'Wales was an integral part of the slave trade': Confronting our nation's colonial past

One document from Pembrokeshire outlined a transaction of 100 slaves for 54 pounds and 10 shillings. Credit: PA
  • Written by ITV Wales Journalist Zaynub Akbar

Between the the 17th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade saw millions of men, women and children forced into slavery.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but Wales played an active role in that trade.

Many prominent Welsh figures who enabled slavery and made money from it are still commemorated in our communities today.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has forced us to confront our colonial past and the worst excesses of the British Empire.

Wales This Week looks into Wales’ links to the slave trade and the controversial figures from our past who still loom large in our communities.

Wales This Week: An Uncomfortable Truth is on at 8:30pm Thursday 17 March on ITV Cymru Wales.

In 2020, after the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston's statue in Bristol, an audit was commissioned by the Welsh Government to examine the physical legacy of the slave trade in Wales.

That review uncovered 209 commemorations across Wales with links to the slave trade.

These include public monuments, buildings and street names that celebrate figures who supported slavery or who were accused of crimes against black people in the colonies of the British Empire.

What was the Atlantic slave trade and what part did Wales play?

The Atlantic slave trade saw more than 12 million people abducted and forced into slavery.

It involved the buying, selling and transportation of enslaved people in exchange for goods.

Archives held at the National Library of Wales reveal that there was widespread profiteering from slavery in Wales. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, wealthy landowners from across Wales were buying and selling human lives.

Dr David Moore, Archivist at the Library, talked through one document from Pembrokeshire: "It's a transaction involving the sale of slaves. The price outlined here is 54 pounds and 10 shillings for 100 slaves.

"That's just over 10 shillings per slave, which is similar to the kind of price you’d expect to get for livestock."

He added that slaves were little more than "moveable chattels" and were treated "no different" to property, tenements, live and dead stock.

Professor Chris Evans has researched Wales' links to slavery and has revealed a "very significant relationship" between Welsh copper and the Atlantic slave trade.

He explained: "The White Rock copper works in Swansea were established in the 1730s. It was established by the Coster family who also invested in slave trading.

"At the copper works they produced manillas - horseshoe shaped articles used as currency on the West African coast. They were exported to Africa in exchange for enslaved human beings.

"Wales was an integral part of the slave trade and many people in Wales benefitted from that."

Who are these controversial individuals and what exactly did they do?

The Welsh Government's nationwide audit found 209 examples of commemorations in Wales that have connections to the slave trade.

One of the most controversial figures on that list, Thomas Picton from Haverfordwest, has a total of 39 monuments, statues, buildings and streets in his name.

An 80 foot high stone obelisk has stood in the town of Carmarthen since 1847. It commemorates Picton, a highly decorated soldier who died in the Battle of Waterloo.

But during his time as Governor of Trinidad in the 1790s, he owned slaves and made a great deal of profit from the slave trade. He even authorised the torture of a 14-year-old girl.

Alun Lenny, a councillor in Carmarthen, believes that erasing history would be "disingenuous" and "dangerous".

He told ITV Wales: "We had a consultation in Carmarthen and some 2,500 people replied to that public consultation by the County Council. And the vast majority want the monument kept here.

"But then we also want boards put up, and they will be erected very shortly, telling Sir Thomas Picton’s story in the round. The events in Trinidad - the darker side of his history - as well as the braver things that he did in battle."

Carmarthen-based artist Emily Laurens has run a digital project with local students that challenges Picton's prominence in the town. It imagines an alternative Carmarthen without the obelisk.

"If this monument wasn’t here, what could we give this space over to? And what, symbolically, would that mean?" Emily asked.

"One of the students came up with a wonderful design of a statue of a coracle man. Coracle fishing is done by ordinary people, so it’s not some kind of military hero, in inverted commas. It’s distinct to Carmarthen and Carmarthenshire.

"And it feels so much more meaningful than this monument."

Another controversial Welsh figure is Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who has a bronze sculpture in his hometown of Denbigh.

During his expeditions, Stanley became the first man to trace the course of the River Congo. He was also employed by King Leopold II of Belgium to open up the region for trade. This led to mass exploitation and slavery.

Unlike the Picton monument, Stanley's statue was unveiled more recently in 2011. Local councillor Gwyneth Kensler has supported it from the beginning.

"Stanley deplored slavery. Yet, there are people who will insist that Stanley was responsible in part for the terrible atrocities in the Congo years after Stanley had left."

"He was not racist, he was a man of his age and this is what we have to remember. It was a brutal period, but he was no more brutal than anyone else."

From an opposing point of view, artist Dr Wanda Zyborska drapes a rubber sheath over the statue every year, in protest.

Wanda told ITV Wales: "Rubber was hugely valuable at that time. It was one of the commodities that people were forced to obtain from the forests in the Congo."

Wanda went on to describe Stanley as "a kind of vanguard for exploitation" who "shot his way" through Africa. She questions the decision to erect a statue to Stanley as recently as 11 years ago. "Why you would want to celebrate somebody like that?"

Wales This Week: An Uncomfortable Truth is on at 8:30pm Thursday 17 March on ITV Cymru Wales.