Thanks to Black Lives Matter and the toppling of a Bristol statue, I’ve just found out about the part a number of Huguenots played in the transatlantic slave trade.  It’s left me breathless.  All that Bible reading did such Huguenots no good when it came to the lives of stolen Africans.

We all like to glorify our ancestors.  The Huguenots who fled France were the ones who would not renounce their religion; they stood their ground when required to convert and risked death for the Word of God.  Surely they must have been conscientious, highly principled, philanthropic types.

My lot – the Strict Baptists of proud Huguenot heritage, living in relative poverty – were obsessed by the story of the Good Samaritan, which admonishes Christians to help any human who has fallen by the wayside, regardless of race.  Plenty of Huguenots, like Anthony Benezet and Samuel Romilly, were active abolitionists.

Doddington, St Peter's church window - The Good Samaritan: Photo by Jules & Jenny

Huguenots were, however, at the cutting edge of capitalist society.  Their crimes, when committed, were not the cheeky stealing of a pig or lamb. 

Britain led the mass transatlantic slave trade from the mid-17th century onwards.  Slave-ships left for Africa from ports like Bristol, Liverpool, London and Glasgow, took captured Africans to America, and returned to Britain with slave-produced commodities like cotton, sugar and tobacco.  The slave-ship owners amassed huge wealth from this briskly cost-effective triangle.

In Bristol, the Huguenot family Laroche established itself as a leading investor in slavery.  James Laroche and his nephew, also James Laroche, traded under the name “James Laroche & Co” - specialising in the lucrative new slave trade.  In 1738 alone, the company made five transatlantic crossings, taking Africans to Jamaica, St Kitts and North Carolina.  One in five of those slaves would not survive the journey. 

The younger James Laroche was co-owner of The Black Prince, the most notorious of Bristol’s slave-ships.  “The Log of The Black Prince”, written with shocking sang-froid by the ship’s captain and now held in Bristol Central Reference Library, has the following details for 1763:

17 February [1763] … found the slaves intended taking [the ship]- two slaves Discovered there Intregue putt most Part of the Men in Chains to prevent there Intention …
22 February … found the Slaves was intending to rise got all under arms and soon got them quieted tho a great Number of them had Broke there Irons … found out 2 of which was the Ring Leaders which was well Flogged …

3 March … Slaves is very indifferent with Colds and Purging … Woman No 11 died …
4 March … The slaves intended to make the other Attempt [uprising]. Am got up 10 of the Ring Leaders put them in one chain and whipt them … Died one girl of the flux No 12
7 March … Died the Ring Leader of the Insurrection …
8 March … One Woman is very bad, Many of them with purging and some falls away not eateing …
14 March … The slaves fore and aft falls away very much although no vizable complaint eat there vituals very well …
1 April … The Slaves still fall away and complain of gripeings and fluxes …
5 April … Many complaints forward one sick slave Endevered to Jump over Board …

It was on the backs of slaves that some of the richest Huguenot merchants in Bristol – the Laroches, and a dynasty called the Peloquins – rose to the top of Bristolian society through the Merchant Venturers, a quasi successor to the medieval guild.  They trod a well-worn path to establish themselves and their families.  According to “The Huguenots in Bristol” by Ronald Mayo:

“Members of the exclusive Merchant Venturers Society were also, in many cases, members of the self-electing Common Council and it was the exception rather than the rule if the Master of the Merchant Venturers of one year was not the Lord Mayor the ensuing one, or vice versa.”

The younger James Laroche was made a baronet and became MP for Bodmin from 1768 to 1780. After entering Parliament his financial position became increasingly unstable; this may have been because his slave-ship The Black Prince was hijacked – and ultimately shipwrecked – by mutinous crew. As an MP, he is listed in “The History of Parliament Online”  and his entry reports his decline: in 1774 he mortgaged his wife’s estates in Antigua for £7,000.  In 1779, “The Public Ledger” wrote of him:

“Was a Bristol merchant, and for doing some Government business there, was rewarded three years ago with a baronetage.  He is lately become a bankrupt…and is now literally a beggar for the crumbs which fall from the minister’s table.”

Eventually recovering from the shame of bankruptcy, he stood for Bodmin again in 1790 but was defeated.  He died in 1804.  Had he held onto his fortune, and endowed a few schools in Bristol, he might have had a statue as well as a baronetcy.

Edward Colston by John Cassidy 1895: Photo by mira66

Commemorative statuary is all over the news thanks to Black Lives Matter, an anti-racist movement sparked by the killing of black people by police in the USA.  The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 spurred new international impetus – helped by horrific video footage of George pleading for his life with the words: “Officer, I cannot breathe.”

In Britain, the statue of eighteenth-century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down in Bristol, and tossed into the harbour.  This act of civil disobedience followed years of formal objection and made the front pages; the statue has been pulled out, and will be displayed in a museum with explanatory notes about its own history.

In the wake of this dramatic protest, other institutions are scrambling to re-package their monuments.  Hordes of archivists are beavering away nationwide – and indeed, worldwide – seeking words to contextualise statues of people who should never have been memorialized in the first place. 

If the plaques get it right, tarnished old statuary will help people learn from history - not be stultified by it.

“The toppling of Edward Colston's statue is not an attack on history. It is history” by David Olusoga

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