When I lived in Kingston upon Thames and worked for the museum and archive, I wrote an article about a local history figure, Cesar Picton. It raised many questions in my head about this figure, his life and the society he lived in during the late 18th, early 19th century. In 1761, at about six years old, he became a servant in a wealthy household. Over time, he gained independence, a huge amount of wealth and the status of a gentleman. He achieved much just by breaking through social boundaries, but what really stands out is that he was a black African.
What we know about Picton is from documents in the local records and archives. It’s not much. In fact, there are plethora of online articles about Cesar Picton, but we all tend to say the same thing. Mainly because the primary source material is limited.
Prior to 1761, Picton lived in Africa. He was brought to Britain by Captain Parr an officer of the British army who had been stationed in Senegal. The first mention of the young Cesar was in a journal of Sir John Philipp, where a Captain Parr gave him to the Philipps family as a gift: “a black boy from Senegal given to me by Capt. Parr, also a parakeet and a foreign duck.” From that journal entry, it is clear that Picton had been taken from his home in West Africa, transported to Britain and treated as a commodity. Who was Cesar Picton and what was his background? We can only speculate, but we can also gain a lot from reading around his story.
Starting with Captain Parr. What was he doing in Senegal in 1761, right in the middle of the Seven Years war with France (1756 – 1763)? In 1758 Britain had taken Senegal from France, which was more of an economic target than military. Senegal was a major trade area, specialising in enslaved African people. Dakar was a key trading port, and just off the coast of Dakar was the ominous Gorée Island. Once taken it was important for the British to retain Senegal, as there was much trade along the coast. Presumably, Captain Parr was stationed there, perhaps he was even part of the conflict in 1758.
The Slave Trade
Economically, West Africa was enormously important to the European countries. The slave trade had been very profitable and many British business magnates owned plantations in the Caribbean. To maintain profitability, plantations relied heavily on enslaved people. The general pattern of trade was of ships departing from Britain and sailing to the west coast of Africa, loaded with industrial equipment and weapons. The captains would sell these goods and purchase enslaved peoples from “slave traders”. These traders ran gangs who would go out into the West Africa area to collect people, either directly by taking them, or trading with other slave merchants.
The ships became slave ships, packed full of people. Let there be no doubt that this was a commercial transaction and the enslaved were densely packed into ships. The only human welfare the captains were interested in, was that the Africans would survive the journey so that as many as possible could be sold. That is, the captains maximised the profit returns on the owners’ investment.
They crossed the Atlantic on the trade winds to the Caribbean and once there the enslaved Africans were sold to the plantation managers, who would sell the estates’ produce, such as sugar, coffee, cotton, to the captains. That produce would be shipped back to Britain. This was known as the triangular trade.
Slave ownership was part of the British establishment. Many business magnates owned plantations in the Caribbean, and thus owned the enslaved. One example is Sir John Gladstone, a Scottish merchant and Member of Parliament. He acquired several large plantations in Jamaica and Guyana, worked initially by enslaved Africans. The extent of his ownership of slaves was such that after slavery was abolished in 1833, he received the largest of all compensation payments made by the Slave Compensation Commission.
Senegal, Dakar and Gorée Island were instrumental in this. Gorée Island had become the main point of departure and was a massive people processing centre. Today it is a UNESCO site and has been preserved as a memorial to all who were enslaved, transported and died on route.
It is likely that the young Cesar was enslaved and purchased by Captain Parr, along with other commodities and curios such as the parakeet and foreign duck. Part of what I have read says that his mother was with him but did not survive the journey, although I have not found direct evidence for this. Another report suggests Picton was already working in the army as a slave, which is where Parr came across him. This could equally be true. Perhaps he was an orphan. We will never know.
We have no idea who he was, what part of Africa was from, or his birth name. I doubt Picton did either. It makes me wonder what upheaval and separation trauma he suffered, being taken from Senegal to Britain. The journey by sea and the arrival in Britain, must have been totally alien to him. Did he speak English? If Picton was working in a military camp beforehand, then yes, perhaps he spoke some. If he was purchased as a slave, then I doubt it.
As an adult, did Picton have any memories of his early years? Most of us can remember back to the age of four, so did he have any remnants of his early life in Africa? Then again, perhaps our memories of being four and five are re-enforced by our parents, older siblings and friends. Without that support around us, would we retain any such memories?
Kingston upon Thames
Cesar Picton lived with the Philipps family in Kingston at Norbiton Place, a large mansion house on the outskirts of the town. From the records kept in the parish church, we know that he was baptised on 6th December 1761. He was named after Picton Castle, the Philips family home in Pembrokeshire. Cesar was a common classical name given to retainers at the time.
In the Philips household, Picton worked as a servant. It was not unusual to have black servants in wealthy households. The story is one of a terrible transition in very uncaring times, but perhaps, Captain Parr may have been doing the young Cesar a favour. The Philipps were abolitionists. They were against the slavery and supported overseas missions. When I looked into it, Captain Parr came across as a bit of a “cad”, bringing back gifts from Africa, including a child, to give to wealthy influential people, possibly to gain favour. But maybe he was trying to achieve a piece of goodness. Why else would he give Picton to an abolitionist family? All the same, Picton was kitted out with a uniform which included a “Silk Turban.”
Picton grew up with the family and became close to them, especially Lady Philipps. He was educated, became very religious and hard working. It appears he adopted their values. In the summers Picton would stay with the family at Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire. By adulthood, he mixed with the family on equal terms, often entertaining visitors with them. In 1788 Horace Walpole visited the family and later commented in a letter, “I was in Kingston with the sisters of Lord Milford; they have a favourite black, who has been with them a great many years and is remarkably sensible”. Lady Philips died that year and left Picton £100 in her will. He was in his early 30s and this considerable amount would have given him independence.
Cesar Picton’s life completely changed. He set himself up in business, becoming a coal merchant in Kingston. Much of his money had to be spent in the outlay of the business, such as rent on his work premises and £10 to the Kingston Corporation so he could trade. This was a hefty sum, but towns and cities needed coal for domestic and industrial uses. It was a secure and profitable business. Pembrokeshire, where the Phillips estate was located, was famous for a high-quality coal that burnt cleanly. I presume Picton used the family’s connections to start a coal merchant business, coming in at the higher end of the market. In that area of Kinston there would have been the households who demanded and could afford such clean coal.
At first, Picton rented a house on the high street, and was so successful in business he was able to buy it. Positioned on the River Thames, the house had a wharf, something needed for the transportation and storage of coal. It was a fashionable residence with moulded ceilings and an ornate staircase. This was an outward statement as well a practical place to trade from. It was named Picton House after his death and still exists on the High Street with a plaque on the front to commemorate his life.
As his business grew, he bought more property in Kingston which he rented providing him with additional income. When other members of the Philipps family died, they left substantial amounts to Picton in their wills. Eventually, he had accrued so much and was earning a good income from his investments, that he could step back from his daily work. He moved out from Kingston, renting a cottage on a country estate in Tolworth. Soon after, he bought a large property in Thames Ditton for £4000. Cesar Picton was doing very well in the world of business and society. He had reached the status of a gentleman, quite an achievement for the time.
There were very few black people in Britain who had achieved such financial success. In fact, he was the only one to reach such an elevated position. He did have help through inheritances and business connections, but it was down to his own drive, skills and acumen that sustained his businesses.
Towards the end of his life, Cesar Picton wrote and re-wrote his will. It survives today and tells us a little more about his life. He left two watches, gold chains, brooches and a tortoiseshell tea chest. He paid for 6 mourning rings. These would be given to the strongest of friends and shows there were people close to him. Listed in the will were paintings, including one of himself, which is gone now. He left his house in Kingston to his god-daughter Sarah Lock Pinner. She later married William Pamphillon who became mayor of Kingston.
Picton died in 1836 at the age of 81. He lived a long life, indicating good health, although he was a large man. At his funeral a four-wheeled trolley was needed to carry him into the church with planks and rollers to lower him into the vault. Picton’s wish was to be buried in the parish church in Kingston, but there was no pomp or ceremony about his funeral. By his request he was buried in a plain and simple way.
We can see Picton’s physical “footprints.” Picton House is on the High Street in Kingston upon Thames. His house in Thames Ditton still survives and is still one of the largest properties there. We have the records and documents of his life, the business transactions, tax payments, and the parish records. The spot where he was buried in the church is marked with a plaque that simply says “CP 1836.”
Cesar Picton’s story is one of success and he is a positive figure during what was a period of mass enslavement and transportation of African people. But there is more about the man I am curious about. An obvious question for me is, did he encounter racism? Perhaps so, but probably not as we know today. I am making a presumption when I say, there must have been minority issues. Picton was possibly the only black person in Kingston and certainly the only black person who was in such an elevated position. Were people welcoming towards him, to his face and behind his back? Was he accepted, were there jealousies? I would have thought so. What did encounter? Was it actual physical prejudices or more intangible barriers in society?
He never married. Was that because he was black? Pictonwas accepted in the Kingston society as a gentleman. He had many friends, indicated by his will and mourning rings. He was god-father to Sarah Lock Pinner, who was part of a prominent family in Kingston. There was acceptance from society there, but was he accepted on absolute equal terms?
Maybe there was an underlying separation trauma from his childhood. Picton lost his mother, his family, his home. Even if he couldn’t consciously remember his early childhood, there is an argument for an unconscious suffering. Growing up, he was a servant in a grand household. Did he encounter the love of a family as a child? If not, was he able to emotionally connect with people? Did he ever talk to anyone? Picton was very religious, so perhaps he had God.
Picton never actively campaigned against slavery and the slave trade. At least, there is no evidence of that. He could always have been a silent campaigner behind the main activists of the time.
On his death, Picton was rich, but only had a small plaque in the church. Why did he not pay for something larger, with an epitaph? A portrait of him was painted, and he would have had a say in how he was represented. We do not have it today, so we cannot see how he wished himself to be portrayed. It is interesting that he had a portrait of himself, but in death, only a floor plaque with is initials. There are many questions the business records and wills can never answer. These have been lost to history and not matter how much we make suppositions, we will never get under the skin of the scant facts.
Links and references.
Cesar Picton – these appears to be a relatively comprehensive accounts of Cesar’s life:
As always, Wikkipedia offers a good starting point and this article gives a bit more context to Britain at the time:
Picton House, Kingston upon Thames and the people connected with it. 1979. Kingston upon Thames Archaeological Society.
Primary sources are kept at
Kingston Local History Archives – https://www.kingston.gov.uk/info/200239/museums_archives_and_local_history/548/local_history_room_and_archives
The Surrey History Centre – https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre
The National Archives – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
Slavery and the Slave Trade
Understanding Slavery, examining the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade through museum artefacts. – http://www.understandingslavery.com/
Brycchan Carye’s website holds academic resources on slavery – http://www.brycchancarey.com/
The British Library, Campaign for the Abolition of Slavery – https://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/campaignforabolition/abolition.html
Island of Gorée – https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/26/
Sir John Gladstone, Scottish merchant, Member of Parliament and slave owner – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_John_Gladstone,_1st_Baronet