John Pinney was a plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and a sugar merchant based in Bristol after 1784. He had inherited the sugar plantations from a cousin in 1762. He spent 19 years in Nevis, running his estates, and then moved back to England as a very wealthy man. He set up in business as a sugar merchant, acting as agents for plantation owners. He sold their sugar for them, arranged supplies for the plantations, and lent money to those in debt. If the loan was not repaid, he took over the plantation and the slaves on it in payment. Like the majority of plantation owners and merchants involved in the slave and sugar trades, he was opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. But, like the Baillie family, when slaves were given their freedom in 1834, the Pinney family gained financially from the compensations given to them by the government. The Pinney family claimed £36,396 (worth almost £1,800,000 today) in compensation for their interests in a large number of slaves on family and other plantations. It is not clear whether they received the whole amount. The Pinneys did receive £29,069, according to research, worth almost £1,500,000 today.
The papers belonging to the Pinney family are now in the Library of the University of Bristol. They cover the management of the plantations by various family members, and of the sugar business run by John Pinney in Bristol. Most of the papers are strictly business and do not tell us much about their personal opinions or feelings. The following extract refers to the Bristol merchants involved in the slave trade and how owning their own ships tied up a lot of their money. It is from a 1789 letter to Ulysses Lynch, a friend on Nevis, explaining his position.
“Ship-owning at this port is a much more serious affair than it is in London, where the merchant seldom holds more then a 16th, and often no part at all; whereas our ships are entirely owned by ourselves, which in the first place ties up a large sum of money which might be more profitably employed in procuring consignments and in the next place makes it absolutely necessary that we should find freight both out and home for them, without which they must prove very sinking funds indeed.”
Pinney was a sugar merchant and a plantation owner, so some letters refer to the slaves he owned. These extracts are from letters written to a friend at home in the 1760s and to his plantation manager from Bristol in 1800. In one he talks about his introduction to the buying and selling of slaves, and how his uneasiness was soon calmed by his religious thinking. He wrote:
“I can assure you I was shock’d at the first appearance of human flesh exposed for sale. But surely God ordained ’em for the use and benefit of us: otherwise his Divine Will would have been made manifest by some particular sign or token.’
In another letter, Pinney is giving orders to his manager for the visit of Thomas Wedgwood, the son of a campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade, Josiah Wedgwood. Pinney is obviously aware of the need for anyone connected with the campaign to abolish the slave trade to see how well slaves are treated. He wanted to impress the Abolitionist with his kindly treatment of the slaves. He wrote:
“Do not suffer a negro to be corrected in his presence, or so near for him to hear the whip – and if you could allowance the gang at the lower work, during his residence at the house, it would be advisable [that is, give the slaves less work] – point out the comforts the negroes enjoy beyond our poor in this country, drawing a comparison between the climates – show him the property they possess in goats, hogs, and poultry, and their negro-ground [gardens for growing their own food]. By this means he will leave the island possessed with favourable sentiments.”