Lyme and the slave trade

LYME was not a major participant in the slave trade; the large ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol became the principal slaving ports. Nevertheless because Lyme as a small outport was facing economic decline, the slave trade became a commercial lifeline.

A petition from the town to Parliament in the late 17th century stated “that the trade of this port and your petitioners livelihoods very much depends on the western navigation and plantations whose products are chiefly raise by negroes bought from Africa”.

It is evident that those presenting the petition did not see any moral reason why black Africans could not be traded and sold as slaves. Merchants and their investors saw them as a profitable commodity; for plantation owners they were a form of cheap labour, one which could be exploited.

This was due to the moral and ethical climate of the period. Religion was a factor, Africans were seen as “infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel”.

In the early 18th century the Burridge’s were the town’s leading merchants, they had well established trading links with Barbados and Virginia and were well placed to extend their activities when the slave trade became viable.

A slave purchased in Africa cost between £3 and £5, the selling price in Barbados was in the range of £16 to £23, the overall estimated cost of transportation was £6.

In March 1712 ‘The Mary and Elizabeth’, a London based Burridge vessel, sailed from the Thames bound for the Gambia. After loading slaves she sailed to Virginia; 113 slaves survived the voyage, the number embarked was in the region of 200.

Mortality could be high, the average being one in four. Male slaves were chained in pairs and confined below deck for most of the passage. Such conditions allowed diseases to spread, dysentery was one of the main killers. Sick slaves were often thrown overboard. The crews of slave ships were not immune, the death ratio for them was some 17 per cent.

The ship returned to England in 1713, unloading at the Cobb a cargo that included 10cwt of ivory and 50 tons of tobacco.

Lyme’s small scale involvement in the slave trade continued until 1725, records would seem to indicate that the Burridge vessels (‘Friendship’, ‘John’, ‘Martha’ and ‘The Lyme’) landed and sold some 300-350 slaves. While these numbers are small when compared to the main slaving ports, they do reveal the level of Lyme’s involvement in what we now see as an iniquitous trade.

Of interest is an entry in the mayor’s accounts for 1589-90, it records an expenditure of two shillings for the carriage of ‘the negro to the justice’. How a black man came to be in Lyme at such an early date is another story.

Peter Lacey,
Local author and historian

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