THE MIDAS OF MANUMISSION: The Orphan Samuel Gist and his Virginian Slaves

This is a story that appeared in my research for the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum to celebrate the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade back in 2007. The bare bones of the story are that Samuel Gist was an orphan from Bristol who was educated at one of the city’s charity schools and sent to Virginia as a ‘shop boy’. He became a successful tobacco merchant there, with George Washington as a colleague, before returned to Britain to become very rich. His passion and ability at making money seems to have almost been an illness, like Midas. Yet he had no male heirs, so there was nobody to pass on his huge wealth, to continue his family name.

This book looks at the early days of the North American colonies, of the Tudor practice of sweeping the streets of cities of the many homeless children to short, miserable lives on tobacco plantations. It shows how and why African slavery gradually overtook white slavery, and the close links between it and the criminalisation of the poor that led to the founding of Australia.

Samuel Gist’s will provided legacies for many charities in Bristol and London where he has been largely forgotten, but his desire to fund the freeing of his slaves has ensured that he is still remembered in the USA, with some people still sharing his family name.

Gist was a complex and often reviled character for owning , and at times trading in slaves, but his former slaves described him and his daughters as being kind to them. His manumission of hundreds of slaves occurred at a difficult time, after the War of 1812 and the final battle between Britain and France, and many problems prevented the scheme from succeeding. But he set a precedent, and may have encouraged many others to free their slaves. Against all the odds, one of his settlements survives, and descendants of his former slaves now meet to share their legacy.   

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