Rarely has family history been so vivid' JENNY UGLOW 'An extraordinarily original work' AMANDA FOREMAN Richard Atkinson was in his late thirties, and approaching a milestone he had long dreaded - the age at which his father died - when one day he came across a box of old family letters gathering dust on top of 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 abandoned 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 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; forty years of litigation followed as his heirs wrangled over his legacy. Drawing on his family's 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 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; by the 1850s, when the last of them returned, 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.