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The Slavery Business - Programme 1: Sugar Dynasty

Updated Monday 25th July 2005

Summary of the Sugar Dynasty programme from BBC2's Slavery series

William Beckford of Fonthill holding a party Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

The Beckford family were Britain’s answer to the Borgias. In little over 100 years they transformed themselves from an ordinary middle class family into the richest and most flamboyant dynasty in Europe. Their money flowed from 22 enormous Jamaican sugar plantations worked by thousands of slaves. They were the most flamboyant example of a new class of rich West Indian plantation owners who became the yuppies of Georgian England.

Towards the end of the 18th century two cousins became the inheritors of this vast Beckford fortune. They were both called William, but their lives were radically different. William of Fonthill never set foot in Jamaica. He inherited the bulk of the Beckford fortune and he used that money to live a fantasy life. He wrote the first Gothic novel, composed music and was one of Britain’s most celebrated collectors of art and antiquities. But he also became embroiled in the greatest sexual scandal of Georgian England. With the Beckford name ruined he sought to re-enter public life by building the greatest stately home in Britain – Fonthill Abbey. But this huge Gothic folly and the double dealing of the man who was supposed to manage his wealth meant that the Abbey bankrupted the family. Shunned by society it became William’s pleasure dome where he lived out his exile and watched as the sugar industry that had made him so rich began to slowly collapse.

William of Somerly was the less fortune cousin in that he only inherited four sugar plantations and actually had to dirty his hands by going to Jamaica to oversee them in order to secure his fortune. In 1788 he wrote one of the most remarkable books to come out of the British Caribbean. A descriptive account of the island of Jamaica was a guide book on how slaves should be treated and plantations organised. Through this rare document William exposed the surprising reality of life on a sugar plantation, uncovering how sugar production was the world’s first industrial crop and how plantations were built upon a strange mixture of brutality and co-operation.

From the perspectives of these two cousins this film reveals how slavery worked from the inside and how the greed and dishonesty that it was founded upon eventually destroyed the Beckfords.

First broadcast: Wednesday 10 Aug 2005 on BBC TWO

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