Copper engraved heading (imprint: ‘Sold by W.G. & W.H. Witherby, Birchin Lane [London]’) on vellum with most text in manuscript, in black pen, with mss. red-ruled borders, bearing wax seals and mss. signatures of principals in bottom margin, crown tax stamp and ribbon, docketed in mss. on verso (Very Good, overall clean and bright, some minor wear and staining along old folds), 55.5 x 70.5 cm (22 x 28 inches).
During the 18th century, Antigua developed one of the largest and most profitable sugar-slave economies in the British Empire (behind only Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Christopher), bringing tremendous wealth of the owners of the island’s great estates.
One of the preeminent plantation complexes in Antigua that came online around 1750 was the owned by the Maxwell family, which later came to also own estates in Granada. Headed initially by the family patriarch, James Maxwell, the anchor of its possessions in Antigua was the Richmond Plantation, that occupied 175 acres of prime cane land in St. Paul’s Parish, in the southern part of the island, conveniently located near the major port town of Falmouth. The Maxwells also owned the adjacent estates of Howard’s Plantation and Chapman’s Plantation, creating a massive, combined estate of 461 acres, with the three properties in employing a total of, on average, just over 300 slaves.
By the early 1780s, the Richmond-Howard’s-Chapman’s estate complex was inherited by Patrick Maxwell, and was, in 1789, passed down to James’s nephew, William Maxwell (1768 – 1833), a Scottish businessman and political figure, who served as the MP for Linlithgow Burghs (1807-12). While the first two decades or so of William’s proprietorship of the Antigua estates proved incredibly lucrative, clouds were on the horizon.
Mirroring developments that affected all British West Indian sugar plantation, Abolitionist forces in Parliament, led by William Wilberforce, had gained traction. The Transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, ensuring that plantation workforces could never be fully replenished. Making matters worse, Britain’s acquisition of new tropical colonies from France during the Napoleonic Wars, such as Mauritius, ensured that West Indian sugar had stiff competition from more cost-effective producers within the British mercantilist system. Moreover, new limitations upon the treatment of slaves were being enacted, making it far more difficult to economically exploit captive African labour.
Specific to Antigua, the by the early 19th century the island’s soils had become depleted, resulting in much lower sugar yields.
To the point, the Maxwell’s plantation complex had become far more expensive to operate, while it gained much lower yields that fetched lower revenues per hogshead of sugar. Notably, Maxwell was an absentee landowner, who had never stepped foot in the Americas.
In an effort to breathe new life into the Richmond plantation complex, Maxwell sold shares in the estates to the local grandee, Samuel Athill (1758 – 1832), a mulatto Cambridge-educated physician and one time President of the Council of Antigua (Antigua, almost unique amongst the British West Indian Islands, then allowed many free Black figures into its elite circles), and The Honourable Hastings Elwin (1776 – 1852), a prominent barrister who was until recently the Advocate General of Antigua (and who subsequently moved to Australia, becoming a senior political figure). It was hoped that these figures with local knowledge could find ways ‘on the ground’ to make the plantations more efficient, returning them to profitability. These designs soon proved unsuccessful, as the headwinds were too great.
Maxwell next appealed to Parliament for special permission to transfer the estates’ 322 slaves to properties in British Guiana, considered to be more fertile territory, writing “That the produce of the said [Antigua] plantations is not sufficient to maintain such Negro Slaves and to pay the other expenses of cultivation… That Lands sufficient for the profitable and healthy employment of so large a gang can only be obtained in the Colony of Demerary” (Vere Langford Oliver, Caribbeana: Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Genealogy, Topography, And Antiquities of the British West Indies (London, 1910), vol. I, p. 64).
Maxwell’s request to up and move stakes to Guiana was apparently not approved, or at least, for whatever reason, not pursued.
By 1816, William Maxwell and his junior partners decided that it was no longer possible to operate the Richmond Plantation complex. However, instead of selling the estate (which would incur high stamp duties, etc.), they decided to transfer effective possession of the properties to trustees, who could operate and profit from the lands, the resident enslaved workforce, and all associated possessions, whether fixed or mobile, in return for a small token fee. In the future, whenever the plantation was to be divested, the proceeds of the sale would be transferred to Maxwell, Athill, and Elwin, or their heirs, as appropriate. Thus, Maxwell & Co. would maintain ownership of the Antigua estates but would no longer had to suffer the onerous obligations of operating them. Such arrangements were then common amongst the owners of sugar estates in the British West Indies, or at least for those who were not financially absolutely desperate (selling the estates outright would earn more money in the short term, but supposedly less in the long term).
The Present Indenture in Focus
The present artifact is the original ‘indenture’ that transferred operational control of the Richmond Plantation, Howard’s Plantation and Chapman’s Plantation to the trustees. Such legally binding documents had to be made to rigid specifications, in their form and content, according to ancient tenets of Common Law. Thus, the document is written upon sheet of vellum with red-ruled borders, prepared by a stationer (in this case, ‘Sold by W.G. & W.H. Witherby, Birchin Lane’, London), bearing an engraved heading, with the text composed in manuscript, following very elaborate specific language as legally mandared. At the bottom, the document is signed and wax-sealed by the proprietors, while the document is docketed on the verso and signed by witnesses. There is also a tax stamp and ribbon, which was necessary to confer official status to the indenture.
In this case, the indenture, written in the names of the proprietors of the estates, William Maxwell and his wife Mary Charlotte Maxwell (née Bouverie), Hastings Elwin and Samuel Athill, transfers operating control of the properties of Richmond Plantation, Chapman’s Plantation and Howard’s Plantation, to the trustees Edward Ellice and William Holden.
Edward Ellice the Elder (1783 – 1863), was a prominent British merchant and politician. He was famously one of the prime movers behind the fur trade in Canada, whereupon he gained the nickname “The Bear”. As the longtime MP for Coventry, he was a major backer of the Reform Bill of 1832 and served as Secretary of War (1833-4).
William Holden (d. 1832) was a prominent Westminster lobbyist, serving as the Secretary to the West India Merchants association from 1817 to 1827, and subsequently as the Secretary of the Exchange Loan Commission.
Importantly, the document specifies that included in the transfer of the three estates themselves, the trustees were to gain control over “all Buildings”, livestock and equipment on or associated with the estates, as well as, importantly, possession of “all the Negroes and other Slaves, Male and Female, in or upon the said… plantations… with the future issue offspring an increase of the Females of the said Slaves”. While such a line runs chills down the spine of the modern reader, as it relegates the captive workers to the same level as farm implements and livestock, it was then commonplace.
In return for control of the Antigua estates, Ellice and Holden only had to pay a fee of 5 Shillings and an annual rent of “one peppercorn”, although this masked the potentially horrendous liabilities that the trustees would assume.
The Indenture specifies how the estate should be divided to the benefactors if it was ever sold or dissolved.
At the bottom are the wax seals and signatures of William Maxwell, Mary Charlotte Maxwell and Hastings Elwin (Athill, who was in Antigua was seemingly represented by Maxwell through a ‘power of attorney’). On the verso, the indenture is docketed with the signatures of witnesses, while the King’s tax stamp is laced through the vellum with a ribbon, per regulation.
Apparently, Ellice and Holden, not long after taking charge of the estates, which became known simply as ‘Richmond & Howard’s’, came to regret their decision. In 1821, the trusteeship was transferred to William Gilchrist, the Maxwell’s lawyer. What happed next is incredibly complex, but apparently around the time that slavery was abolished in Antigua in 1834 (Antigua dispensed with the ‘apprenticeship’ period, so slavery ended abruptly that year), Richmond & Howard’s had come into the possession of the partnership of the London merchant Joseph Liggins (1792 – 1860) and the English investor Nathaniel Snell Chauncy (1789 – 1856).
The award of the Crown’s compensation for the loss of the estates’ workforce of 325 salves was disputed, with the Maxwell family putting in a (unsuccessful) claim. In the end, on February 27, 1837, the government awarded a total of £4525 7s 8d, with Joseph Liggins receiving £642 1s 8d and Nathaniel Snell Chauncy gaining £3883 6s 0d.
In the generations that followed, the estates continued to be run as a untied property, but featuring low-intensity agricultural ventures, as the era of cash crops on Antigua had long passed.
The present original indenture is an important artifact of the twilight period of slavery and the sugar economy in the West Indies, and in this case, depicts one of Antigua’s most important properties at a key historical juncture. In recent times, such documents only very rarely appear on the market.
References: Present indenture apparently unrecorded, although details of the transaction described, along with other important information, is referenced under the entry ‘Richmond & Howard’s’ on the UCL Legacies of British Slavery website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/estate/view/412