Black History & Westbury – Bryan Edwards.

The focus on Black History month unearthed a wealth of fascinating and heart-wrenching stories, articles and tv programmes.

But did you know that one of William Wilberforce’s strongest critics when he campaigned for an end to slavery actually came from Westbury?!

Politician and historian Bryan Edwards rose from his Wiltshire beginnings to become one of the largest plantation and slave owners in Jamaica. As an MP he was vociferous in his opposition to the abolition of slavery, fearing for the future of plantation owners and the economy of the West Indies. William Wilberforce described him as a powerful opponent.

Bryan Edwards was born in Westbury on 21 May 1743 – one of six children of maltster and yeoman Bryan Edwards and his wife Elizabeth. He was just 13 when his father died leaving the family in poverty. But his mother had been a Bayly before her marriage – a well-known Westbury family – and she had two rich brothers Zachary and Nathaniel, who had made their fortunes in owning plantations and slaves in Jamaica. They took on the young Bryan, paying for his education and eventually leaving him a substantial inheritance of six plantations and slaves in Jamaica. In November 1774, Bryan Edwards married Martha Phipps whose father Thomas owned Brook House.

Bryan Edwards became a Fellow of the Royal Society after publishing his three volumes on the history of the West Indies. But his return to England saw him aspiring to become an MP, firstly unsuccessfully in Southampton despite tempting friends and would-be voters with turtle dinners. At this time, the eating of turtle had become a favourite delicacy with the aristocracy.

Edwards strongly opposed the abolition of slavery – Wilberforce deemed him a powerful opponent.

He eventually became MP for the Cornish borough of Grampound in 1796 – he undoubtedly paid for this as it was a rotten borough where an aspiring MP could simply pay for the privilege of being elected. But he may have had to work for his seat as he did tell a friend at the time that he was too weary to come to London after attending “uncomfortable dinners at two contested elections, not to mention the very becoming amusement at my time of life dancing with tinkers’ wives and blacksmiths’ daughters on wet grass”. Once in the House of Commons he was vociferous in promoting the cause of the planters and in opposing the bid for the abolition of slavery. But his maiden speech did not endear his fellow members – it was reported that “his coarse elocution and language, his boldness of manner…seems to prepossess the House very much against him”.

His opinions about the slaves were controversial too. In October 1796 in the House of Commons, he spoke of slave marriages saying they were polygamous but that he was not an advocate for it – “one woman was quite enough for him”.

Bryan Edwards died in July 1800, leaving a son and daughter though he is believed to have had several children with free mulatto women. Just months later his widow remarried a Royal Dragoon. His son Zachary Hume Edwards inherited the bulk of his fortune. Ironically, the plantation mansion where he lived, known as Brimmer Hall, opened for tourists in the 1960s selling everything from plantation fruit to replicas of pirate treasure.