MARK Muller takes a closer look at how 18th century merchant Nathaniel Phillips made his fortune from the slave trade...

Nathaniel Phillips was born on June 10, 1730. Rev Morris suggests that he was born in Pembrokeshire, ‘possibly near Lampeter Velfry’, although he is the only one to propose such a detail, others are of the opinion that he was born in London.

He was the son of a successful merchant trading between England and Jamaica and decided on a similar future, arriving in Kingston, Jamaica in 1759.

In April of that year he entered into a partnership with a long-standing successful merchant who traded extensively with London and Ireland.

But by December of the same year the partner had died and the company had accumulated debts of £8,500.

On June 15, 1761, Phillips married Ann, the daughter of plantation owner named Colonel Swarton.

Ann died in 1767 giving birth to a son who died in infancy.

Two daughters who had survived were sent back to England.

Swarton had also already died by then, and so after a rocky start Phillips was suddenly the owner of three plantations.

By the late 18th century, Jamaica’s slave population was in excess of 300,000.

The trade and use of slaves, on which this country’s wealth was founded, was immense and brutal.

Life expectancy could be as short as nine years on a sugar plantation, every day of which was an 18-hour working day, naked, starving, without rest days, or health care of any kind.

Punishments were breathtakingly barbaric and Nathaniel Phillips more or less damns himself in the detailed diaries that he kept; one entry, in 1775, contains a ‘shopping list’ which includes 12 knot whips and two chain whips.

But Phillips had entered into slave ownership at an awkward time... for plantation owners. Although the established, mainstream church had no problem with slavery, religious groups such as the Quakers had been campaigning against it for over 100 years by the time Phillips made his entry into it.

However it wasn’t until 1772 with a ruling by Judge Lord Mansfield (in the Somerset Case) that a definitive legal position was arrived at when Mansfield declared the practice as being, ‘so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it...’

This meant that at least within England and Wales slavery was illegal. The abolitionist movement went from strength to strength following this.

In 1789 Phillips returned to his home country having made his fortune.

He made his home in prestigious Gloucester Place, just off Portland Square in Marylebone, where one of his daughters acted as his housekeeper, and operated his business from premises in Mincing Lane (which connects with Plantation Lane) just yards from the Thames.

His estate papers show that his Jamaica holdings were valued at £160,000 and his 706 slaves at a further £50,000.

With such a position, Phillips became an ardent supporter of the (equally) powerful movement against anti slavery. Letters of his that can still be viewed in the National Library of Wales lament, ‘the ridiculous tribe of Fanatics against Negro Slavery’.

He added his name to arguments written in support of the structure of West Indian economics, sought to belittle abolitionist arguments and the people who espoused them, and declared that the government could only be fools if they thought that the country was, if nothing else, dependent on the slave trade for its wealth and position in the world.

Phillips was also anxious to avoid his slaves learning of the efforts to abolish the practice.

In 1791, just two years after his departure, occurred the slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouveture which eventually overran what is now Haiti, then Saint Dominique.

Only one hundred miles to the west was the island of Jamaica and the holdings of, amongst many others, Nathaniel Phillips.

By 1800, the British government was seeking a secret and special treaty with Toussaint asking him not export his remarkable abilities of leading both armies and people in further slave revolts in other West Indian islands, especially Jamaica.

But by then, Nathaniel Phillips was firmly established in Slebech Park, accepted into the land owning clique, entertaining on a scale that was commented on, had already been High Sheriff of this county and had his sights set on becoming an MP, generally then as now, regarded as the fastest route to a title... the only thing missing.

More next week.