Slave owning in the family tree

Some years ago I discovered that a 6xg-uncle lived in Jamaica. Thomas Usher (1774-1834) was one of a large family from Melrose, Roxburghshire. As a younger son he had to make his own way, and I’d known that he settled in the West Indies. But it was only after I traced his death notice in The Scotsman newspaper that I realised he was a plantation owner.

The picture only became clearer when I traced references to Thomas in Ancestry’s database of Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834. These recorded the lists of Thomas’s slaves in 1817, 1820 and 1823.

In 1823 the list was as follows:

  • Old George, negro, 52, Creole
  • Andrew, negro, 36, African
  • James, negro, 42, Agrican
  • Pollidore, negro, 41, Creole
  • Richard, negro, 46, African
  • Old John, negro, 51, African
  • Charles, negro, 21, Creole
  • George, mulatto, 25, Creole
  • Patience, negro, 38, Creole
  • Eliza, negro, 12, Creole
  • Old Mary, negro, 58, Creole

Old Mary was marked as runaway. Some of the other slaves had been transferred from Thomas’s old address. And others were noted as sold.

I’d like to think Thomas was one of the kinder slave owners. I have no idea of course. Nor am I knowledgeable enough yet to put the number of slaves he owned into proper context.

Thomas died just after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Soon afterwards his younger brother Andrew Usher, founder of the whisky distilling dynasty in Edinburgh, sought financial compensation for the loss of the slaves who had been freed. His claims are recorded in the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. One was for 60 enslaved people, valued at £1042 3 shillings 6 pence; the other for 4 enslaved, valued at £68 7 shillings 9 pence. Andrew’s claim on behalf of the Usher family was unsuccessful, with the money instead awarded to Charles Mackglashan of Kingston, Jamaica, seemingly trustee and assignee to the deceased man.

These claims horrify me if anything even more than the lists of slave names do. There had been an active campaign in Britain against slavery for many decades, and it had finally been abolished. But my relative was seeking financial compensation for the loss of slaves. I take some comfort from the fact that his older brother’s family, my lot, did not claim compensation. And that Thomas was the only known slave owner in the family

In another branch of the family, the Somners, a cousin of my ggg-grandfather emigrated in the 1850s to Bermuda, post slavery, married into the local population, and has black descendants today. I’m in touch with one, who lives on the original family property, and told me all the Somners on the island are cousins. Such a contrast with the Usher story 😦

About vivdunstan

Academic historian, genealogist, former computer scientist, and Doctor Who fan.
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