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Parts 2 & 3: Slavery Collections from the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool


Introduction by Gordon Reed, MA, Former Keeper of Archives, Merseyside County Museums.

Few records of Liverpool ship-owning partnerships and merchant businesses survive for the period before the mid-nineteenth century. It was, therefore, a momentous discovery when David Richardson of Hull University discovered the family and business papers of the Earle family, a Liverpool family whose mercantile activities date back to the early eighteenth century, on the Earle family estate in Co. Limerick, Ireland. The present head of the family, Sir George Earle generously donated the collection to Merseyside Maritime Museum in 1993.

The collection comprises some seventeen boxes of volumes and documents relating to the family's business, estate and personal affairs from the early eighteenth century to the 1930s, when the family dispersed to various locations around the United Kingdom. The collection was accumulated by T Algernon Earle who in 1889 produced a pamphlet on the history of the family.

The arrangement of the collection owes much to the work of Algernon Earle in the nineteenth century, and I have tried to incorporate this, so far as possible, within the present arrangement. Indeed the survival of the collection itself, owes, much to Algernon's interest, for it is a result of his careful packaging and labelling that the collection was preserved from the worst effects of damp and decay. However, despite this, some items are in need of conservation treatment and are currently too fragile to allow researchers to use them except by means of this microfilm edition.

Importance of the Collection for Researchers
The archive is particularly important for the papers and documents relating to the mercantile and shipping interests of the family during the mid-eighteenth century, the period when Liverpool became a major British port.

By the 1730s Liverpool had overtaken both London and Bristol to become the country's leading slave port. By this period the Earle family were in business as merchants and shipowners in a wide range of commercial ventures. These included the slave trade, but it should be emphasised that this was but one of their interests. At present, it has not been possible to assess whether it was the most important of their activities in terms of profit, but a substantial proportion of the archive is concerned with the administration of this complex, difficult trade, and provides important additional details of its operation. This gives special importance to these archives, which include a number of exceptionally interesting individual items in this connection.

The Earle Family of Liverpool
John Earle (1674-1749) came to Liverpool from Warrington in 1688, joining the house of William Clayton, MP, a merchant and shipowner of high standing in the town of Liverpool. On 10 December, 1700, he married Eleanor Tyrer and began trading as a merchant on his own behalf. Although he was primarily involved in the wine trade, like most merchants of this period he dealt in a wide range of commodities, including iron, tobacco, sugar and also those goods used in slaving ventures, and it was he who built up the family's share in this trade. In 1709, at the age of 35 he was elected Mayor of Liverpool. At his death in 1749 he was survived by only four of his seven children. Ralph (1715-1790), Thomas (1719-1781), William (1721-1788) and Sarah. Both Ralph and Thomas Earle were to follow their father as Mayor, Ralph in 1769 and Thomas in 1787. Unfortunately, no records relating to John Earle's mercantile activities survive in the collection, the only document relating to him being a deed concerning his second marriage in 1709 to Mary Finch. The bulk of the archive relates to his sons, William and Thomas and their descendants.

John Earle's eldest son, Ralph, (1715-1790), was involved in the timber trade, operating from property at Salthouse Dock. He also held interests in ships trading in various other cargoes. Ralph is listed in Articles of Partnership of 1766 as being involved in trading beads and arrangoes (another type of bead), commodities used for slave trading, with his brothers Thomas and William. Other members of the partnership were William Davenport, Peter Holme, Thomas Hodgson and John Copeland. Copeland, who was the Earle's brother-in-law, was also captain of the Calypso, the vessel used by the partnership for trading in Africa during July 1760 [D/Earle/4/2]. Unfortunately, except for this Article of Partnership, nothing else relating to Ralph Earle and his trading activities exists in the collection.

Thomas Earle (1719-1781) established a prosperous house of business in Leghorn, Italy, dealing in wine, coffee, hides and marble. He is credited as being the first merchant to import white marble, used for sculpture, into Liverpool1. He also engaged in trading ventures with his brother William in Liverpool. Thomas Earle established a branch of business in Genoa in partnership with two brothers, Thomas and Robert Hodgson, and John Denham, whose great mass of letters concerning his business and complicated domestic affairs survive in the collection. [D/Earle/3/1-3].

The Liverpool family of Hodgson were friends and partners with the Earles at home and abroad. As a result of their close business and personal friendships there exist many documents relating to the family and also to the business of Earle and Hodgson in Leghorn, Italy. These include family pedigree, and numerous estate papers probably amassed when William Earle acted as Thomas Hodgson's executor in 1833. Thomas Hodgson is cited in an Article of Partnership with the Earles for sugar refining at the Haymarket Sugar House, Liverpool, in 1763, and in partnership trading beads and arrangoes in 1766. [D Earle/4/1].


After the death of Thomas Earle of Leghorn in 1781, his business was amalgamated with his younger brother William's and on his death seven years later, the family business passed to William's sons Thomas (1754-1822) and William (1760-1839). Both Thomas and William had already been active partners. Operating from premises in Hanover Street, Liverpool, the firm of T & W Earle & Company expanded the areas of business further in partnership with Thomas Molyneux in the iron trade, and also in the wine, oil, silk and sugar trades. [D/Earle/4/4]. In the 1830s they acquired a plantation in Berbice, British Guiana, (now Guyana) which they took over as part of a bad debt. Several bundles of correspondence and documents relating to the administration of the plantation, including the use of slave, and later free black labour, survive in the collection. [D/Earle/5/1-11]. There is also a letterbook entitled Livorno which contains correspondence relating to the Leghorn trading activities of T & W Earle & Co., for the period 1801-1808, afterwhich, the business closed. [D/Earle/2/3].

WILLIAM EARLE (1721-1788)
It is, however, the records relating to the mercantile and shipping affairs of their father, the first William Earle, which are of greatest interest. A key document in the collection is the Letter of Instructions to William Earle when captain of the Chesterfield for a voyage to Old Calabar, West Africa in May 1751. The letter is a good example of the instructions issued by a managing partner, in this instance Francis Ingrams, to a captain [D/Earle/1/1].

One of the most important volumes in the collection is William Earle's Letterbook. William Earle acted as managing owner for a number of other vessels owned in partnership. In a letter addressed to Messrs. Turner, Hilton and Briscoe, William Earle describes himself by the term of "Ships Husband" for the Calypso's voyage to Bonny in July 1760. This was a term commonly used to describe the role of the managing partner. An excellent insight into the work of the managing partner can be gained from his letterbook. The letterbook covers a period of eighteen months, from 23 Jan 1760 - 23 Sept 1761, and provides a wealth of information on the activities undertaken. These included the outfitting of the vessel with cargoes, the instructing of captains and correspondence with merchants and agents in Africa, West Indies, and the American colonies. The letterbook also offers a fascinating insight into the actual slave trading process. [D/Earle/2/2].

From the letterbook it is evident that William Earle employed various agents in the ports that he dealt with, including Sparling and Bolden in Virginia, and Austin and Lawrence in Carolina, USA. These agents would buy sugar, tobacco and other goods before the vessel arrived, and also arrange for the selling of the cargoes of slaves. An illustration of this can be found in the letter addressed to Messrs. Austin and Lawrence, 30 January 1760, in which William Earle informs them of the '...arrival of the Industry Capt. William Hindle from the Camaroans with a Cargoe of young Slaves which by his Instructions have addressed to you the Quantity will be but small from 100 to 120 as we can Expect he will be Early at market and doubt not their selling at a Good Price & as we intend the Capt a Larger Ship wou'd be glad to dispose of the vessel at Caralina..'2

An insight into the commodities used to purchase slaves can be gained from those listed in the letterbook. The most important commodities were textiles, guns and gunpowder, spirits, brass, copper, pewter, bar iron, clay pipes, and salt. Cowrie shells were imported from India and these together with bar iron and copper and brass, in the form of manillas, were used as currency in West Africa. Beads came from Italy and other European centres. William Earle writes of the cargo loaded onto the Mentor for a voyage to Whydah in September 1761 as including 2000 silitias (shells), 20 tonnes of cowries and 40 boxes of pipes.

There is also a great deal of correspondence dealing with the insurance of cargoes and payment, including the increasing use of the financial mechanism of Bills of Exchange. It is apparent from the letterbook that captains of slaving vessels also received detailed instructions concerning the Africans they were to buy. This is hardly suprising since the quality of the slaves was directly related to their price at market.

A letter of great interest is William Earle's letter of reply to an African chief, Duke Abashy, whose two sons were mistakenly taken on board with a cargo of slaves at St Thomas. [D/Earle/2/2]. William Earle gives his every assurance that he will try to get them back. He describes his love for Calabar and his anxiety to remain Duke Abashy's friend. The letter is a rare illustration of the close relationship which the Liverpool merchants strove to achieve with contacts in Africa.

Perhaps the most interesting survival in the collection is the Log of the Unity [D/Earle/1/4] for a slaving voyage from Liverpool to Holland and across to Calabar, Africa, in 1769. The log kept by the captain, Robert Norris, gives a valuable insight into life on board a slave ship. The voyage was eventful with numerous mentions made of deaths of slaves and insurrections. The first revolt occurred on the 6 June 1770, with the entry that 'the slaves made an Insurrection which was soon quelled... with the loss of two woman slaves'. On the 27 June, 'the Slaves attempted to force up grating in the night with a design to murder the whites or drown themselves but prevented by the watch. In the morning they confessed their intentions and that the women as well as the men were determined if disappointed of cutting off the whites to jump overboard but in Case of being prevented by their Irons were resolved to burn the ship'. Captain Norris records that 'their obstinacy put me under the Necessity of shooting the Ring leader'.

The log of the Unity is, therefore, a source of great value for research into life on board a slaving vessel, the treatment of slaves and conditions in which they were kept.

A second, important aspect of Liverpool's maritime history for which the Earle shipping papers provide an important source is privateering. The collection includes a Letter of instructions written by Francis Ingram to Captain James Hasslam, 16 Sept 1779. The privateer Enterprise was to depart Liverpool for a cruise of six months, by the North Channel if the wind be favourable '...it being the path less liable to meet with the Enemys Cruisers and having a chance to meet with American vessels, bound to Sweden...'. He was to obtain a longitude of 20 degrees West and cross the latitudes to the Azores. If after three weeks, they had met with no success, he was to proceed to the North west of Cove (Cobh, Ireland). Should they be fortunate enough to take a prize or prizes on those stations to the value of Ten thousand pounds he was to '...see them safe into some good ports in Ireland'. If the prize was less than this, he was 'to despatch them with a trusty officer taking care not to put too many of the Enemy in purporting (sic) to your own men on board... with caution not to trust many of his own people aloft at a time on any account whatever, as many prizes have been retaken by the prisoners for wont of such precaution'. A transcript of these instructions is available in the Detailed Listing. [D/Earle/1/5]

Another document relating to the Earle's interests in privateering is the list of articles for the fitting out of the privateer Mars, 'against the enemies of Great Britain' with small arms, &, c, for a voyage to Sierra Leone, Africa, 28 May 1769. [D/Earle/1/6] The Mars continued in the ownership of Messrs. William Earle & Sons and in 1780, took a Dutch snow during her passage to Africa. The Mars was herself captured on her voyage back to Liverpool from St Kitts and taken to Boston, before being later re-taken'3. Another shipping document found in the collection is a crew list and agreement for the fitting out of the Harlequin of Liverpool for a cruise of five months, owned by Messrs Earle & Sons and under the command of Joseph Fayrer, 2 February 1781. [D/Earle/1/7a]. In a letter dated the 24 July 1781 from Robert Carr aboard the Harlequin, to a Mrs Susannah Barkley, he refers to their taking another prize into Cork. [D/Earle/1/7b]

In August of that year, the Harlequin, arrived in Liverpool with two more prizes, after which she herself was taken, based on the surviving deed of the release of the Harlequin from arrest 26 September 1781. The Harlequin continued to operate as a privateer for the next few years, and an article in Williamson's Advertiser, dated the 6 February 1783, refers to the Court of Admiralty's judgement on the case between the owners of the Patsey and Harlequin of Liverpool and the Caesar of Bristol respecting the former's right as joint captors the ship Eendroght bound from Curacao to Amsterdam. Over £40,000 was lodged in the Court of the Admiralty, and the action was judged in favour of the Liverpool vessels. [D/Earle/1/7c]

An interesting description of the richest prize ever taken by a Liverpool privateer can be found in a letter from Jane Earle, daughter of Thomas Earle, to her aunt, Mrs Hardman Earle, 14 November 1778. The Carnatic, a French East Indiaman was captured by Captain John Dawson of the Mentor, with a value of £135,000, on the 28 October 1778. The proceeds of the prize were used to construct the Carnatic Hall, a mansion at Mossley Hill, Liverpool. Jane Earle gives a detailed description of the cargo, which included salt petre, fine muslin, raw silk, coffee, tea and 'a packet of sundry things supposed to be diamonds'. It was the diamonds which greatly increased the value of the prize. This letter helps to illustrate the mine of information on shipping and other subjects which can be gleaned from the great bulk of family correspondence in the Earle collection. [D/Earle/7/4]

A famous privateer, William Hutchinson, later became captain of the Liverpool of Liverpool, another vessel owned by the Earles. In the collection of shipping papers there is a legal document being a release from further claim by the owners of the Eendragt, a Dutch vessel against the privateer Liverpool. This relates to the seizing of the Eendragt whilst on a voyage from Surrinam to Amsterdam with a cargo of raw sugars and coffee, in 1759. At this time the Liverpool was under the command of John Ward. The case resulted in the claim for compensation being settled at £170. A transcript of this letter is in the Detailed List. [D/Earle/1/2]

The last document of note amongst the maritime papers of the collection is a passenger and crew list for the Speedwell, Isaac Strickland, Master, for a voyage from Liverpool to Philadelphia, Newfoundland and from hence to Italy. Newfoundland was the port from which the Earles collected cargoes of fish for trading with Spain and Portugal, in return for wine. Although the document contains details of passengers, they were only carried as a supplement to the cargo, and as such were added onto the list of crew members. Survivals of passenger lists for this date are extremely rare, and this document was but one of the many "surprise discoveries" to be found in this important collection. [D/Earle/1/3]

The aim of this introduction has been to illustrate the richness of this collection for researchers of Liverpool's maritime history, particularly for such topics as the slave trade and privateering. In addition, there exists a wealth of material on the social activities and personal relationships of the Earle family, in the form of their correspondence, travel and personal diaries, and other papers. The Earle collection stands alone as a record of the shipowning and mercantile activities of a leading Liverpool family, and also provides a valuable primary source for researching the importance of Liverpool as a major British port during the later half of eighteenth century.

1. Liverpool Table Talk a Hundred Years Ago or A History of Gores Directory with Anecdotes, Illustrated of the Period of its First Publication in 1766, by James Boardman, (Liverpool, 1871) cited in T A Earle, Earle of Allerton Tower p. 28

2. MMM, D/Earle/2/2, Letterbook of William Earle, Liverpool, 30 January 1760-23 September 1761.

3. Cited in G Williams, The Liverpool Privateers with an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade, (Liverpool, 1897) p.681


1/1-7: Shipping Papers, 1751-1781
2/1-3: Bound volumes, letterbooks, etc, 1667-1761
3/1-6: Business correspondence (includes personal 1751-1852 correspondence of Joseph Denham, partner of Thomas Earle of Leghorn)
4/1-11: Partnership Papers, 1763-1836
5/1-11: Berbice Plantation Papers, 1823-1899

6-16 FAMILY PAPERS 1660-1994
6/1-18: Estate Deeds and Papers, 1769-1912
7/1-50: Family Correspondence and Papers, etc, 1723-1864
8/1-10: Diaries (including travel diaries), 1775-1850
9/1-15: Marriage Settlements, 1753-1892
10/1-17: Wills and Probates, etc, 1758-1926
11/1-34: Hodgson Family Papers, 1660-1795
12/1-4: Horton Family Papers, 1660-1795
13/1-4: Printed Family Histories, 1889-1960
14/1-3: Family History Research, 1924-1930
15/1: Local History, 1889
16/1-2: Photographs, Slides, etc, c1764-1994

Please Note: Only D/EARLE/Sections 1-5 and D/EARLE/7/1-12 have been filmed in this microfilm edition.

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