Miles Brathwaite as a young man (www.Findagrave.com)
Miles Brathwaite was the third son of the Hon. General Miles Brathwaite (1771-1848), a sugar planter in the Christ Church and St Philip’s parishes of Barbados. He was born there in 1803. His father was always designated ‘honourable’ because he was a member of the island’s privy council; he had no connection with the peerage and his own father, Robert Brathwaite (1723-1791) was also a plantation owner. Miles senior owned one estate, Palmers, and was tenant for life of another, Three Houses. Like all Barbadian planters he relied on slaves to work his land. John Brathwaite, possibly a brother of Miles senior, another plantation and slave owner and agent for the island, travelled to London in 1788 to give testimony to the British government’s inquiry into slavery. Predictably, he painted a rosy picture:
He stated that prior to about 1768 the treatment of slaves was marked by much more cruelty than since that date. The wanton killing of a slave in Barbadoes (sic) remained nevertheless, by law of August 8, 1788, punishable by a fine of 15 Pounds Sterling only. It was not uncommon, he said, for slaves to suffer for food when corn [bread stuff] was high or a sugar crop failed. Industrious Negroes, of course, raised some provisions, hogs, and poultry about their own huts or on allotments. Even so, he thought a slave was as well off as a free Negro and better than an English labourer with a family. (1)
Harvesting sugar cane in Barbados. Note the overseer’s whip.
Miles junior appears to have joined the Royal Navy, but his service records are not extant, though his portrait (above) as a very young man seems to show him in a naval uniform. He married, on 13 December 1823, Elizabeth Jane Welch. Over the next twenty-two years, they had twelve children together.
The Slavery Abolition Act became law on 1 August 1834, but this did not mean automatic bankruptcy for the Barbados slavers. Two things saved them. In the first place, the British government paid compensation to slave owners for their ‘loss’. Miles senior was awarded £3860 for the one hundred and seventy enslaved people he owned at Palmers and tried to claim over £5000 for those at Three Houses, but this was declined. In the second place, only children were actually immediately freed. Adults had to serve a six-year ‘apprenticeship’ on terms very little better than slavery before they were freed.
Miles junior may, or may not, have had a share in the compensation. By then he was in business as a merchant in Chepstow Street, Barbados, running two businesses, one alone and another as a partner. He gave his address then as Fortress Terrace, Kentish Town, London. The 1841 census confirms his residence in Kentish Town, but by then his businesses must have gone under, as he is recorded as having no trade or occupation. Elizabeth and their six surviving children were with him. The family moved then to Camden, then on to Pentonville and in 1843, Miles became a director of The Elastic Pavement Company. Although this sounds like a 1970s rock album produced under the influence of LSD, in fact it manufactured, among other things, rubber flooring for stables and a lifeboat made of rubber and cork, which was allegedly unsinkable and, if it hit a rock, would just bounce back.
The company was in trouble by 1845 and by February 1846 was reporting losses of over £5000, while insisting that it needed to increase its capital in order to fulfil ‘large orders from Her Majesty’s government’. It struggled on but was wound up in 1849. This made little difference to Miles, who had been committed to a debtors’ prison in 1846. This was probably at Whitecross Street in Islington, which had the reputation of being the worst in London.
Whitecross Street Prison
Salvation came in an unlikely form when in January 1847 he was appointed as Commander of the Coastguard at Fort Twiss in Hythe. The Coastguard had been set up in 1822 as an anti-smuggling operation, and its instructions also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. Station commanders were generally serving Royal Navy lieutenants and were expected to enforce naval discipline. What qualifications Miles had for the job beyond a brief naval career some years earlier is unclear. It is likely that the post was secured for him through well-placed connections, a common enough practice in the nineteenth century.
Fort Twiss Battery was constructed on Hythe seafront in 1798, a small triangular fort surrounded by a three-and-a-half metre high wall. Miles lived there with Elizabeth Jane and the five youngest of their children – two more had been born in London and one in Hythe. Also living at the fort were six subordinate men with their wives and families. It cannot have been luxurious, compared to a sunny plantation in Barbados served by slaves, but Miles had a regular income to support his diminishing family. Only five of his twelve children reached adulthood, and those who did often headed back to the West Indies. While he was in prison, his eldest daughter, another Elizabeth Jane, married a scion of a plantation family, Langford Redwood, who had inherited Cassada Garden plantation in Antigua. He died at sea only two years after the marriage en route to England and Elizabeth married another Antiguan planter.
Miles died at Fort Twiss on 26 March 1857. He left no will, and his widow either could not or would not pay for a headstone: this was financed by ‘family and friends’.
The inscription on Miles’s gravestone in St Leonard’s churchyard reads: Sacred to the memory of/Miles Brathwaite/(late RN)/ this tablet is erected by sor-/rowing family and friends/who are cheered with the hope/that from his excellent life, his/firm faith and pious resignation/to the Divine Will, the beloved one is “not lost but gone before”
Elizabeth Jane, now homeless, went at first to live in Croydon, but then moved in with her by now twice widowed daughter Elizabeth in West Derby in Liverpool, where she died in 1879.
(1) Slavery on British West Indies Plantations in the Eighteenth Century, Frank Wesley Pitman, Journal of Negro History, Volume Number: 11 Issue Number: 4, October 1926.