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Heritage: Upminster squire Branfill made his money as slave trader

PUBLISHED: 10:00 29 April 2017

Branfill Road, Upminster. Picture: Google Street View

Branfill Road, Upminster. Picture: Google Street View

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17th century sea captain Andrew Branfill’s name lives on in a street name and even a school. But, says Prof Ged Martin, his business was people trafficking

For 200 years, the Branfill family owned Upminster Hall, now a golf club headquarters.

Andrew Branfill, a ship’s captain from Stepney, bought the estate in 1686, for £7,400. The Hall was let as a farmhouse, but he reserved part of the mansion for use as a rural retreat and an office for collecting rents.

Legend says Branfill was born at Dartmouth in Devon around 1640. He went to sea as a boy, captained his own ship at 19, and moved to London.

His surname was also spelt Branfil, Bramfill, Brandfield and Brownfill. They weren’t strong on spelling in those days.

In 1681, he married Damaris Aylett, from Kelvedon Hatch near Brentwood. Her family were gentry, who’d fought for Charles I in the Civil War.

Captain Branfill was going up in the world. Hence he needed a country home, near her family.

Branfill’s ship was called Champion. Andrew and Damaris called their son Champion. The name was handed down through the generations. It’s remembered in Upminster’s Champion Road and Branfill Road.

Legend says Branfill operated on the west African coast. The papers of the Royal African Company, recently published for 1681-88, confirm what historians have grimly suspected – he was a slave trader.

The company ran the English slave trade, providing goods which sea captains traded for prisoners captured in local African wars.

They sailed the Atlantic to sell their human cargo in Barbados, to sugar planters who needed replacements for the slaves they’d worked to death.

The Triangular Trade was completed by shipping sugar back to London. The company split the huge profits with the captains.

The African coast was unhealthy. Branfill sold his goods quickly, dumping surplus stock at low prices, thus making room on board for more slaves.

In 1681, he reported, “I am now in good health, praised be God for itt, and have all my slaves on board”.

In 1682 there was a revolt among slaves awaiting shipment at Accra, now Ghana’s capital.

Angered by their disobedience, the company’s agent handed the ringleaders (“the four greatest rogues”) to his toughest sea captain – Andrew Branfill. Included in the cargo were “four woemen”.

Branfill did not retire after purchasing Upminster Hall. In 1686 he was at Sekondi in modern Ghana, delivering barrels of beer to a company agent.

“One of your casks is leakt out, which I canot help”, he reported. You didn’t argue with Andrew Branfill.

We hear of him at other places – Anomabu, now a Ghanaian beach resort, and Tantumquery, a national heritage site.

Later that year, Upminster’s squire took aboard 15 slaves at Ouidah in Benin.

A healthy slave could be sold for £21 in Barbados. Branfill probably spent 30 years people trafficking in west Africa.

That’s how he got the £7,400 to buy Upminster Hall.

When Andrew Branfill died in 1709, he was buried in Upminster’s parish church. Only important and respected people were buried inside churches.

Erasing Branfill from the map wouldn’t change the past. Anyway, the local primary school commemorates a family who were part of Upminster for 200 years.

But there may be Havering residents who are descended from his victims. I hope Upminster will find some way of setting the record straight, telling the shameful true story of Andrew Branfill.

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