EDWARDS, Bryan (1743-1800), of The Polygon, Southampton.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1796 - 16 July 1800

Family and Education

b. 21 May 1743,1 s. of Bryan Edwards, yeoman and maltster, of Westbury, Wilts. by Elizabeth, da. of Zacchary Bayly of Bowlish, Shepton Mallet Som., sis. of Zacchary Bayly of Nonsuch and Unity Jamaica. educ. Rev. Wm. Foot’s sch. Bristol to 1756; French boarding sch. Bristol 1756-9. m. c. Nov. 1774,2 Martha, da. of Thomas Phipps of Brook House, Westbury, 1s. surv. 1da. suc. uncle Zacchary Bayly to six plantations3 in Jamaica 1769.

Offices Held

Sec. Assoc. for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa 1797-d.


Edwards was one of six children left in poverty at the death of their father in 1756, but saved by the wealth of one of his mother’s two brothers in the West Indies, Zacchary Bayly. At school in Bristol he acquired a passion for books, and after falling out with his younger uncle Nathaniel Bayly who returned to England in 1759 and took him into his household in London, he found a congenial home in 1760 with the elder uncle in Jamaica, who provided him with a tutor, encouraged his interest in belles lettres and admitted him into his business, to which he succeeded. He was antagonistic to the restrictions imposed on colonial trade in the Jamaican assembly, on which subject he published a pamphlet in 1784. He had returned to England a critic of the American war, and in 1782 was narrowly defeated in a contest at Chichester against the Duke of Richmond’s interest. From 1787 until 1792 he was again in Jamaica.

On his return, as he put it in a letter of 12 Aug. 1794 to James Adair*:

I met with a reception from his Majesty’s ministers the most favourable and flattering. Mr Dundas invited me to his house, presented me to the King, and undertook to prevail on Mr Pitt to bring me into Parliament. I am in possession of a letter from Mr Nepean wherein assurances are given me that this should be accomplished the first opportunity. Soon after this I purchased a house, and by degrees have created an interest in Southampton which you must be apprized is far from contemptible; and it is my boast that I owe it to the fairness of my character and the exercise of good offices towards my neighbours. Political attachments I have none; and my fortune places me above the sordid pursuit of emolument. You observed Sir most truly that it is on the support of the independent part of the nation that government must at this time depend. I rank myself in that class, and I rejoiced when the Duke of Portland and his friends accepted a share in the administration, because I consider them as a tower of strength to whose virtue and abilities the nation look up .... It will be my pride therefore if I obtain a seat in Parliament to add my voice to theirs.

Apart from continuing his mercantile connexion with the West Indies, he was a banking partner of Simpson and Maddison at Southampton and wrote this letter to obtain Portland’s goodwill when he contested a vacancy at Southampton and was opposed by George Rose’s son. The duke, who did not know him, thought it imprudent to interfere for him in the absence of what Adair called ‘very strong grounds either of personal or public consideration’. Edwards, who treated his friends to turtle dinners, was defeated.4

In 1796 he became a paying guest of (Sir) Christopher Hawkins* at Grampound. Edwards’s own story was: ‘I went into Cornwall intending to stand for Tregony but the electors of Grampound invited me in so handsome a manner to represent them, that I could not decline it’. On his return from Cornwall he informed his friend Sir Joseph Banks that he was too weary to come to London at the moment, 14 June 1796, owing to ‘uncomfortable dinners at two contested elections, not to mention the very becoming amusement at my time of life dancing with tinkers’ wives and blacksmiths’ daughters on the wet grass’. In the same letter he added that if the African Association, then forming, were to be hostile to the slave trade, they would find it an obstacle to African exploration. Charles Abbot reported Edwards in March 1796 as being influenced in his views on slavery by having witnessed the St. Domingo insurrection of 1791 (views which had been criticized in the House by William Smith on 18 Feb.) and added that ‘he together with Lord Penrhyn and Mr Minshull of Jamaica, has held conference with Mr Dundas upon the gradual abolition plan’.5

Edwards, who continued a member of the Jamaican assembly until the year of his death,6 had made a speech there against total abolition on 25 Nov. 1789, published in 1790. It was directed against Wilberforce. In 1793 he published a two-volume History of the British Colonies in the West Indies and established his name as a moderate defender of the social system there, who was not blind to the abuses of slavery. Nevertheless, events in St. Domingo, on which he published a Historical Survey in 1797, as a preliminary to the study of the other French colonies, made him a resolute opponent of total abolition.

In his maiden speech, 21 Oct. 1796, to quote Charles Abbot:7

Bryan Edwards (the historian) got up to give a history of the Maroons from the first settlement of Jamaica and to vindicate the assembly upon their final measures of transporting them to Halifax [Nova Scotia]. His coarse elocution and language, his boldness of manner and pertinacity of debate upon a point in itself foreign to the question of the day seemed to prepossess the House very much against him.

In the course of the debate, Edwards clashed with Wilberforce, who wished to see the Maroons converted, alleging that their Spanish patois and habits of polygamy placed them beyond the pale of English missionaries, unless they were to be summarily baptized ‘by a clergyman with a pail of water’. They were, he assured Wilberforce, not assimilable.

On 3 Mar. 1797 Edwards opposed the small paper bill, as it multiplied paper currency. He joined the ‘armed neutrality’ and voted against Pitt’s motion to revive the secret committee on the Bank on 9 Mar. He voted for Harrison’s motion of 13 Mar. to reduce public expenditure. He also supported Fox’s motion on the state of Ireland, 23 Mar. He was in favour of postponing the bill indemnifying the Bank’s suspension of cash payments, 17 Mar. He was one of the Members who wrote to ask Lord Moira to petition the King for a change of administration, and on 9 Apr. he and his patron wrote to Dundas deploring the continuation of war. On 6 Apr. he returned to the fray against Wilberforce, defending the treatment of the Maroons (in 1802 he added an account of them to a new edition of his pamphlet on St. Domingo) and alleged that the navy would not be able to prevent the smuggling of negroes, even if the slave trade were abolished, though he was in favour of its diminution. Wilberforce found him a ‘powerful opponent’, especially in the debate of 15 May, when he implied that setbacks in war were a manifestation of divine displeasure. Edwards retorted:

Let not my weak presumptuous hand

Attempt Thy bolts to throw

Or deal damnation round the land

On each I deem Thy foe,

and reminded Wilberforce that ‘widows and orphans had their last stake in West Indian property’: charity should begin at home and the ‘blacks’ of the metropolis, the chimney sweeps, were in need of public attention. On 18 May, on the subject of St. Domingo, Edwards stated that the government had ignored the appeals of the French planters to step in and take over the island in 1791 on the eve of the negro insurrection, and now ‘all Europe could not prevent St. Domingo from being a negro colony’.8

On 13 June 1797 Edwards quoted Adam Smith against the bill for preventing restrictive practices in the livestock market: prices should find their natural level. He was in favour of the repeal of the Act of George II’s reign which allowed negroes to be treated as chattels for the redemption of debts and warmly defended them against such a fate. On 2 Nov., in the debate on the King’s speech, he described himself as ‘independent of party ... owing nothing to administration ... [but] being averse to unqualified opposition’, and said that, though he was glad of Admiral Duncan’s naval victory, it was but one in a wasteful war on which £200 millions had been spent in four years and 200,000 lives lost. He had ceased to believe that Pitt sincerely desired peace and such conquests as he had made were useless: ‘there is a combination of evils hanging over our heads, from which nothing can rescue us but death’. He concluded by deploring Fox’s secession. This despondent speech was ridiculed by a young Member Lord Granville Leveson Gower, who informed his mother, 24 Nov., ‘the papers perhaps will not tell you that William Bryan [sic] or as he is nicknamed Bruin Edwards informed us that our only safety was in death’, while Pitt reported he made ‘a few observations very little relevant to the subject’. On 10 Nov. he had seconded the amendment to the address, as Pitt anticipated.9

He opposed Pitt’s assessed taxes at every stage, December 1797-January 1798. He claimed, 3 Jan., that the people were against them and challenged George Rose junior’s allegation that the contrary was true at Southampton. On 19 Mar. he tried to obstruct Wilberforce by emphasizing the value of the West Indian coffee trade, but Pitt came to Wilberforce’s aid. On 22 Mar. he moved that the answers of the governors of the West Indian islands to the English government’s circular on slave trade abuses be laid before the House, as a gesture in their defence. He opined, on 3 Apr., that it was fruitless to act without the concurrence of the colonial assemblies, since they were the best agents in restricting the slave trade and indeed offered the only proper mode. He pointed out that the assemblies had shown themselves willing to co-operate, though Wilberforce chose to believe the opposite. The latter’s scheme emancipated the negroes and reduced the planters to slavery: it was an invitation to rebellion, worthy of Brissot or Robespierre. The fact was that more negro labour was needed and the negroes secured a ‘milder servitude’ in the West Indies than they knew in Africa, though they needed to be cured of ‘many barbarous superstitions unfriendly to population’ if they were to provide a self-perpetuating labour force. He defended his views on barbarity in Africa by reference to his friendship with Mungo Park, the pioneer explorer, whose account of his travels he was helping to edit (though when Park’s journal was published in 1805 it was described as being anti-slavery). In giving a ‘decided negative’ to Wilberforce’s plan, Edwards also provoked Pitt into intervention in the debate, but the motion was lost by four votes.10

On 8 May 1798 Edwards said he was prepared to approve the charter of the Sierra Leone Company, provided it did not take away ‘all liberty from the whites’. He conceded that before the negroes could be ‘raised into the rank of civil society’, it was necessary to offer them mental improvement. He was in favour of a compulsory convoy for the mercantile marine, 16 May, and grumbled about the proposed duties on imports, which he said were vexatious to the West India merchants, who had not been consulted. He asked for a hearing for petitions against the abolition of the slave trade, 3 Apr. 1799, after being absent from the debate on it the month before. On 2 Oct. 1799, he enlarged on the difficulties of sugar-importing merchants, as opposed to sugar planters. He was in favour of a grant-in-aid for the relief of the West India merchants of London. He voted for Tierney’s motion for the call of the House on 22 Jan. 1800 and against the address, which approved the refusal to negotiate with France, 3 Feb. On 7 Feb. he said ministers were not seeking peace, since they refused negotiation. Edwards’s health was by now deteriorating; he had been to Cheltenham in the previous autumn to take the waters, after an illness in May 1799, but without relief.11 In December 1799 he made his will, leaving the bulk of his estates to his only surviving son Zacchary Hume Edwards.12 He died 16 July 1800. Shortly before, he had written a sketch of his life, which prefaced the three-volume third edition of his History of the West Indies, ‘a monument to himself more lasting than any marble’.13

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. He stated this in the autobiographical sketch which prefaced his History (1801 edition), though his daughter had the notion that he was 61 when he died (N. and Q. (ser. 4), i. 139).
  • 2. The date of his marriage settlement, PCC 593 Adderley. His eldest son Bryan died 9 Mar. 1794, aged 17.
  • 3. Oliver, Antigua, i. 235; PCC 241 Trevor. Edwards also inherited the estates of Hume, a Jamaica planter, in 1773, whence his son’s name Zacchary Hume Edwards.
  • 4. Add. 53804, ff. 188, 190; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 731/8, Mornington to Rose, 1 Sept. 1794.
  • 5. Cornw. RO, Johnstone mss DDJ 2101; Carm. RO, Cwmgwili mss 425; Banks Letters ed. Dawson, 302; Colchester, i. 42.
  • 6. He resigned in May 1800, N. and Q. (ser. 4), i. 56.
  • 7. Colchester, i. 70.
  • 8. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1565; SRO GD51/1/524; Life of Wilberforce (1838), ii. 196, 218.
  • 9. Leveson Gower, i. 181; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1637.
  • 10. Life of Wilberforce, ii. 340; Banks Letters, 302; Life of Mungo Park, pp. xvi, xx, cix; Parl. Deb. ix. 118.
  • 11. Banks Letters, 303.
  • 12. PCC 593 Adderley. He seems to have had several children by ‘free mulatto’ women.
  • 13. Gent. Mag. (1800), ii. 702, 793; DNB.