Pudsey Dawson

The Ship 'Pudsey Dawson' (image credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

During the final years of the legal slave trade, one of the largest purchasers of enslaved people was the British government. Britain was at war with France and its allies almost continually from 1793 to 1815 and during that period the British Caribbean colonies were central to the economy of the nation and therefore were always in danger of being invaded by the French. In fact, the Caribbean islands were much more important to Britain than the thirteen colonies in North America. The lucrative sugar trade powered the British economy, slaves in the Caribbean harvested 80,000 tonnes every year and the customs duties on this contributed a massive amount of revenue to the treasury and thereby the British war effort.

King George himself warned, “If we lose our sugar islands it will be impossible to raise money to continue the war, we must defend these
islands even at the risk of an invasion of Britain.”

The islands were vulnerable to external attack due to the planters fear that the enslaved might revolt if given arms to repel invaders. European troops serving in the Caribbean were decimated by tropical disease, as happened to the French and British soldiers that attempted to put down the Haitian Revolution. The solution was to create an army in which the rank-and-file soldiers were composed of men who could stand the climate, but had no ties to the islands in which they served. In order to remedy this problem between 1795 and 1808 the British government bought 13,400 young men to serve in the West India regiment. At a price of about 1 million pounds, this was roughly 7% of all the enslaved males arriving in the British Caribbean at the time. The desperate need to acquire these military recruits may well have led to a delay in the enforcement of the Slave Trade abolition act. It has been suggested that the necessity of transporting these slave-soldiers was the reason British slave ships are reported as sailing after the legal abolition date of the 1st May 1807, thereby allowing the government to make one final substantial purchase of human cargo.

Lieutenant Colonel Willoughby Gordon was desperate to buy more enslaved men for the regiments prior to abolition and requested assistance from the Liverpool slavers in fulfilling his objective. A notable citizen of Liverpool not usually associated with the slave trade would offer to play a part in acquiring this final consignment, demonstrating how individuals not associated with the trade directly, also benefited from opportunities it brought to the booming town. On the 9th of November 1806, former mayor of Liverpool, Pudsey Dawson, wrote to Gordon in relation to the issue:

My Dear Sir,

Tho I am not directly concerned in the African Trade I will endeavour to reply to the Letter I had the Honor to receive from you this morning, in such manner as to enable you, I hope, to determine whether more minute information should be sought by my having any Conversation
on the subject with any one to whom the communication may be confidentially made in order to obtain it.

About 130 sail of Vessels have been fitted out from this port this year for the Coast. The greatest part of them gone to the Bite & Angola, not above 12 or 14 of them, I should suppose to the Gold Coast.

The Gold Coast Negroes only, I presume, are wanted by Government. Calculating 12 Vessels to Carry on an Average 300 Negroes each, the number of able bodied Men would not exceed one third, or 1,200 in those Ships if so many, allowing for Women & Children & Youths from 12 to 16 years of Age, which from the circumstances of the increased attention to the Cultivation of Coffee have latterly been found to be the most saleable, as better calculated for that purpose & suiting better than full grown Men. These Vessels have probably already got their particular destinations, for it is no longer the practice, or very seldom as in peaceable times, for them to call at Barbadoes for Orders. Therefore very little dependence is to be had on any of these Vessels, certainly not as to any number of any consequence of such Negroes as are wanted, but enquiry may be quietly made, without the object being hinted at, as to what Vessels may have been ordered to proceed to Jamaica or to call at Barbadoes, or to which of them orders may yet possibly be conveyed, having Gold Coast Negroes or of the Corymante Tribe on Board, if you desire it.

There is at this moment only one Vessel fitting out for the Gold Coast to carry about 300 Negroes, & by a person of great respectability & of
undoubted property. There are also others of equal responsibility who I am sure would gladly accept the Contract for the number wanted or for a greater Number, Gentlemen with whom Government might Contract with the utmost Confidence, if Circumstances should permit its being deferred so as to be carried compleatly into effect only during the next Year. Under the late regulation on Vessels only which have been in the Trade and belonging to the original owners, can only now be employed in it, of such there are but a few only laying by in our Docks unemployed perhaps not exceeding 10 or 12 Vessels, might be fitted out & sent to sea in about 3/ms, perform the Voyage and deliver their Cargoes in Barbadoes in 1807. But were it possible, in consideration of its being a Contract on Government account, to obtain Licences for Vessels, which are at present restricted under the late regulation, to be employed in the Trade, a sufficient number might be procured, & the most respectable Men be found, with whom the contract might be immediately made, and the number of 2,000 be delivered much sooner than could possibly be done by any Contract to be made with those Gentlemen who could only engage in it on the return of those Vessels now out, whose arrival here cannot be looked for before the next April, when the greater part may be expected. If the Object will admit of delay, I have no hesitation to say you may depend upon being able to make a contract here for the number required, and of the Corymantee Tribe, to be delivered at Barbadoes or at any other of the Windward Islands as may be agreed upon. As to the terms I should suppose somewhere about £65 to £70 Sterl. per Head. I shall be happy to procure for you any information which may be required, or to assist in making the Contract. I beg you will present my Compliments to Mrs. Gordon & believe me. My Dear Sir

Saturday 6 November
Signed Pudsey Dawson