Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: The Story of a Tangled Inheritance

Richard Atkinson

Shortlisted for the RSL Christopher Bland Prize 2021

‘Rarely has family history been so vivid’ JENNY UGLOW

‘An extraordinarily original work’ AMANDA FOREMAN

What would you do if you found out that your ancestors were slave owners? 

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 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. 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.

Reviews of Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: The Story of a Tangled Inheritance

    • ‘Fascinating… Not only a minute examination of a family’s rise and fall, but a ringside view of the Caribbean slave trade and an impeccable guide to the legal and financial world of the Enlightenment… This is an epic tale, but it is moreover an epic piece of research… My guess is that many readers will now find themselves inspired to unlock their own time capsules and slip into another century’ Frances Wilson, Guardian
    • ‘Remarkable… What emerges is a three-dimensional portrait, not just of Richard Atkinson MP but his world – nefarious, buccaneering, amoral, but also containing a genuine love story… Family history can become an obsession and often a bore. But in this case it has produced gold. Love, adventure, skulduggery, moral outrage – what a story’ Clive Aslet, The Spectator
    • ‘Enthralling… Full of drama, surprises, twists and turns. There are wars, sudden bankruptcies, doomed love affairs, tragic early deaths and bitter family feuds, all involving a cast of Atkinsons brilliantly brought to life… An eye-opening story that casts fresh light on familiar events… The surprises continue until the very last page’ Matthew Parker, Literary Review
    • ‘Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract is an epic tale of war, commerce and slavery, bound up in an intimate story of the rise and fall of the author’s ancestors. It is a towering achievement, founded on painstaking research, written with elegance and elan, salted with humour and shot-through with intelligent warmth and compassion’ Monica Ali
    • ‘A wonderful, warm book, which manages to give a new, intimate twist to the epic story of sugar and slavery’ Andrea Stuart, author of Sugar in the Blood
    • ‘An extraordinarily original and captivating work of detective biography. This is real history, from deep inside the heart of living individuals whose stories are all too human’ Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire