Dr Janet Hollinshead – Friday, 8 April 2022 from 11:30 to 13:00, at The Athenaeum, Liverpool


Dr Hollinshead, a well-known historian, a former lecturer and Head of History at Liverpool Hope University presented this informative talk on Robertson Gladstone and his visit to Demerara and his return journey to Liverpool, lasting over 300 days during the course of 1828-29. She helped to set the scene illustrating it with a watercolour painting from the Maritime Museum of Demerara, showing a Sugar Depot with Boiling House, people and vegetation.

Giving further context leading up to the time of Gladstone’s visit Dr Hollinshead described the geography and challenges which plantation owners needed to overcome to establish their businesses. The topography was poorly mapped and isolated, consisting of low lying marshy coastal area, with sea to one side and dense impenetrable forest on the other. It had a low density of indigenous population, who tended to live inland. It consisted of the British, Dutch and French Guianas. The Dutch were first to occupy the area and used their skills in land drainage schemes to improve the land. Given it was an area short of natural resources, mostly everything including bricks had to be imported. The British were welcomed because they brought slave labour which built the plantations along the coast behind the sea walls and along the courses of the Demerara and Essequibo rivers where coffee, cotton and sugar were produced.

The British merchants bought up many plantations and mortgages when Dutch merchants went bankrupt because of Napoléon’s invasion of the Netherlands. So, a thriving trade and enterprise was established generating wealth for those involved in the trade. However, there was a social conscience dawning and much campaigning began in Britain, supporting the abolition of slavery, the Anti-Slavery Society being formed in 1823. This morally right cause would be countered by the merchants who stood to have their successful businesses impacted, and in Liverpool this saw the formation of West India Association. In parallel there were a number of slave revolts across the Caribbean and Haiti saw the overthrow of the French administration by 1804. Revolts in Barbados 1816 and Demerara 1823 were quelled; however, the status quo was destabilised.

Robertson Gladstone, JP (15 November 1805 – 23 September 1875) was an English merchant and politician. He was the second son, but third child of Sir John Gladstone and the brother of William Ewart Gladstone, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom four times.

Robertson, along with his siblings was brought up in Liverpool at the Gladstone home in Rodney Street and then at Seaforth House from 1813. He studied at Eton College and then Oxford for a short time, but his father withdrew him. Instead, in September 1821 sixteen-year-old Robertson began attending Glasgow College, where he received a more technical education which prepared him to be a merchant. After his studies he returned to Liverpool work in the offices of his father’s company, initially becoming an assistant to his father but later a partner.

His visit to Demerara Dr Hollinshead suggested, might be seen as part of his training and apprenticeship. His father owned six plantations, but also had interests in many others. Absentee owners delegated running of the plantations to a white Attorney and a white Manager, who supervised day to day operations. It is not then unreasonable to think that the visit was to enable him to see and report back to his father on the state of things. His journey to Demerara took forty days, and saw him staying on a plantation for several months. He wrote detailed letters to his father every four days, in total twenty-five letters[1]. These and his journal [written on his return journey] have been the primary sources for research to understand from a first-hand account about the plantations and trade[2]. Details in correspondence include the number of ‘Whites’ (10,000), very few freed ‘Blacks’ and 78-80,000 enslaved blacks. His father’s plantations and also Liverpudlian friends of his father are recorded. Problems are noted too and include short supplies of clean water, housing the local population and the importation of clothes from Europe. For the most part these accounts are descriptive and not comparative, but did provide a fresh perspective.

Dr Hollinshead concluded her talk by describing how Robertson Gladstone’s life and career developed, which included responsibility for his father’s businesses on the latter’s death. Janet also highlighted his various appointments in local politics. This was a very enlightening and entertaining presentation which was greatly enjoyed by the audience. A recording of this talk has now been added to the collection of presentations rapidly expanding in the Members’ Area of this website.

Phillip Chalmers


[1] Gladstone’s Library, Church Lane, Hawarden, Flintshire CH5 3DF

[2] The Athenaeum Library, 12-18 Church Alley, Liverpool L1 3DD

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