Are there family links to slavery?
Recent events with “Black Lives Matter”, the pulling down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol Harbour, and newspaper articles indicating that over 1/3rd of National Trust Houses have links to slavery (including specific mentions of Tyntesfield – the home of William Gibbs in his later life) have led to soul searching and curiosity amongst some family members concerning these dark times in British history, whose legacy still pervades much of our society. Several cousins have asked if there is evidence of Gibbs family links to the slave trade or slavery. I anguished over whether this was too toxic a topic to address in the current environment, but decided that it is better to understand and be open about any historical involvement.
I had always been led to believe that, unlike so many Bristol merchants, the Gibbs family had no involvement in slavery. I have recently re-read (and published on this website) “The History of Antony and Dorothea Gibbs & the early years of Antony Gibbs and Sons”, an exceedingly comprehensive work published in 1922 from the extensive family correspondence and documents. It paints a picture of a deeply religious, hard working and close family struggling to make their way, primarily as merchant traders in cloth and other produce, through difficult times of the 18th and early 19th centuries, enduring bankruptcy and long absences from home. Fortune only came after Antony’s death, driven by a fortuitous contract for shipping guano from Peru. No mention of any involvement in slavery, but was this a whitewash hiding some uglier secrets?
My curiosity was piqued some time ago when I observed what a common name Gibbs is amongst Africa-Americans. Slavery has been very topical of late with numerous articles in the newspapers, programs on TV and research by University College London. Following abolition in 1833, our government paid huge compensation to 46,000 British slave owners, 40% of the national annual budget, the loan for which was only finally paid off in 2015. But no compensation was paid to the slaves themselves.
A smoking gun appears in the UCL “Legacies of British Slave-ownership”, which records that George Gibbs of Belmont received, jointly with Robert Bright, £1,750 for 94 slaves from investments in the plantation trade in Barbados and Jamaica! George Gibbs died without offspring. David Hogg (author of “Diaries of Tyntesfield”) gave a damning Royal Geographical Society talk “From slavery to civil rights: how changing political and social geography influenced the Gibbs family of Tyntesfield” available here. An English Heritage publication “Slavery and the British Country House” refers to Gibbses (page 34 – though it wrong identifies nearby Charlton House as belonging to Antony Gibbs (1756-1815) whereas it is clear that he never owned it or lived there; William Gibbs did acquire Charlton House later in 1865, adding it to the Tyntesfield estate, and his son Antony lived there after his marriage in 1872).
George Gibbs senior was Antony Gibbs’ elder brother; their father George Abraham, an Exeter surgeon, apprenticed young George to a Bristol merchant house owned by Samuel Muckley. Muckley acted as a broker for the planters in the West Indies and invested in at least one slaving venture. By the time George joined the firm the “Africa Trade” was in decline and I have found no evidence that George invested in any slaving ventures or that Gibbs owned ships were involved in transport of slaves. UCL database indicates “no evidence of direct slave-ownership has been found for him“. George married “Etty” Farr, whose father was a well established merchant with slaving connections. George was good friends with Richard Bright; their sons George and Richard would later go into partnership together as Gibbs, Bright & Co. So while George Gibbs father and son might not have been directly involved in the slave trade, they were part of the Bristol society with strong links to slavery and were members of the “Society of Merchant Ventures” which opposed the abolition of slavery. Business records of Gibbs, Bright & Co. have not survived; following the Royal Charter tragedy the firm was eventually absorbed by Antony Gibbs & Sons in 1881 (it has been suggested that papers relating to the slave trade were destroyed just after WW1; could these have revealed more direct involvement?).
George Gibbs junior of Belmont, in partner with Richard Bright, was involved in the West Indies sugar trade. Records indicate that in 1822 they received a half share in the Mapp’s sugar plantation in Barbados in lieu of money owed them. It is likely that debts and mortgages gave them shared business interests in other plantations, apart from those already owned by the Bright family. So while George never ventured to the West Indies or had direct involvement, these plantations account for the compensation that he claimed and received, as registered in the UCL database in 1837. Richard Bright died in 1840 and in his will left his Jamaican sugar plantations in trust to his sons and to George Gibbs. These were later sold as the firm Gibbs, Bright & Co. turned their focus to Australia, providing passenger transport on the SS Great Britain and SS Royal Charter to Melbourne during the gold rush.
One other “defunct” branch of the family were the Gibbs’ of Topsham in Devon, half cousins of Antony Gibbs. They were merchant mariners, spending long periods at sea in the Mediterranean trade through Italian based Gibbs cousins in Genoa and Palermo, and in the Newfoundland fishing industry, with occasional trips taking cod to North American plantations. Three joined the Royal Navy, with two dying of yellow fever and one of an accident in Jamaica. Records of their activities are scant and they died poor, with no descendants.
Hogg goes on to mention Robert Gibbs, Governor of Barbados and later South Carolina with Gibbs Plantation. My investigations indicate that he descends from the Kent branch of Gibbs that trace back to Fenton which, if there is any distant relationship, probably split from our family in the time of Richard II, over 600 years ago. None of our Gibbs family emigrated to colonial Caribbean or United States.
A footnote in “The History of Antony and Dorothea Gibbs” indicated that during Antony Gibbs & Sons earliest days in South America in 1826, before there was a physical family presence on the continent, their local representative, John Moens, bought with Government paper money, a 1/4 interest in an estate in the Nepeña valley in Jacinto, Peru, equipped with … 134 slaves.
The Guano quarrying in Peru by contracted Chinese indentured labour had its ugly side, with high mortality and conditions akin to slavery. The Gibbs firm was not responsible for the extraction labour during its worst excesses, but could they have done more and faster to improve conditions after the Peruvian government transferred the contract for managing the extraction to them between 1856 and 1860?
While the brothers Antony and George Gibbs ran separate merchant businesses, it is clear that there were strong family bonds and support during difficult times, particularly with Antony’s bankruptcy, which also bankrupted his father Abraham. Antony’s sons, Henry and William, were finally able to repay the “sacred debts” after Antony’s death.
On the other side of the family was Lord Wraxall of Tyntesfield’s grandmother, Annie Cunard. The first meeting in America against slavery was held in the Cunard family house in 1688, and her families descendant Nancy Cunard became a great advocate for black civil rights, with her celebrated book “Negro”. Hogg has recently written an article about the Cunard family, Quakers behind the first petitions against slavery in America.
In conclusion there does not seem to be any evidence that Antony Gibbs, or any of his descendants, were directly involved in the transportation or ownership of slaves, however some of their associates and wealth were definitely tinged with slavery, and the guano trade labour was hardly less pernicious.
From what I can uncover, claims that Tyntesfield is one of the National Trust houses with strong slavery links are at best tenuous and poorly substantiated. The deeply religious families that lived there would be mortified at suggestions that they were substantial beneficiaries of slavery.