Orkney and the West African connection

By Virginia Schroder

While Orkney’s connections with Hudson’s Bay are well-known, its connections with West Africa are not. Though far fewer people were involved, it was a path to wealth for those participating.

West Africa was the source of the enslaved people who were trafficked across the Atlantic to provide the labour on the plantations of the Americas and the West Indies. That there was ‘legitimate’ trade, that is, not directly involving slaves, is certain. However, the goods imported, such as guns and gunpowder, textiles, foodstuffs, pots and pans, beads, knives, tobacco and alcohol, were the goods used to facilitate the slave trade and those involved after abolition of the slave trade often had connections from pre-abolition days.

The contemporary economic thinking was that trade with Africa was a very good thing, both for stimulating British exports and shipping and, most importantly, as a source of labour to produce sugar, tobacco, cotton and rum in the New World.

A Treatise of 1772 called it:

‘the first principle and foundation of all the rest; the main spring of the machine, which sets every wheel in motion.’[i]

Members of one Orkney family illustrate these aspects and show how money acquired in West Africa found its way to Orkney.

Robert Heddle

Robert Heddle was born in 1780, the seventh of the sixteen children of John Heddle, Town Clerk of Kirkwall and Elizabeth Flett, from South Ronaldsay. Robert, like his father, trained as a ‘writer’ and practised as such for a few years but without enthusiasm.  His mother wrote, in 1797, that it was ‘high time he was at a business he meant to pursue thro’ life.’[ii]  Seven years later he enlisted as paymaster in the Royal African Regiment of Foot in Senegal, West Africa. His eldest brother, John, was already in Africa, working as a doctor with the Royal Africa Corps in Goree. This was a far from desirable outfit, made up from deserters from other regiments, released prisoners and a few free black soldiers. [iii]

As well as his army duties, Robert soon started trading privately at Goree Island and Senegal,both slave-exporting centres. In 1817, Robert came home. For some time, he had been buying property back in Orkney with the help of brother-in-law, Patrick Fotheringhame and Patrick’s son William. William told him of the sale of the Melsetter estates, on Hoy, owned by the Moodie family. In July 1818, Robert bought the Melsetter estate, on Hoy, for £24,000, in cash, from the Moodie family. Four months later he married Major Moodie’s daughter, Henrietta.[iv]They went on to have eight children.[v]

Buying Melsetter did not leave much of a dent in his savings, as Robert returned to Orkney with a considerable fortune. Though in 1809 he was only deputy assistant commissary general at Senegal, the equivalent of a lieutenant, he brought back £90,000,

‘a circumstance which suggests that being a regimental paymaster in those days afforded ample opportunities for personal enrichment,’ as one commentator wryly puts it.[vi]

A descendant who transcribed a great deal of Heddle family correspondence, is at pains to state that his wealth was ‘honourably acquired,’[vii] presumably hoping thereby to deflect readers from coming to the conclusion that such a sum of money might be tainted by involvement in the slave trade.

At the same time as he acquired Melsetter, Robert paid £1,300 for the whole of Rackwick, in the north of the island of Hoy. In 1820 he paid land tax of £1,015 on all his extensive property.[viii] He added Pharay, Little Rysaay and Papa Stronsay to his estate and continued to buy up tracts of land as they became available.

Heddle gave parcels of land around Hoy and in Papa Stronsay, Stronsay, South Ronaldsay and Sandwick in the West Mainland to his friends[ix]  including Matthew Forster and Ralph Smith of the merchant house Forster & Smith, the main British company dealing with West African trade.[x] Their close ties are shown by the fact that the firm named one of their ships the Robert Heddle. This ship was reported to be trading illegally with Da Souza, a notorious slave trader.[xi] Further land was given to on Stronsay, South Ronaldsay, Sandwick, Rodneiphead in Rothiesholm, Stronsay and the whole of Papa Stronsay.[xii]

It is not very likely that affluent London merchants would especially want parcels of land on remote islands but having this land made them eligible to vote in Orkney parliamentary elections. At that time, in Scotland, when out of a population of about 2.6 million people only 4,500 men were eligible to vote in parliamentary elections, this was significant.

By parcelling off land to his friends in this way, Robert Heddle retained his estate but created a group of people who would be eligible to vote and would be guaranteed to vote the way he wanted and so steer local and more particularly British politics. Forster, and Smith are listed among the forty-nine freeholders of Orkney & Shetland in 1828 [xiii] and Forster was a land tax commissioner for Orkney in 1836.[xiv]

Such manoeuvring was especially common ‘among the ‘nabobs’ or individuals who amassed fortunes in British colonies and the West Indies.[xv] By 1841, Robert Heddle owned two-thirds of the parish of Walls. He maintained his business connections with Forster throughout his life, writing to him shortly before his death regarding investing money as he was ‘mighty prosperous at the moment.’ Heddle died in January 1842 and was buried in St Magnus Cathedral.

Charles Heddle

The West Africa link continued through Robert’s nephew, Charles Heddle (1812-1889), son of Robert’s brother John, the army doctor at Goree. John had children by his African mistress, Sophy Boucher. One son, James, became a merchant at Cape Coast Castle.[xvi]  John Heddle killed himself shortly before Charles was born.

The young Charles was brought to Scotland by his uncle, Robert, who paid for his education, in Kirkwall and later at Dollar Academy.[xvii] In 1832 Robert placed Charles in the London office of Forster & Smith. Two years later he went to Bathurst, Gambia, where he became a pioneer in the peanut trade and bought timber factories. By 1840 he was established in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as a ‘correspondent,’a sort of trading partner, of Forster & Smith. Charles soon became the largest merchant in the colony. His own ships carried peanuts and timber from his factories to Freetown.He exported palm nut kernels used as cattle food and in the manufacture of margarine.[xviii]

The explorer, Sir Richard Burton, wrote that Charles was:

‘the most enterprising merchant in Sierra Leone.’[xix] 

He sent thousands of pounds to London for investment on the stock market and into property. [xx] Charles appears, at some point, to have even had his own money printed.[xxi] How he made his money is not clear as profits from import/export from Sierra Leone then were limited. The Royal Navy anti-slavery patrols intercepted slave ships of other nations and escorted them to Sierra Leone where the slaves were freed. It has been suggested that these freed slaves were taken on to work on his peanut plantations, possibly for little payment – literally working for peanuts.[xxii]

In 1860 he wanted to rent Westove in Sanday, the only large property on the Orkney market.  He asked his cousin, W H Fotheringhame to handle it but Fotheringhame tried to discourage Charles:

I notice that you write of your voice having gone and your sight. I would ask you to consider if you have in view a residence in making a purchase in Orkney how far the climate will agree with you. [xxiii]

Charles did not take Westove but five years later he enquired regarding buying Fair Isle for £4,000.[xxiv] Fotheringhame sent him details, a map and a copy of Peace’s Orkney Gazetteer. It would seem that Heddle never bought the island.

In 1870, ill and crippled, Charles went to live in a chateau outside Paris.  When he was seventy-six he married for the first time, his wife being a twenty-two-year-old divorcee. Described as ‘the Rothschild of West Africa,’[xxv] in 1887 he moved to another chateau near Cannes. When he died, in 1889, he left a fortune of almost half a million pounds including a large bequest to Kirkwall, for charitable purposes. [xxvi] What happened to this is unclear. Orkney relatives were not happy about his will:

Prof Heddle is I hear much annoyed that neither his son nor himself has got anything after Charles Heddle who died lately and left a large fortune. He had recently, though a very old man, married a young American lady divorced from her husband … and leaves her nearly everything, only £20,000 to his own son.[xxvii]

Francis Dind

In 1830, Charles Heddle’s cousin, Francis Dind, qualified in anatomy, surgery and pharmacy from Edinburgh University and set sail for West Africa. He took up the post of surgeon at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast. For nearly 150 years Cape Coast Castle had been ‘the grand slave emporium of the British slave trade.’[xxviii] The castle’s upper floors contained living and working accommodation including a chapel, a great hall, and hospital. The slave-holding quarters were at ground level. Around 1,000 male slaves and 500 female slaves were stored in the castle at any one time, locked up for between six to twelve weeks, awaiting the slave ships’ arrival.

Dind arrived post-abolition of the slave trade but it would be another three years before the act abolishing slavery itself. Other countries were very much still engaged in the trade, either openly or covertly. There were rumours that British merchants were knowingly trading with slavers, supplying them with water and food for the Middle Passage to the West Indies. The region had a poor reputation as ‘a refuge and a repository for the unrespectable.’[xxix]

Not for nothing was the area known as The White Man’s Grave. The death rate for Europeans was extremely high. Nearly 60% died in the first eight months of arriving on the coast. If they built up some immunity and survived beyond this time, the death rate decreased but still about 25% died.

The clue as to why men went there, lies in its name. There was gold to be had and even those with other occupations dabbled in trading, as did Dind in what he called:

‘this land of gold … as our Boys say to us when we tell them to look for anything we may have lost, and ask them if they have found it, Oh yes! Masa! I find him, but I no catch him. That is, they look for it but can’t find it, so with us and the gold.’[xxx]

In 1839, Dind, wrote to the Kirkwall parents of trader, Thomas Fotheringhame, about their son:

…. he got better until Monday afternoon 5th August when fever again set in strongly and in the morning of the 7th at 8 he breathed his last … all my efforts went in vain, my only consolation is that I have done every thing I could – I cannot express to you how much I feel the grief that this letter will convey to you all … he was a fine young fellow … The Season has been very unhealthy – of four who have come out within the last 6 months only one survives…

Dind, himself, died at Cape Coast Castle soon after.[xxxi]

Other Orcadians worked on the Gold Coast at around this time, four from the parish of Harray alone, obtaining their posts through networks of association that can be traced back to Robert Heddle.

Heddle Family Tree showing West African Connections

Heddle Family Tree showing African connections credit: Virginia Schroder

Also by Virginia Schroder: Orkney and Slavery–‘I have at present 36 negroes, besides stock…’


[i] Priestley, Margaret 1989 West African Trade and Coast Society: A Family Study p3

[ii] Orkney Archive D1/34 Heddle Papers: transcriptions – letter of 1797

[iii] Another brother, Alexander, was also a lieutenant in the Royal Africa Corps.

[iv]Three generations of Heddles owned Melsetter until 1898, when Robert’s grandson, John George Moodie Heddle, sold it to Thomas Middlemore.

[v]www.heddle.com/tng/getperson.php?personID=I26&tree=tree001& x.heddle.com/FamilyOfHeddleOfCletts.htm

In 1802, before leaving Orkney, Robert had a daughter, Amelia, by Janet Henderson. When he came back from Senegal he set her up in business as a dressmaker and milliner at 66 George Street, Edinburgh. While in Senegal, between 1810 and 1815, Robert Heddle had four daughters with a local woman. After her death, all the girls came to England and attended boarding school in Hackney, London, where two died. The two remaining girls, Emily and Rosalie Harriet were brought to Edinburgh. Rosalie died young but Emily lived until aged 80.


[vii]Orkney Archive D1/34 Heddle Papers: transcriptions p20

[viii] Peterkin, Alexander 1820 Rentals of the ancient earldom and bishopric of Orkney pp114-116 (Lord Dundas paid £7,719 in comparison)

[ix]Other parcels of land sold or given by Robert Heddle at the same time went to Francis Dind, Lieut. Alex. Heddle, Royal African Corps, and WH Fotheringhame.

[x]Orkney Archive – Orkney& Shetland Sasines 1821 RS43/2 Matthew Forster, Merchant, London & George Fraser of Park, seised, in life rent and fee respectively March 9 1821 in the superiority of parts of the lands and estate of Melsetter and Snelsetter viz the lands of Brims & Skibister, Kirbister, Aith & Aithsdale, Bloodquoy, Thurvoe, Haybreck, Oraquoy, Lyness, the Banquet land, in Walls – Skows, Teinds … and 3 cowsworth of lands.

[xi] Report from Committees Vol.8 1842 House of Commons Select Committee on West Coast of Africa p619

[xii]Orkney Archive – Orkney & Shetland Sasines RS43/2

[xiii]Edinburgh Almanac 1828 p223

[xiv] A collection of the public general statutes passed in the year 1836


[xvi] Fyfe, ChristopherA History of Sierra Leone p239

[xvii]Orkney Archive D1/34 p92

[xviii]In the town of Bonthe in Sierra Leone, from where he first exported palm kernels, there is a Heddle Street named after him and a Heddle Swamp, while in Freetown there is a Heddle Street and Heddle Lane. Today Heddle’s Farm, Charles’ mountain home at 600ft above sea level and with a climate very different from that in the town below it, is one of the tourist attractions of Sierra Leone. The house is long derelict but the grounds form a botanic garden. (Bradt’s Travel Guide to Sierra Leone p210)

[xix] Burton, Richard 1863 Wanderings in West Africa Vol 1 pp202-3

[xx] Fyfe, Christopher in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49291

[xxi] www.pjsymes.com.au/articles/sierraleone/htm -The Colonial paper money of Sierra Leone ‘In the Standard Catalog or World Paper Money there is an illustration of an unissued one-pound note prepared for Charles Heddle. How many notes, in what denominations, and for how long the notes were issued by Heddle can only be speculated.’

[xxii] Sherwood, M personal communication paper ‘Legitimate’ traders, the building of empires and the long-term after-effects in Africa

[xxiii]Orkney Archive D1/3Heddle Papers: transcriptions – p327

[xxiv] Orkney Archive D1/34 Heddle Papers: transcriptions p334

[xxv] Marwick, Ernest 1965 William Balfour Baikie, Explorer of the Nigerp13

William Balfour Baikie, the Orcadian leader of the Niger Expedition of 1854, died in Charles’s house in Freetown in 1864.

[xxvi] Fyfe, Christopher Oxford Dictionary of National Biography www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49291

[xxvii]Orkney Archive D8/4/12/1 Letter from JG Moodie Heddle to JW Cursiter

[xxviii] St Clair, William 2006 The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle & the British Slave Trade

[xxix] St Clair, William 2006 The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle & the British Slave Trade p 91

[xxx]Orkney Archive D1/34 Heddle Papers: transcriptions – letter of 23/9/1834

[xxxi] Heddle p195 Dind’s will can be read online at National Archive Ref PROB11/2030/357

Slave shackles Stromness Museum

Slave shackles in Stromness Museum image credit: Virginia Schroder

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