Thomas Pennant and the issue of slavery

Notes from the Curious Travellers team, June 2020.

‘A wolf by the ear’

In 1820, in a letter discussing slavery and the practicalities of emancipation, the former American President Thomas Jefferson used a Classical metaphor to describe the situation:

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, Monticello, 22 April 1820

Bankside smelting works, near Greenfield, engraving after Moses Griffith

Bankside smelting works, near Greenfield, engraving after Moses Griffith

The Latin phrase ‘Auribus teneo lupum’ (I hold a wolf by its ears) is used by several Classical authors and refers to making choices in a dangerous situation: whichever decision is made will bring problems in its wake. For Jefferson, that problem was the undeniable greater good of emancipation (which for him, it should be noted, included removing freed Black people from America) set against the potential of extreme political turmoil to the Union if different states adopted different measures. Historians are still divided over the paradoxes raised by Jefferson and the issue of slavery: he was a powerful advocate of emancipation, but also an enslaver—and, of course, a politician, whose opinions and decisions adapted to circumstance. (See

It is striking that in 1788 – thirty years before Jefferson – Thomas Pennant used exactly same phrase in relation to what he called ‘that terrible business’ and admitted that his thoughts on the subject were ‘strangely divided’.

This document sets out some examples of Pennant’s statements and actions which could give us a clearer picture of what he believed – although, as we have seen, he himself acknowledged that he was conflicted.  A Welsh-language blog on ‘Thomas Pennant, Africa, and Slavery’ written by Ffion Jones for the Curious Travellers project in 2017 explores some of these issues further: (

Comments in the letters

1788: Letter to Richard Bull:

“Yesterday Mrs P. & I returned frm a jaunt to Leverpool. myself with the influenza came back not the better. but by dint of spirits I clambered over the slave ships; & can say no more to that terrible business, than that ‘We have a wolf by the ears.’ I am so unwell at present that I shall refer you to my M. S. Africa for my thoughts: they are strangely divided.”

Unwell and unable to formulate a longer response to the ‘terrible business’ of slavery, the basis of Liverpool’s new prosperity Pennant admits to being ‘strangely divided’ and refers his friend Richard Bull to his ‘manuscript book’ on Africa, part of his decades-long geographical project called ‘The Outlines of the Globe’, most of which was never published; the manuscripts are held in the National Maritime Museum.  As Paul Evans noted in his doctoral thesis on Pennant, ‘Volume XI contains a good deal of information about the slave-trade, much of it having been supplied by a near neighbour, Richard Wilding of Llanrhaeadr Hall near Denbigh’. (Evans (1993) II, p.636).  Wilding had ‘resided twelve years on the coast of Guinea’ and was thus a direct witness of the practices involved; his letters are cited in Pennant’s manuscript.

Bull, one of Pennant’s closest friends, subscribed to the volume of letters published by Charles Ignatius Sancho, who was rescued from slavery as a child. Bull was also comfortable expressing clear anti-slavery sentiments to Pennant in 1795.)

“The field of Politic’s is too large for such a confused head as mine to enter upon, but I hope and trust that all will end in peace, and plenty, and that this little Kingdom, which I feel proud to be a native of, will have had the glory of confirming the rights of all distinctions of people throughout the world, and if it can be done, I hope the slave trade will e’re long be quite at an end”.

Nothing else in the 500 letters of correspondence we have edited to date sheds further light on the issue, but there are many hundreds of letters still in manuscript, and we may in time find more.

Comments in published works

As with the letters, Pennant’s remarks on slavery in his published works are few and far between. There is a gruesome description in British Zoology (1768) of the corpse of an enslaved person being thrown overboard and eaten by a Great White Shark – information which Pennant had from ‘the master of a Guinea ship’, who was trying to ‘prevent the rage of suicide’ among ‘these unhappy creatures’. The ‘objective’ scientific perspective of this text does not quite manage to contain the horror of the account, but Pennant does not use the example to express any political view.

In the first volume of the Tours in Wales (1778) one of the works for which he is best known, he is much less equivocal. Writing of a period under the Saxons when British slaves were among the ‘exports’, Pennant adds:

“The first barbarous traffic was carried on by the Saxons to a great height. The description of the mart is an exact picture of the negro* commerce at present; so little have we emerged from barbarism in that instance”.

The footnote takes the reader to a moving scene from the Life of St Wulfstan, where beautiful ‘young people of both sexes’ are roped like animals and sold into slavery.

The present frequently casts a shadow on the past in Pennant’s writing: to be an antiquarian is not necessarily to be cocooned from contemporary concerns. In Of London (1790) the complex and often brutal relationship between the conquering Romans and the less ‘civilised’, but native, Britons is given a grim modern parallel. Speaking of London during the reign of Tiberius, Pennant remarks:

‘The exports from hence were cattle, hides and corn; and let me add, that slaves were a considerable object. Our internal parts were on a level with the African slave coasts; and wars among the petty monarchs were promoted for the sake of a traffic now so strongly controverted’.

If ancient British Londoners were once treated as Africans are today, the sub-text could read here, should we not recognize some kind of kinship with them? Many years later, the novelist Joseph Conrad would also summon up those early Roman traders in human souls, at the very beginning of his Heart of Darkness.

Greenfield Valley: Cotton-mills and Copperworks

The interpretation panels in today’s Greenfield valley, and the open-air museum at its foot, have long been explicit about the inequalities of power and the atrocities of a ‘triangular trade’ which linked the production of copper trinkets to the ‘purchase’ of enslaved Africans, who would be exchanged in the Americas for raw cotton bales, which might end up being milled in the new buildings powered by the stream from St Winifred’s Well. In his History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell, Pennant explains that by the 1780s ‘the great copper-companies, those behemoths of commerce’, energized by Thomas Williams (‘that useful and active character’) had ‘with unparalleled speed, covered the lower part of the stream […] with buildings stupendous in expence, extent, and ingenuity of contrivance’.[1] Williams (‘Twm Chwarae Teg’, 1737-1802) is remembered today for his highly profitable exploitation of the copper mines in Anglesey, and his market-driven, vigorously anti-abolitionist stance.

Thomas Pennant’s own account of these brass and copper objects is oddly disturbing. Describing the ‘goods for Africa, America and most other markets’ he lists:

brass Neptunes, or large pans in which the Negroes make salt; pans for getting the gold out of their rivers, and for various other purposes; kettles, brass and copper rods; bright and black manillas – the first are rings for the ornaments to the arms and legs; the last for the current money of the country. The last are not unlike the golden bracelets of the antient Britons, the ends turned up and flatted.  (History of the Parishes, p. 211)

Pennant here evokes a vision of a thriving society of Africans busily engaged in profitable activities (salt-making, panning for gold) and delighting in the ‘ornaments’ sent across the sea from the Greenfields mills. The antiquarian twist, likening the manillas to the torques of the ‘antient Britons’, once again connects ‘primitive’ contemporary African society to a British golden age, but this time the vision is more idealized. Nowhere in his detailed and inquisitive accounts of copper and cotton manufacture does he mention the question of how and by whom the raw materials are produced, or acknowledge the harsh facts of the triangular trade. But then, neither did younger and more politically engaged visitors, such as Arthur Aiken, the nephew of Anna Le Barbauld, who visited Greenfields in 1796.

[1] Pennant, History of the Parishes, 204.

Engraving after Moses Griffith, Holywell, Upper and Lower Cotton Mills

Engraving after Moses Griffith, Holywell, Upper and Lower Cotton Mills

Friends on both sides

As Ffion Jones has shown, Pennant was proud of his distant kinship with Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn, whose energetic expansion of the slate industry in Caernarfonshire, and improvement of his own estates, and of the living conditions of his workers, was funded by money from slavery. He writes with enthusiasm of visits to Penrhyn, but, again, in common with virtually every other visitor at the period, does not make an explicit connection between the distant sources of wealth and its effects on the Welsh landscape and economy. Yet he was also a friend and correspondent of the committed abolitionist Joseph Plymley (1759-1838), who seems very likely to have been a source of information about the north coast of Africa, as Pennant gathered material for his ‘Outlines of the Globe’. The surviving letters between Pennant and Plymley are currently being edited and will be published in Curious Travellers Digital Editions in the near future (a north Wales tour written by Joseph’s sister, Katherine Plymley in 1792 can be read at:



Thomas Pennant’s attitude to the issue of slavery cannot easily be summed-up, since it was, as he suggests, ‘strangely divided’. His abhorrence of the nature and conditions of the trade in human beings is very clear, but he does not take an abolitionist stance, and can see how wealth acquired through slavery has brought material and economic benefits to Britain. He has friends on both sides. His antiquarian imagination allows him to equate Ancient Britons and modern Africans in ways which are both sympathetic and troubling. Though he writes nowhere at great length about slavery, he does not ignore it: an interest in the cultures, the geography, landscapes and natural history of other countries brought him into contact with people who had first-hand experience of the north coast of Africa. Slavery was not, therefore, a merely theoretical concern, but unavoidably connected to his work as a naturalist and traveller, and part of the wider story of how British intellectuals at this period constructed their views of the world.

This sample of citations from his work can be taken as representative, but it is not comprehensive: more work on this subject should help to build a clearer picture over time. We will endeavour to add to this survey, and we welcome any further insights and observations from readers of Pennant’s work.

Mary-Ann Constantine for Curious Travellers research team, June 2020.


Further reading:

Chris Evans, Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660–1850 (University of Wales Press, 2021)

Brian Taylor, Human Cargo: A slave trade link with Greenfield Valley (The Friends of the Greenfield Valley Association, 2007)