A Story of Archival Discovery: The Bank of England and the Grenada Plantations

A behind-the-scenes look at archival research carried out for Slavery & the Bank
Published on 30 September 2022


Dr Michael Bennett, Research Associate, The University of Manchester

Since August 2021 I have been collaborating with colleagues in the Bank of England Museum and Archive to investigate the Bank’s links to historical slavery and colonialism.

As a professional historian who studies eighteenth-century documents (which can be completely illegible for many people!) my role as part of this wider project has been to study original primary sources in the Bank’s Archive. I’ve spent months poring over centuries-old manuscripts and ledgers as part of the research.

Map of Grenada, 1780. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Map of Grenada, 1780. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

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.

Bacolet and Chemin inventory, 1788. Bank of England Archive: 21A74-1

Bacolet and Chemin inventory, 1788. Bank of England Archive: 21A74-1

There was a major breakthrough in the research in September 2021, when my colleague Liberty Paterson identified a box of documents in the Museum catalogue, described as relating to Bacolet and Chemin. I had been relying on the Archive catalogue for my research, and was excited to learn that other documentation might have survived in the Museum store.

Shortly afterwards, on what is probably the most remarkable day in my career so far, we retrieved the box of documents from the Museum store and brought them to the Archive. When we opened the box I could hardly believe my eyes. Pretty much all the documents I’d seen referenced in the Court Minutes regarding the plantations – letters, deeds, powers of attorney, and account books – had survived. These documents provided me with the extra level of detail I needed to properly analyse the Bank’s relationship with the two plantations.

The most striking, and poignant, discovery was an inventory of Bacolet and Chemin in 1788, taken shortly before the Bank came into sole possession of the plantations. This document contained the names of the 599 enslaved women, men, and children that the Bank owned when it took possession of the plantations in Grenada in the late 1780s. It helps us to go some way in our research towards recovering the humanity of the people enslaved on the two plantations. Their names are metaphorically and literally at the heart of our Museum exhibition, ‘Slavery & the Bank’, transcribed in the section of the exhibition which explores the Bank’s links to the Grenada plantations.  

Museum visitors with a facsimile of the Bacolet and Chemin inventory, Bank of England Museum

Museum visitors with a facsimile of the Bacolet and Chemin inventory, Bank of England Museum

The documents relating to Bacolet and Chemin that were uncovered in the Museum store are currently being conserved and catalogued by Archive staff, and will soon be available for external researchers to consult. An academic paper providing full details of my research on the Bank and the Grenada plantations is available to download online.

In the meantime, please visit our exhibition to see the results of our research on the Bank of England and transatlantic slavery, including its connection to Bacolet and Chemin plantations.