In taxation records of the mid 18th century, one of the most valuable properties on High Street was a house and malthouse owned by Mr Courtin, probably at No. 16 or 18. The family were associated with the property from at least 1751, first in the name of Mr. Courtin and then from 1758, Mrs Courtin. In 1768, the tax list reads ‘Occupiers of Capt. Courtin’s House and Malthouse (R. Allen)’, when the premises was home to Richard Allen, ironmonger. When I was originally studying the records, I could not find anything out about the Courtin family but I have since come across a Captain Thomas Courtin who worked for the Jolliffe family of merchants.
The main area of activity for Poole merchants was the Newfoundland salt cod trade, which brought them into contact with many branches of international trade. The prime quality salt cod was sold mainly in southern Europe but the cheapest grade was sold to plantation owners in the West Indies and the American colonies to feed their slaves. For salt, the merchants traded with the Cape Verde Islands, 350 miles off the coast of West Africa which were also a centre for trading slaves. A network of trade routes was established between Poole, the Cape Verdes, the Mediterranean and the colonies of Newfoundland, Barbados and South Carolina.
A few Poole merchants undoubtedly carried slaves on these voyages. In 1722, the Barfoot brothers made a voyage to Barbados where they took on board 90 gallons of rum and 24 slaves for transport to Charleston. This re-export of slaves was a low risk way of getting a toe-hold in the trade and establishing useful contacts. However it seems to have been several decades before the Barfoots re-entered the trade. In the 1750s they sent three ships over two years to Bence Island in what is now Sierra Leone where Scottish merchant Richard Oswald ran a slave trading post. The Barfoot ships brought building materials for the trading post and then took on slaves for their voyage to Charleston. In the mid 18th century Charleston was a busy port trading in produce from local plantations such as rice, indigo, cotton and tobacco, all crops worked by slaves who were consequently in great demand. By 1770 the city was fourth largest port in the colonies after Boston, New York and Philadelphia, with a population of 11,000, over half of them slaves.
William Barfoot’s success in these and other ventures allowed him to acquire the most magnificent house in the High Street (only half of which is visible today because of later building). The Jolliffes were another Poole merchant family who traded with the American colonies. In 1721 at the age of 23, William Jolliffe had sailed his own ship Jolliffe’s Adventure to Carolina and in following years the family continued to trade regularly with the colony. Their rising prosperity enabled them to build a fine mansion around 1730 in West Street.
Between 1751 and 1760, Jolliffe ships made nine slave voyages from Bence Island to Charleston. In 1759, for instance, a Jolliffe ship sailing for Africa was reported to contain chests of arrangoes (normally beads of cornelian, in this case said to be glass imitations). In 1760 the Molly owned by William Jolliffe was preparing to sail to Africa carrying 30 barrels of gunpowder, 50 niccannees (lengths of cotton) and 3 bandanoes (lengths of silk or cotton handkerchiefs). These were all goods regularly traded for slaves.
Another player in this story, Henry Laurens, was a rich Charleston merchant and slave trader with contacts on both sides of the Atlantic, Richard Oswald being one of his many business associates. In his correspondence he noted the comings and goings of ships, including Poole ships, into the port. In 1748, for instance he mentioned the arrival of the snow, Jenny (master, William Reed) and the Nancy (master, Thomas Courtin), both from Poole. In June 1755, the brigantine John and Betsey left Charleston bound for Poole. Many of these vessels would be bringing salt cod from Newfoundland and taking on cargos of rice, indigo or other local produce, but a few brought slaves. In August 1755, Laurens noted: ‘here is now one of the Gambia vessels arriv’d, the Elizabeth of Poole, Capt Hunt who brings only 112 or 15 slaves. She went for 170 but could not purchase the whole’. The Elizabeth had prospects of selling her cargo at a good profit as according to Laurens ‘the Indigo Planters whose crops are good just now [are] at their wits end for more Slaves.’ Other references show that the vessel was quite a regular visitor to Charleston carrying slaves.
In the course of business, Henry Laurens became acquainted with Thomas Courtin, now master of the Woolf, belonging to William Jolliffe. In 1763, Laurens commissioned Courtin to oversee the building of a ship for him in Poole since he could not find any shipwrights to undertake the task in Charleston ‘or import workers from England for a single vessel’. The ship, to be called the Flora, was to be ‘of about 700 barrels burthen and as well built as possible, having an eye to profit’. The Flora was launched in 1764 and began her pattern of trading voyages with Courtin as master. Unfortunately, Laurens and Courtin eventually disagreed about money matters and he was replaced by Captain Kelly in 1768. Thomas Courtin died suddenly in Charleston in 1770 as master of the brigantine Polly, just arrived from Newfoundland.
In 1774, Laurens was in Europe to arrange for his children’s education. After visiting Hampshire with his eldest son John, he ‘carried out a long concerted plan into execution and went to Poole’. One of his purposes was to enquire about the freight of Swanage stone for facing a wharf, there being no stone within many miles of Charleston. Laurens father and son ‘were well received by Several Merchants there and in less than 24 hours accomplished all that I could wish’. During his time in Poole, Laurens visited Peter Jolliffe junior, perhaps in his West Street house and met Mrs. Jolliffe and other members of the family as mentioned in a letter from London conveying his ‘respectful Compliments’ to his host.
In spite of the keenness of the Poole merchants to do business, Henry Laurens was not destined to get his Swanage stone. The previous year, hotheads in Boston had demonstrated the American colonies’ increasing disaffection from the mother country and its taxation by throwing a shipment of tea into the harbour. Thirteen colonies, including South Carolina, formed a Continental Congress and seized control from the colonial governments. Now Laurens was obliged to write to Poole that ‘our American friends have resolved against Importing Goods from this Country.’
In February 1775, Poole gained some notoriety when it petitioned Parliament in support of a Bill to restrict the trade of the American colonists to Britain and the British West Indies. Merchant Benjamin Lester was one of those who supported this and a further petition in March in favour of banning New England from the Newfoundland fishery. This provoked a furious response from South Carolina which was printed in the English newspapers. It was a far cry from the days of amicable trading between Poole and the colony.
Opinion in Poole was also strongly divided. In September, ‘the Mayor, Burgesses and Principal Inhabitants’ agreed to an address in favour of the Government and its coercive measures, again supported by Benjamin Lester and his brother, Isaac. The following month there was a meeting in favour of peace with the colonists, chaired by Peter Jolliffe junior. The meeting decided that the previous petition had been improperly obtained. Another petition was produced in support of peaceful measures, signed by 144 inhabitants and presented to the King by Poole’s opposition M.P., Joshua Mauger. A vigorous and often acrimonious debate continued in the pages of the press.
In the colonies the war had already begun and was to continue for seven years. In 1780, after a six week siege, Charleston was taken by the British with the surrender of about 5,000 troops. Britain had secured the most important town and port of the south but the war as a whole proved disastrous for the home country. At war with France, Spain and the Netherlands as well as the colonists, Britain found herself fighting on many fronts across the world. In 1782, Parliament voted to end the war and grant the colonists their independence. One of the negotiators on the American side was Henry Laurens and on the British side was his old business associate, Richard Oswald.
In August 1783, Laurens was briefly in Poole again: ‘On the 2d. at 9 am. we were within six Leagues of Poole in Dorsetshire. The Wind being very favorable, I quitted the Ship, went on board a small Hoy bound to Poole & urged Capt. Barney to proceed on his Voyage, leaving my excellent Post Carriage to take its fate on the Ship’s Deck in preference to the risque of delaying him a single hour.’ Laurens was on his way to an important meeting with Charles James Fox in London. The Treaty of Paris was signed with the new United States the following month. Henry’s son, John had been killed in the fighting in 1782. John had always believed that Americans could not justify fighting for their freedom while continuing to own slaves and after the war, his father freed all of his 260 slaves.
In Poole as elsewhere, opinions on slavery changed towards the end of the 18th century. In 1788 a committee was formed to urge the abolition of the trade under the chairmanship of the Rector, the Rev. William Davis and with the support of many of the town’s leading Quakers.
In his 1788 history of Poole, Joseph Moore summed up the town’s involvement: ‘About 30 years ago, some attempts were made by adventurers from this port, to establish a trade to the coast of Africa, and several voyages were undertaken, and the returns made in slaves, which were carried to the West Indies and Carolina, but the hand of Providence interposed, and put an end to a traffick so repugnant to the dictates of humanity, and to the principles of true religion.’