How a single artefact can shed light on the transatlantic slave trade
The Portable Antiquities Scheme holds records of over 1.5 million artefacts discovered by members of the public in England and Wales. Amongst these there are many thousands of everyday ordinary finds as well as many extraordinary ones. I wanted to take the time to discuss just one of these astounding objects – it was reported through the Treasure Act in 2013 after being discovered on ploughed farmland in Shropshire near the village of Sheriffhales
The find is a cast silver seal matrix and are relatively common with more than 300 examples of similar form known. This one dates from the late 17th or very early 18th century (pre-1713) and is less than 3cm tall weighing a mere 3.8 grams. Seal matrices were used to impress an engraved pattern into molten wax; sometimes replacing a signature on a document or securing a letter. Therefore, a seal both authenticates and identifies its owner as well as encloses and seals correspondence making it secret and private. As such these objects declare both who the owner is and for what they stand. Seal matrices become increasingly popular within the upper echelons of society (richer elites) and as such are thought to be fashionable accessories for the writing desk or fob pocket (being attached to pocket watch chains).
By owning and displaying such a seal the user made very clear statements about who they were and what they wished to be associated with. The designs cut into the surface of these seals vary – they often relate to the family of the owner – such as their coat of arms or family heraldic device, other examples include religious emblems as well as more prosaic depictions such as birds, ships and geometric patterns. Earlier seal matrices (from the medieval period) often have an inscription with the name of the owner and their place of residence / birth or profession. By the 17th century almost all seals consist of just the central motif and as such the owner would be recognised or associated with this. In addition, as letters were sent via messenger (or servant) it was maybe more important that the seal acted as a way of ensuring privacy and confidentiality for their correspondence – ensuring that on receipt the letter had not been read or tampered with.
What makes this Shropshire piece stand out from the other recorded examples is its deliberately chosen engraved design depicting a Black man – most probably an enslaved person. The design itself is beautifully cut and executed showing true craftmanship and skill. The portrait is displayed in profile; the head and neck with a slight indication of naked / bare shoulders; the nose and pierced ear, as well as lips, are large; the eye almond shaped and heavily lidded; the head rounded at the back with tight curly hair shown as stylised incised crescents. This well-proportioned head is enclosed within an incised rope-like border which echoes the external irregular octagonal shape of the die.
But is this depiction unusual in the period? examining the other silver seal matrices on the PAS database very few depict figurative portraits / busts. Those that do fall into very specific categories: the first being Royal portraiture similar to that seen on coinage; the second is an armoured male ‘adventurer’ in cuirassed armour, the third classical revival imagery heavily influence by Greek and Roman sculpture; and the last is a single example of an 18th century male gentleman in a frock coat. All these other examples share one feature, that they depict a life like representation of the model with a good degree of realism and proportion. This is in stark contrast to the Sheriffhales seal where the Black man is depicted with an exaggeration of his natural features. So rather than an accurate depiction of the male model it more likely conforms to a European audience’s racist stereotype.
So, why would someone in the “Age of Enlightenment” decide to represent themselves with this image? We may never be certain but … there are some very interesting potential reasons and all of them depict a part of British history which needs much closer scrutiny.
It is possible that the seal’s owner personally possessed enslaved people, possibly as domestic servants. Although this is thought to be relatively rare in Britain, it is known throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The presence of Black people within households was as much about objectification and novelty as it was service – they reflected their owners’ good taste, refinement and most importantly their wealth. As such Black people, but most often men and boys, were depicted in portraiture of the period wearing silver neck collars and positioned in subservient poses. Similar poses and depictions can be seen within other art forms such as sculpture and ceramics, but also much more rarely in metalwork.
However, if direct ownership of household slaves was rare, many thousands of people in Britain gained their wealth either directly or indirectly through the transatlantic slave trade, which is estimated to have motivated the kidnap of 12.5 million African people between 1501 and 1867. This is because many had investments in either the physical mechanism of the slave trade itself or more often in the allied production and distribution of sugar, cotton or tobacco centred in the Caribbean, the West Indies and in Colonial America. The depth of this entrenched financial investment can be seen over a century later in 1833 when slave ownership was abolished. At this time the British government compensated families and institutions that owned slaves for their ‘loss of property’ and around £20,000,000 was paid out – this sum is the equivalent at the time of 40% of the Treasury’s national budget.
Thus, the depiction of an enslaved person on this seal reflects broadly European societies position of power and the British Empires normalisation of the exploitation of others for monetary gain. By using this seal its owner may have wished to depict themselves as an erudite businessman, with a diverse financial portfolio that allowed them to supplement their family’s position of wealth and privilege by their investment in either the enslavement of African people or the products of their forced labour.
What many may find shocking is that such an artefact can be discovered in rural Shropshire, a long distance away from areas that are commonly considered to be centres of trade and commerce (Bristol, Liverpool, and London). This underlines the point that all of Britain benefited from the enslaving of others.
A final connection is more speculative, but shows even more clearly that leafy, quiet rural Shropshire has its hidden connections to the transatlantic slave trade. This seal was originally discovered on farmland near to Sheriffhales Manor. In the 17th and 18th centuries this Manor was the Dower House of the Leveson-Gower family who lived at Lilleshall Hall. John Leveson-Gower’s maternal grandfather was John Granville, the 1st Duke of Bath. Granville was a signatory to the 1667 “Declarations of The Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa” published by the Royal African Company – a corporation designed to monopolise the slave industry by England.
As such, this seal may be a direct witness to, and evidence for, the beliefs of one of the men who directly oversaw the enslavement of African people for profit. Hiding in plain sight, it emphasises the connections between a commonly found object discovered in a remote village, and one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.
British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme / Birmingham Museums’ Trust
I thought it was relevant to write the following note – not only to highlight this important artefact and the story it may hold, but also to mark the fact that I / we need to do so much more than we currently do to ensure that our history as a nation is understood in all its facets by all. Much has been written recently about how our cultural institutions must do better to represent our diverse and rich cultural heritage and not to mask over or ‘white wash’ how we came to be where we are today. It isn’t just institutions that need to do this but the people who work within them, so even though I am a privileged white middle-class male museum archaeologist / heritage professional I can make a difference and use my voice to support and make change happen.
An inspirational colleague wrote on being selected as a Parliamentary Candidate for the Green Party:
Being an archaeologist helps me take the long view … [This] shows how inequalities have blighted the lives of many, and allows us to use past experiences to build a better world with fairness and prosperity for everyone.
Dr Helen Geake, PAS and Time Team member
This is a journey which we must take both as individuals and together as a society. It is bound to be hard, but it is essential that we all play our part.
Baetjer, K. 2016: Finding Context for a 17th-Century Enslaved Servant in a Painting. The Met Museum
Belfon, V. The Art of Slavery The Real History Directories
Bracher, T. 1997: The Black Presence in Shropshire and the Marches Salopian Recorder 20
Cox, D.C. (Ed.) 2002: A History of Shropshire. Volume XII Part 1 The Parishes of Chetwynd, Edgmond, Longford, Newport and Sheriffhales Victoria County History: Incomplete and Unpublished Draft
Dresser M. and Hann, A. (Eds.) 2013: Slavery and the British Country House. English Heritage
Eltis, D. and Richardson D. 2010: Atlas of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Yale
Manning, S. 2013: Britain’s Colonial Shame: Slave owners given huge payouts after abolition The Independant Newpaper 24/2/2013
Watts, S. 2008 ‘Landlocked Shropshire’s Portal in Plantations: Country Houses with a Colonial Connection. Friends of Shropshire Archives Autumn Lecture by Gareth Williams Salopian Recorder 58
A Pair of Gilt Bronze Mounted Carved Marble Busts of a Male and Female Moor. LOT10|WORKS OF ART FROM THE COLLECTION OF GREGORY DE LIGNE GREGORY (D. 1854) AT HARLAXTON MANOR. Exceptional Sale 5th July 2012. Christies Auction House
University College London. Legacies of British Slave-ownership
Victoria and Albert Museum: Africans in Art
Victoria and Albert Museum: Silver Service Slavery: The Black Presence in the White Home
Sincere thanks are extended to Susheela Burford, Lucy Shipley, Lauren Speed and Michael Lewis who read and commented on earlier drafts of this blog. I am also grateful to Sarah Davis and the staff of Shropshire Archives for their support and advice as well as the use of their line drawing of Lilleshall Hall . Likwise, I am grateful to Giles Carey HER Officer, Shropshire Council for discussions about Sherrifhales Manor and its associated landscape.