Richard Atkinson was in his late 30s and approaching a milestone he had long feared - the age at which his father died – when one day he came across a box of old family letters gathering dust in a cupboard.
This discovery set him on an all-consuming, highly emotional journey, ultimately taking him from the weather-beaten house of his Cumbrian ancestors to the ruins of their sugar estates in Jamaica.
Richard’s searches led him to one forebear in particular, an earlier Richard Atkinson, a brilliant but flawed West India merchant who had shipped all the British army’s supplies (including thousands of barrels of rum) during the American War of Independence and amassed staggering wealth and connections along the way. ‘Rum’ Atkinson died young, at the height of his powers, leaving a vast inheritance to his many nephews and nieces, as well as the society beauty who had refused his proposal of marriage; 40 years of litigation followed as his heirs wrangled over his legacy.
Drawing on their personal correspondence, Richard writes with rare candour about his worldly ancestors and their involvement in the slave trade – for, like many well-to-do Georgian families, the Atkinsons’ wealth was acquired at a terrible cost, through the blood, sweat and lives of enslaved Africans. When the first of the Atkinsons sailed to Jamaica in the 1780s, the island was the jewel in the imperial crown; when the last of them returned to England in the 1850s, it was an impoverished backwater. This vivid tale of a single family, their lives and loves, set against a panoramic backdrop of war, politics and slavery, offers a uniquely intimate insight into one of the most disturbing chapters in Britain’s colonial past.
Running length: 12 hours - 40 minutes
Over the last couple of months, my friends Christopher, Oliver and Tamara, along with family members, Sasha, Jamie, Benjie, Isabelle and Alex, have all had the coronavirus and have all, mercifully, come through without need of hospitalisation, which, as I'm sure you will appreciate, is a great relief.