Henry De la Beche and the Enslavement of Black People

Henry De La Beche

Henry De la Beche

In 1817, at the age of 21, Lyme geologist Henry De la Beche inherited the slave-worked sugar plantation of Halse Hall in Clarendon in Jamaica.

De La Beche visited his Jamaican estate in 1824. He noted that of the of the 207 people on the estate, ten were African and the rest Creole or people of mixed race. De la Beche’s views on the enslavement of black people were complex. Although a slave-owner through “the accidental circumstance of inheriting West Indian property”, he described himself as detesting and being “no friend to slavery”. He was a paternalistic reformer who is thought to have improved the conditions of the enslaved people on his estate.

After he returned to Britain De la Beche published ‘Notes on the Present conditions of the negroes in Jamaica’ in 1825. This and the many letters he wrote demonstrate the struggle he felt due to his income depending on slavery.

De la Beche was opposed to the abolition of slavery, although many of his friends supported the movement. Instead, he supported a ‘gradual change’ which would lead to abolition. He wrote “You know I am a well wisher to the Slave population, but I wish their condition to be gradually bettered, not suddenly.”

Although the British slave trade officially ended in 1807, slavery was not abolished in some parts of the British Empire until 1833. British people who owned enslaved people received £20 million in compensation from the British government (£1.43 billion in 2020 values). In 1835 over £3,000 in compensation was paid, not to De la Beche but to Hibbert and Co, the West Indies merchants with whom the Halse Hall estate had been mortgaged in 1793 by De la Beche’s father.

The enslaved men, women and children on estates such as Halse Hall did not receive any financial compensation and were made to work as low-paid ‘apprentices’ for up to five years more. Full emancipation came with the early end of apprenticeships in 1838.