When your ancestors were not good people

Richard Atkinson researched his family history and shares the results with the reader in Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract. He is honest enough to share the not so good things as well as the achievements of his predecessors which makes for an interesting piece of social history.

The rum contract of the title was to supply the Royal Navy and the Georgian Mr Atkinson made his family’s fortune when he obtained it – a fortune which has enhanced the lives of his successors to the present day. The problem is that the contract was won by corruption and Atkinson kept his position in society by who he knew and who he was prepared to bribe (there is a certain amount of resonance with the recent PPE contracts awarded to friends of and donors to the government).

In addition, the reason why the rum Atkinson could supply was cheap was because he owned the plantations in the Caribbean and worked them with enslaved people – he was also part of the slave trade making money on shipping enslaved peoples from Africa. It also appears that many of his family had relationships with enslaved women and a second family of colour.

The author uses public records and family documents to trace as many of his family as possible and to look at how they lived and how that lifestyle was funded by the unpaid work of others. He shows us how the story evolved and how he has contacted many new relatives through genealogy websites.

It takes a certain amount of courage to admit that your family gained their position in society by exploiting others and political corruption. I think that the author writes truthfully about this and doesn’t try to hide the situation. The first Mr Atkinson and his family were not very nice people and they used their power and influence to get as much as they could for themselves at the expense of others.

This is an interesting piece of family and social history. It doesn’t excuse what happened in the past and clearly shows that what was done was wrong, often even by the standards of the time. The book is easy to read and informative (although I did get a bit bogged down with the Corn Laws). Most of the family history I have read recently has been concerned with WW2 so it was good to read something from another era.

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