10 September 1779|
St Kitts, British West Indies
|Died||13 May 1852
Bath, Somerset, England
|Occupation||Slave owner, landowner, magistrate, High Sheriff|
Nathaniel Wells (10 September 1779 – 13 May 1852), was the son of a Welsh merchant and a black slave. After inheriting his father's plantations, Wells became a wealthy land owner, magistrate, the second black person to hold a commission in the Armed Forces of the Crown (after Captain John Perkins). He was also Britain's first black High Sheriff.
Wells was the son of William Wells, who emigrated from a rich Cardiff family to St Kitts, where he was a successful slave trader and latterly became a wealthy plantation owner. After his British wife died, William began fathering children by his slave women – at least six, all by different women. Although rape was a well known practice, Wells looked after both the children and their mothers, giving them their freedom and sums of money to live on—including Nathaniel's mother, Juggy, and leaving the bulk of his estate to Nathaniel.
Return to Wales
Wells' father sent him to London to be educated. On completing his education he stayed in Britain and seems to have been accepted despite his colour and illegitimacy by other members of high society, becoming a respected land owner in Monmouthshire. Wells also became a magistrate, sitting in judgement over white people at a time when most black people in Britain's colonies – including on Wells' own estates – would have had no rights to such a court hearing.
Wells managed his inherited sugar plantation estates like any other absentee white owner. Wells would have had little control over the way the slaves he owned were treated, as the estates were leased out to local managers. The punishment of slaves by one of these managers was singled out for criticism by abolitionists and became the subject of an abolitionist tract, although it would appear that this was with the tacit consent of Wells, who refrained from suppressing its publication in the Courts. There were only supposed to be 39 lashes administered in a certain period of time, while it was alleged that this manager gave 39 lashes plus a "brining" – putting pepper water onto those lashes to make the slaves scream.
Piercefield House and Monmouthshire
In 1802, he bought Piercefield House, Chepstow from Colonel Mark Wood, after agreeing to buy it for £90,000 over dinner. Wells added to Piercefield until it reached almost 3,000 acres (12 km²). He continued the tradition of allowing visitors access to the grounds of his estate, among them the landscape painter Joseph Farington, who having met him in 1803 noted in his diary: "Mr Wells is a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro".
Wells seems to have taken a full part in local society. In 1804 he was appointed a churchwarden of St Arvans Church near Piercefield, a position he held for 40 years. Together with the Duke of Beaufort he contributed to the upkeep of the church fabric, and St Arvan's distinctive octagonal tower (1820) was his gift. In 1806 he was appointed a Justice of the Peace, while in 1832 he was on the committee of the Chepstow Hunt.
On 20 June 1820 Wells was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Chepstow Troop of the Yeomanry Cavalry of Gloucestershire and Monmouth. This makes Wells the second black person to be commissioned into the Armed Forces of the Crown and no more black officers are known to have been commissioned until Walter Tull almost one hundred years later. However, Yeomanry commissions were signed only by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, not by the King as were regular army commissions and those in the later Special Reserve as held by Tull. Wells' military service was not just an honorary role. As Lieutenant Wells, it is recorded that he took part in action against striking coal-miners and iron workers in South Wales in 1822. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 11 May 1822 reprinting an article from the Bristol Mercury recorded that: "It was then decided that a party of the cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Wells, of Piercefield, should form a kind of advance guard, and should precede the main body by about a mile, to prevent the breaking up of the roads." However, the road ran along a steep-sided valley, and his party came under attack from the iron workers who threw down large stones and rocks. Even with the arrival of the rest of the Yeomanry, and the reading of the Riot Act, the road could not be cleared, and was not until three hours later, with the arrival of the regular cavalry of the Royal Scots Greys behind the workers, that the road was cleared. He resigned his commission on 7 August 1822.
Eventually and in light of his failing health, Wells sold Piercefield to John Russell (1788–1873) in 1850. Wells had been married twice (his second wife was called Esther), and had 22 children. Two of his sons became clergymen and the eldest, Nathaniel Armstrong Wells (1806–1846), an author, writing and illustrating an account of his travels through Spain.
Wells died in Bath, Somerset, in 1852 at the age of 72, worth an estimated £100,000.
- W. H. Wyndham-Quin, The Yeomanry Cavalry of Gloucestershire and Monmouth (1898), republished by Golden Valley in 2005, ISBN 0-9542578-5-5
- BBC – South East Wales History – Remembering Slavery: Nathaniel Wells: The Black Welsh Slave Owner
- In the 18th century "Juggy" was a common English pet-form of "Joan". In later records however, Wells's mother is referred to as "Joardine" Wells, , possibly a variant spelling of "Jourdaine".
- Gwent Archives.
- J. A. H. Evans, "Wells, Nathaniel (1779–1852)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2008.
- History of St Arvan's.
- "Britain's First Black Justice of the Peace?" National Archives.
- "No. 17326". The London Gazette. 27 January 1818. p. 188.
- Archives Network Wales – Nathaniel Wells of Piercefield, Manor of Portcasseg, Surrenders of Land
- Wyndham Quin, p. 78.
- Wyndham Quin, p. 81.
- "Riots in Monmouthshire". Jackson's Oxford Journal. Oxford (3602): 1. 11 May 1822.
- "No. 17912". The London Gazette. 8 April 1823. p. 564.
- Nathaniel Armstrong Wells, "The Picturesque Antiquities of Spain". Gutenberg Project.
- " A monumental inscription in a church at St. Arvans in south Wales". Data Wales.
- St Arvans Church. Church History