“The Dark History: How Welsh Slate Industry Was Funded by Slavery”
Welsh slate has long been celebrated for its beauty and durability, used in everything from roofing tiles to billiard tables.
However, the origins of the industry’s success are not without controversy.
The Pennant family, who were major players in the Welsh slate industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, used profits from their sugar and slavery plantations in Jamaica to invest in expanding the Penrhyn slate quarry. Richard Pennant, who inherited the family’s estates in Jamaica and Wales in 1781, owned four sugar plantations in Jamaica worked by over a thousand enslaved people.
The money generated from the slave trade was invested in building infrastructure for the slate industry, including roads, railways, and ports, as well as expanding the Penrhyn quarry. Pennant went on to become an MP for Petersfield and one of two MPs for Liverpool, which was Britain’s largest slave trading port.
As chairman of the West India Committee, Pennant advocated for the continuation of slavery and frequently spoke against abolition in the House of Commons. The Pennant family continued to profit from both slate quarrying in Wales and the slave-produced sugar and rum from Jamaica.
George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited Richard Pennant’s estates, oversaw the construction of Penrhyn Castle between 1822 and 1833. Under the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, he received £14,683 17s 2d in compensation for the 764 enslaved laborers he claimed to own.
While Welsh slate has been celebrated for its durability and beauty, it is important to acknowledge the role of slavery in the industry’s success.
The links between Welsh slate and slavery serve as a reminder that the wealth and success of many industries was built on the exploitation of enslaved people, and that we must confront and acknowledge this history in order to move forward.
While there is already a plaque honoring the three-year Penrhyn quarrymen’s strike of 1900-03, some are calling for the Welsh government to also acknowledge the hundreds of enslaved laborers who were worked to death on the Pennants’ Jamaican plantations. It is important to remember that the history of Welsh slate, like the history of many industries, is intertwined with the history of slavery and exploitation.
Acknowledging the role of slavery in the success of the Welsh slate industry is an important step in confronting and grappling with the legacy of slavery and colonialism. This includes not only acknowledging the past, but also working to address the ongoing inequalities and injustices that continue to affect marginalized communities today.
As we continue to celebrate the beauty and durability of Welsh slate, we must also remember the people whose labor and exploitation made its success possible. By acknowledging the history of slavery in the industry, we can work towards a more just and equitable future for all.