The Low Wood works, which was established in 1791 to supply gunpowder to the slave trade. Photos by author.

The Lake District and Atlantic Slavery

Nicholas Radburn—

If you think about locations transformed by the transatlantic slave trade, you’ll likely recall American plantations or former slaving forts on the coast of West Africa. You are less likely to think of the English countryside. Nowhere is this truer than Lakeland, a rural area of northwest England that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cultural importance and natural beauty, which is seemingly unmarred by industry and commerce. Lakeland’s picturesque rural villages, dramatic hills, and verdant fields draw sixteen million tourists a year, making the area one of the most popular natural locales in the world. Lakeland thus captures the appealing essence of rural England: comforting, unchanging, and insulated from the outside world.

Despite its carefully cultivated appearance of timeless pastoralism, Lakeland was nonetheless intimately connected to the Atlantic World through the manufacturing of gunpowder for the slave trade. Africans imported millions of guns from Britain, and those weapons became crucial tools for the violence that was at the heart of the slave trade’s operations. Africans required immense quantities of gunpowder to fire this growing arsenal. Africa’s demand for ammunition was, until the second half of the eighteenth century, met by gunpowder mills surrounding London—the historic centre of Britain’s explosives industry. In 1764, though, an enterprising group of businessmen led by John Wakefield, a local Quaker who never owned people or slave ships, founded a new gunpowder mill at Sedgwick, a tiny village on the edge of Lakeland. Twenty-five years later, another consortia led by another local businessmen without direct connections to enslavement established a second powder mill ten miles to the west at Haverthwaite, a hamlet nestled on the banks of the river Leven. Both mills were established specifically to supply the slave trade—ninety percent of the powder that they made would be boated round to Liverpool, and there embarked on slave ships that would carry the powder to Africa to be traded for people.

The new powder mills were constructed in Lakeland because of the same environmental factors that draws so many visitors to the area today: its rural remoteness made it the ideal place to establish works that were prone to catastrophic accidental explosions; rain running off of the area’s dramatic mountains and hills into the region’s iconic lakes create rivers that the powder makers redirected and harnessed to power their mills; and the region’s verdant forests produced charcoal that was a key ingredient in finished powder. Proximity to the sea, which today provides hill climbers with striking views, also connected the powder works to the globe. Rivers allowed gunpowder to be shipped out to Africa, but also provided a link to India, where saltpeter—which comprised seventy percent of gunpowder by weight—was obtained. Lakeland’s natural beauty was therefore harnessed to the needs of the slave trade and was itself transformed by that trade.

Once in full operation, Lakeland’s powderworks were crucial components of the complex supply chains that fed Britain’s African trade both before and after abolition. By 1800, the two works combined produced around half a million pounds weight of gunpowder per annum—enough ammunition to acquire fifteen thousand captive Africans. Because the powderworks made a product that was specifically designed for the African market, the mill’s owners made sizable profits that likely exceeded the returns that could be made from investing in slave ships. Abolition in 1807 briefly put a dent in this lucrative trade, but the powdermakers soon rebuilt their business by supplying gunpowder to the new “legitimate” trade with Africa, especially in palm oil. The mills also retooled after abolition to produce increasing quantities of blasting powder, which was used by miners in northern England to exploit the large quantities of coal and metals that would fuel Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

Wealth flowing into Lakeland from Africa, via the two gunpowder works, was crucial for transforming the area’s economy and environment. The success of the two works established to supply the slave trade encouraged the establishment of five other powder mills in Lakeland during the nineteenth century. Each of these new plants were also hewn out of picturesque river valleys, and then linked to global markets by rivers, canals and, eventually, railroads. By mid-century, this manufacturing complex was the largest producer of African and blasting gunpowder in the country, and a key employer of Lakeland’s residents. Profits from the powderworks were also channelled into local banks that financed the erection of the textile mills, breweries, mines, transportation infrastructure, and agriculture that collectively made Lakeland a vibrant centre of industry by century’s end.

Although most of this industry was swept away by deindustrialization in the twentieth century, Lakeland’s millions of visitors still move through an environment that was shaped by the gunpowder industry and the slave trade. The powderworks themselves were almost all demolished after the First World War as the demand for gunpowder plummeted. The site at Sedgwick, which is now pastureland, appears to the untrained eye as quintessential English countryside that has not changed for centuries. But the site at Haverthwaite still remains. It is now an imposing office space, where tourists take pleasure rides on steam trains along lines that were originally constructed to move powder from the mill. Powdermakers also used their earnings to construct and improve the country houses that are now a defining feature of Lakeland’s rural beauty as well as popular attractions. The pretty villages that adjoined the various powderworks, which were substantially expanded to accommodate the mill workers, also draw large numbers of visitors, most of whom assume they are enjoying places untouched by modernity.

The slave trade’s impacts are therefore hidden in plain sight in Lakeland. While those impacts may not be as immediately obvious as the transformations wrought by the slave trade on the African coast or the Caribbean islands, they were nonetheless important for shaping a rural region that is now a key part of Britain’s tourist economy. If Britain is to reckon with the legacies of its slave trading past, we thus need to considerably widen our view to encompass the surprisingly diverse locations impacted by the deadly business.

Nicholas Radburn is a senior lecturer in Atlantic history at Lancaster University and coeditor of He lives in Lancaster, England, formerly one of Britain’s largest slave-trading ports.

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