Skip to main content

From slave to sheriff

Nathaniel Wells was born into slavery but became a wealthy English landowner. Terry Saunders looks at his life story

Nathaniel Wells's extraordinary life story, from slave child to Britain's first black sheriff, offers a focus for any age group during Black History Month in October, and could be the inspiration for an intriguing key stage 3 historical enquiry.

In January 1818, a wealthy landowner was sworn in as Sheriff of Monmouthshire. Nathaniel Wells (1779-1852) owned the prestigious Piercefield estate in Chepstow and extensive sugar plantations in the Caribbean. He was educated and influential, and had inherited a fortune when he was 21. He was also black, born into slavery on one of the plantations that he now owned.

Nathaniel was the son of a Negro house-slave and the plantation owner William Wells who, in 1749, had left Cardiff for the island of St Kitts to seek his fortune in the sugar trade.

Five years later, he was wealthy and happily married. But, before long, tragedy struck when his wife and small children, including his son and heir, died. William didn't marry again. But he did have at least six more children by various house-slaves.

He chose one of these children as his heir - "my natural and dear son Nathaniel Wells, whose mother is my woman Juggy".

Nathaniel's first years were lived as a slave, but when he was four years old, his father had him baptised, effectively freeing him from slavery, and when he was 10, William sent him to school in London. Just five years later, William died. Nathaniel remained in England to continue his schooling and social education and when he reached 21 he inherited the bulk of his father's estate.

William's will also freed Nathaniel's mother Juggy and three other house-slaves and they all received financial bequests. In 1801, Nathaniel married the well-connected Harriet Este, whose father is thought to have been chaplain to King George III. The following year, he bought Piercefield, an estate so famous and elegant that it attracted visitors from all over the country and put Nathaniel at the centre of fashionable society.

His colour was well documented at the time - "so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro" and "a Creole of very deep colour". But the comments were not derogatory - he was considered different, but not inferior - as he would have been just half a century later. Had he returned to St Kitts, however, he wouldn't even have had a vote because of his colour.

Nathaniel continued to own slaves even after abolition in 1833 - to qualify for reparation for loss of "property" he held on to his slaves for another four years. But by that time he had sold off two of his three plantations, due to the decline in the Caribbean sugar industry. In Britain his fortunes were changing, too. After Piercefield was found to have dry rot, he rented out the house and moved to Bath, where he died of a fever in old age.

Discussion points * Identify elements which best highlight the paradox and contradiction of Nathaniel's life. How and why does circumstance play a part?

* How does Nathaniel's story challenge our perceptions about relationships between some owners and their slaves?

* Why was it common for owners to have children by slave women? What happened to most of the children fathered by white owners?

* How would the slaves on Wells's plantation have reacted when Nathaniel became their owner? What might they have hoped for?

* Nathaniel was able to become a wealthy landowner, marry well and hold office in Britain, but not in St Kitts. What does that tell us about attitudes towards people from other races in Britain at that time? Why did attitudes change in Victorian times?

* Why did Nathaniel remain a slave-owner? Consider these reasons: he needed the wealth from St Kitts to fund his lifestyle in Britain; he felt paternalistic towards his slaves; he believed his slaves would be worse off free, but unemployed, as the Caribbean sugar crisis worsened.

* Why were owners, not slaves, given reparation when slavery was abolished? Was that fair?

* There are no known portraits or paintings of Nathaniel and few references to him in his later years. Why do you think this is?

* How would attitudes towards him have changed as he got older, as racism increased and attitudes towards slavery changed?

Lesson ideas

* Create a portfolio on St Kitts, using maps, illustrations, charts and data. Explore its part in the sugar trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

* Write a news story reporting Nathaniel's appointment as sheriff.

* Create a drama to explore one particular aspect of Nathaniel's life.

* There is little published material on Nathaniel's life, but Chepstow Museum is adding to its website at www.chepstow Think about the kinds of further information historians would like to obtain.

* Research the life of William Wilberforce, one of the leaders in the movement to abolish slavery.

Chepstow Museum

The life of Nathaniel Wells is the subject of a current exhibition at Chepstow Museum. Curator Anne Rainsbury, who became so intrigued with his story that she spent her holiday in St Kitts researching and recording places and documents relating to his life, explains: "The exhibition explores the many strands and contrasts of Nathaniel's achievements and lifestyle, both in the Caribbean - his true origins, the plantations, sugar and slavery - and in Britain - as the owner of a house and grounds that were a famous 'tourist attraction'. Nathaniel's achievements in the UK provided a powerful story for me to take back to St Kitts. Working with the National Archives there, I have been able to piece together the different aspects of Nathaniel's life. I am now in regular contact with the archivist - continuing the exchange of new information."

The exhibition will run until the end of January 2004. For details of opening times, and resource material for your study of Nathaniel Wells, contact: Chepstow Museum, Bridge Street, Chepstow, Monmouthshire NP16 5EZ.Tel: 01291 625981 Museum workshops also available. Contact the education resource officer: Tel: 01291 628552

Terry Saunders is a freelance journalist and a former editor of Junior EducationFor more details on Black History Month see Bulletin board, page 31

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you