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A Shameful Family Connection To Slavery

While many of my family discoveries have been surprising, one discovery that I have made is not one that I am proud of.


Through the marriage of my 4th cousin, Major General Henry Trotter to Dame Eva Gifford, I have discovered that Eva's sister, Dame Harriet Ella Gifford, was married into the Douglas-Pennant family, a family who built their fortune partially on the slave trade.


The Pennant family prospered from the slave labour at their sugar plantation in Jamaica. This started with Gifford Pennant in the 1600's. Gifford was the grandson of Abbot Thomas Pennant, the Abbot of Basingwerk Abbey, Hollywell.


Gifford took advantage of the English land grants made available to develop Jamaica after Oliver Cromwell's forces overthrew the Spanish on the island in 1655. Gifford quickly acquired 18 times the average land owner's holdings and the Gifford family was soon at the centre of the British sugar industry.


Gifford's son Edward increased his father's legacy and became a significant figure on the island. Edward became Chief Justice and was a member of the governing council. Upon his death, Edward's estate was divided amongst his 3 sons, John, Samuel and Henry.


Due to the difficulties of living in Jamaica - tropical storms, disease and the constant threat of rebellion by the slave population, the Gifford brothers, like many wealthy land holders in Jamaica at the time, returned to Great Britain to run their holdings by proxy.


With their wealth, the Pennant's were able to easily move into the highest ranks of British society. Samuel was knighted and became Lord Mayor of London in 1749. He died from typhus which he contracted while presiding over a case at the Old Bailey.


John Pennant was a successful West India merchant in Liverpool, England, the largest slaving port in England at the time. John married Colonel Hugh Warburton who, through his wife, owned the majority of the land that had once been the ancestral home of the Pennants. John and his son, Richard, began to buy up the remainder of their ancestral lands which would become the home of Penrhyn Castle.


Richard became 1st Lord Penrhyn and died in 1808 childless, a year after Great Britain abolished slavery in Great Britain and all of their colonies. The profitability of the family sugar plantations dropped dramatically once slavery was abolished, but the Pennant family had also purchased and grown a slate quarry to become one of the largest in the Empire.


Upon his death, Richard's estate passed to his second cousin, George Hay Dawkins Pennant. George focused his wealth and energy on building Penrhyn Castle. George had two daughters, Juliana and Emma. Juliana married Gordon Douglas (later Colonel) and they inherited Penrhyn upon the death of George.


Gordon and Juliana had several children, including Dame Eva Gifford who married my 4th cousin, Major General Henry Trotter, 11th Baron of Mortonhall. 


While the estate of Penrhyn was not inherited by Eva Gifford and my cousin, Henry Trotter, there is no doubt that at least a substantial amount of her wealth came from the dark days of the slave trade, and her family's involvement.


This is a dark chapter in my family tree research, and even though my direct ancestors had no involvement (at least that I have found up until this point), the idea of someone enslaving another human being and then profiting from their work is disgusting. Imagine what it would be like knowing that your ancestors where captured like wild animals, dragged from their homes and taken thousands of miles from their birth country, families separated, tortured and worked to death, all so that another could profit. The terror that those people must have felt, not knowing what was going to happen to them, or what had happened to their families, is something we cannot possibly imagine.


Although I find some of the stories of my wealthy and famous ancestors quite interesting, I find none of that with the Pennant family connection; I only feel disgust.

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