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Denbigh Sugar Plantation

Tracing the sale of Boulton & Watt steam engines and works supplied from Soho Foundry near Birmingham to Denbigh Sugar Plantation in Jamaica, owned by the Pennants of North Wales.

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Photograph: Denbigh Agricultural Ground, Clarendon, Jamaica from the exhibition Intended for Jamaica 2024 showing at the Library of Birmingham.

In 2022, I commenced an artist-led research project to explore the sale of steam engines from Soho Foundry near Birmingham to sugar plantations in Jamaica by the firm of Boulton & Watt. This colonial trade has been a less studied part of the Boulton, Watt, and Murdoch story. The project seeks to shed light on this history using surviving archive records from the Boulton and Watt Collection held in the city archives at the Library of Birmingham as the basis for the work.

The historical evidence in the archives reveals that Boulton and Watt were involved from around the 1770s until 1800 in the adaptation of their steam engine for sugarcane milling on sugar plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. They corresponded and met with some of Britain's wealthiest plantation owners and businessmen with interests in the Caribbean. A letter to Matthew Boulton from the plantation and slave owner William Pulteney in 1776 sets the tone of this period when he writes, 'I can hardly conceive of anything that is likely to bring you a greater return'.

Matthew Boulton sugar plantations letter Boulton & Watt Collection

Photograph: Letter to Matthew Boulton from William Pulteney, London, 1st May 1776 (Boulton & Watt Collection MS 3147, Library of Birmingham)

By the 1790s, interest in adapting steam engines to power sugar mills on plantations in Jamaica was growing, and the archives reveal evidence of a subscription scheme being developed with James Watt (at the firm of Boulton & Watt) led by influential British intermediaries and some of Britain's most notorious slave plantation owners in Jamaica, including Richard Pennant (Lord Penrhyn). Further research is required, but it is likely that an early Boulton & Watt prototype or pirated steam engine was erected in Jamaica before official orders began in 1808 (see Boulton & Watt Catalogue of Old Engines).

Letters in the Boulton & Watt Collection hint at a plan to enable 'Jamaica Gentlemen' to view a working steam engine for sugarcane milling, as there was significant reservation about the engines' effectiveness. Given the high cost, planters were reluctant to outlay so much money. A letter by Simon Taylor, one of Jamaica's wealthiest plantation and slave owners, written in 1788 to Chaloner Arcedeckne, sheds some light on attitudes towards the Boulton & Watt steam engines.

'Respecting Mr Bolton, untill he sends out modell, & letts people know the premium he expects for his machines, and convinces them they will answer, he will gett no encouragement here, I should think if he was so certain of the success, that he would wish to have one erected on an estate even at his own expence, to be reimbursed should it answer, or leave to take his materials away if it did not, and that would convince people of its utility'.

The archives reveal that Richard Pennant was one of the plantation owners interested in subscribing to a scheme being developed for sugar plantation owners to use steam engines on their estates in Jamaica.

Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn (1st Baron Penrhyn), whose family owned Penrhyn Castle in North Wales, had inherited substantial plantation estates in Jamaica, including the Denbigh sugar plantation in the parish of Clarendon. This was the largest of the Pennant family's Jamaican sugar estates. Pennant owned hundreds of enslaved people in Jamaica and used his political power to support the slave trade and protect the interests of West Indian planters.

A view of Pennant's Denbigh Sugar Plantation is depicted in an 1871 watercolor scene shown below which is typical of colonial imagery of the period.

Denbigh Sugar Plantation Jamaica National Trust

Photograph: Watercolour of Denbigh Sugar Plantation painted in 1871 at Penrhyn Castle (Image courtesy of the National Trust)

In 1798 Edward Knowles writes from the Spring Estate in Trelawney to Boulton & Watt that an engine has been erected on Lord Penhryn's Estate at Clarendon. He states that he plans to view it to determine its suitability for his sugar mill.

Various online sources seem to have a copy of an engine drawing for Plan of a Steam Engine for the H. Lord Penryhn Jamaica dated 14 February 1796 attributed to the firm of Boulton & Watt. (Note: I am currently waiting for confirmation that this drawing is a BW engine drawing and has the company's markings).

The official list of steam engines supplied to sugar plantations is mainly documented in the Boulton & Watt Catalogue of Old Engines, starting in 1804 with an order to Trinidad.

Details of any early engines that may have been designed or supplied, including inquiries, may be found in other archival sources such as the Boulton & Watt Letter Book. More research is needed to investigate this early period (1780-1800) to trace any earlier prototypes or orders that may have been supplied to sugar plantation owners. Richard Pennant was certainly a customer of Boulton & Watt and had direct links to both partners.

Following the death of Richard Pennant in 1808, his cousin George Hay Dawkins Pennant inherited Penrhyn Castle and his sugar estates in Jamaica, including the Denbigh sugar plantation in Clarendon.

Order books and correspondence in the Boulton & Watt collection detail orders for steam engines and works supplied for Denbigh in Jamaica, placed on behalf of G.H. Dawkins Pennant by merchants Davidson & Graham between 1814-1816 and later in 1849. In 1815, the number of enslaved people registered at Denbigh was around 281. Later, Dawkins-Pennant claimed compensation for freeing his enslaved property of 215 people, amounting to £3,904 17s 8d, along with awards from his other Jamaican estates.


In 2022, as I followed the trail of the sale of steam engines from Birmingham to Jamaica, I travelled to the parish of Clarendon, where I visited the former Denbigh Sugar Plantation. Unlike many of the other sites I had visited on the island, there was virtually no trace of the former sugar plantation other than the fact that the community and agricultural grounds still bear the name 'Denbigh'. There is no historical information at the site marking it as a place of enslavement or resistance; in many ways, all that has passed on this land is visually erased.

Today, Denbigh is home to Jamaica's largest annual agricultural show and is set out in a series of pavilions, stadiums, and buildings across the site. I tried to find a spot to take an image towards the mountain range to compare the view today with the one depicted in a watercolour painting. The photograph shown below was taken standing on the stadium steps.

Denbigh former sugar plantation, Jamaica, Pennant photograph by Tracey Thorne

Photograph: View across Denbigh agricultural ground

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

All that remains of the sugar industry on the site is the sugar pavilion with little evidence of any former sugar mill to be found.

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

Denbigh Sugar Plantations Clarendon, Jamaica

All photographs by Tracey Thorne from an artist-led project called Sugarland Jamaica read more here.

Several of the photographs taken at Denbigh are currently being shown in the exhibition Intended for Jamaica at the Library of Birmingham, until 14 December details here.


Selective References

Sir William Pulteney 5th Baronet, Legacies of British Slavery  

Denbigh Jamaica, UCL, Legacies of British Slavery

National Trust, Penrhyn Castle

Simon Taylor, Letters (1788), Southampton University

Edward Knowles, Letter (1798), Boulton & Watt Collection (MS3147/3/414)

A Plan for Steam Engine for H. Lord Penrhyn Jamaica (1796), Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Penrhyn Castle Slavery,

Boulton & Watt Collection, Library of Birmingham.


© Tracey Thorne
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