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1 Oct 2020

Collections diaries – from St Kitts to the Georgian House, Edinburgh

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
A small, silver-mounted coconut shell ladle with a black painted wooden handle is displayed against a plain grey background, resting its handle on a perspex holder.
A small, silver-mounted coconut shell ladle with a black painted wooden handle, National Trust for Scotland Collections, The Georgian House
As the regional curator for Edinburgh and East, I was thrilled when the Georgian House opened again in September. I’d like to share my recent research into one object, which I found quite by accident during documentation work for the property.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of work on the collection at the Georgian House over the last year. Inside the house, we’ve installed a new carpet in the parlour. Whilst at my desk, I’ve been continuing with Project Reveal, our ambitious journey to fully document and digitise our collections. One day, as I was checking the significance of certain items in the dining room, I came across this object and stopped in my tracks.

The punch ladle is delicate in form and unusual in character, but I just could not recall having seen it in person before. While studying the documentation record, all I had to go on was a brief description:

A small silver-mounted coconut shell ladle with a black painted wooden handle, carved with leaf designs and with The Gift of Jas Stephens Esqr. MD St. Kitts, to Alexr. Kidd WS, Edinr. 1790 engraved around the silver rim.

A close-up of the bowl end of a ladle shaped from a coconut shell. The shell has leafy carvings upon it, and has a silver rim with words etched upon it. The silver join to the wooden handle rests to the left.
The inscription on the coconut shell ladle

This made my heart skip – why had I not seen this ladle before? I knew of a James Stephen (1758–1832), a Dorset-born lawyer who was given an official post in St Kitts in the 1780s, went on to marry William Wilberforce’s sister and became heavily involved in the legal battle to abolish the slave trade. But I was looking for ‘James Stephens’, and so probably not the famous lawyer.

Where to begin? Well, I knew the ladle was not original to the property since No. 7 Charlotte Square was not occupied in 1790. The town house was completed six years later and was purchased for £1,800 by John Lamont, 18th Chief of the Argyllshire Clan Lamont.

And, secondly, the National Trust for Scotland has no collections ‘original’ to the Lamonts at the Georgian House. The property is instead filled with decorative arts and furniture donated over the years by kind and generous patrons wishing to help our charity dress this period house.

However, there are significant items in the Georgian House’s collection original to other Edinburgh interiors from this period. This ladle was actually purchased by the Trust from an antiques dealer in Harrogate because of its Edinburgh connections. A number of other objects in the house’s collection have Edinburgh connections, including a hand-stitched mid-Georgian tablecloth, dated 1803, made by Mary Ann Strange. Mary was the daughter of James Strange and Anne Dundas; Anne being the daughter of the 1st Lord Melville, Henry Dundas. Henry Dundas was the Home Secretary in 1792 and was influential in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade 4 years later, as First Secretary of State for War.

Find out more about the legacy of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh

I was aware that money from the West Indies helped to build the New Town and wondered if this small coconut ladle had interesting connections, as it was from the island of St Kitts.

The first step was to discover who Alexr. Kidd WS, Edinr might have been. The WS offered a relatively easy clue: Alexander Kidd WS was a member of the Society of Writers to the Signet, a group of solicitors based in Edinburgh. Thanks to the National Library of Scotland’s online collections, I discovered an Alexander Kidd – noted as a writer – lived on George Street in 1790, the principal street that runs east from Charlotte Square.

Kidd was, more specifically, a writer for the Signet (a solicitor allowed to authorise and supervise the private seal of the Scottish kings and queens). The Society played an important role in the political and social life of Scotland, not least because they had an archive of papers and books that gave them access to many avenues of knowledge, from history to science and the law. This archive was being expanded when Kidd was a member in the 1790s, and then exponentially grew in the first few decades of the 1800s. [1]

The Society also provided funds for vulnerable communities of women, children and the destitute, while administering their own charity, funded by John Watson WS who bequeathed his fortune to support ‘poor children’ in 1853. This led to the John Watson’s Institution school opening for orphans and impoverished children in 1762 (now the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art [One]).

A view of the columned Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. A lawn and curved pond lie in the foreground. The building is long and rectangular, with two storeys of windows visible.
Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Image: Creative Commons

My second line of inquiry was to discover who Jas Stephens Esqr. MD might have been. MD means medical doctor, but I can find no further information about him. He may have been on St Kitts to work. Sugar was a fundamental part of the Scottish economy in the 1700s. A Scots ‘plantation grab’ had occurred in Jamaica and St Kitts from 1711, and in Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada, Guyana, Antigua, and Trinidad and Tobago from 1763. [2]

In 1751, an instruction had been given to a ship’s captain from the British owners: [3]

“proceed to Barbados and apply to Mr Sam Carter merchant there who will advise you the state of prices for slaves at the other islands from which you will Judge whether to proceed further or stop there. If you go to Antigua apply to Messrs George and Ralph Walker and Mr Andrew Lesley. If to St Kitts Messrs Guichard and Scarret, Messrs Payne and Leigh any of which will make the most in Sales give the Earliest despatch and Best remittances where you set down.”
22 May 1751
from archive collections at Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery

These merchants trading slaves in St Kitts were valued in Britain for their networks and links with local plantation owners. Guichard is not noted as owning plantations on St Kitts, but did have a number of estates in surrounding islands. Sir Gillies Payne owned several plantation estates in the St Anne Sandy Point area of St Kitts during the 1750s, and the Leighs were landowners in St Kitts in the 1790s. A Commodore Leigh is noted as having landed in Antigua in 1745 with a ‘fleet of merchant ships’ from England. [4]

By 1796, Scots owned nearly 30% of the estates in Jamaica. By then there was also a professional class of white people who offered services to the landowners, including doctors, lawyers and clerks. I could find no record of James Stephens MD, but – to give you an idea – there is a note of a James Black MD, who made his fortune in Jamaica keeping the enslaved workforce ‘operational’ on sugar estates. He died in Glasgow in 1835, worth £18,000 (roughly £1.5 million today) [5]. There is also record of Scottish doctors owning plantations – James Thomas Caines MD was awarded compensation in 1835 for the loss of 19 enslaved people on the Belle Vue estate on St Kitts. [6]

The closest James Stephens I could find (who may or may not have sent the ladle to Edinburgh) was from Camerton, Somerset. His wife, Elizabeth Paterson Wallen, was from Jamaica. Their only daughter Anne (1782–1830) inherited estates from her grandfather, Thomas Wallen, so it’s likely that Stephens was in the West Indies during the 1780s and 90s. Thomas Wallen had three main estates in Jamaica: in 1754, he’s noted as owning 504 acres of land in St Andrew, 3,327 acres in St Elizabeth and 900 acres in Clarendon. [7] Anne’s son was a beneficiary to the Guilsbro estate, and was compensated in 1835 for 180 enslaved people at £3,288 9s 6d. [8]

Having reached no conclusive answer, I realised that – while it would be wonderful to find the right man – it’s the object itself, its journey and its reason for being, that is actually the most interesting part of the story.

The carved coconut ladle seems to be a European appropriation of the Caribbean tradition for carving coconuts. A goblet in the collection at Brodick Castle, on the Isle of Arran, provides clues as to why a small coconut shell might have been silver-lined and made into a ladle, and sent by a doctor to a solicitor in 1790.

A dark, wooden goblet is displayed against a plain grey background. The top is carved from a coconut shell and has a number of etched illustrations upon it, including an owl. The stem and base have white patterns carved onto them.
The goblet in the Brodick Castle collection

The goblet at Brodick is part of the collection that was acquired when the property was transferred to the Trust in 1958. On top of the goblet’s metal stem is a carved coconut shell that is illustrated with Christian symbolism: a vulning (wounding itself) pelican, representing piety; Christ turning water into wine, symbolising renewal and the sacrament; an owl, representing wisdom; and a cornucopia embraced by the hands of God, to indicate the abundance of life he created. Latin and Hebrew inscriptions are carved around these scenes. Around the base of the bowl, just above the stem, is a circle of carved animals and trees, as well as the date, 1715.

This is a prime example of the kind of luxury object made for a growing collectors’ market in Europe. Coconut shells were considered ‘exotic’ additions to cabinets for curiosities, kept by wealthy people in cities like Edinburgh to demonstrate the extent of their wealth and worldliness. Often the shells were imported from Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, Central or South America and then converted by goldsmiths in Europe.

See a very elaborate example at the State Art Collections of Dresden.

In 17th-century Europe, it was thought the coconut had medicinal and magical properties; specifically, that drinking from a coconut cup would protect you against poisons. In addition to this, coconut goblets and cups were mounted with silver and gold as a demonstration of men’s ability to turn a natural object into a valuable work of art.

A view of the reverse of a wooden ladle, showing the join to the silver handle. A small white label is positioned just below the handle joint.
The reverse of the ladle at the Georgian House

Thinking about this goblet at Brodick while researching the Georgian House ladle helped me position the significance of this object as a gift, and offered clues as to where it may have been turned from a shell into a decorative object. Although I have not found out enough about the lives of the men who exchanged this gift, this small exercise has shown me that it is the trajectory and context of an object’s life – the road it has travelled and how it has been exchanged – that is important.

The maxim ‘the more you learn, the more you realise you do not know’ rings true here, for I am just starting to understand this object. I have hundreds – thousands – of items to study and, at each turn, there are stories to uncover. This is the joy of being a curator, a historian and a researcher!

For more information see:

[1] James Hamilton, ‘The Archive of the Society of Writers to the Signet at the Signet Library, Edinburgh’, Scottish Archives Vol 21 (2015): p 113–129

[2] Stephen Mullen, ‘Ae Fond Kiss, and Then We Sever!’, Variant Magazine, 35, summer 2009

[3] Letter of instructions from the owners of the Chesterfield to William Earle, Captain, for a slaving voyage from Liverpool to Calabar. D/EARLE/1/1-7 SHIPPING PAPERS 1751–1781. Slavery Collections from the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

[4] Vera Langford Oliver, The History of the Island of Antigua, Mitchell and Hughes: London (1894)

[5]‘The plantation system of the British West Indies’, The Saint Lauretia Project, University of Glasgow

[6]UCL database

[7]UCL database

[8] T71/873: claim from Stephen Jarrett, of St James, as owner-in-fee. From: ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’, University College London

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