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Beckford grew his fortune in Jamaica, but he spent most of his adult life in London, where he was elected Lord Mayor twice. He was one of the few politicians to have experienced imperial growing pains on both sides of the Atlantic, and his life offers a riveting look at how the expanding empire challenged existing political, social, and cultural norms.
In common with many of the more celebrated architects of Britain's eighteenth-century empire, Colonel Peter Beckford met an untimely death. Although his life personified many imperial challenges and achievements, no artist thought to commemorate his dramatic passing in the manner of a Wolfe, Cook, or Nelson. Yet his last moments on the Kings Parade in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on 3 April 1710 just as surely reflected the troubled origins of Britain's global eminence.
As ever with such dramatic events, accounts of his death vary significantly in their detail, although the circumstances are very clear. Beckford was one of the leaders of a faction in opposition to the island's royal governor, Thomas Handasyd, whose actions over the preceding eight years had alienated many of the Jamaican elite. Clashes between the islanders and the agents of the Crown were standard fare by the early eighteenth century, but Handasyd had managed to stir up a hornet's nest of opposition, and members of the Beckford family were among his key targets as "the chief formentors" of his troubles. He had complained to his masters in Whitehall that the Beckfords were too powerful, and that two of Colonel Peter's relatives had escaped justice after killing fellow colonists. The Colonel's eldest son, another Peter, received particular censure for having stabbed a sixty-year-old judge before the latter could unsheathe his sword and then had used "interest" to escape prosecution. Even on an island whose lawlessness had become notorious, such actions were deemed unacceptable, and Handasyd was determined to bring the family into line.
On the evening of 3 April, Peter Beckford junior was once again at the center of controversy. His connections had promoted him to the dignity of Speaker of the island's legislative assembly, but when it met at 9 PM there was a concerted effort to unseat him. There followed a huge commotion in the assembly room that "put the whole town in an uproar, and murder was cried in several places." The noise reached Colonel Peter in his home nearby, and he dashed toward the courthouse, loudly proclaiming that his son's life was in danger. He did not make it, collapsing en route. At the age of sixty-six, the excitement was clearly too much for him, and all attempts to revive him failed. He died within a few minutes, his end witnessed by a crowd of several hundred, who had gathered to discover the source of the commotion. Local doctor and historian Henry Barham recorded that his body was then conveyed into the courthouse, where it was greeted by "the great grief and lamentation" of two of his sons.
The drama surrounding Beckford's demise was in many ways a fitting end to a remarkable life of political and commercial opportunism. Having first set foot on the island some forty years before as a young man of uncertain prospects, he rose to the pinnacle of Jamaican society, outsmarting and outliving the generation of adventurers who had arrived after the conquest of the island from the Spanish in 1655. He thus represented the great possibilities proffered by imperial expansion, and it is clear that the success of the Beckford dynasty owed much to his personal drive and abilities. As scholars now readily acknowledge, however, success in the Atlantic world was created and maintained by dense networks of support, and the most capable of individuals could not hope to advance without connections in both Britain and the colonies. How those networks evolved, recognizing not only the formal power structures that aided their advance but also the informal associations that developed through a variety of communities and institutions, is the subject of this chapter. The Beckfords highlight how enterprising colonists took advantage of every network at their disposal and adapted readily to changes on both sides of the Atlantic. The roles played by imperialists on the ground were clearly critical to individual and collective success, but the establishment of the Beckfords also demonstrates the importance of changing metropolitan networks of an economic, social, and political variety. Although the transformation of Jamaica was to prove more dramatic, both in terms of scale and character, developments in Britain were just as important for the family and put its members on their mettle to act as efficient brokers between metropolitan and colonial interests.
For certain, the Colonel's progress from young immigrant to island magnate represented remarkable success. Much myth and legend has surrounded Colonel Peter's route to Jamaica, but most accounts agree that his early prospects were not encouraging. Tellingly, much uncertainty remains with regard to his background, although we can be confident that he was baptized at the church of St. James's, Clerkenwell, on 19 November 1643, the son of Peter and Philis. Little is known of his parents, although his father may well have been the Peter Beckford of the Butchers' Company, who apprenticed his son Peter in the summer of 1658. The rank of citizen was still regarded as a respectable station in life at that time, although the Butchers' Company did not rank among the elite liveries due to the nature of its trade, which forced it to the fringes of City life both politically and topographically. Nonetheless, his early career path in Jamaica does not suggest that Peter lacked substantial support, and his parents' proximity to more dynamic branches of the family on London's northwest perimeter would in time help him escape a tradesman's career.
The modesty of his prospects at home remains the most plausible explanation for the decision of young Peter to embark on the hazardous voyage to England's new island possession. Although some accounts would place him on the island by 1661, the exact date of his arrival remains obscure. The first certain record of his presence comes in November 1667, when he bought a half-share of a sugar plantation in St. Catherine's for the considerable sum of £300. This first stake was subsequently consolidated by his securing of patents for a further 900 acres in the parish of Clarendon in September 1668 and June 1669, the deeds of which recorded in their accustomed fashion that he "hath transported himself together with his servants" to the island. According to the patent system at this time, the size of this grant suggests that Peter may have arrived with as many as thirty dependents, in the form of either family, servants, or slaves. These regulations were not strictly enforced, however, and we cannot be sure that he commanded such a significant entourage from the outset. Given his age and background, Peter must have received significant backing to have established this important stake on the island, but the identity of his sponsor (or sponsors) remains elusive.
This estate immediately ranked Peter within the top 10 percent of the island's 700 white landowners. In common with many fellow planters, it appears that he did not have sufficient resources to become an independent sugar planter for many years. Even in the mid-1680s his Clarendon plantations were still listed as pens for livestock, provision farms, or cottonworks, all of which were less capital intensive than sugarworks. In time, this parish was to become very popular with sugar planters on account of its "healthy and pleasant situation, the fertility of the soil, and constant seasons." On the mountainous island, its hills were also lauded for their "gradual easy ascent," and it promised security from potential hostile invaders due to the narrow passageways through the parish. Although situated at least twenty miles from the coast, the estates were close to the source of the Minho and other rivers and were to form the core of the Beckfords' Jamaica holdings for 150 years. Young Peter had thus chosen well, and at a propitious time too, for within a generation the opportunities for such investment had shrunk considerably. While credit must be given to his perceptiveness and drive, his advancement cannot be divorced from the success of other family members on the island or back home in England.
When Peter secured his first patent, the name of Beckford had been circulating in Caribbean circles for at least a decade, if not two. A ship captain, Edward, had transported and traded in West Indian goods and had received a land patent on the island in 1666. More prominently, Richard Beckford, a member of the London Clothworkers' Company, had invested heavily in the island before the Restoration and could boast both the capital and connections to develop a substantial Atlantic trade. He had first developed a considerable business in supplying the navy with cheap clothing (or slops), and in the late 1650s signified his increasing Caribbean interest by diversifying into more exotic products such as cacao nuts. His utility as a contractor also ensured that his business interests survived the Restoration unscathed, and he adapted quickly to the new political regime. Elected as a City alderman in 1667, Richard had close business dealings with some of the leading businessmen of Restoration London, and by 1670 he was held to epitomize the potential of the island, reportedly making £2,000 a year "clear of all his charges." In 1668 he built a splendid City townhouse to telegraph his status in the wake of the Great Fire, and his eminence ensured that its vicinity became known as Beckford Court. Although he remained an absentee landowner, his investment in the island's commerce was critical to the early development of the island and increased the likelihood that Jamaica might transform itself into as successful a commercial enterprise as Barbados. Furthermore, he personified the important link between the early stirrings of England's fiscal-military state and its colonial expansion.
Although it is tempting to identify Richard as Peter's main sponsor, there is no evidence that he supported or traded with Peter in the 1660s. Moreover, even though it is probable that Peter and Richard were related, they were not first cousins, as has often been suggested, and the former could not assume that these distant familial connections would be at his disposal. Indeed, it appears that Peter had to establish himself on the island before a transatlantic family connection could blossom. Accounts of his early years in Jamaica are colored by the factional politics of his later career, but it is clear that his advancement was based on hard work and resourcefulness. Disparaging reports suggested that he had arrived on the island shortly after the conquest with "two or three Negroes" and had made the "beginning of his fortune" by catching horses left by the vanquished Spaniards. A more admiring, firsthand account suggested that he was "bred a seaman" and then established himself as a merchant on the island by the 1680s. This version is also corroborated by later claims to "his great skill in maritime as well as land service." It also remains a more credible, incremental route to riches and is attested by his citation as a merchant of Spanish Town in 1681.
The key to the family's longer-term advancement on the island was its landowning, however, and his trading was combined with increasing investment in planting. His first patents of 166869 were followed by a steady expansion of holdings to over 4,000 acres in the mid-1670s. Connections with Sir Thomas Lynch, governor of the island in 167174, may have facilitated this speculative expansion and may also explain a decisive swing in Peter's politics too. In 1670 Peter had supported Sir Thomas Modyford, whose governorship of 166471 had witnessed an ongoing privateering war with the Spanish, much to the embarrassment of the English Crown. Modyford's replacement by Lynch saw the political tide turn in favor of the planting interest against the island's buccaneers, and Peter became a close associate of the new governor. His new lands placed him ever closer to the apex of the island elite, a status confirmed in 1675 when he first gained election to the island's assembly. Marriage into another leading island family, the Beestons, further cemented his island interest, and on these secure foundations of economic and political power he could hope to build stronger transatlantic connections.
The London branch of the family also continued to prosper thanks to the expansion of Caribbean commerce and to their contacts with government. Richard Beckford remained the most prominent member of the London family until his death in 1679, but his younger brother Thomas was another key figure in the establishment of the Beckford empire. He emulated his brother by becoming an alderman of London and later outdid him by gaining a knighthood and election as lord mayor. These honors reflected an adept political mind, whose access to government was facilitated by his role as a naval contractor. Such dealings brought him into close contact with Samuel Pepys, who found Thomas a convivial yet canny colleague. At times the relationship became too close, for in February 1668 Pepys had severe qualms about accepting a gift of fifty guineas from Thomas, "telling him that it was not an age to take presents in." Pepys eventually relented, only to be further assailed with "a noble silver warming-pan" a few months later. The Beckford brothers were prepared to use any avenue to secure political preferment, including their membership of the City's Clothworkers' Company, where they wined and dined the then undersecretary of state (and honorary clothworker) Sir Joseph Williamson. Conscious of the importance of cultivating City contacts for his own political purposes, the undersecretary was ready to regale the clothworkers as his "brothers," thereby helping to cement the Beckford interest in governing circles.
By the mid-1670s, with the Beckfords a rising force in both island and City politics, the first clear evidence appears of a transatlantic political interest. Significantly, the character of this association was informal, for neither the Jamaican nor the London Beckfords could boast access to executive political favor on the basis of pedigree, government office, or wealth. Instead, both relied on their existing contacts, with Peter hoping that his distant London relations could secure him advancement through the offices of Undersecretary Williamson. Peter's appointment to the patent office of secretary of the island in late 1674 was a sign of his rising stock in London circles, and the strength of this transatlantic connection was further attested that year when Lord Vaughan was appointed governor of Jamaica. Williamson wrote to Vaughan on the eve of the governor's departure in December 1674, urging his support for Peter Beckford, "who is related to some very good friends [of Williamson's] in town." For his own part, Peter was on hand to read out Vaughan's commission on his arrival on the island in March 1675, thereby highlighting the growing political reach of the Beckford connection. Appropriately, the Clothworkers' Company later used a donation from Richard Beckford to purchase a pair of silver flagons, as if to symbolize the importance the brothers invested in the conviviality of City culture. Agencies of varying formality powered and brokered the individual and collective success of both Britons and colonists, and however elevated a position the Beckfords enjoyed on the island, it was clear that their cause could be significantly advanced by friends back in Britain.
Metropolitan connections did not render Peter Beckford immune to the uncertainties of island life and politics, and his ties with Williamson could not prevent his ouster as island secretary on the appointment of a new governor in 1678. Nonetheless, both his wealth and personal qualities demanded the increasing respect of metropolitan authorities. As island secretary, he had had frequent cause to report to government departments in London, and he had developed some intimacy with various officials. Furthermore, his bravery and military skills were in great demand in an era of constant threat from Spanish and French invasion. His appointment as major of the island's forts in 1683 after the reinstatement of Sir Thomas Lynch as governor was not simply a political favor, for by then he had established a reputation for action, with commendations as "singularly fit" for the post, "having some knowledge of gunnery, and being very active, honest and sober." In turn, his growing status on the island cemented his interest with the City's commercial elite, who could provide vital services in the metropolis. Sir Bartholomew Gracedieu was a key ally in London by the mid-1680s, who signaled the bilateral benefit of their relationship by empowering his "trusty friend" the Colonel to act for his interests in Jamaica. Subsequently an MP and colonial agent (political representative) for the island, Gracedieu was particularly well connected and later worked to promote Jamaican interests with Gilbert Heathcote, the most influential City figure of his generation.
These links were tested by the stormy political world of the Restoration era, both in England and across the Atlantic. On the island, Beckford established himself in the 1680s as a leading supporter of Sir Thomas Lynch, whose backing for the island's planting interest again brought him into direct confrontation with Sir Henry Morgan's buccaneers. This factionalism threatened Peter's position on the island, and his prospects were also imperiled by metropolitan divisions and crises. Although Sir Thomas Beckford was prepared to trim his sails in accustomed family fashion during the Whig-Tory battles of the late 1670s and early 1680s, on several occasions he appeared more a liability than an asset, thanks to several clashes with government departments over unpaid clothing contracts. Furthermore, the bitterness of these party disputes inevitably resounded on both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the death of Sir Thomas in 1685 left the family exposed during the turbulent reign of James II. Colonel Peter lost his post as major of the forts after the arrival of Governor Albermarle in 1687 and was restored only after the Glorious Revolution after a volley of testimonies had proclaimed his abilities and loyalties to the court. One petition mustered an impressive roll call of eighty signatures, encompassing leading London traders as well as planters and merchants from the island. Beckford could also call upon Gilbert Heathcote to present it.
Excerpted from William Beckford by Perry Gauci Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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