Early on, our team identified that a key area for research was the Bank’s involvement with two sugar plantations in the Caribbean island of Grenada, named Bacolet and Chemin. In 1772, the Bank loaned £160,000 to the owner of the plantations. In 1774-75, when the owners of the plantation were unable to repay their loan, a group of creditors including the Bank began legal proceedings to take possession of the estates.
It took until the mid-1780s before the creditors assumed control over the plantations. The Bank eventually bought out the other creditors and came into sole possession of the two plantations and their enslaved workforces in the late 1780s. The Bank then sold the plantations to the West India merchant James Baillie for £100,000 in 1790.
This had been briefly discussed by several historians writing in the mid-twentieth century as part of their wider histories of the Bank. But the details of these events were poorly understood.
I began my research by consulting the minutes of the Bank of England’s governing body – the Court of Directors. The Court Minutes survive in full from the founding of the Bank in 1694 up to the present day. They provide useful insights into the decisions made by the managers of the Bank, but frustratingly for the historian, rarely provide specific details about the topics they were discussing.
For example, the minutes from Thursday 17 August 1786 mention that the directors had considered two petitions from Thomas Walpole, Richard Walpole and George Clark, and had ‘resolved unanimously to accept the proposals contained therein’.
The Walpoles and Clark were private bankers who also had a financial stake in Bacolet and Chemin plantations. So this brief reference in the minutes raised a number of questions. Most important, of course, was the question of what was written in the documents presented to the Bank’s directors? Did they provide useful insights into the Bank’s financial stake in the plantations?
I knew such documents would hold the key to understanding the intricacies of the Bank’s involvement with the Grenada plantations. But from my experience working in the archives of the East India Company and Royal African Company, I thought it highly unlikely that anything had survived. In this period it was common for these kinds of letters and other loose documents to be discarded soon after reading, or filed separately and lost over time.