The Hidden Presence Project aimed to highlight the stories of black men and women who lived in rural, rather than urban settings in Britain in the past, and to bring arts and heritage organisations together to interpret their stories in a new way. Here in Wales, the focus has been on Monmouthshire and the life of Nathaniel Wells, son of a plantation owner and one of his enslaved African women on St Kitts in the 18th century, who became the owner of the prestigious Piercefield estate outside Chepstow, and Britain’s first black Sheriff. Chepstow Museum worked with Ffotogallery and commissioned two artists to make a new body of work taking Nathaniel Well’s life as inspiration.
His story is an extraordinary one. That white plantation owners had children with their enslaved women was not, but Nathaniel’s father had a different destiny in mind for his children than most.
William Wells came from a Cardiff family and went to St Kitts as a young man to make his fortune as a merchant in sugar, slaves and eventually as owner of a number of plantations. He married, but his wife and two children died in infancy. But he then fathered at least 6 children by different mothers, all his enslaved women. He left both the children and their mothers very well provided for, their future secure with substantial fortunes for his children, his only son, dear Nathaniel – the heir to his estates on St Kitts and to the great wealth he had accumulated. Nathaniel had been sent to England aged 9 to be educated and groomed to be his father’s heir. When he came of age at 21 in 1800 he had money, but no estate here, and when he married a year later, it’s not surprising that he looked for a suitable property to purchase. Perhaps he and his wife visited Piercefield when they were staying in Bath, it was then a tourist attraction, famous for sublime landscape created 50 years earlier, and the house, completely remodelled by its last two owners using the famous architects Sir John Soane and Joseph Bonomi. It’s interesting that Nathaniel chose a tourist attraction to live in, where he would be seen and known, the young black gentleman was noticed. He also took all the opportunities to hold office, he was churchwarden, magistrate, Deputy Lieutenant of the County and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire.
The artists explored the importance of his life in the context of contemporary society, looking at a range of issues linked to slavery, ethnicity, the global movement of people, identity including what it means to be welsh today and the social history of Wales’ international trade links.
The first exhibition which opens at Chepstow Museum on February 6th showcases the work of Eva Sajovic who worked with children and young people in Chepstow at the secondary schools in Chepstow and Caldicot, at Offa’s Mead primary and at the Central Kaff, and with vulnerable adults in South East Wales in conjunction with Barnardos.
For more details contact Chepstow Museum 01291 625981