An online book selling marketplace is offering for sale a letter written in 1831 to my husband’s 3rd great-grandfather from St Kitts, Frederick Walton Mallalieu. In the letter, a London banker named William Wilson is pushing the services of his newly formed firm of Hankeys, Plummer & Wilson, in the wake of the bankruptcy of another mercantile house called Mannings and Anderdon. In the Slave Registers of Former British Colonial Dependencies, Frederick Walton was listed in the registers from 1822 to 1831 as a local sugar estate manager for the firm of Messrs. Plummer & Company, and Mr. Wilson uses the letter as a way of selling the steady, reliable qualities of their partner, Thomson Hankey. There was good reason for Mr. Wilson to correspond with Kittitians planters, hoping to secure their business while hoping to calm possible fears of chaos and loss in the sugar business.
In 1831, large mercantile houses based in London performed a number of functions for sugar estate owners and their managers in the British West Indies. They sold the sugar and sugar products for the estates, paid the necessary duties, handled shipping and insurance, purchased supplies for the plantations, and could set up credit and loans for estate owners if needed. A number of factors in the decades leading up to this period had contributed to a sharp downturn in the finances of sugar estates, as well as the mercantile and banking firms that they dealt with.
One factor was the cessation of the transatlantic slave trade by Great Britain in 1807, which cut out one third of the highly profitable “triangle trade”, composed of trade between New England, Africa, and the West Indies. The British sugar business was further damaged by high tariffs and stiff competition from producers in others parts of the world, such as the East Indies, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. The cost of production also rose for West Indian planters, due to forces such as the end of a major source of labor with the abolition of the slave trade, as well as “amelioration” regulations intended to improve the conditions of enslaved laborers leading up to the abolition of slavery in 1834.
The senior partner of the firm of Mannings and Anderdon was William Mannings. His father and grandfather had been planters in St Kitts; his father relocated to London in the 1750s and began a mercantile business there to work with the West Indian plantation trade. The business grew, with the firm owning thirteen estates (seven of which were in St. Kitts) and leasing an additional five by 1831. Because of the difficulties with the sugar trade, the value of the estates had dropped, and the firm was owed large sums of money by debtors in many sectors of the struggling sugar business, including estate owners, sugar refiners, merchants, and tradesmen. The final bankruptcy accounting showed that Mannings and Anderdon were owed £187,000 (equivalent to something like $8 million today), while the firm itself was in debt for £374,000 (about $16 million today). The bankruptcy details show a complex web of transactions, with the firm using mortgages obtained for some client estates as security to obtain further loans, all while the estate values were plummeting. As Mannings and Anderdon were the largest mercantile firm in St Kitts, the effect of their bankruptcy on the island was heavy. There was concern for the estimated 4000 enslaved people who were dependent on food and clothing sold and shipped by the firm. Unrest was feared among the enslaved population as the island approached the year of abolition.
An article in the London Morning Chronicle of December 24, 1832 details a calling in of debts owed to Mannings and Anderson by the two Misters Anthony Cunyngham (senior and junior) from the Cayon Estate, as well as the estates of the late John Estridge, of the Hill, Brambles, Lower Estate, and Hutchinson sugar plantations.
With the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies beginning in 1834, compensation was paid out to estate owners for the financial consequences of freeing their enslaved workforce. It is believed that a good part of the compensation obtained by owners was actually used to settle their debts with merchants, and ultimately made its way to the coffers of the large mercantile houses of the day.
- Abebooks.com, Manuscript copies of two letters by William Wilson of London bankers Hankeys, Plummer & Wilson, regarding ‘West India Distress’ and the ‘unfortunate failure’ of the mercantile house Mannings & Anderdon.
- Ancestry.com, Former British Colonial Dependencies, Slave Registers, 1813-1834 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA, 2007
- The West India Sugar Crisis and British Slave Emancipation, 1830-1833 by Richard B. Sheridan, The Journal of Economic History Vol. 21, No. 4, 1961