“They are generally chained two and two together, the right leg of the one to the left leg of the other – some part of those who are the most resolute and dangerous their hands also.”

ON June 19, 1789, an east Cleveland sailor was called before the House of Commons to give evidence about the workings and conditions of the slave trade, which was beginning to become unpopular.

Captain Thomas King was a good witness. He knew the trade inside out, having left his farming roots and gone to sea on a slave ship aged 18 in 1766. He’d quickly risen to captain slave ships and then become the entrepreneurial head of one of Britain’s largest slave-shipping companies: between 1781 and 1808, his company, Camden, Calvert & King, owned a fifth of the slave ships sailing from London which made 77 voyages and transported 22,000 slaves from the west coast of Africa to the West Indian plantations.

Capt King’s family had its roots in the Skelton and Brotton area of east Cleveland – some versions of his family tree draw in the Thomas King who was a brewer in Kirkleatham and a close associate of the renowned Saltburn smuggler, John Andrews of the Ship Inn.

Capt King made the first of his eight slaving voyages in 1766 as an 18-year-old second mate on the Royal Charlotte which carried 120 slaves from the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

He told the House of Commons in 1789 that of 500 slaves that he would take from Africa, 120 would be women, another 100 would be under the age of 15, and another 200 would be men from inland areas whom he regarded as quiet. None of these would be fettered – but the remaining ones would be.

He said he would pay 40 shillings for a male slave whom he would exchange on when he reached Jamaica or Grenada for sugar and rum which he’d bring back and sell on to the European market.

He said all of his slaves were convicts, some of them guilty of witchcraft, and he denied that any of his cargo had been kidnapped or stolen by native headhunters.

He said the average journey across the Atlantic Ocean took two months and they carried supplies of food and water for 90 days.

But he said his worst crossing was in 1769 when he captained the Molly and had 105 slaves on-board. A mast broke in a storm as they left Africa and so it took them seven months to reach the West Indies, by which time half of his cargo was dead.

It is a shocking testimony, particularly as in 1771, he was charged with murder for kicking an Irish member of his crew to death – a charge of which he was acquitted in 1776.

He invested some of his profits in estates in British Guiana and bought farmland for his family back home in the Lackenby area, between Middlesbrough and Redcar on what was then the agricultural south bank of the Tees.

In 1782, his sister, Elizabeth Jackson, died in Lackenby leaving her husband to bring up three children under the age of ten.

In 1789, when William Wilberforce began his Parliamentary campaign to end slavery, the oldest of the children, Jonathan, 15, went to join his uncle in London and was apprenticed into the slave trade.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

In 1794, the captain tried to persuade Jonathan to take up a position with the African Company of Merchants – a slave dealing company – on the Gold Coast.

A letter to his brother at home in Lackenby shows Jonathan was reluctant. “I do not like the idea, and yet I am afraid to tell him so, for fear I should offend, as he seems bent upon it,” he wrote.

“He now however seems to press it strongly, and sets it forth as a most Advantageous thing, where I may in a short time (say 15 Years) acquire a fortune, but when I consider the great hazard I run of losing my life perhaps before I have been there many Months, I confess I had rather turn Farmer than go, as I should not like to stay in London after refusing my Uncle.”

But Jonathan did go, and he ended up stationed at the Cape Coast Castle, near Accra. The castle had begun as a fortified trading post, where Europeans kept their valuable commodities like gold and timber until a ship was ready to take them home.

When humans became commodities, they too were kept there, in the castle dungeons in appalling conditions, including chains, while they waited for their boat to come in.

Above, in the comfort of the castle, the company men like Jonathan worked.

Cape Coast Castle is probably the most notorious of the 40 slave castles on the west African coast. Today it is a museum dedicated to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Two of its most high profile visitors have been US President Barack Obama in 2009 and First Lady Melania Trump in 2018.

Further correspondence exists from 1798 showing that Capt King had persuaded another of his contacts to take Jonathan onto a slave plantation so he could learn that side of the business.

It is believed that he went to Essequibo, a slave colony on the banks of the River Demerara (you can probably guess what was grown there) in South America.

It was in Essequibo in 1806 that Jonathan lost his life, aged 32.

His gold watch, chain and seal were sent back to his family in Cleveland, and in his will he left £10 each to the poor of Lackenby, Wilton, Lazenby and Eston. He also left £500 (worth about £50,000 today) to be invested with the returns to be distributed to the poor of those communities each year on the first Sunday before Christmas.

This fund was administered by his nephew, solicitor John Jackson of Stokesley. It is known to have been continued by another solicitor descendant, who was based in Guisborough, until after the First World War. After that, it is believed to have been rolled into other local charities.

In the year after Jonathan’s death, the slave trade – which had carried more than 650,000 slaves from Africa to the plantations in the previous 15 years – was abolished, and the mood in Britain began hardening against the keeping of slaves.

In 1823, Durham, Darlington, Barnard Castle, Stockton and Staindrop all sent petitions to Parliament demanding its end (the Guisborough area sent its first anti-slavery petition in 1830).

Capt King died in 1824. His estate was valued at £120,000 – which the Bank of England Inflation Calculator says is worth £13.2m in today’s values.

There won’t have been many other east Cleveland farmworkers who amassed such a fortune; there probably weren’t any other east Cleveland farmworkers whose estate at the time of the deaths included two plantations on the banks of the Demerara River where nearly 500 slaves were kept.

  • With enormous thanks to Alice Barrigan who tells much more about the Jackson and King family trees of east Cleveland on her excellent blog, northyorkshirehistory.blogspot.com