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William Steele

William Steele was a planter at Friendship in Demerara, where he wrote his will in 1782 [NRS GD1/470 Papers of William Steele, planter, Demerara, 1782-1856]. This would probably have been the 2000-acre plantation on the east bank of the river Demerary, created in 1752 for the American planter Frank Clarke, son of Gedney Clarke, and which was later acquired by John Haslin. It adjoined plantation Garden of Eden, owned by Thomas Cuming and Bernard Albinus, who both witnessed Steele’s will [Lodewyk van Bercheyk, Carte van de Rivier Demerara, 1759, annotated version, from University of Amsterdam Library].

Steele left two slaves (‘a man called Tom and a wench, Ketty’) to ‘a mulatto child named Betty’, with 200 guilders a year to Betty’s mother (‘Sophia, a free wench’) until Betty reached the age of maturity. Sophia was also given a right of residence at the plantation ‘for as long as she think proper time’.

The rest of his estate he left to his mother, three brothers and three sisters. They were presumably in Scotland since the will was disputed in the Scottish courts in 1855. The argument advanced in disputing the will showed a willing blindness to the reality of slave ownership. Steele had written:

‘I give and bequeath unto a Mulatto child named Betty a Negro, a man called Tom, and a wench, Ketty.’

This was challenged with the question: ‘Now what does he bequeath to them? For there is nothing mentioned.’ In 1782, when the will was written, it was clear that Steele was bequeathing ownership of two slaves to Betty.