I discovered the start of Samuel Gist’s story whilst researching the Abolition of the Slave trade back in 2007. A 19th century Bristol newspaper noted this son of the city had freed his slaves in his will. This got my research antennae quivering, and the story is still unravelling.
Samuel was the son of David Gest, born in the southern parish of Temple in the early 18th century, but was orphaned, educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital before being sent to Virginia as an ‘apprentice’. He worked for shopkeeper John Smith, and when he died he married his widow. They had 2 daughters before he returned to England. He flourished as a tobacco merchant in America and then in London, where he also did well on the early stock exchange, as a marine insurer during the American War, and was the only investor in the great Dismal Swamp Company to have made money from it. He traded with George Washington and was an incredibly successful money maker. He owned large estates in America with many slaves and England and he lived in a large house in London.
When he died he left money for his slaves to be freed and for their education and welfare to be looked after. But freed slaves were unable to stay in Virginia, so land had to be purchased for them in Ohio. This eventually became the Gist settlements, the largest of their kind, and an important stopping place on the Underground Railroad. Sadly only one survives, and lack of title means it is mostly being used as a dumping ground, and the slave descendants continue to have an uncertain future there.
Many stories have been told about Gist. Americans called him a warlock, a Jew, a monster but a minister visiting the freed slaves in the early 19th century told of their fondness for their former master and his daughters, who had always been kind to them and provided for their welfare.
In 2007 I produced two books on the abolition of the slave trade in Bristol, and when I discovered this intriguing story, thought it offered an unusual and positive way to celebrate this important anniversary. I hoped that Gist’s school, the wealthy Queen Elizabeth Hospital could help to raise funds for the slave descendants to resolve their land problems and finally receive the bounty that Samuel had allocated them. This is especially apt, as he also left money to his old school; money which they continue to receive. But Bristolians constantly harp on about their slaving past, whilst refusing to deal with the topic in its fullest sense, so this never happened.
Gist’s story is unusual as it shines a light on an unusual corner of 18th century history – the sending of children abroad, unsupervised, to uncertain futures. Gist’s pursuit of wealth, especially in the absence of any male heir, seems obsessive to the point of psychosis. His contempt for white Americans and his support for slaves suggests he was treated badly on his arrival in the colonies, and this hatred seems to have driven him throughout his life. Bristol is a city famous for its love of money, and as such, Samuel was very much a creature of the city.
But being rich is not just about owning money. Money is power. This is as true now as it was in Gist’s lifetime. Gist tried to use his money to right some of the wrongs of slavery. It is time his wishes were honoured.
Samuel Gist’s story deserves to be more widely known, as it draws together so many threads of mid 18th century colonial history. But it is also time that the descendants of his slaves to finally be given ownership of the land he left them, for them to continue to be a living legacy to this intriguing, complicated man.
A small caveat on this story: there is a lot of information on Gist on the interweb, mostly from American sources. Some of them claim he imported the first thoroughbred racehorse to the country. This would really have made him an exceptional man, as he was a child in England at the time. Dates matter.
The book of Samuel’s life will be published in September 2018. It is The Midas of Manumission: The Orphan Samuel Gist and his Virginian Slaves. Available in the usual outlets in ebook and print.