor was born. By the time he was a young man, he had received an English education at Eton College and returned to his native Jamaica, having inherited his recently deceased father’s wealth.

His 20s were spent capitalising on his inheritance and taking financial gambles to invest heavily in Jamaican sugar. He soon owned three plantations: vast estates with cane fields covering hundreds of acres, and each with a costly set of buildings for the industrialised process of boiling and refining raw cane-juice into sugar for export.

Taylor became one of the biggest slaveholders in the Caribbean. His Jamaican properties eventually had a combined workforce of more than 2,000 slaves – men, women and children — and every one of them was owned by Taylor as a personal ‘possession’. Their lives were characterised by back-breaking labour and grinding poverty, but their exploitation made Taylor a fortune.

His income was massive. By 1792, he had become one of three super-rich Caribbean sugar tycoons whose individual annual income was reported to have exceeded £50,000.

To put that into context, when Jane Austen (who took details of wealth, status and money very seriously indeed) wanted to create a character of extraordinary wealth for her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, she came up with Mr Darcy and his famous £10,000 a year. Taylor, who died in the same year Austen’s novel was published, received an annual income from his slave-run properties that could make even Mr Darcy’s fortune seem small in comparison.

It was not only planters like Taylor who made money from colonial sugar and slavery. So too did the British merchants who transported Jamaican sugar across the Atlantic for sale in Europe or who supplied the colonists with slaves.

The British treasury made money from this business too, through import duties on sugar. All those employed in the shipping and selling of sugar reaped benefits, and so did the navy, which depended on the skills of sailors trained on the long-distance voyages of the sugar trade.

Engraving of George III and his family discussing how much sugar they use
In a satirical cartoon, George III and his family discuss how much sugar they use. (Image by Universal History Archive, Getty Images)

Jamaican produce found its way into the humblest of 18th-century British domestic settings. As increasing numbers of Britons sat down to enjoy sweet cakes, scones and jam, they were transforming their bodies and habits of consumption thanks to the toil of slaves on distant plantations.

As he grew older, Taylor watched countless British ships coming and going in Kingston harbour. He did business with captains, slave traders and sugar merchants, playing a leading role in the intensifying hustle of commerce that connected colonial Jamaica with the British Isles. He knew that the wealth this generated had helped establish the British Empire as he knew it. He also believed that sugar and slavery would shape its future.

Wealth for whites

Wealthy Jamaican slaveholders became the kingpins of empire during the middle decades of the 18th century. They seemed to have the world at their feet. Taylor was a prominent member of this rising group of newly wealthy businessmen, whose wealth made in the Caribbean propelled them into the upper ranks of the gentry in Britain. Many of the richest of these men would leave their Caribbean properties in the hands of local managers so they could retire to Britain, where they bought country estates, became Members of Parliament, and one — William Beckford — even became Lord Mayor of London.

Despite his wealth, Taylor chose to stay in Jamaica, living the life of a colonial bachelor. The sexual exploitation of women of colour by white men was rife, and it is known that Taylor had at least two long-term relationships with free women. He probably fathered several illegitimate mixed-race children, although they were not destined to be the principal heirs to Taylor’s fortune. Instead, it was the white family of his younger brother who benefitted most from the money generated by Taylor’s Jamaican plantations, living in flamboyant opulence at ‘home’ in England.

This was the way Taylor wanted it. He wrote to tell his brother that he would “work hard both night and day” to make a success of his plantation business. He lived through what he called his “years of purgatory” during his 30s — a time of “uneasiness and anxiety”, as he borrowed big sums of money and grappled with crop-blight, the impact of war, and insurrectionary plots by Jamaican slaves. He was prepared to run those risks to secure elite status for his family, and in the expectation that things would get easier over time.

Eventually, Taylor paid off his creditors and saw his personal income rise, only for him to enter middle age and see British humanitarians launch a political attack against the slaveholders of the empire. To people like the MP William Wilberforce, colonial slaveholders were not loyal and useful British entrepreneurs, but selfish tyrants presiding over an immoral system of exploitation that was a disgrace to Britain.

By the end of the 1780s, Wilberforce had emerged as the leading voice in a campaign to abolish the slave trade. Some abolitionists were prepared to go further, demanding not only the end of the trade between Africa and the Caribbean, but the end of slavery itself. So despite having become one of the richest planter grandees of his generation, the second half of Taylor’s life was to be every bit as fraught with uncertainty as the first.

Sugar and strife

Making money from Caribbean sugar plantations was not easy, and men like Simon Taylor had to face many risks…

The black blast

An infestation of tiny insects would descend on the luscious green sugar plants and turn them black. It was the worst form of sugar blight, capable of ruining a crop within a matter of days.

Yellow fever

A constant hazard in the tropical zone and one that cut down white colonials in their droves. Young newcomers were especially susceptible to this deadly mosquito-borne disease, and there was no known cure.

Hurricanes

Every planter in the Caribbean region knew that they were exposing their fortunes, properties and enslaved workforces to tropical disasters. Hurricanes frequently tore across the sugar islands with devastating force, leaving a trail of ruin, disease and hunger in their wake.

War

Common in the 18th-century Caribbean, war brought disastrous disruptions to trade, along with the possibility of foreign invasion. Islands often changed hands in Britain’s wars with France, but the American Revolutionary War was the most destructive for British colonies. Food from North America stopped arriving in Jamaica, causing thousands of slaves to starve to death.

Uprisings and abolition

Planters worried about white British abolitionists, like the campaigner William Wilberforce, and yet they also feared their own slaves. Slaves outnumbered whites in every British- Caribbean sugar colony. Slaveholders tried to prevent uprisings through raw terror and complex divide-and-rule tactics, but the abolition of slavery by slaves themselves certainly kept planters like Taylor up at night.

Advance of abolition

Taylor saw abolitionism as a threat to everything he had worked for over the years. The end of the slave trade, he knew, would severely hurt his business, as he and his fellow planters relied on a system that was, quite simply, institutionalised manslaughter. Conditions for slaves on Jamaican sugar plantations were appalling, with the number of deaths outnumbering births. So if planters like Taylor could not replace workers with new ‘recruits’ from the slave ships, they would soon struggle to maintain their profits.

Wilberforce and his allies did more than threaten Taylor’s economic interests, however. They also questioned his very identity. ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ was the slogan of the abolitionist movement, accompanied by the image of a kneeling, shackled African begging for help.

It was a popular message that neatly summarised the abolitionist outlook, and simultaneously challenged the principles of white supremacy and white solidarity that Taylor thought should define the empire. To men like him, the only people who could be considered “natural born subjects”, deserving of British care and protection, were whites. From his home in Jamaica, Taylor raged against the abolitionists. Wilberforce, he complained, was a “hellbegotten imp”, spreading “infernal nonsense” as he took up the interests of “negroes” against those of white colonial slaveholders.

Image showing the cutting of sugar cane in the West Indies, 1833
Cutting sugar cane in the West Indies, 1833. (Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In 1807, on receiving the long-anticipated news that parliament had reached its momentous decision to put an end the slave trade, Taylor’s reaction was predictable. He was, he wrote, “lost in astonishment and amazement at the phrensy which has seized the British nation”.

In Taylor’s view, he and his fellow slaveholders were being abandoned by a nation they loved — and one that they had helped make rich and powerful. In fact, parliament had only abolished the trade in slaves across the Atlantic, not the institution of slavery itself. The emancipation of slaves in the colonies only followed much later, during the 1830s. But the abolition of the slave trade nonetheless represented a significant blow to the slave system that had enabled Taylor’s rise to wealth and prominence.

Taylor had believed that system would be a permanent and strong foundation for his family’s fortune. Now, he had to contemplate a different long-term future, and he did not like it. “I am glad I am an old man”, he grumbled towards the end of his life, confessing that he was “really sick both in mind & body at scenes I foresee”. While it made him angry, abolition did not ruin him, though. Far from it. When he died in 1813, aged 73, Taylor was probably worth about £1 million, which would be around £50 million today and a huge fortune by the standards of his time. He was, by any measure, one of the richest people ever to have lived in the British Empire.

Longing to forget

Today, Taylor is more or less unknown. When they have remembered slavery at all, white British people have tended to celebrate the heroes of abolition, such as Wilberforce. In Jamaica, it is the heroes of resistance to slavery and colonialism whose faces appear on the bank notes.

Taylor is buried in Jamaica, on the site of one of his old sugar estates, in a spot that was once surrounded by his lucrative cane fields and in sight of the shipping lanes that connected them to the wider British Empire. But the plantation is gone and his once grand tomb lies dilapidated, unmarked on maps, and absent from tourist guidebooks.

None of us want to identify with Taylor. But his story, and those of other British slaveholding men, must be remembered, even if to do so may feel difficult and discomfiting. The fact is that most of Taylor’s vast wealth found its way back to Britain, inherited by his extended family in England, and by the time he died, Caribbean sugar had been contributing to national wealth and power for generations.

Millions of enslaved people had suffered and died, and the systemic racism that underpinned New World slavery persisted. It still persists. However hard we might try to pretend that Taylor’s story has nothing to do with us, the world of sugar and slavery that he helped to create has left behind many iniquitous legacies. It is not yet fully dead or finally buried.

Professor Christer Petley is author of White Fury: a Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (OUP, 2018)

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This was content first appeared in the March 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed