Friends of Devon's Archives: preliminary report of the Black History Project

The background

The following documentary references are derived from the Friends of Devon's Archives project into sources of black history. In 1999 a request was made of all researchers using the county's archives to note any references to blacks in Devon's documents. In the past four years several dozen researchers have found more than 120 references. The Project was launched because there has been no research conducted in the archives on the history of blacks in Devon. There are no principal collections of records and instead information has to be gleaned from miscellaneous documents. It would take a single researcher many years to find these sources and therefore the call was made for help from all those using the archives.

These references are merely a beginning and we expect in another four years to have greatly exceeded those listed here. It is hoped that the use of these references will help to write accurate histories of the subject. The high number of references to parish registers reflects the family history interests of the vast majority of researchers. All references are to the Devon Heritage Centre at Exeter. Transcription accuracy is not guaranteed.

Initial results

It is self-evident that Devon has not the history of slavery and black immigration that some parts of the country has had. The comparative lack of references in financial papers indicates the local economy was never built on slavery, a supposition confirmed by published histories of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Individual merchants and gentlemen had estate interests in the West Indies but to a lesser degree than in Ireland.

What is unusual is the population concentration in Plymouth in the 1580s and 1590s. Barnstaple also had a resident African minority. The proportion of these men and women to the existing population of those towns was probably higher than at any subsequent time until recently. Given the number of merchants trading overseas this is not surprising. What is startling are the two Africans in Hatherleigh in 1604 and 1606 when no records have been found for Exeter or for other larger places. Later references show a distribution of Africans across the county in expected and unlikely places. It is also interesting that these men and women are referred to as servants and not slaves. The records do not provide information on whether they were paid servants nor is there any indication of whether the use of the words Negro or neiger/nigger were derogatory or merely descriptive. Several of the women had children and it would be interesting to know whether any of their descendents are still in Devon. The records do not indicate why all their babies were illegitimate.

It is difficult to draw conclusions on Devon's Africans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries other than there was at least a small population. In total 80 African servants/slaves have been found in 32 places (Alverdiscott, Ashburton, Awliscombe, Aylesbeare, Bideford, Bishopsteignton, Buckland Monachorum, Chulmleigh, Churston Ferrers, Colyton, Dartmouth, East Budleigh, Exeter, Exmouth, Hatherleigh, Heavitree, Ilfracombe, Instow, Kingskerswell, Lympstone, Morchard Bishop, Petrockstow, Pilton, Plymouth, Roborough, Sidmouth, Stoke Damerel, Stoke Gabriel, Tiverton, Topsham, Wembury and West Ogwell). This includes some men and women listed as Indians, East Indians and Asiatic Blacks. Eighty is not a high proportion of the many thousands of Devonians who lived in the county in the period, and it is considerably less than other minorities, such as Jews, Huguenots and especially Irish, but we are confident that further references will be found and that these will considerably add towards building a reliable history.

The Friends of Devon's Archives are extremely grateful to all researchers who have volunteered information and welcome further references which should be sent to The Black History Project, Friends of Devon's Archives, Devon Heritage Centre, Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Sowton, Exeter EX2 7NL

Dr Todd Gray

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