In Plain Sight – Transatlantic slavery and Devon


In 2018, RAMM began planning an exhibition that drew on its collections and local connections to explore the 18th-century transatlantic trade in enslaved people. The content created and approach taken involved museum staff and volunteers and a host of partners who sat on an advisory panel, carried out research and development work, and produced outstanding new art and films. Early in 2020, the team settled on the exhibition title: ‘In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon’. It was chosen to remind us that the stories were not new. They had always been there if you cared to look.


After the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in autumn 2021, work resumed on the project and the exhibition opened its doors to the public in January 2022. Over the course of four months around 40,000 people visited the gallery and attended a lively programme of special events. Evaluation was carried out through questionnaires, debriefing sessions and visitors’ comment cards. Analysis showed the exhibition achieved its intentions: almost everyone who came learned something new about the transatlantic slave trade.


Based on feedback, RAMM agreed that the information from ‘In Plain Sight’ should survive beyond the length of the exhibition. On this page, you will find links to the full exhibition text, videos and articles that explore biographies and local stories in more depth. The exhibition research was not comprehensive and, no doubt, many more of the museum’s 19th-century collectors benefitted from profits generated from trading enslaved people. Much work remains to incorporate the knowledge gained from the exhibition into RAMM’s online content and permanent gallery displays.

We would like to warn visitors that the exhibition includes upsetting content and contemporary accounts with language which is offensive and discriminatory. We do not believe it is possible to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade without including such material.

The making of ‘In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon’.
This documentary film explores the concept and development of the exhibition with the Advisory Panel who guided and steered RAMM’s approach, and artist Joy Gregory who talks about the ‘The Sweetest Thing’, the textile that she created as part of her commission for the show. Join RAMM’s curators and conservators as they offer a ‘behind the scenes’ look at objects from the collection with links to plantation products, or to stories uncovered by researchers from the Legacies of Devon Slave-ownership Group and Dr Jake Richards.

Explore the exhibition and resources by expanding the sections below.

The trade in enslaved human beings across the Atlantic Ocean took place over four centuries. Estimates suggest more than 12 million people were captured in Africa and shipped to European colonies in the Americas. Across the centuries, enslaved people resisted their enslavement and fought for their freedom. Most large-scale emancipations took place in the 19th century.

In the 18th century, Britain was the largest slave trading nation in Europe. The profits generated from slave-trading and slave-ownership resulted in the wealthiest slave owners enjoying affluent lifestyles in Britain. But slave ownership was not exclusively for the rich. Many less wealthy Britons inherited small numbers of enslaved people. The trade had an impact on working people too, in poorly paid jobs in industrial mills and factories.

The enormous economic and social impact of trafficking humans across the Atlantic is evident not just in the major slave ports of Bristol or Liverpool, but also in cities and towns throughout Britain, hidden in plain sight for us all to see. This exhibition focuses on RAMM’s collections which provide tangible evidence of the slave trade in Devon and Exeter.

This project has been a collaboration from the outset. RAMM has been helped, guided and encouraged by many people from the Exeter community and beyond.

The Advisory Panel

The panel was formed in 2019 to help steer RAMM’s approach to this culturally sensitive and historically complex subject.

  • Crystal Carter – Researcher, Devon Development Education
  • Dr Lara Choksey – Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures, University College London
  • Sue Giles – Former Senior Curator of World Cultures, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
  • Kalkidan Legesse – Social entrepreneur, leadership consultant, founder of Sancho’s and Shwap
  • CK Martin – RAMM
  • Chukumeka Maxwell BSc – Founder of Action to Prevent Suicide CIC and Founder of Goodwill in Action to Prevent Suicide CIO
  • Malcolm Richards – Educator, independent researcher at the University of Exeter, co-founder of Bookbag, a new independent bookshop in Exeter
  • Dave Samuels – Storyteller, school science teacher, mentor, sports coach, Devon Development Education
  • Dr Laura Sandy – Senior Lecturer in the History of Slavery, Department of History, University of Liverpool and Director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS)
  • Dr John Sealey – Lecturer, filmmaker and director at Fabian’s Film
  • Dr Joseph Sweetman – Senior Lecturer, Co-lead for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion, Psychology, University of Exeter


The LDSG are a small group of researchers who are interested in investigating the historic links between Devon and transatlantic slavery. They work under the umbrella organisation, Devon Development Education, which has been working with local schools and communities for over 20 years. Particular thanks go to Gillian Allen, Crystal Carter, Di Cooper, Sue Errington, Lucy MacKeith, Joanna Traynor and Peter Wingfield-Digby for their research which helped to shape the exhibition.

  • Dr Jake Subryan Richards, Assistant Professor, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science

Jake Subryan Richards is a historian of law, empire and the African diaspora in the Atlantic world. During his time as a Cambridge PhD student, Jake researched the experience of liberated people on the west coast of Africa during the era of the suppression of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. This research linked his work to James Bandinel and to Reverend Henry Townsend, who both donated objects to RAMM.

Len Pole co-curated the exhibition ‘Human Cargo – the Transatlantic Slave Trade, its Abolition and Contemporary Legacies in Plymouth & Devon’ which was shown at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery in 2007 in partnership with RAMM. Len kindly allowed access to his research for the timeline in this exhibition.

  • RAMM also wishes to acknowledge:

The Devon and Exeter Institution
The Westcountry Study Centre
Devon Development Education – Windrush in Devon Group
Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, University College London

Commissioned Artwork

Joy Gregory has developed an artistic practice which is concerned with social and political issues, with particular reference to history and cultural differences in contemporary society. Born in the UK to Jamaican parents, she is fascinated by the impact of European history and colonisation on global perceptions of identity, memory, folk and traditional knowledge.

8th Sense Media is a creative media production company located in Bristol. They were commissioned in 2020 to produce a film about RAMM’s ‘Portrait of an African’ painting. Contributors to the film include:

  • Louisa Adjoa Parker – Writer and poet
  • Peter Brathwaite – Opera singer and BBC Broadcaster
  • Sue Giles – Former Senior Curator of World Cultures, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
  • Joy Gregory – Artist
  • Lucy MacKeith – Former RAMM Education Officer, researcher and presenter on Black History in Devon
  • Chukumeka Maxwell BSc – Founder of Action to Prevent Suicide CIC and Founder of Goodwill in Action to Prevent Suicide CIO
  • Dr Julien Parsons – Senior Collections Officer and Content Lead, RAMM
  • Professor Melissa Percival – Associate Dean of Global Humanities and Professor of French, Art History and Visual Culture, University of Exeter
  • Dr Laura Sandy – Senior Lecturer in the History of Slavery, Department of History, University of Liverpool and Director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS)
  • Samenua Sesher – Founder and director of Museum of Colour; trainer, coach and consultant
  • Nahem Shoa – Artist
  • Joanna Traynor – Writer

RAMM Showcase exhibition

  • Nicola Thomas, Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography
  • Ian Cook, Professor of Cultural Geography, University of Exeter

Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook run the undergraduate ‘Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies’ module at Exeter University. Students taking the module in 2019 researched and produced their own ‘blue plaques’, revealing histories of slavery and empire around the city. Photographs of the some of the plaques were shown on Showcase, our digital exhibition platform. They are now included here.

On the west coast of Africa people looked inland for trade. They established routes along rivers and footpaths to connect with traders far away, such as north of the Sahara Desert. Middlemen brought highly valued ivory, gold and cowrie shells back to the coast.

By contrast, coastal communities in Western Europe developed sea routes to extend their reach. In search of African riches, Portuguese sailors began to travel to western Africa in the 1400s. As well as ivory and gold, they began to buy people – enslaved Africans – and to use unpaid, captive labourers in Europe and in the islands of Madeira, San Tomé and Cape Verde off the African coast where sugar was grown.

Europeans soon discovered that sugar grew well in the Americas too. At first, they used indigenous Carib and Taino people as labour on sugar plantations. These communities had no immunity to European diseases and work conditions were brutal.  Indigenous people died in great numbers. Soon enslaved Africans were brought in by Europeans to replace them.

As profits grew, so did the demand for enslaved people. Traders on the coast of Africa now carried out slave raids far inland, armed with European weapons. They had a devastating impact on African people and their cultures, leading to centuries of violent conflict between communities.

Map showing the volume and direction of the transatlantic slave trade
This map summarises the many different routes by which enslaved people were taken from Africa to the Americas and
Europe. The numbers are based on estimates of the total transatlantic slave trade over four centuries.
From a map published in Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson, courtesy of Yale University Press

Stone adze head

Acquired by Major R. Stuart, August 1878, Haiti

Basalt adzes like this were used by indigenous Carib islanders before the Europeans arrived in the Caribbean. The label suggests that this one survived and was adopted for another use by a descendent of an enslaved African. The language used by the Victorian collector is no longer accepted.

Colour photograph of a teardrop-shaped stone adze. The label reads 'Originally a Haitian Indian’s hatchet: later a Talisman of a Negro sorcerer in Haiti. R Stuart. August 1878. 94.2.3.'

Two shell axes

From Dominica, Windward Islands

Although a small Carib population remains on Dominica, these shell axes were produced by their ancestors who lived on the island in large numbers before Europeans arrived and enslaved them. The axes were crafted from the great conch shell (Strombus gigas) and were probably used in cultivation.

At first, the Portuguese and Spanish were the dominant slave trading countries. In 1660, Britain’s royal family and London merchants established the ‘Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa’, later known as the Royal African Company. Their ships carried goods from Europe to exchange for enslaved Africans on the coast. African traders exchanged the captives for firearms, brass pots, cowrie shells, cloth and manillas (a form of money usually made of copper alloys).

Colour photograph of a group of manillas and two groups of cowrie shells
African traders exchanged the captives for firearms, brass pots, cowrie shells, cloth and manillas

Traders imprisoned the enslaved in coastal forts until a full boat load was ready. This might take months. Then they forced the captives into the ship’s hold and chained them side-by-side and lying down. There was little sanitation, ventilation or light, and disease spread easily. Many people died. The ship’s crew threw dead bodies overboard and the ship’s owners could claim insurance for the losses. The crew sometimes abused the women captives. To keep the enslaved fit enough to work at the end of the two-month crossing, the captains forced people to exercise or ‘dance’ on deck.

In the face of these pitiless conditions and dehumanising treatment, enslaved Africans developed their own cultures including stories, songs, rituals, music, medicine, religions, and family names and values.

The exhibition included a time-lapse showing the movement of 31,043 slave ships across the Atlantic from 1660-1866. Running time: 3 minutes 30 seconds. It is available on the Slave Voyages website. Each circle represents a single voyage and is sized according to the number of enslaved people on board. The colour code represents the nationality of the slave vessel.

Money cowrie

Monetaria moneta


This species of cowrie was highly valued as currency in Africa. Trade cowries were collected far away in the Maldive Islands, Indian Ocean. They were then shipped to Europe where traders could buy them in great quantities and use them in exchange for enslaved people on the African coast.

colour photograph of
Colour photograph of four small grey shells with a yellow ring in the centre on a blue background

Gold-ringed cowrie

Monetaria annulus


African dealers would exchange the captive people they had for many European goods such as guns, pans, textiles, beads and knives. However, cowrie shells were consistently valued as currency.

In recent times the image of the cowrie shell has become a motif that celebrates African culture and African American identity.

Copper alloy manillas

Like cowries, manillas were used as currency to buy enslaved people. They were made of copper alloy cast in moulds. Thousands were manufactured in many European cities, including Exeter where there was a foundry in St Thomas. In 1505 an enslaved African could be bought for 10 manillas in Calabar (Nigeria).

Photograph of 12 manillas

The journey across the Atlantic from Africa to the colonies in the Americas was known as the ‘Middle Passage’. There are very few descriptions of the crossing by people who had previously been enslaved. The books by Cugoano and Equiano were instrumental in the movement for abolition of the slave trade.

These contemporary accounts of life on board slave ships are distressing and paint a vivid picture of the horrors of human trafficking.

The ‘Middle Passage’

‘Middle Passage’: Excerpts from Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano Running time: 6 minutes, 47 seconds. The transcript is available.

To put an end to the wickedness of slavery and merchandizing of men, and to prevent murder, extirpation and dissolution, is what every righteous nation ought to seek after

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (c.1757-1781)

The cruel treatment of enslaved men, women and children continued when slaving ships arrived in the Americas and West Indies. The agents of slave-trading companies sold the enslaved people to plantation owners with no regard to their family groups. The enslaver often branded each enslaved person they had purchased with a red-hot iron to show ownership.

The lives of enslaved people were unrelentingly brutal. On a sugar plantation, the overseers forced them to plant, nurture and harvest the cane by hand in intense tropical heat. The cane was then carried to a mill to be crushed and the sweet liquid was boiled. Enslaved workers were in danger from accidents and from the violence of overseers.  They were often beaten, raped, starved and psychologically traumatised.

There were few hours of rest. When people returned to their living quarters they might be able to grow some plants for food and wash and sew their clothing.

The inhumane regime on plantations led to a high death rate among enslaved people. The high mortality combined with soaring profits meant that the demand for enslaved labourers grew.

Lace bark

Lagetta lagetto

Before 1921, Jamaica

Lace bark cloth could be made from the inner bark of the Laghetto tree which was native to Jamaica. The inner bark is a mesh of fibres. Enslaved people used the cloth to make their own clothes and express their identity. Ropes, whips and hammocks were also made of lace bark.

Colour photograph of lacebark fibres

Africans had long resisted capture and enslavement. When kidnapped, they would fight to escape, and aboard ship they might rebel and reject food. Suicide and infanticide were desperate expressions of a refusal to be owned and controlled.

On plantations enslaved people might work slowly on purpose as a form of protest. But plantation managers used cruel and violent methods of punishment to keep them working. If an enslaved person was killed in the British West Indies it was not considered to be murder.

Enslaved people sometimes managed to escape from plantation life. In Jamaica in 1655 about 1,500 people ran away to the mountains. They joined with surviving indigenous Taino people and became known as Maroons (fugitives). They fought oppression for nearly a century and finally won freedom in 1739.

In French-held Saint Domingue a revolt led to permanent freedom. The revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, eventually resulted in a new independent state, Haiti, in 1804. Haiti was the second colony in the Americas to gain independence from a European empire (after the United States) and the first one to reject slavery.

While the names of some leaders are known, countless unnamed people died in defiance, resisting enslavement and insisting on their humanity.

In British-held Jamaica and Demerara-Essequibo (now Guyana) there were around 50 major revolts between 1731 and 1832 alone. Some of the rebellions recorded in the Caribbean are represented with dates on the map below. There were too many to show all of them here.

Map of the central portion of America and islands to the east showing some of the rebellions by enslaved people between 1731 and 1832. 1735, 1736, 1831: Antigua. 1649, 1675, 1692, 1816: Barbados. 1729: Cuba. 1823: Demerara. 1791: Dominica. 1656, 1795: Guadeloupe. 1552, 1679, 1789: Haiti. 1655, 1690, 1730, 1742, 1745, 1760, 1795, 1815, 1823, 1824, 1831: Jamaica. 1752: Martinique. 1761: Nevis. 1639, 1833: St Kitts. 1795: St Lucia. 1763, 1774, 1801: Tobago 1795: Trinidad.

1735, 1736, 1831: Antigua

1649, 1675, 1692, 1816: Barbados

1729: Cuba

1823: Demerara

1791: Dominica

1656, 1795: Guadeloupe

1552, 1679, 1789: Haiti

1655, 1690, 1730, 1742, 1745, 1760, 1795, 1815, 1823, 1824, 1831: Jamaica

1752: Martinique

1761: Nevis

1639, 1833: St Kitts

1795: St Lucia

1763, 1774, 1801: Tobago 1795: Trinidad

RAMM’s collection includes broken moulds and syrup pots found by archaeologists on sites in Exeter and Topsham. They are clues to a major sugar-refining industry that once existed in the city, which became one of the largest in Britain. The taste for sugar in Britain drove an increasing demand for enslaved labour in the Americas.

In the 1500s sugar was only available to very rich people. Sugar cane was grown in Mediterranean countries and the islands off West Africa, where enslaved Africans were used as labour. When Europeans began new plantations in the Americas and Caribbean they continued to use enslaved people and were able to produce much more sugar. This meant the cost went down, and by the 1600s ordinary people were enjoying sweet treats.

After 1700, sugar was in great demand as a sweetener for the new, fashionable drinks of tea and coffee. Booming sales and the use of slave labour allowed some sugar planters to become very rich and powerful.  Plantation owners who returned to Britain could afford grand homes and promoted their commercial interests in Parliament.

In the 1600s, Exeter became a major centre for sugar refining. There had been a refinery at the Bishop’s Palace in the 1650s and between 1680 and 1720 production of refined sugar increased. Only Bristol and Liverpool were busier than Exeter in the sugar trade at that time.

This engraving depicts the interior of a sugar curing house with a white man in the middle preparing a conical pot to store among the rows and columns of pots behind him.
‘Sugar Refinery’. From Denis Diderot & Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (ed.), Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers, vol. 1, (Paris, 1762), plate VI. Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora,]

Samuel Buttall, who had a sugar plantation in South Carolina, opened a refinery in Topsham in 1684. Charles Buttall, his brother, also supplied the factory from his plantation in Barbados. Another site has been excavated in Exeter’s Goldsmith Street.

A house called The Retreat was built on the site of the Topsham refinery. In the 1780s it belonged to Sir Alexander Hamilton who had a sugar plantation in Grenada. The Retreat can still be seen today.

Photograph of a tall silver coffee pot with a wooden handle
Silver coffee pot. Made by John Webber, Plymouth hallmark, 1724-25

Coffee had been common in Turkey and Arabia before it was adopted in Britain in the 1660s. It had a bitter taste and generous amounts of sugar were used to sweeten it. In a wealthy household in the 1700s, an elegant coffee pot like this one might be used.
Photograph of a tall silver pot with a wooden handle for serving hot chocolate
Silver chocolate pot. Made by Pentecost Symons, Exeter hallmark, 1741-42.

Chocolate is made from the cacao bean, first found in South America. The paste made from the beans was bitter and thick. Chocolate was made more palatable using sugar from the plantations. The finial (top) of this pot can be removed to allow the thick drinking chocolate to be stirred.
Photograph of an elegant silver jug
Silver cream jug. Made by Jason Holt, Exeter hallmark, 1784-85.

Traditionally, Chinese people drank black tea, but British people liked to add cream to their popular sweetened drink. This called for new designs to be included in a tea service. This cream jug is designed in the neo-classical style popular at the end of the 1700s.
Photograph of a silver teapot with a wooden hanlde
Silver tea pot. Made by William Pearce, Exeter hallmark, 1796-97.

Tea was scarcer than coffee in Britain in the 1600s. Then, when the East India Company began importing tea direct from Canton after 1713, it became the more popular drink. This pot has a pineapple finial (top). A pineapple was a rarity at the time, reflecting successful trade ventures and luxury.
Photograph of a silver sugar basket
Silver sugar basket. Probably made by Richard Ferris, 1800.

A sugar bowl or basket was another essential in a fine tea service. Broken pieces of sugar could be taken from it with tongs. By the time this sugar bowl was made, abolitionists were calling for British people to refuse to use sugar grown by enslaved people.
Photograph of ornate silver sugar tongs
Silver sugar tongs. Made by Hugh Beard, 1750-60.

These scissor-styled tongs allowed people to delicately add sugar pieces to their drinks. The polite formality of taking sugar in tea makes a stark contrast with the appalling conditions in which sugar was produced on the slave plantations.
Photograph of a silver cream jug with a silver gilt interior
Silver cream jug. Probably made by Richard Ferris, about 1800.

By the time this jug was made, tea-drinking was common, although most families could not afford fine silver like this piece. Sugar grown by enslaved people, Chinese tea and British dairy products had made tea-drinking popular. Exeter and Devon silversmiths produced fine silverware to capitalise on this.
Silver sugar casters. Made by John Elston, Exeter, about 1711 (left), and Samuel Wood, London about 1754.
Sugar was commonly sold in large blocks known as sugar loaves. But it could also be ground finely enough to be ‘cast’ over drinks and foodstuffs. Only the wealthy could afford this. These sugar casters show that some Exeter people had become very rich by the early 1700s.
Sugar caster. Made by Milon Melun, Falmouth, about 1733.
Colour photograph of a small, glass-lidded box containing two labels identifying the contents. A pile of cocoa beans is in front of the box.
Cocoa beans (Theobroma cacao). Collected before 1899 in Tropical America.

Carl Linneaus named cacao Theobroma, ‘the food of the gods’. Known to the Aztecs, cacao was brought to Europe by the Spanish. It was served as chocolate, sweetened with sugar. In the 1600s chocolate houses were drinking dens before coffee houses became popular.
Etching showing buildings in Exeter including Mol's Coffee House
Mol’s Coffee House. Frances Marjorie Hayman, etching 1930-50.

From the 1660s coffee houses were a focus for men to gather and discuss trade, politics and culture. They were places to smoke tobacco and drink coffee and rum made with sugar – all reliant on plantations using enslaved labour. Mol’s coffee house can still be seen in Exeter’s Cathedral Close.
Colour photograph of King George III's wax seal. This side shows shows enslaved people on a plantation taking sugar cane to be processed in a crushing mill
Wax seal of George III. About 1760-1820.

One side of this important seal shows enslaved people on a plantation taking sugar cane to be processed in a crushing mill. The other side shows George III’s coat of arms. By the 1760s taxation on imported sugar was enough to maintain the whole British navy. This highlights the important role of enslaved people in Britain’s economic success.
colour photograph of four clay pipe fragments
Clay tobacco pipes. Excavated from near Holloway Street, Exeter. 1610-1640.

These are very early pipes and were made at the same time as enslaved Africans were first taken to Virginia to work on tobacco plantations. The small bowls show that tobacco was still quite expensive. As the popularity of smoking grew, ever more enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic.
Colour photograph of 7 clay pipe fragments
Clay tobacco pipes. Excavated from the Cathedral Close, Exeter. 1690-1720.

Coffee Houses, such as Mol’s, were places where Exeter’s merchants met to discuss deals, including the import of goods produced by enslaved people, over coffee and a pipe of tobacco. These pipes were probably the rubbish from a coffee house.
Colour photograph of a white clay pipe bowl on a blue background. It depicts a kneeling person that resembles a well-known image of an enslaved African.
Clay tobacco pipe bowl with kneeling figure, 1787-1807.

This bowl from a clay tobacco pipe depicts a kneeling person. It resembles a well-known image of an enslaved African that Josiah Wedgwood made for the Society of the Abolition of Slavery. It read ‘Am I not a man and Brother?’ and became a highly effective propaganda tool.
Colour photograph showing a pile of terracotta sugar refining vessel fragments
Fragments of sugar-refining vessels. Excavated from Goldsmith Street, Exeter, Bishop’s Palace, Exeter, Princesshay, Exeter, Greenland, Topsham, The Retreat Topsham, Globefield Road, Topsham. Between 1640-1720.

These are some pieces of vessels that were used for sugar-refining in Exeter and Topsham between 1640 and 1720. Analysis of this pottery tells us that the syrup pots came from kilns in Somerset but that sugar cones were more specialised and came from Portugal.
Colour photograph showing three terracotta sugar refining vessels - they look like urns with upturned cones inside
Replica sugar-refining vessels Conical sugar moulds and syrup pots.

Dark, semi-refined sugar was sent from the plantations. To prepare it for sale it was melted and clarified in large pans, poured into ceramic moulds and left to crystallise. Any remaining sugar syrup was drained out into syrup pots in which the moulds stood. This could be made into rum.
colour photograph of a sugar loaf: a cone (approximately 30 cm tall) of solid sugar. It is brown in colour.
Sugar cone
After sugar had crystallised in the ceramic cone moulds it was refined, or whitened, by repeatedly pouring a solution of pipe clay through it. This gave the sugar a whiter appearance. Eventually the sugar cones could be removed from the moulds and tied up in blue sugar-paper.

Many dresses and lace samples in RAMM’s costume collection are made of cotton. But do you think of enslaved people when they are displayed? In the 18th and much of the 19th century, Britain relied on imports of cotton that enslaved people had grown on plantations.

From the earliest days of the American colonies, plantation owners used enslaved Africans to grow cotton and tobacco. Both crops were labour-intensive and the work was extremely hard. When a new invention of 1739 made removing the seeds from the cotton bolls quicker, growing cotton became more profitable than tobacco. It was America’s most valuable export. By 1810, half of British cotton imports came from the United States, the vast majority grown by enslaved people. The economy of the Southern States relied on cotton and so these states resisted calls to end the slave trade and slavery. Eventually, the Northern States’ victory in the American Civil War in 1865 led to the end of slave ownership. Despite this, people on plantations still lived in poor conditions.

There are accounts of bales of raw cotton being sold in Exeter at this time, but sales were small compared to Liverpool, where cotton was processed in the enormous Lancashire mills nearby. Devon was not industrialised like other parts of Britain and manufacturing mills were rare.

Robert Tripping opened a cotton mill at Trew’s Weir in Exeter in 1739. He had 141 looms for making calicoes. Enslaved people probably grew the raw cotton processed at Trew’s Weir Mill. The business struggled and closed in 1807. The mill became a paper mill in 1834 and it is now a residential building. John Heathcoat, who opened a machine lace mill in Tiverton in 1816, briefly considered the site for his business. Heathcoat’s cotton was probably slave-grown at that time too.

Cotton was used for handmade lace from 1822 so it is probable that Devon’s lace-makers also used cotton cultivated by enslaved people.

This image shows enslaved people working at various tasks in the production of cotton.
‘Rustic Economy: Cotton Culture and Cleaning’. From Denis Diderot & Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (ed.), Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers, vol. 1, (Paris, 1762), fig. 1. Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora,
Photograph of a sprig of white lace leaves and flowers on a dark purple background
Honiton Lace sprig. Made by the workshop of Charlotte Treadwin, Exeter, 1861.

Lace makers originally used flax, which made linen thread. Strong cotton thread became available in the 1830s. Much of this cotton had been grown by enslaved people. The American Civil War brought slavery in the Southern states to an end in 1868. This cotton lace sprig was made around 1861.
photograph of the fluffy seed head of a cotton plant
Cotton seed head (Gossypium barbadense). Collected in Mexico.

Cotton is a soft, fluffy fibre that forms around the cotton plant’s seeds. The fibre can be spun into yarn and woven into textiles. Around 1790 the textiles industry in England demanded cotton fibre to be imported from the Americas in large quantities. Enslaved people on plantations suffered as a consequence.
Photograph of a white cotton dress, mounted on a mannequin, on a dark blue background.
Cotton dress, possibly from a wedding trousseau. From the Cotton family of Quex Park, Kent, About 1828-30.

This lightweight dress was made at a time when cotton was still being grown by enslaved people on American plantations. Raw cotton was processed in British cotton mills. The mechanised factories of Lancashire proliferated in the 1820s. The dress has fine hand sewn embroidery on the collar and cuffs. More images of this dress are available.

Crystal carter shares her research on cotton and links to collections at RAMM.

An embroidery and a painting in RAMM’s collections depict Africans who were brought to Britain at the time of the transatlantic slave trade. While many were made to work as unpaid ‘servants’ or domestic labourers, others became free and were influential writers, musicians, traders and abolitionists.

Not all enslaved Africans and their descendants lived across the Atlantic. Some people were brought to Europe to work for wealthy families. It became fashionable to have a black footman or a black child to work in the home. Many family portraits from the period show black people dressed in the livery or uniform of the people they had to serve. One of RAMM’s most interesting embroidered textiles from the mid-18th century shows a black servant holding a parasol over a finely dressed woman. It came from a grand house near Exeter called Combesatchfield.

Colour photograph of an embroidered hanging. It shows scenes from the Bible as well as ships, deer, swans and a church. A finely dressed woman is accompanied by a servant holding a parasol.
Section from an embroidered panel. Silk thread on linen Probably from Combesatchfield, Silverton, Devon, 1740-1760.

This fragile embroidery shows scenes from the Bible as well as ships, deer, swans and a church. More photographs are available.
Colour photograph of a detail from an embroidered hanging. It shows a finely dressed woman is accompanied by a servant holding a parasol.
The embroidery also shows a finely dressed woman accompanied by a servant holding a parasol. Black servants appear in fashionable painted portraits from around this time but it is unusual to have an embroidered record.

Enslaved workers were sometimes able to escape from their workplace or to buy their freedom. Two examples of former enslaved people who became free were Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. They became well-known through their writing but there were many other people whose names are harder to find. Most lived in large English cities. The portrait in RAMM’s collection which is currently known as ‘Portrait of an African’ may show one such person.

Only a few black people who were living in Devon at the time of the slave trade had their names recorded. ‘Philip Scipio… an African’ is recorded in Werrington (1784) and Katheren Blackmore was at Shute (1619). They were both ‘servants’ to local families.

Many other stories have been lost because the lives of these unpaid domestic labourers were not documented with the same attention as those of their wealthy owners. So although there has been a black presence in Devon for hundreds of years, it is very hard to calculate the number of black people who lived in the region before the 20th century.

Colour photograph of an oil painting in a gold frame. The painting is a portrait of a black man wearing a red suit.
Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit (formerly titled Portrait of an African). Artist unknown, oil on canvas, 1740-1780.

There have been many discussions about this painting’s sitter. Art historians are still exploring suggestions. It was once thought to show Olaudah Equiano or Ignatius Sancho. They were both freed people who had significant roles in London society and the abolitionist movement in the late 1700s. The painting has previously been attributed to Allan Ramsay, a prominent Scottish portrait painter. The object record for this painting has more information and is kept up to date with the latest research.

The painting in RAMM’s collection known as Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit provokes a multitude of questions. Its sitter, artist, date and meaning are all under debate at the moment. RAMM invited a selection of people to offer their views and thoughts, and commissioned a film to illustrate the many responses prompted by the enigmatic painting. 

At the time of this exhibition the portrait was titled ‘Portrait of an African’. Senior Collections Officer explains this change of title in a blog post in June 2023.

Portrait of an African, Film by Michael Jenkins

Portrait of an African, Film by Michael Jenkins, 8th Sense Media. Running time:  15 minutes 15 seconds. Created in response to the painting ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’. A full transcript is available.

Sweet as moonlight by Louisa Adjoa Parker

Sweet as moonlight by Louisa Adjoa Parker. Film by Michael Jenkins, 8th Sense Media. Running times: 3 minutes 30 seconds. Created in response to RAMM’s ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ painting. A full transcript is available.

Portrait writing by Joanna Traynor

Portrait writing by Joanna Traynor. Film by Michael Jenkins, 8th Sense Media. Running times: 5 minutes 35 seconds. Created in response to RAMM’s ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit’ painting. A full transcript is available.

From 1730 Britain became the biggest slave-trading country. Over 2.8 million enslaved Africans were transported by British traders between 1690 and 1807. British owners and investors grew rich from the profits of plantations. But many others grew wealthy from slave-trading too.

The makers of guns, metal-ware and cloth, whose goods were exchanged on the West Coast of Africa for kidnapped Africans, gained new markets. Canal builders, ship-builders, sail-makers and suppliers of ship’s provisions made money from the increasing trade. City financiers grew rich by charging interest on loans for slaving voyages and insurers made money from underwriting ships and cargo. The slave economy had impact on all parts of Britain, and not just the well-known slaving cities of Bristol, London, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Taxes from goods produced by the enslaved helped to fund Britain’s expanding empire. Wealth from plantations also contributed to the Industrial Revolution. British factories processed raw materials, such as cotton, that had been grown by enslaved people in the Americas. Increases in the supply of goods produced by enslaved labourers enabled the mechanised industries to expand. By the 19th century, workers in cities often lived in acute poverty while the new manufacturing classes bought grand houses in the countryside.

Map showing international commerce within the slave economy. Arrows show the direction of movement of goods and people. They indicate the following: Enslaved people from Africa towards America. Gold, ivory, spices and hardwoods from Africa towards Europe. Enslaved people, sugar and molasses towards North America. Fish, livestock, flour and lumber move towards the Caribbean. Rum, iron, gunpowder, cloth and tools move from North America towards Africa. Whale oil, lumber furs, rice silk, indigo and tobacco move towards the UK from North America, as do Sugar Molasses and wood from the Caribbean. Manufactured goods and luxuries move from the UK towards America. Guns, cloth, iron and beer move from the UK towards Africa.

John Swete

RAMM holds watercolours showing idyllic Devon scenes by Rev John Swete. The money that financed his life and art came from inherited sugar plantations and the ownership of enslaved people. Accounts and letters sent from the Antigua plantations reveal a world which was very different to rural Devon.

Captain Main (or Mayne) Swete from Modbury owned a 337-acre sugar plantation in Antigua. When he died in 1735, it passed to his much younger wife, Esther Swete. Esther also received land in Jamaica from a friend in London. When her only son Adrian died in 1755, Esther bequeathed the family inheritance to Adrian’s godson, John Tripe, who changed his name to Swete. In 1781 he inherited the Swete plantations in Jamaica and Antigua.

There are several documents that Esther received from her plantation manager in this exhibition. On one you can see a list of slaves and their monetary values written alongside the values of cattle and plantation equipment. Such reports are typical of their time, written to absentee plantation owners who lived in distant lands far removed from the enslaved people who created their wealth.

John Tripe was ordained as an Anglican minister. He was curate of Kenn and lived at Oxton House near Exeter. When he inherited the Swete plantation, he was free to follow his interest in houses and landscape.

Swete pulled down the old Oxton House and built a new one, also landscaping the grounds. He then embarked on tours of Devon between 1789 and 1800, looking at country houses and writing notes. He illustrated these notes with his own watercolour sketches and created 20 bound journals.

Colour photograph of a watercolour painting of tress and lawns with a grand house in the background
Oxton House, Kenton, Devon Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, 1810-11.

This sketch shows the house that John Swete built between 1781 and 1789 by using some of the money he had inherited in 1781. The family wealth came from slave plantations in Antigua. His inheritance allowed Swete to follow a passion for visiting and depicting the picturesque landscapes of Devon.
Watercolour painting of a four-sided summerhouse in a garden
Gothic Summer House at Oxton Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, After 1791.

With his inheritance from slave plantations, Swete was able to keep up with the landscaping fashions of the day. This sketch shows the Gothic summer house he had built in his garden at Oxton. Its quirky style contrasts with the classical architecture he used in his main house.
Watercolour drawing of trees in a garden
Garden at Oxton Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, 1811.

In this sketch of his garden and ornamental obelisk, Swete shows his love of picturesque features in managed landscapes. His style, framing the scene with tree trunks and branches, reflects artistic conventions of the time. Swete rarely referred to the slave plantations or enslaved labourers that allowed him so much leisure and wealth.

Devon Archives & Local Studies kindly lent RAMM several items relating to Swete:

The Retreat at Topsham, Rev John Swete. Watercolour study 1796. DHC 564M/F6/159

In 1684 Samuel Buttall, a Plymouth sugar maker, bought this site for a sugar refinery. A later house was built on the site and in the 1780s Sir Alexander Hamilton lived here. Hamilton owned sugar plantations in Grenada. In 1835, after slavery was abolished in Grenada, Hamilton’s heir received compensation for 140 enslaved people.

Lindridge House, Bishopsteignton, Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, 1795. DHC 564M/F8/133

Peter Lear was a wealthy owner of sugar plantations in Barbados. He bought and rebuilt Lindridge in 1673. Later it was owned by the Baring banking family. The Baring’s wealth came from the trading economy surrounding slave plantations. Barings opened the Devonshire Bank in Exeter in 1770.

Maristow, near Plymouth, Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, 1797. DHC 564M/F12/137

Maristow House was owned by the Modyford, Heywood and Lopes families in turn. All these families owned Jamaican estates which were run with the labour of enslaved Africans.  Henry Lopes, Lord Roborough, was a benefactor of Exeter University, and Lopes Hall and the Roborough library were named after him.

Shute House, near Axminster, Rev John Swete. Watercolour on paper, 1795. DHC 564M/F7/85

Shute was the home of the Pole family. The parish register for Colyton, Devon, records the burial ofa black servant, ‘Katheren, blackmore, servant of Sir William Pole’ on 1 June, 1619. After abolition,the Pole family of Shute received compensation for 340 enslaved people on St Kitts.

‘Main Swete’s Antigua plantations’. 1714-15. DHC 388M/E/1

These early accounts show the concerns of a plantation owner in the early 1700s.  For example, the cost of transporting enslaved people to Maryland at the top of the page. At the bottom is the cost of beef, bulls and herrings.

‘List of the negroes and their value’ at Swete Antigua plantations. Probably 1737. DHC 388M/E/3

This document shows the financial value of the enslaved people and cattle on the Swete plantations. Jacob was given the most value at £45. Old Jubbah is listed as ‘past labour’. She has no value by her name. The racist name Mulatta Hannah indicates an enslaved child with one white parent.

‘Estate of Main Swete, Deceased’. 1738-1739. DHC 388M/E/4

These pages show the accounts of the ships which conveyed the sugar from Antigua to England. At the bottom left you can see cash payments for gaoling and whipping ‘a negro…for attempting to assist a negro of Mr Dunbarr’s to get off the island’. As this demonstrates, throughout slavery enslaved people resisted their enslavement.

‘Plantation account of Maine Swete to Mr Richard Oliver’. 1741-42. DHC 388M/E/5

This page of accounts shows the cost of carpentry and parts for a sugar mill, including wheel cogs and brass blocks. Other purchases include coopers nails and ‘Kendall Cottons …for the negroes cloathing’. This cloth was actually wool, woven in Cumbria. Such things would be imported from Britain.

Letter to Esther Swete from the plantation manager, Rowland Oliver. 1745. DHC 388M/E/11

In this letter the plantation manager reassures the new owner of the plantations that the crop will increase this year. He anticipates producing 70 large barrels (called hogsheads and written ‘hhd’). ‘I believe we shall make 4 or 5 hhd of sugar more, the negroes being so frequently ordered upon’.

The Legacies of Devon Slave-ownership group have compiled further research on Swete’s paintings: Houses painted by Reverend John Swete with slave-ownership connections: watercolours in the Devon Heritage Centre,

Peter Wingfield-Digby shares further research on Rev John Swete.

Not everybody in Britain approved of the transatlantic slave trade. Many writers, both black and white, published arguments against it. These included Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Mary Prince, writers who had previously been enslaved. Some people chose not to consume sugar or tobacco in protest, and preachers raised the issue of slavery from their pulpits. Many thousands of British people across different social groups signed petitions to Parliament to abolish the trade.

However, living without the wealth produced by enslaved labour was unimaginable for many British beneficiaries. Parliament resisted calls for abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the enslaved in the British colonies in the Americas for years. In 1807, Parliament abolished the slave trade to British colonies. Emancipating enslaved people would inflict huge financial losses on the enslavers so the government’s solution was to pay compensation to the slave owners for their loss of ‘human property’.

In the years following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, £20 million was paid out to slave owners, approximately 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. No money was paid to the enslaved people, and liberated slaves were expected to work for another six years on plantations serving an unpaid apprenticeship. Protests by freed people led to the government ending the apprenticeship early, in 1838.

The tax bill for this compensation was only paid off in 2015.

Search the records

This database was created by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London.

You can use the database to look up some of the Devon names in the exhibition such as Baring, Davy, D’Urban, Hamilton, Heywood, Lear, Lopes, Phillpotts, Pole, Porter, Praed, Rolle, Seaman, Swete and Taylor. Or find out about your own family connections.


  • Enter a name in the search bar under ‘search the database’
  • Searches reveal information about the claim, for instance: where the plantation was located, the name of the plantation, how much compensation individuals received and how many enslaved people they owned
  • Compensation amounts are given in pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d)
  • To find out the approximate equivalent amount from 1833 in today’s money, you can use the National Archives currency converter.

The Legacies of Devon Slave-ownership Group used this database to extract information about Devon slave-owners who received compensation at the end of British West Indian slavery. This research helped shape the exhibition and its focus on the legacies of the trade that can still be seen all around us.

The LDSG are a small group of researchers living locally who are interested in investigating the historic links between Devon and the transatlantic slave trade. Some of their research is available online.

Baring brothers:

Johan Baring of Bremen, Germany, settled in Exeter in 1717. His sons Francis (who had worked for a financier of slave ships) and John later founded the merchant house which became known as Barings Bank. The Barings supported businesses making money from enslaved people and the goods that enslaved people produced. They dealt with both Caribbean and American colonies.

After abolition, Barings claimed substantial compensation from their creditors who had invested in the plantation economy which used enslaved people. The Baring name can be seen in Exeter today, for example on Baring Crescent.

Davy family:

James Davy and Edward Davy were brothers who left the Exe estuary to travel to Jamaica in the 1790s. They used enslaved labour to grow coffee and allspice, and to raise cattle on the island. Their properties were named Wear Pen, Topsham and Heavitree. After abolition, the family claimed compensation for their loss of ‘property’ in enslaved people. James Davy’s grandsons (John and James) were awarded £2,156, the equivalent of around £145,000 in today’s money. John Davy and his family returned to England and lived in fashionable Kensington. John is buried in Clyst St Mary, near Exeter.

Rolle family:

Denys Rolle was MP for Barnstaple from 1761 to 1777. He was awarded land in the Bahamas after Britain lost the American War of Independence in 1783. His son, John Rolle became the largest owner of enslaved people in the Bahamas. He also acquired extensive land in Devon from his uncle. John Rolle was MP for the county of Devon from 1780 to 1796 and became Baron Rolle in 1796. He built Bicton House near Exmouth around 1800. The Rolle name is found on Rolle Canal and Rolle Quay in North Devon and Rolle Street in Exmouth.


Thomas Phillpotts moved to Jamaica in 1805 to work on building the island’s infrastructure. He owned 189 enslaved people and his work involved the exploitation of many more. Thomas was the brother of Henry Phillpotts, who became Bishop of Exeter from 1831 to 1869. Thomas returned to Britain in 1829. He received compensation for the enslaved people after abolition. Bishop Henry’s name is also associated with compensation awards, but these entries show that he was a trustee for other people and did not own enslaved people himself. 

Praed family:

The Praeds established The Exeter Bank in 1769 on the site of what became the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter. Their assets included enslaved people on the Waterhouse Estate in the Parish of St Andrew in Jamaica between 1811 and 1819. This was during the period of ‘amelioration’, that is, after the abolition of the trade when conditions for the enslaved were supposed to have improved. In 1811, 177 slaves were listed at Waterhouse but by 1818 they were reduced to 148. This has been seen as evidence of high death rates and low birth rates for these enslaved people.

Taylor and Seaman:

In 1835 Margaret Taylor petitioned the slave compensation commission for compensation. She described herself as a ‘person of colour, late of Kingston Jamaica, but now residing at Dawlish in the county of Devon’.

Margaret had come to England in 1830 as a lady’s attendant. She had owned one enslaved person, purchased through ‘her own industry’.

Another Devon woman to claim compensation was Catherine Seaman, who had been born in Jamaica around 1790 but lived in Teignmouth from 1851. She was awarded compensation for eight enslaved people. Her Jamaican property was called Devon Pen.

A collection of artefacts at RAMM reveals stories after the abolition of slavery. The British attempted to set up an island base at Fernando Po (now Bioko) off West Africa. They planned to work with liberated African people to set up a colony and expand trade with Africa.

It took many years to end the British slave trade. Even when parliament agreed to abolish slave trading in 1807 it was still legal to own enslaved people. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire.

The British wanted to deter other nations from trafficking Africans to their plantations. So they set up naval patrols off the west coast of Africa, run from Sierra Leone.  In 1827, parliament agreed that Fernando Po would make a better base. When the navy captured foreign slave ships, they landed many Africans who had been liberated from these ships on the island. Britain hoped this would become a productive new settlement from which to secure new trade. However, disagreements about the price of the lease meant that Britain abandoned the settlement in 1835.

A Royal Marine called Lieutenant Edward Nicolls was put in charge of the base at Clarence in Fernando Po. He developed the town and settled the newly liberated people to work as apprentices for the British authorities.

He also had contact with the indigenous Bubi people to discuss alliances and trade. It seems likely that he was able to collect items that the Bubi made and used at this time.

Such objects were of interest to James Bandinel, a collector in London. He was superintendent of the Slave Trade Department in the Foreign Office, a department set up to manage anti-slave-trade treaties. Bandinel may have been interested in the objects because he saw them as signs that the navy could build trading alliances with West African communities that would advance British interests. Bandinel’s collection of objects from around the world was given to RAMM in 1882.

A map lent by the British Museum of North and South West Africa showing the course of the Niger, and principal rivers, from the latest authorities. By W. Hutton. Reproduction, published in 1821 (1047.i.1)
On this map you can see the British colony of Sierra Leone established by abolitionists in 1787 and the island of Fernando Po where the British set up base in 1827. It also shows the coastline of the Bight of Benin where the Yoruba settled and fought the slaving raid from Dahomey in 1851.

Colour photograph of a gourd bowl with a painted surface. Symmetrical swirly designs are painted in red and black. The following is written in capital letters in white: 'Calabash. Booby Tribe. West coast of Africa'
Calabash or gourd bowl. Bubi people, Bioko Painted gourd. Before 1860.

This painted gourd from Bioko was given to Francis William Locke Ross who lived in Topsham after a short naval career. His home became the first Topsham Museum. Again we do not know the history of this piece or its relevance to the Bubi. It may have been a souvenir.
Colour photograph of a gourd bowl decorated with geometric designs
Calabash or gourd bowl. Bussa, Borgu Emirate, northern Nigeria. Acquired 1819-1849.

James Bandinel had an interest in many parts of West Africa. This calabash is from Bussa, situated at the highest navigable point of the Niger River. Bussa was part of the Borgu Emirate which was a source of slaves for existing internal West African markets and for the transatlantic slave trade.
Colour photograph of a narrow armlet maid from brown, braided plant fibres
Armlet (Ipa). Bubi people, Bioko Plaited plant fibre. Before 1860.

This bracelet or Ipa was probably made from the plant fibre plantain. This plant was first cultivated on Fernando Po (now Bioko) by the Portuguese when they occupied the island. The bracelet’s cultural significance to the indigenous Bubi people was not recorded when it joined a European’s collection.
Photograph of a circular armlet. it is made from braids of tiny black shell beads
Beaded armlet (Ipa). Bubi people, Bioko. Made from mollusc shells. Acquired 1827-49

This rare armlet from Bandinel’s collection is made of threaded gastropod mollusc shells (Nerita senegalensis). This adornment was considered to be an item of currency and also an item of spiritual power. The Bubi believed that such an armlet would have offered protection from evil spirits.
Colour photograph of a narrow necklace made from braided plant fibres
Necklace. Bubi people, Bioko Plant fibre. Before 1860.

Like the Bubi armlets or Ipa on display, this necklace was probably made in Bioko from plantain fibre. When British naval officers were on anti-slavery patrols off the coast of West Africa, they could collect items like this on behalf of collectors, like Bandinel, back in Britain.


RAMM’s Townsend collection came from a Devon missionary who travelled inland with liberated Africans after abolition. Africans rescued from slave ships were landed in the British colony of Sierra Leone. Many of these liberated Africans found life in Sierra Leone hard and wanted to establish their homes further south, in present-day Nigeria.

In 1787, British abolitionists established a colony at Freetown (Sierra Leone), on the West African coast, for people who had escaped from slavery. After 1807, the colony became the main receiving station for Africans rescued from slaving ships by the Royal Navy. These people came from many parts of Africa and naturally some wanted to move away from Freetown. One group, the Yoruba, preferred to settle along the coast on the Bight of Benin. The head chief of Abeokuta (now Nigeria) agreed to welcome them.

British missionaries were allowed to accompany these Yoruba people, in liaison with the navy and diplomats. One missionary was Rev Henry Townsend from Exeter. He worked for the Church Missionary Society which offered education, training and Christian doctrine to the people of Abeokuta. The missionaries also provided protection. When the party arrived in Abeokuta in 1846, their neighbours in Dahomey (now Benin) were still trading in enslaved people. Dahomey launched a slaving raid in 1851 and the missionaries received arms from Sierra Leone. Townsend provided bullets to use against the raiders.

Britain was hoping to establish a commercial base in West Africa now that slaving was illegal. Other European nations were beginning to do the same, while Islamic states in West Africa were also expanding. These international political and economic changes led to growing competition for territory.

Townsend collected artefacts which reflect this complex situation. He donated them to RAMM in 1868 intending them to represent anti-slavery activity, conversions from indigenous beliefs to Christianity, and the technological and industrial potential of the region’s people.

You can see more of Townsend’s collection in RAMM’s Finders Keepers? gallery.

Colour photograph of a pair of navy and maroon drawstring trousers laid flat on a white background
Drawstring trousers (shokoto). Obtained from Abeokuta, Nigeria, 1843-68.

These men’s trousers are made from indigo-dyed, locally grown and hand-spun cotton (etu) woven in narrow strips. Townsend wrote that these garments were worn by chiefs and people of wealth. They show how far African trade routes stretched as the silk thread was brought across the Sahara from North Africa.
Colour photograph of a tall, narrow wooden drum.
Dahomeyan war drum. Captured by the Egba in Abeokuta, 15 March 1864.

This large drum was brought into battle when Dahomey (now Benin) tried for a second time to overpower Abeokuta in 1864. They were defeated. British soldiers were involved in the battle and one of them took this drum and wrote across it. The drum was then included in Rev Townsend’s collection.
Colour photograph of a snuff conatiner. It is carved from a dark wood. A female figure sits on top of a sphere decorated with geometric designs.
Snuff container, Yoruba (Egba) Obtained from Abeokuta, Nigeria, 1843-68.

This round wooden snuff container was probably used by a follower of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder. Tobacco was exchanged for slaves in the Yoruba region, but Townsend and the Church Missionary Society hoped to trade British manufactured goods for tobacco instead.
Colour photograph of an Ogboni society sword. The handle is decorated with human faces.
Ogboni society sword, Yoruba (Egba) Possibly obtained in Abeokuta, Nigeria, 1847.

Townsend was presented with this Ogboni sword by a war chief (balorun). Townsend believed this act showed penance for waging war, but the sword has some casting flaws and it may have been presented in mockery of the chief’s Ogboni rivals.

William D’Urban

RAMM’s first curator was a distinguished naturalist, writer and collector. He wrote The Birds of Devon with Rev Murray Mathew. Although D’Urban did not own enslaved people, several of his relatives did. Profits from sugar plantations and slave compensation payments helped him establish a privileged place in local society.

William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban worked at RAMM from 1865 until 1884. As RAMM’s first curator, D’Urban is a revered figure in the museum’s history. Research shows that his family benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of William D'Urban, featuring combed-over hair, a white shirt covered by a dark suit, and a striped tie.
Portrait of William D’Urban
Colour photograph of three bird skins belonging to William D'Urban and the book he wrote with Rev Murray A Mathew
By the time W.S.M. D’Urban was 10 years old he had lived in Ireland, South Africa, England and Canada. He became a keen naturalist, specialising in bird life. D’Urban settled in Devon from 1863 with his wife Gertrude and he supervised RAMM’s first displays and collections from 1865 to 1884.  

William D’Urban’s most famous ancestor was his grandfather, Sir Benjamin D’Urban. After a military career, Sir Benjamin was made Governor of Demerara-Essequibo (Guyana) in the Americas in 1824. The appointment came soon after an uprising by enslaved people. Afraid of any repeat, Sir Benjamin declared a ‘firm determination to repress every appearance of insurrection’. Later, he was posted to South Africa, where in 1835 Port Natal was renamed Durban in his honour.

William’s father, also called William, married Mary Elizabeth Stewart in Topsham in 1833. Mary had inherited a plantation in Grenada with 113 enslaved people. A compensation payment after abolition allowed the couple to build a home at Newport House in Topsham.

William was brought up by his grandfather in South Africa and, from 1846, in Canada. In 1848 a botched cure for diphtheria ended his hopes of an army career. Instead, he turned to natural history studies: a passion that eventually led to RAMM and which is represented in this display.

In 1863, William married Gertrude Porter. She too benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade. Her grandfather owned sugar plantations in the West Indies valued at around £10 million in today’s money, and her father received the modern equivalent of around £2.5 million in compensation for 709 slaves.

You can see more of D’Urban’s collection in RAMM’s Finders Keepers? gallery.

Colour photograph of an open book. The left pages show an illustration of two birds. There is a page of text on the right.
The Birds of Devon, W.S.M. D’Urban and Rev Murray A Mathew 1892.

D’Urban’s intimate knowledge of Devon’s birds and complex geography culminated in this book with fellow ornithologist Murray Mathew. They traced and verified the earliest records for every species present. D’Urban had an invaluable understanding of Devon’s migrant birds from his time overseas.
Colour photograph of a wren preserved as a study skin with two identification labels tied to its feet
Eurasian wren skin (Troglodytes troglodytes), Topsham.

In The Birds of Devon, D’Urban recalls his experiences with these tiny birds at his Topsham home. ‘In cold rough weather a pair of wrens have sometimes remained for days in our conservatory, never once, as far as we could tell, venturing outside its welcome shelter.’
Colour photograph of a chaffinch preserved as a study skin with two identification labels tied to its feet
Common chaffinch skin (Fringilla coelebs), Newport House, Topsham.

Chaffinches feed on insects and seeds. In The Birds of Devon D’Urban notes that of all the finches, the chaffinch plunders the most seeds and fruit buds. However, it makes up for these ‘thefts’ by also devouring the seeds of ‘noxious weeds’. This bird is dated 12 December 1907
Colour photograph of a water rail preserved as a study skin with two identification labels tied to its feet
Water rail skin (Rallus aquaticus), River Exe near Topsham.

In The Birds of Devon D’Urban and Matthew observe that this common bird is not well known because it has shy and secretive habits. People would frequently bring in specimens thinking the birds were very rare. Water rail are most often seen around Exeter in the autumn and winter months.
Colour photograph of two pinned brown butterflies with identification labels
Butterflies (Durbania amakosa), South Africa.

In 1862 Roland Trimen, curator at the South African Museum, named a genus of butterfly Durbania. This was in honour of his friend and fellow butterfly expert William D’Urban. D’Urban had experienced the wildlife of South Africa as a boy and when he returned to the Cape in the 1860s.

Reproduction of an article in The Times, 24 June 1824. Proclamation issued by Major General Sir Benjamin D’Urban Lieutenant-Governor of Demerara Essequibo (now Guyana)

Although the abolition bill was passed in 1807, ownership of enslaved people continued in the colonies until 1834. The enslaved rebelled against the delay in their emancipation. Major General Sir Benjamin D’Urban became Lt-Governor of Demerara in 1824 soon after an uprising. He issued this proclamation to set out his colonial expectations.

The story of the transatlantic slave trade in the West Country is a shared history. It left an ongoing legacy which is still relevant today. Its impact is experienced by each of us in different ways. RAMM invited some people from Devon’s black community to share a range of their personal experiences and reflections on the legacies of the slave trade.

“I am who I am, where I am, speaking the language that I speak, being the person that I am – because of the transatlantic slave trade.”

“I like the idea that my ancestors were survivors, against horrendous odds.”

“The past treatment of black people as a commodity – translating into the idea they are somehow less – lingers on today. Some people still think their skin colour denotes their worth and their right to treat people with a lack of respect and humanity.”

“As a Devon resident, it’s a hidden history. For me, it’s not black history – it’s everyone’s history.”

“It was horrible and sad. But there’s also some amazing stories of resilience and resistance in it. And that, I’m extremely proud of.”


RAMM encourages you to explore the resources section of the exhibition which includes more information on the social, economic and emotional legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.


Running time: 12 minutes 25 seconds

This text helps illustrate some of the many perspectives on the transatlantic slave trade. Some of these are deeply personal stories that remind us that history continues to shape our lived experience. The transcript is available.

The Sweetest Thing, 2021-22. Photographs, video and embroidered textile (cyanotype, metal and rayon thread on cotton). Presented by the Contemporary Art Society with support from Arts Council England and the Friends of RAMM in 2022

Colour photograph of the In Plain Sight Exhibition at RAMM. Joy Gregory's textile and video are on the left hand side.

RAMM invited Joy Gregory to create a new artwork in response to the themes and ideas explored in this exhibition and the objects on display. Born in Oxfordshire to Jamaican parents, Gregory began her career by making photographic self-portraits in response to the lack of cultural representation of black female beauty. Now, after nearly 40 years making, teaching and exhibiting, both in the UK and internationally, Gregory is well-known for investigating photography’s history and materiality in relation to race, class and language.

Colour photograph of a wall mounted textile by artist Joy Gregory. The blue background represents the sea. Embroideries of houses, people and objects associated with the trade of enslaved people have been made on top.

“How black people are treated now stems from the history explored in this exhibition. It is a deeply troubling and uncomfortable history. This new work talks to the trade of unrefined sugar and refined sugar, by presenting it in a way that people take responsibility and understand the relationship between themselves and history. I’m interested in the stark contrast of the lives lived in the grand houses in Devon – all daintiness, pretty dresses and sitting down to tea – compared to the lives of the enslaved or the factory workers.

I see my job as an artist to create curiosity and bring histories together. I am making things of beauty to talk about ugliness.”

The Sweetest Thing includes Gregory’s first textile work. It refers directly to the ‘Combesatchfield’ embroidery.

Gregory’s work is held in public collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, UK Government Art Collection, Institute of Modern Art and Yale University. In 2019 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society.

Joy Gregory talks about her research for The Sweetest Thing in a new short film by Martin Hampton, filmed on location in Topsham, RAMM’s stores and her London studio. Commissioned by RAMM.

During 2020 and 2021, Gregory travelled around Devon photographing houses and sites with links to the transatlantic slave trade. The embroidered images of these houses, coupled with text that links previous owners to ‘the trade’, are shown interspersed with sugar nippers and shakers from RAMM’s collections.

Motifs from sugar production including the instruments of control – head restraints, collars and shackles – together with its currency, manillas, worn on a woman’s arms have been embroidered onto swirling patterns created by cyanotypes of the artist’s own hair. The blue of the cyanotype and the white photograms of hair resembles the sea, evoking the Black Atlantic or Middle Passage: the traumatic and dangerous journey that enslaved Africans were forced to endure.

Gregory describes the textile as depicting, ‘Sugar production on both sides of the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries’ where the ‘houses are like ghosts’. The Sweetest Thing directly connects Devon’s wealth with the suffering of enslaved people on the Caribbean Plantations.

The Sweetest Thing: Descendants, 2021. Colour photographic prints

The five images show people descended from Africans ‘trafficked’ across the Atlantic to what became known as The British West Indies. Their position, sat back to the viewer, echoes that of the embroidered image of the woman taking tea in the textile. The book they hold represents the lists of people in Devon who were compensated for the loss of their ancestors.

The British West Indies or British territories in the Caribbean included Anguilla, The Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat, The British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, The Grenadines, British Guiana (now Guyana), Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, and British Honduras (now Belize).

The Sweetest Thing: Sugar, 2022. Video. Running time: 9 minutes

By combining text and image, this video draws attention to the process of sugar production on both sides of the Atlantic. Gregory makes clear the link between Britain’s wealth and the Industrial Revolution, specifically in Exeter and Devon, echoing the theme and motifs of the textile hanging.

Students from Exeter University’s ‘Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies’ module made an online exhibition to accompany Plain Sight. Professors Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook run the module. In this course, students researched the involvement of Exeter citizens in the creation, profiting, and resistance to the British Empire. They then produced their own DIY plaques, and temporarily installed them around the city where traces remain of their subjects’ lives.

Colour photograph of 10 circular blue pieces of paper with white lettering that resemble blue plaques which are sometimes put on the outside of buildings to denote that somebody of historical interest once loved there. They are arranged chaotically so that some of the text on each is obscured.

The plaques are the students’ own work and are not part of any official blue plaque scheme. The views expressed are those of the students and do not necessarily represent the views of ECC, RAMM, or our partner organisations.

Guerrilla memorialisation’ is a form of playful activism that reworks familiar markers of heritage – like blue plaques – in order to question who is celebrated and what they are celebrated for, and to offer missing and alternative perspectives. This selection of plaques concentrates on the hidden traces of Exeter’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade.

Guerrilla memorialisation often includes the names of heritage organisations to encourage them to adopt more critical approaches. However, in this selection, the identities of organisations mentioned on some of the plaques have been redacted.

Photographs of the plaques and their associated information is available to download.

The following resources used in the exhibition are available online.

Online Learning

If you are teaching or learning about the transatlantic slave trade, RAMM has put together resources to help you.

Exhibition text

Films in the exhibition

Photos of the exhibition

University of Exeter Showcase project

Articles by the Legacies of Devon Slave-ownership Group relating to RAMM’s collections

Resources, books and research articles used in the exhibition

Additional material connected to the transatlantic slave trade

New research and opinion is coming forward all the time as people bring this history into the light, so these lists are not definitive. The authors’ views are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of RAMM or our partners.

Full timeline