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A 2000-year history of slavery across Lancashire

Written by on June 14, 2020

The Black Lives Matter protests have taken place across fifty American states, 18 countries and even towns and cities across Britiain.

Burnley, a town almost 3,900 miles away from Minneapolis, America, where the protests started, held its own Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday (June 10).

The movement has already led to the removal of several statues around Britain, and the world, that relate to slavery, including Edward Colston’s visage in Bristol, Robert Milligan in London and King Leopold II in Belgium. Liverpool University will also rename Gladstone Hall because the former prime minister, William Gladstone, once stood against the abolition of slavery in 1832.

Slavery has been a huge part of human history. Enslavement has, at time, upheld the major parts of human societies in grim ways the world over. In Egypt, the Pyramids stand on the backs of thousand of thousands of slaves, the Romans enslaved conquered peoples and sold them across their empire, forcing some of them to fight as gladiators. In Spartan society, Helots were slaves at the foot of societal pyramid, without rights or citizenship.

In England we have a history with slavery. The Celts and Anglo-Saxons frequently kept slaves as did the conquering Vikings.

By the time of the Normans invasion in 1066, 10 per cent of the English population were slaves. In the 18th century, hundreds of companies engaged in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, shipping Africans to Caribbean colonies. This, in particular, is visible now across our country.

Our relationship with slavery is long, complicated and intricate. This is the part Lancashire played in slave trades throughout its history.

The might of Rome

Lancaster Castle was built on the remnants of a Roman Fort.

The Romans chose well, today Lancaster Castle looks out over the city and beyond, giving extensive views to any who stand on its ramparts. It would have afford a warning to the Romans if any enemies were bearing down on them.

Just downhill from the castle are the ruins of a Roman bath and the Wery Wall, thought to be the east facing wall of the old Roman fort. Evidence of Roman occupation in Lancashire is disparate at best but some small ingots of information can be found, like the foundations of a fort at Ribchester and the roads that criss cross Lancaster, Kirkham, Preston and Lonsdale.

The Romans first arrived in Britain in 55BC under Julius Caesar. Veni vidi vici may be a popular tattoo seen inked onto people’s skin today but those amongst us with slice of Latin will know that these were the words attributed to Caesar as he stood on the shores of Britain. I came, I saw, I conquered.

A third statement should have been added to that: I left. Caesar would leave the island but not before he captured several Celtic peoples and enslaved them, taking them back to Rome. In Strabo’s The Geography (an early atlas of the known world) it was written: “However, he (Caesar) won two or three victories over the Britons, albeit he carried along only two legions of his army; and he brought back hostages, slaves, and quantities of the rest of the booty.”

A painting of Julius Caesar during his invasion of Britain, his records show that slavery was already rife amongst the Celts by 54BC.

Caesar himself even made reference to slaves in Britain in his own writings. In the de bello Gallico, he noted that the wealth of a Celtic aristocrat was measured on the number of their slaves and that, upon their death, the slaves would enter the funeral pyre with their master.  That’s why our slavery story will start with the Celts.

The Celtic Brigantes tribe were the main rulers over northern England, with a sub ethnic group, known as the Setantii, dominating the coastal area of Lancashire. There is also evidence that the Brigantes were settled in modern day Lonsdale and had a half built hill fort called Castercliff near Colne.

Evidence of the Sentantii can be found in amongst the writings of the Greek mathematician Ptolemy, who wrote the first known atlas of the world in the second century AD which mentions the Port of Setantti. We have no idea where this port once stood and it is likely that the land sunk into the sea due to coastal erosion but, if it ever existed, it would have a been a vital part of the Celtic slave trade.

Slaves were routinely taken from the losers in wars and raids by victorious Celtic tribes while poor and indebted Celts could become enslaved to their debtors as a form of penal servitude. This slave system was seen throughout Rome and Greece around this time. Like the Romans, slavery was hereditary, slave children took over their parents position, inherited their debts and servitude.

Where archaeologists believe Castercliff hillfort stood near Colne.

With the Celts being sophisticated seafarers who spread across Britain from central Europe, it is likely that the Setantii port could have traded with Irish Celts, shipping captured slaves across the Irish Sea. The Brigantes were also Roman allies for a long time and could have easily traded goods with the Romans, including slaves. In fact the old Irish and Welsh words for slave, cacht and caeth, are linked in their etymology to the Latin captus meaning captive, suggesting that slave trading was already going on between the Romans and Celts before the Roman invasion of Britain.

The second Roman invasion, an invasion that stuck this time, began under Emperor Claudius in 43AD. From this Strabo again mentions slaves in his book Geographia, remarking that Britain “bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as are also hides, and slaves.”

The Wery Wall which once formed part of a Roman fort and bath house in Lancaster.

We know little about how Celtic slaves were treated but Roman slaves were kept in deplorable conditions. The Roman writer Columella said that slaves should have their quarters underground and there would be no need to supply lighting or minimal heating. Slaves were often raped, kept as sex slaves and could be forced to work in dark underground mines until death or made to fight one another as gladiators.

The full occupation of Britain by the Roman wouldn’t reach Lancashire until AD52 under general Ostorius Scapula.

More evidence from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, attached to Hadrians Wall, gives evidence of Roman slavery across the northern region of Britain.  A wooden tablet unearthed there relates to a slave girl who had been given permission and money to be able to travel. She was 35, from Gual (France) and had been enslaved for 15 years.

The historian Ɓukasz Jan Korporowicz, concludes that this wooden tablet “shows also that the purchase of slaves was not confined only to large urban centres” and thus was taking place across Britain, including Lancashire.


Men with no Wergild

The Roman Empire collapsed during the fifth century but not before the Romans left Britain. The next invaders to our shores were groups of Saxons, Frisians, Jutes and Angles. German tribes that would come to enslave Celtic Britons and make up the next dominant ethnic group in on our island: The Anglo-Saxons.

We have much more evidence of how their slave trade fitted into society as well as its system.

By 638 the area now know as Lancashire was incorporated into the Kingdom of Northumbria. All Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were known to export slaves, and there is evidence that Northumbria sold slaves, along with grain, silver and hides to Viking kingdoms in the North Sea.

Anglo-Saxon slaves were usually criminals who were entered into penal servitude for their crimes. Some families, as part of the poorer agricultural class, found their only hope of survival was in voluntarily submitting to slavery, with many selling themselves and their families into servitude.

Slaves were defined as having no Wergild or man gold, essentially meaning worth. Although they were worth something, they had value slave owners could seek compensation if their slaves were killed.

The Kingdom of Northumbria itself would become an important slave trading hub with the city of Colbridge, near Newcastle, serving as a focal point for slave trade across Britain.

The River Ribble once helped Vikings ship slaves across Lancashire.

There is evidence that the Northumbrians captured a man called Imma. He was discovered after a battle between the victorious Northumbrians and the Mercians (from the Kingdom of Mercia) and sold. He was thereafter called thegne or thane Imma, meaning slave. He was sold to a Frisian in London in 679.

Much of Northumbria was taken by Vikings after they were expelled from Ireland in the 10th Century, including large tracts of West Lancashire and Formby. Skelmersdale and Sefton are both based on Viking settlements with Viking names. Southport also has a strong Viking history, the area of North Meols in the town was named so after the Viking word melr meaning sand dunes and hills.

Dr Charles Insley believes the Vikings only headed for England to enslave the people there. The Vikings were well known for taking slaves and would traffic them across their seafaring trade routes, in fact one of the main factors in the Vikings leaving their Scandinavian homes and pillaging much of Europe was to create a new, cheap labour force.

Viking slaves were often raped and could face brutal punishments for running away or disobeying their masters. Anglo-Saxons were seen as sub human to the Scandinavians, due to their Christian faith.

According to the historian Stephen Lewis, the River Ribble was a Viking highway for trade and it is likely that, amongst other things, slaves were carried up and down it. There is even evidence that a Viking Longphort, or sea fortress, existed on the famous river, as part of a stronghold for raiding Vikings.


Criminals, vagabonds and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Norman invasion of 1066 ended slavery in England. The Anglo-Saxon way of life was cut up, stripped back and merged into the new ways of the Norman gentry.

The former slave classes were amalgamated into the new Feudal system as serfs or peasants, at the foot of the societal pyramid and working the land.

The next time Lancashire was involved in slavery was from the 16th century when it became common practice to export serious criminals and discontents to the colonies or dark corners of the British Empire, which was then in its infancy.

You can find hundreds, if not thousands, of cases where serious criminals sentenced at Lancaster Castle were sent to abroad to work on plantations right from the 1600s until the late 1800s when a penal system was finally established in Britain.

These men were known as indentured servants or labourers, men forced to sign contracts to work for free as a punishment for their crimes. They were essentially slaves. The jailers at Lancaster Castle made money for each of their prisoners who were transported and could turn a huge profit by sending these men and women to the colonies.

Thousands of men, women and children tried at Lancaster Castle were sent to the colonies to become slaves.

The youngest prisoners to be taken from Lancaster and transported were Thomas Youngson and Elizabeth Robinson. They where 12 and 13 when the were forced to make the 252 day journey to Australia in 1788. Thomas Holden is another famed convict sent to the colonies in 1812 for ‘administering an illegal oath’ when he tried to form a weavers union.

But the most prominent and well known part of Lancashire’s slave trade was the buying and selling of Africans to the colonies. The Transatlantic Slave Trade.

European settlers had hit upon a snag. Their new colonies only worked with slave labour. They began by using criminals, Irish rebels and vagrants to work away on their Caribbean colonies but these men succumbed to disease and the extreme heat. The European’s needed a workforce that was used to the extreme conditions.

With this in mind, British trading groups began tapping into, what became known as, the Transatlantic Slave Trade with Preston, Lancaster and Poulton all playing a part.

Lancaster was the most prominent Lancashire player in the trade. The city’s port had existed since before Roman times.  In fact, with the history of Celtic, Roman and Viking slavery (see above) the port was probably always involved in trading humans.

During the 18th century, when British involvement in the trade was at its height, Lancaster ranked as the fourth largest slave trader in the country, behind Liverpool, London and Bristol.

Lancaster slavers would transport more than 29,000 African slaves between 1736 and 1807 (when the practice of slave trading was banned in Britain). Slavers derived prominently from a group of Lancaster Quakers with the Rawlinsons at its centre.

It was Thomas Hutton Rawlinson,  the son of the ironmaster Abraham Rawlinson, who first took part in the trade and was a salve trading mogul before 1730.

Sketch of a ship used to transport slaves, from the 1750s, it is similar to the ship Sambo is likely to have taken from Africa to the Americas.

In 1732 he married Mary Dilworth, the daughter of John Dilworth, another slave trader, making his links to the mercantile slave trade bound by marriage and blood. Thomas Rawlinson owned many slave ships which trafficked humans across the atlantic. Molly (1743), Ellen (1746), and Jane, (1746), as well as Recovery (1746) and Industry (1744-1752) were all active even before Lancaster experienced a boom in slave trading.

The real explosion of widespread slave trading in Lancaster came in 1750 with the development of St George’s Quay.

The quay is the fulcrum on which the slave trade boomed in Lancaster. It was brought about by an act  of parliament for the Improvement of Navigation of the River Lune, essentially to build the quay, a customs house and to widen the river so that larger ships could come to port.

The act saw the establishment of the Lancaster Port Commission (which still operates today) and amongst the first members included Abraham Rawlinson, Thomas’s son, and Thomas Satterthwaite, another known Quaker slave tader. 

The act led to the construction of many famous Lancaster landmarks including Custom House, which has been repurposed as the Maritime Museum. The thousands of ships bringing in items connected to the slave trade, as well as slaves themselves, would have been recorded in that building. 

After the construction of St George’s Quay the trade in Lancaster boomed. William Lindow was known for running companies that traded slaves between islands in the West Indies and even kept an African slave, John Chance, in his Lancaster home. It became more commonplace for the merchants to acquire these slaves for their personal use and the Satterwaits were known to own a woman called Fanny Elizabeth Johnson in 1788.

Thomas Hinde was another foremost slaver who was made port commissioner in 1755. Hinde was involved in the slave trade for almost his entire life and sent more ships to Africa than any other Lancaster merchant.

Between 1752 and 1762, more Rawlinson slave trading vessels were registered with the Liverpool Port authorities than any other Lancaster merchants. Even more significantly, the Rawlinson family were directly involved in establishing Liverpool partnerships including Rawlinson and Chorley as well as Abraham Rawlinson Junior and Company. For a time they were one of the wealthiest families in Britain.

Vandalism on the Rawlinson family grave in Lancaster.

The 1750s saw other Lancashire slaving missions. Between 1753 and 1757, three vessels embarked on five slave trading ventures from Preston and Poulton. Samuel Gawith’s vessel, Blossom, sold slaves in Barbados after sailing from Preston, while John Barrow’s ship, Hothersall, sold slaves to Jamaica on two occasions after starting out in Poulton.

It seems that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was just a lucrative stream that merchants could dip their fingers into whenever they pleased.

But how did the Transatlantic Slave Trade work?

It began in Africa, and much the same as most slaving stories start. African traders, rival warlords or ethnic groups would enslave the defeated or vulnerable to sell to European traders. Slavery had existed in Africa way before the arrival of colonists but, once European countries began accruing Caribbean islands and parts of the Americas into their Empire, the business of slavery boomed.

Ships owned by the Rawlinsons, the Satterwaites and the Dilworths in Lancaster would load up on goods in the North West. The British made goods people in Africa didn’t have, muskets (most likely the mass produced Brown Bess) and gunpowder from London, beads, copper kettles and pans from Swansea, cloth and mahogany from Lancashire and, strangely, beads and nails.

Laden with goods, the ships would depart Lancaster, sail round the straits of Gibraltar and down towards Africa, the west coast to be precise. By the 18th century Angola had become the main source of slaves throughout the western colonies.

The slavers would swap their goods for around 400 slaves, men, women, children, sold in bulk like cattle. Each slave could have been bought or traded for as little as a handful of beads. These were glass beads, easily and cheaply produced in the west but of some value in Africa, essentially becoming a form of currency there.

Thousands of slave would have been packed in tight together like sardines in the boughs of the deck, almost stacked on on top of one another. The slaves were shackled together, hands and legs trussed up, forming a vast chain gang. They were fed meagre rations, sprayed by salt water through cracks in the ship, confined to the semi-darkness and surrounded by vomit and human waste.

Slaves were shackled together in near endless chain gangs aboard the ships.

Some 15 per cent of slaves typically died on the voyage from Africa to the Americas (known as the middle passage). Slaves could be chained to their dead friends or relatives for days at a time while dysentery, small pox, scurvy, syphilis, measles and other diseases spread like wildfire throughout the cargo hold.

Just to survive the journey would mean escaping numerous ailments, starvation, nutritional deficiencies and more.

Arriving in the Americas, the Lancaster ships would have then traded for their slaves for rum (a Caribbean drink made from sugar cane and becoming increasingly popular in Europe), sugar (another rising commodity in Britain), tobacco and more. These commodities would turn a profit back in Britain, much more than the slavers had originally paid for their cheap copper kettles, beads and muskets. Some slaves were taken back to Lancaster by their wealthy merchants to be employed as servants or slaves in Lancaster.

While Lancaster traders counted their profits, the men women and children they trafficked would have been working 12 hour days in backbreaking conditions, toiling away in the heat for hours. Most slaves went to sugar plantations where they worked their hands to bloody and raw sowing seeds.

Slaves were whipped daily, not as a punishment but as part of an incentive to work. Slaves owners believed that the whip would stop workers from being idle, to them it was similar to using a crop on a horse. Slaves that tried to escape could expect further whippings, having their ankles broken or part of their feet cut off. This would stop them from ever running again but keep them somewhat mobile and on two feet. Female slaves were regularly exploited sexually and raped by their masters.



The trading of slaves became illegal in Britain in 1807 before it was abolished across the empire in 1833.

The 1807 abolition killed the trade in Lancaster for good.

Slavery still exists across Britain today, even in Lancashire. Home Office data shows that 135 potential cases of slavery and trafficking were referred to Lancashire Constabulary in 2019.

Now, with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, there have been calls for the removal of statues and landmarks that relate to slavery or slavers, and do so in a celebratory manner, to be pulled down.