Turnbull, David (1793?–1851)

Abolitionist, consul, journalist and writer, was born in Scotland. Turnbull married his first wife, Elinor Casement (1805?–1843), in Northern Ireland in the autumn of 1826. Little is known about Turnbull’s early years and career. The first references available about him state that, after marring Elinor, he and his wife moved to London in 1826 and, soon after, travelled to Edinburgh. From 1830, Turnbull became correspondent for The Times covering continental Europe, residing temporarily in Paris (1830 and 1831), The Hague (1831) and Brussels (1831). In 1832, Turnbull was sent to Madrid, where he stayed for about two years. There, he became deeply interested in the fight against slavery and, in particular, in the illegal slave trade still taking place in Cuba and Brazil.

In 1817, Britain and the Spanish Monarchy had signed a treaty to abolish the slave trade between Africa and the Americas from 1820. Thanks to this treaty a Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Slave Trade was created, with bases at Havana and Sierra Leone. Britain was, thus, allowed to appoint officers to these courts and, in 1819, she appointed its first Commissioner to Havana, Henry Theo Kilbee, who hold this office until 1828. In 1829, by a new Spanish decree, foreign consuls could be appointed to Cuba. Thus, in 1830, Britain appointed her first consul to Santiago de Cuba and, in 1833, her first consul to Havana; Charles David Tomé, who was a local merchant. In 1835, Britain and Spain signed a new treaty to outlaw the traffic of slaves, reinforcing the 1817 treaty. It is believed that Turnbull was one of the ‘champions’ of the new treaty. Between 1832 and 1834, Turnbull worked under the stimulus of George William Frederick Villiers, fourth Earl of Clarendon (1800–1870), the diplomat leading the negotiations with the Spaniards. By this reinforcing treaty, Britain imposed extra pressures on Cuba, following accusations that a considerable illegal traffic was still taking place and, in 1836, Richard Robert Madden (1798–1886), arrived in Havana as the first Superintendent of Liberated Africans.

In late 1834, a few months before the new treaty between Britain and Spain was signed, Turnbull was transferred by The Times from Madrid to Paris, where he worked for nearly three years. From Paris, Turnbull continued to work with the antislavery cause. In 1837, Turnbull resigned his position at The Times and returned temporarily to Britain, residing in London and County Down (Ireland). According to Corwin, by this time, Turnbull was a member of the English Anti-Slavery Society.

After British abolitionists won their battle against slavery in the British empire, it was time to continue the battle elsewhere. Within this context, Turnbull decided to tour the Caribbean, a region were the slave trade and slavery continued to be extensively practised. Between 1838 and 1839, Turnbull visited Demerara, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Port au Prince and, most particularly, Cuba. Observations on this trip were recorded by Turnbull in a diary. This led to the publication of his Travels in the West, which he dedicated to George William Frederick Villiers. Before leaving Cuba, Turnbull also visited South Carolina, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Montreal, Quebec and Toronto. From Canada, Turnbull returned temporarily to Britain, living in County Down (Ireland) and London.

At the end of 1839, Turnbull left London for Paris to finish the editing of his Travels in the West. Soon afterwards, once the manuscript was ready, Turnbull returned to London, where the book was published in early 1840. It gave a detailed account of the illegal slave trade in Puerto Rico and Cuba, pointing out that ‘British capitalists, under the cloak of a foreign partnership, still assist in the trade’ (The Times, 21 Feb 1840: 4, c.5). The volume was very well received by the British abolitionist movement. This was largely due to the detailed sketch of the operation of the illegal slave trade in Cuba as well as the solutions suggested to stop it. A copy was sent to Viscount Palmerston (1784–1865). In August 1840, soon after the book’s publication, Turnbull became a member of the recently created British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society.

Turnbull’s reputation was greatly enhanced, to such an extent that, a few months later, he was appointed as Consul General and Superintendent of Liberated Africans to Havana thanks to the close ties between the British and Foreign Anti Slavery Society and the British government. For the first time, the positions of consul and superintendent were held by the same person and, thus, Turnbull substituted both Tomé and Madden. In Turnbull’s own words: ‘the two offices were combined in my person for the first time and the last time’ (‘Reports from the select committee’, 1850: 59)

Turnbull was one of the most outspoken abolitionist England ever sent to Cuba (see Corwin, 1967: 75) and the reason for this was clear: despite the Anglo-Spanish treaties of 1817 and 1835, the slave trade to Cuba continued to be extensively practised after 1820. It is estimated that, between 1821 and 1839, over 182,000 slaves were illegally introduced into Cuba, which was a matter of deep concern for the abolitionist movement in Britain. Before the appointment of Turnbull, many British representatives in Cuba had been accused of being implicated in the continuance of the slave trade. For example, consul Tomé was relieved, in part, following accusations of slave-trading. A junior clerk was also removed from the mixed commission, after similar accusations were made. Turnbull’s appointment marked the peak of British abolitionist pressures in Cuba.

Being a recognised militant abolitionist and known to the Spaniards from at least 1832, Turnbull’s appointment was very unwelcome in Havana. From the first day of his arrival, he faced great hostility from the Spanish colonial authorities, especially from the Real Junta de Fomento de Agricultura y Comercio, El Consulado Real, El Ayuntamiento de la Havana and El Tribunal de Comercio de la Habana. Similarly, British planters and merchants who had migrated to Cuba, and who employed slaved labour (or who benefited indirectly from slavery), joined the opposition to Turnbull’s appointment. This reputation extended to the United States, where slavery was extensively practised: Turnbull was seen as a menace to US economic interests.

Confirming the fears of slave-traders, from his arrival to Havana in November 1840, he endeavoured to find out the whereabouts of slaves illegally introduced into Cuba from October 1820 and tried to obtain their freedom. According to Turnbull’s testimony at the House of Lords in 1850, during his office at Havana (1840–1842) he obtained the liberty of about 2,000 slaves. Furthermore, Turnbull requested from the local colonial authorities that all slaves resident in Cuba who had been born in Britain or any of her colonies from 1807 should be released. At the same time, he suggested that the British Foreign Office negotiate a new treaty with Spain to give additional powers to the mixed commission. Turnbull’s plan ‘to overthrow this colossal grievance [slave trade]’, in his own words, was summarised as follows: ‘is by cutting off the demand for victims that the supply is to be suppressed. It is by making the purchaser and possessor of an African slave insecure in the enjoyment of his unlawful acquisition that he is to be deterred from paying the price’ (Turnbull to Palmerston, 13 March 1840, ‘Reports from the select committee’, 1850: 62–3; Llorca-Jaña, 2009: 2).

After Cuba’s realisation of the implications of Turnbull’s plans, alarm spread and the colonial authorities in Cuba asked Madrid and London for Turnbull’s removal. Month by month, new allegations against him emerged. Lord Viscount Palmerston, at that time at the Foreign Office, started to receive a great deal of correspondence from Madrid and from Spanish diplomats based in London regarding these allegations. Yet, Palmerston fully backed his Consul and responded to the Spanish request in strong terms: Mr Turnbull’s opinions ‘are shared by the whole British nation’. A few years later, thanking Palmerston for his position, Turnbull dedicated his second book, The Jamaica movement, to Palmerston: ‘to the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Palmerston … whose living reputation and whose posthumous fame are inseparable associated with the cause of European freedom, and with the suppression of the African slave-trade.’

Turnbull was also accused by the Spanish of exaggerating the facts he reported and, through these exaggerations, of promoting a slave uprising in the island. Although Palmerston backed Turnbull in general, the Foreign Office Secretary was not happy with his Consul’s disrespectful language in correspondence with the Spanish colonial authorities and remarked that ‘you write with so much bitterness of feeling; with so much of sneer and irony, that you excite a suspicion that you are actuated by some personal or vindictive motives as much as by a sense of duty … Moreover, you constantly exaggerate things, which require no exaggeration, and thus you defeat your own purpose’ (Palmerston to Turnbull, 2 Aug 1841 in Curry-Machado, 2004: 80).

Turnbull’s activism led him to travel to other Cuban provinces, such as Matanzas, where a great many of slaves had been introduced illegally after 1820. Turnbull endeavoured to spread abolitionist principles there as well as confirm reports that some Africans who had been kidnapped in Jamaica were subsequently taken to Cuba. The arrival of the British Consul at Matanzas was rejected by local colonial authorities and, not having consular jurisdiction in Matanzas, Turnbull was detained on 13 November 1841 and ordered to return to Havana. Back in the Cuban capital, he continued his antislavery activities, denouncing the continuous and illegal arrival of slaves, including more than 1,000 Africans in December 1841. In January 1842, Turnbull was involved in a new incident, this time after the arrival of the British ship Venezuela in Havana. At this stage, due to the increasing hostility of local colonial authorities, Turnbull’s life was considered to be at risk. When asked at the House of Lords if his life was in danger because of his activism in Cuba, Turnbull answered that ‘it was in perpetual danger; but, of course, if a man is willing to face danger in other forms, it is easy to do it in the performance of what he feels to be a duty’ (‘Reports from the select committee’, 1850: 74).

Diplomatic problems escalated in early 1842 and pressure increased to recall Turnbull to London. Cuba was very important to Spain as it was probably the main source of revenues for the Spanish government at that time; Turnbull’s activism was seen as even endangering Spain’s possession of the island. Furthermore, British merchants and shipowners with commercial interests in Cuba joined Spain’s petition to recall Turnbull to London. Though Palmerston’s successor in the Foreign Office, Lord Aberdeen (1784–1860) also supported Turnbull, the British Foreign Office felt the pinch. Yet, because Turnbull had strong support among the abolitionist movement in Britain, there was also considerable pressure on the Foreign Office not to recall him. In a controversial decision, Turnbull was removed from his position as Consul but continued as Superintendent of Liberated Africans.

Aberdeen’s decision to remove him as Consul came with a decree in which the positions of Consul and Superintendent were separated, an idea apparently suggested by British merchants and shipowners with interests in Cuba. The big issue was that, while the role of Consul was recognised by the Spanish government, the Superintendent’s role was not. In June 1842, the Foreign Office appointed the consul at Tampico, Joseph Tucker Crawford, as Consul to Havana in Turnbull’s place. Though Crawford was also an abolitionist, he was considered to be more pragmatic and moderate than Turnbull. Turnbull’s days in Havana were numbered. Due to the mounting death threats against him, Turnbull sought refuge on HMS Romney, which was anchored at Havana. On board, he continued, somehow, to fight the illegal slave trade but now in relative isolation with his power constrained. Because of the distress caused by a year and a half at Havana, and about two months residence on a ship under very difficult circumstances, Turnbull’s wife, Elinor, fell ill. Turnbull requested the Foreign Office to appoint him somewhere else, suggesting Lima or that he be made a Lieutenant-Governor of a West Indian island.

While waiting for a decision from London, Turnbull left Havana for New Providence, Nassau, in August 1842. In the Bahamas, Turnbull continued his unfinished business against slave trade in Cuba, this time investigating reports of kidnapped black people being taken away from the Bahamas to Cuba. In October 1842, following these reports, he made a new and risky trip to Cuba, arriving in Gíbara-Holguín from Nassau, while still officially Superintendent of Liberated Africans to Havana. Once in Gíbara, Turnbull started to enquire about these British subjects who were being kept as slaves in plantations belonging to British farmers. The local authorities were alerted about Turnbull’s visit and he was taken to Havana and subsequently expelled from Cuba on 6 November 1842. Turnbull escaped stronger punishment because a naïve Spanish vice-consul at Nassau had issued him with a diplomatic passport. Aberdeen now abolished the office of Superintendent of Liberated Africans in Cuba.

From Havana, Turnbull returned to London for a brief period, having been recalled by the Foreign Office. In late November 1842, Aberdeen wrote to him saying that the consulship of Lima was unavailable but that, instead, he would be appointed to Kingston, Jamaica. A few months earlier, in July 1842, a treaty between Britain and Portugal for the suppression of the slave trade had been signed in Lisbon. Mixed commissions were thus to be established in strategic points, including Kingston and the Cape of Good Hope. In January 1843, Turnbull was officially appointed as Commissioner to the Mixed British and Portuguese Commission at Jamaica. Since Kingston was so close to Cuba, the Spanish authorities were very unhappy with Turnbull’s new appointment. Such was Turnbull’s reputation that, following a great slave uprising in Cuba in 1844, known as the Escalera, he was accused of being behind it by the Spanish. The accusations ranged from promoting slave emancipation in Cuba to even promising weapons for a massive national rebellion. Yet, there was never any evidence proving that Turnbull participated in the uprising; the debate about Turnbull’s alleged involvement in the Escalera continues until the present day.

Despite all the allegations, Turnbull remained untouched at Jamaica where he spent most of the rest of his career. In March 1850, Turnbull left Jamaica for Britain, whence he had been called by a select committee at the House of Lords on the African Slave Trade. In October 1850, Palmerston requested that Turnbull travel to Paris to seek support from French planters and merchants in their international fight against the slave trade. Unfortunately, this was a task which Turnbull could not fully accomplish: on 17 May 1851 he died in Paris, following a long illness. Yet until his very last days, he had worked for the abolitionist movement. After his death, his friend Palmerston, wrote: ‘I am extremely sorry. He is a great loss to the slave trade suppression cause’ (Murray, 1981: 219).

Sources: Manuel Llorca-Jaña, ‘Turnbull, David (1793?–1851)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Oct 2009; J. Curry-Machado, ‘How Cuba burned with the ghosts of British slavery: race, abolition and the “Escalera”’, Slavery & Abolition, 25-2 (2004), 71–93; M. Hernández ‘David Turnbull y el problema de la esclavitud en Cuba’, Anuario de Estudios Americanos, 14 (1957), 241–299; D. R. Murray, Odious commerce: Britain, Spain and the abolition of the Cuban slave trade (1981); R. L. Paquette, Sugar is made with blood: the conspiracy of La Escalera and the conflict between Empires over slavery in Cuba (1988); A. F. Corwin, Spain and the abolition of slavery in Cuba, 1817–1886 (Austin, TX, 1967); D. Turnbull, Travels in the West. Cuba, with notices of Porto Rico, and the slave trade (1840); D. Turnbull, ed., The Jamaica movement for promoting the enforcement of the slave trade treaties and the suppression of the slave trade (1850), ‘Reports from the select committee of the House of Lords to consider the best means which Great Britain can adopt for the final extinction of the African slave trade, with minutes of evidence, appendix and index’, Parliamentary Papers, no. 590 (1850); The Times (esp. 21 Feb 1840, p. 4 column 5).

Author: Manuel Llorca-Jaña.

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