Wed | Dec 12, 2018

Anthony Gambrill | The Dawkins family haunted by its slave-owning past

Published:Sunday | September 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The rise of the Dawkins family from lowly Jamaican overseers to affluent members of the British Parliament is not unique to our history. It took three generations and greatly benefited from the marriage of Henry Dawkins to the daughter of Edward Pennant, ultimately elevating it to the ranks of the island's wealthiest landowners, which included the legendary Beckfords and Charles Price of Worthy Park.

Reputedly born in humble circumstances in Leicestershire, William Dawkins emigrated to the island taking a post of estate overseer shortly after the British occupation. Several members of his family joined him, acquiring 1,775 acres across the years between 1669 and 1682. He was a lieutenant for the Clarendon militia, but in 1694 lost his life fighting the French invaders at Carlisle Bay.

The first-time generations of Dawkins gradually accumulated 25,000 acres in Clarendon, Vere (now Manchester) St Andrew, St Catherine, St Elizabeth, St Mary and Thomas-in-the-Vale (now St Catherine). As they progressed over the years, the Dawkins men were to play a role in Jamaican politics, representing the Assembly and the Council of Jamaica, as well as serving in parish militia, all of which would have enhanced opportunity to acquire land.

It was Henry Dawkins who married Elizabeth Pennant, daughter of the chief justice, whose fourth child, also named Henry, was to climb up the ranks of the island's plantocracy, particularly with the early deaths of his brothers, William and James, in the middle of the 18th century.

At the time of his death, Henry Dawkins owned plantations across seven parishes already mentioned, many with names of districts still familiar today like Trout Hall, Parnassus, Treadway and Dawkins Pen, Caymanas.

His son, another Henry, was to become an absentee owner, moving to England in 1759, although it was in the same year that he had been appointed to the Council of Jamaica.

In November 1659, he married Lady Juliana Colyear, and next year was elected member of parliament for Southampton, the seat vacated by Anthony Swymmer, absentee member of the West Indian plantocracy, on his death. He held the seat for eight years, the seat for Chippenham for nine years, and a third parliamentary seat for four years. According to the record, he never gave a speech in Parliament! However, he became a member of a lobbying group, the Society of West Indies and Planters and Merchants, opposed to the termination of the Caribbean slave trade and abolition.

He invested his wealth in transforming a Palladium villa at Standlynch in Wiltshire to an elegant classical country home, adding a north and south wing, a library, an imposing portico and a pavillion. Doric columns and sculpted ceilings adorned the building. On his death in 1814, he was said to be one of the wealthiest men in Britain. On his death, Standlynch Park was purchased by the government and presented to Earl Nelson, the brother of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lost his life in his service to the nation against Napoleon Bonaparte. Earl Nelson made the point to Parliament that what was an earl without an estate? Eventually Parliament agreed to purchase Standlynch as a permanent tribute to Horatio Nelson, requiring that it be renamed Trafalgar Park.

Although Henry Dawkins was buried on a family plantation in 1744, his remains and those of his wife, Elizabeth, were reinterred along with those of his father's in St Paul's Anglican Church in Clarendon in 1922. Their gravestones can still be seen beneath the carpeted central aisle.

Upon Emancipation, Dawkins' heirs were awarded a share of 10,000 pounds for the slaves of two estates in Trelawny. They continued to prosper in Britain and their last Jamaican property was only sold off 90 years ago.

Three of Henry's sons had entered Parliament and fought strenuously against the abolition of slavery. Before it was abolished, his brother, George Hay Dawkins Pennant, signed a circular which emphasised that "the speedy annihilation of slavery would be attended with devastation of the West Indian Colonies ... with inevitable distress and misery to the black population".

The Dawkinses' past came to haunt them in 2012 when the British press took aim at Richard Dawkins, who was railing against the evils of religion, superstition, intolerance and suffering. When his ancestral past was revealed, he said that it had nothing to do with him. He argued "that probably about one in 512 of my genes comes from Henry Dawkins".

To this, Esther Stanford-Xosei, a vice-chairman of the Pan-African Reparations Committee in Europe, responded, "There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity."

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.