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Portrait of Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche (1796-1854)

Henry Thomas De la Beche   

Portrait in oils of Henry Thomas De la Beche, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1847. (GSL/POR/5)

Provenance: Presented to the Society by Thomas George Bonney, 1885.

Elected a Member of the Geological Society on 6 June 1817 (no.426) and served on its Council between 1826-1828 and 1830-1852. Elected President of the Society, 1847-1849. Awarded the Wollaston Medal in 1855.

Henry Thomas De la Beche’s main geological work in the south west of England was the first in the world to be government supported and as a result he was appointed the first Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain on its formation in 1835.

Another portrait image of De la Beche can be found in our painting The British Association at Newcastle.

Slavery connections

Although slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807, it continued elsewhere in the British Empire, notably in the British West Indies.  De la Beche inherited slave (sugar) plantations in Clarendon, Jamaica from his father when he reached his majority in 1817.   

Despite being a slave owner, De la Beche held anti-slavery views, but his income was entirely reliant on his Jamaican estate.  In 1825 he published a pamphlet ‘Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes’, which was issued as part of the pro/anti abolitionist literature and debates that were circulating during this time.  The publication is essentially an account of his [uncomfortable to modern eyes] attempt at a compromise, that is to institute a more ‘humane’ approach to the treatment of the slaves on his plantations. 

Income from Jamaican plantations had been falling in the 1820s mainly due to the frequent slave revolts on the island.  The unrest culminated in the 'Great Jamaican Slave Revolt’ or ‘Baptist War’ of 1831-1832.  This major rebellion and its brutal fall out accelerated the British Government’s decision to abolish slavery in the British West Indies in 1833.  The British Government paid compensation, not to the slaves but to the plantation owners, but by this time De la Beche had mortgaged his properties and the mortgage holders received the money instead.