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6 Oct 2021

Facing Our Past: the difficult history of mahogany

Written by Dr Désha A Osborne
A large wooden bookcase with glass doors at the top. The shelves are filled with china plates instead of books. A chair with a decorative carved back stands either side of the bookcase.
George II mahogany bookcase, 1730–69, at Castle Fraser | © National Trust for Scotland
As part of a blog series for our Facing Our Past project, Dr Osborne takes a look at the use of mahogany in cabinet making during the 18th century – and the terrible price paid for it.

What connects transatlantic slavery, Caribbean deforestation and the rise of Britain’s greatest period of cabinet making? A clear answer is mahogany, which for the last five centuries has been considered the highest quality material to be used in furniture design – but this has come at a devastating cost.

Furniture and furnishings made of mahogany and manufactured by the greatest woodworkers and cabinet makers in Britain can be found throughout the great houses and castles of Scotland, including many National Trust for Scotland properties. However, when discussing the uses and beauty of mahogany, what often gets ignored is its source. Unlike other ‘New World’ agricultural products that were imported and then planted in the UK, mahogany was sourced only from Caribbean islands. As with other colonial commodities like sugar cane, for 300 years it was harvested primarily using the forced labour of enslaved Africans.

The word ‘mahogany’ is derived from the Yoruba word oganwo – the assumption is that the enslaved Africans in the West Indies observed its similarity to West African khaya trees. [1] The earliest recorded use of mahogany in Europe is found in the monastery of King Philip II’s El Escorial palace completed near Madrid in 1584, but the Spanish/Indigenous Caribbean name for the wood (caoban) was used to describe the West Indian variety until the British began exporting it. This trade began in the mid-17th century, following England’s capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655.

In Britain, the first recorded use of mahogany wood indigenous to the Caribbean islands (Swietenia mahagoni) is found in Nottingham Castle in 1680. It wasn’t long before Scottish merchants in coastal cities joined the trade. Mahogany’s golden age, forestry expert F Bruce Lamb wrote, lasted between 1725 and 1825, a period that directly correlates with the shift to exclusive use of slave labour by merchants and loggers in Jamaica.

A four-layered wooden chest of drawers stands at the side of a room, with a rug laid on the floor in front. It has two smaller drawers on the top layer, with three wider drawers beneath.
Mahogany chest of drawers at Craigievar Castle | © National Trust for Scotland

Jamaican mahogany, also called Jamaica wood and West Indian/Spanish/Cuban mahogany when found in other islands, was already becoming scarce in accessible areas along the coast by 1735; thereafter, woodcutters had no choice but to travel to high, inaccessible hills throughout the island. Even after the decline in the production of West Indian mahogany, merchants from the region still dominated the logging industry. Shipments of the Honduran variety (Swietenia macrophylla), originating on the Mosquito Coast (an area which now forms part of the eastern coastline of Nicaragua and Honduras), were sent through Jamaica. By 1765 the colony of Belize, where Scots were a big presence, was entirely supported by logging operations and was granted a constitution by the Government of Jamaica. [2]

The felling of mahogany trees in Jamaica’s interior also made way for more space for plantations and grasslands. While sugar remained the most profitable product from the West Indies, logging provided an additional source of income. Years before Susan Euphemia Beckford, wife of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton of Brodick Castle, received her inheritance from her father William Beckford, his Westmoreland sugar estate in Jamaica had been increased significantly by the cutting and sale of 63,334 feet of mahogany, which was shipped to Britain. [3]

“Plantation owners and enslavers in the West Indies were relieved to get rid of their mahogany, not only because of the extra profit from sales but also due to the additional benefit of removing a source of natural shelter for enslaved people looking to escape.”
Dr Désha A Osborne
A head and shoulders photograph of a woman, slightly turning to face the camera. She wears a black roll-neck jumper and gold hoop earrings.

This period of Jamaica’s history coincides with the First Maroon War of 1728 and Tacky’s Revolt in 1760, two of the most significant slave revolts in the Caribbean that inspired others throughout the region.

In discussions about mahogany furniture in the 18th century, the daily toil endured by the enslaved in the West Indies and Central America to produce the millions of feet of mahogany necessary to sustain an industry has rarely been considered until recently. For the enslaved men, women and children who were forced to do this work, life was strenuous. Jennifer Anderson, in her book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (2012) details that in Jamaica, enslaved Africans worked on and off for three months in gangs of 30 to 40. The men were the principal cutters and haulers, while the women worked to drag and clean up the heavy branches that the children then bundled. [4] It should be noted that some of the captured Jacobites also found themselves forced to work in cutting gangs, including James Gordon, first son and heir of Charles Gordon, 6th Laird of Terpersie who, found guilty of treason, was hung, drawn and quartered in 1746. [5] James died in Jamaica in 1766.

The hard, resilient, close-grained nature of mahogany made it popular amongst master craftsmen like Chippendale (who almost exclusively worked with West Indian mahogany), the Adam brothers, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. The Swietenia mahagoni variety, felled and harvested through the forced labour of enslaved people in West Indies, was the most popular and the most expensive. Sheraton was known to prefer the other Central American varieties, which were also extracted through forced labour. Mahogany was popular with the mercantile communities that developed in Scottish port cities like Leith, Dundee, Montrose and Aberdeen. [6]

A wooden clock with the dial at the top and a long wooden tail hangs on a white wall, apparently attached to metal railings.
Mahogany wall clock made by Matthew Worgan, Bristol, 1770–79, on display at Culzean Castle | © National Trust for Scotland

Mahogany of both varieties that was cut during this period in the 18th and early 19th centuries is found throughout National Trust for Scotland properties. Culzean Castle has many impressive furnishings and furniture made from mahogany including tables and carved chairs; a chamber organ made by Broderip & Wilkinson; a wall clock dating to the time of George III (see above); bannisters; and two urns made by Sheraton. The George III mahogany chest at Craigievar Castle is amongst the estate’s most interesting objects. At Castle Fraser, there is a mahogany bookcase standing between portraits of Colonel Charles Mackenzie Fraser and his wife Jane Hay in the dining room (see main picture); while the Trust’s first curator, David Learmont, catalogued items in the Georgian House including a Sheraton-style mahogany case for the barrel organ and a portable mahogany water closet. [7]

A mahogany cabinet attributed to William Brodie is still in the collection at Malleny House. [8] The 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Argyll, whose family owned the island of Iona for nearly 300 years before it was sold and given to the Trust, purchased 3,000 feet of Jamaican mahogany to complete the windows of the family home at Inveraray Castle. [9] Another notable example is at Newhailes House, where cabinet maker Daniel Millar of Glasgow (father-in-law of inventor James Watt) supplied Sir James Dalrymple, 2nd Baronet with a set of gilded mahogany doors in 1742. [10]

Mahogany’s popularity as a furniture material continued throughout the 19th century. Upon her marriage to John Kennedy-Erskine of the House of Dun in 1827, William IV gifted his daughter Lady Augusta FitzClarence a four-poster mahogany bed. [11]

These items, although beautiful to look at, have a far more complex history than may first meet the eye.

Dr Osborne is working with the National Trust for Scotland on our Facing Our Past project. She teaches literature at Hunter College, City University of New York, and was the 2019 Daiches-Manning Memorial Fellow in 18th-century Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

[1] F Bruce Lamb, Mahogany of Tropical America: its ecology and management (University of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 16

[2] Ibid, p. 16

[3] Jennifer Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 70

[4] Ibid, p. 64

[5] J M Bulloch, The House of Gordon, vol. II (Aberdeen: New Spalding Club, 1907), p. 195

[6] Sheila Mackay, Behind the Façade: Four Centuries of Scottish Interiors (Edinburgh: HMSO/RCAHMS, 1995), pp. 21–23; p. 56

[7] Magnús Magnússon, Scotland’s Castles and Great Houses (New York: Harmony Books, 1981), pp. 45, 65 and 73

[8] Francis Bamford, A Dictionary of Edinburgh Wrights and Furniture Makers 1660–1840 (Furniture History Society, vol. 19, 1983), p. 167

[9] Ian Gordon Lindsay, Inveraray and the Dukes of Argyll (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1973) p. 119

[10] Mackay, Behind the Façade (1995), p. 68

[11] Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and Christopher Simon Sykes, Great Houses of Scotland (London: Laurence King, 1997), p. 172

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