Thomas Wilson was a reckless young jake, carousing and imbibing in the meanest taverns in London. The son of a Baronet, motherless since his 10th year, what did he have to lose? His brother WiIliam would inherit the Baronetcy, his brother Edward was destined to be ordained, his sisters wed for love into good families, his other brothers were settled in their ways. Thomas though, he felt the pull of something else, some edge of danger beckoned him, some devil on his shoulder that whispered of the delights of the night and the taste of ale and colonial rum.
Eastbourne, his home town, stifled him, made him feel small and unimportant. A surfeit of siblings had the same effect, wherever Thomas looked, he found no validation. He was one of many, unimportant, yet bound by his father’s protestant conscience and unflinching sense of duty. Thomas was supposed to be good and honourable.
But it was hard.
Cromwell was dead, stricken by malaria some fourteen years earlier. Charles II had been restored to the monarchy and Cromwell’s puritanical, sober rule had ended, now the King and the country celebrated. Too much, some would say. Revellers teetering past Westminster Hall could toast to Cromwell’s severed head, excavated from his grave after Parliament declared the execution of Charles I as regicide.
London was in recovery, from the devastations of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, two consecutive years in London’s fateful history that saw hundreds of thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of homes destroyed and residents displaced. This new London was one of brick and stone with wide streets and a surfeit of coffee houses.
The year was 1675 and work was just beginning on the new St. Paul’s cathedral, Charles II was attempting to close down the coffee houses – hotbeds of sedition and scandal according to the crown – and the foundation stone for the new Royal Greenwich Observatory was set in place.
The social divide was as marked as ever, beggars and idlers lined the streets alongside orphaned children and shoeblackers, street hawkers and labourers, prostitutes and destitutes. Butchers, blacksmiths and brewers traded with lawyers, MPs and bankers. London was on the up, but only for some.
Amidst the social and structural turmoil, ruthless press gangers and spirits scoured the streets for young, unwary gullibles to lure onto ships bound for the new world or the wars of empire. The press gangers bundled men onto naval ships to fight for their King and country in foreign wars. The spirits kidnapped children and young adults and sent them to a life of indentured servitude in the colonies. Both were to be feared.
William Bullock, in 1649, was recorded as stating that “..the usual way of getting servants, hath been by a sort of men nick-named ”spirits..”
The spirits operated a network of organised crime – backed by ships captains, merchants and corrupt officials, henchmen, fences and petty thieves. They targeted the poor and helpless, street beggars and street children, criminals and idlers. Cellars, attics and tap-rooms of London served as temporary prison cells where the stolen people were hidden until they could be passed onto ships at anchor in the Thames.*
Thomas, inebriated and out of his wits, was kidnapped and tossed on board a Jamaica-bound ship. The British had taken Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655 and now many of the British-Jamaican settlers were land owners invested in growing cash crops for trade – a lucrative business – but a back breaking and laborious one. Jamaican planters needed a workforce, and once they had worked through the willing labourers, they invited ‘spirits’ to ‘recruit’ fresh young blood for their enterprises.
Indentured servants were forced to work the land in insufferable heat as they worked out their term of servitude – ostensibly between four and seven years, though many were tricked into much longer contracts – or died before they achieved freedom.
The first Jamaican slaves (after the British takeover) were white, British men, women and children, expending their youth in the hard-baked Caribbean soil. They worked for free, had to buy the meagre clothes they were permitted to wear and accept their meagre food rations.
Pity poor Thomas Wilson of Eastbourne, son of Baronet William Wilson I, Sheriff of Sussex, as he sweated and ached in perpetual servitude on a plantation so far from home. His father, under no illusion as to his sons predilections for wine and women, thought his son lost even before his son was lost. William passed in ignorance as to his wayward son’s fate until a letter arrived at Bourne Place addressed to him from the colonies.
The letter was a dreadful tale of woe from a truly attrite son, practically prodigal in his desire for home. William Wilson the elder sought the counsel of his fellow townsmen and his pleas fell upon the ears of Captain Francis Scarlett, a native of Eastbourne with lands on the Wag Water River in the Parish of St. Andrews, Jamaica.
Captain Scarlett, having sailed to Jamaica, made enquiries about a plantation servant named Thomas Wilson and “succeeded in effecting his freedom.”* The unlucky Thomas, now blessed with release at the command of his father, bided a while with his saviour before returning to Eastbourne. Though it is not to be assumed that the young man changed his ways entirely, for a clause in William Wilson the elder’s will, read in 1685 on the event of his demise, mentioned ‘a sum of money to be employed for the benefit of the family of Thomas Wilson, a son, “until he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage money”.’
So concludes the curious tale of an Eastbourne man spirited away to Jamaica in the early days of empire.
More stories to emerge from the annals of Eastbourne history include tales from a Neolithic enclosure; Rituals at a Bronze Age settlement in the marshes, a Flotilla of fishing ships rescuing British soldiers from a beach in France after the Dunkirk evacuations and.. well.. you might just have to buy the book to find out more!
Jordan, Don and Walsh, Michael, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, NYU Press, 2008
Green, Matthew, The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse: an Essay at https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/the-lost-world-of-the-london-coffeehouse
Budgen, Walter, Old Eastbourne: Its Church, Its Clergy, Its People, Frederick Sherlock Ltd., London, 1911
DuQuesnay, F., J., The Scarlett Family in Jamaica, http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/Samples2/fred08.htm
1780 caricature of a Press Gang, scanned from Vaisseau de Ligne, Time Life, 1979 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Caricature-1780-press_gang.jpg