The little-known role played by Wales in clothing slaves in the West Indies

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The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on racism both contemporary and historical.

And it is making a difference. The memorial to slave owner Sir Thomas Picton is being removed from Cardiff’s City Hall and the Welsh Government is conducting an audit of all the street names in Wales for links to the slave trade.

When people think of links to the vile industry that grew up around the mass transport of black Africans to the Americas the mind will often go to statues of slave owners or traders. Perhaps they think of the huge amounts of guns that were traded for slaves on the west African coast or cities like Bristol that became wealthy as centres of the transatlantic trade.

One place you will probably not associate with slavery is rural Mid Wales – but you should.

Chris Evans, professor of history at the University of South Wales, has written extensively on Wales’ links to the slave trade including how the woollen-making districts in Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire were instrumental in clothing the black slaves in the West Indies.

That part of Wales created a durable and cheap type of wool called “Welsh plains” which became the material of choice for clothing black slaves and was even given the now-abhorrent name “Negro cloth”.

By the early 1800s there were 743,000 slaves in the British Caribbean and the vast majority of the clothes on their backs were made from the Welsh plains wool in Mid Wales. But this does not mean that the people directly making the wool were getting rich on their exports.

“It [Welsh plains] was cheap due to being made by impoverished rural households,” said Professor Evans writing in The Conversation. “By people making a bare living from working the soil and who needed some sort of extra industrial work to make ends meet.”

According to Prof Evans Welsh plains became a major part of the Welsh economy in the 18th century because it catered for the slave market but when, in 1834, those slaves were freed in the British West Indies demand plummeted.

Many of those people in Mid Wales put out of the job by the emancipation went on to swell the workforce in the now-thriving coal pits in the South Wales Valleys.

Prof Davies added: “To look at upland the parishes of Montgomeryshire is not to see an unspoilt rural landscape but in fact a de-industrialised wasteland which once thrummed with what the poet and editor Walter Davies called the ‘incessant monotony of looms, fulling-mills, and other machineries’ – energised by the slave economy of the 18th-century Atlantic world.”



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