Edwards, Bryan (DNB00)
|←Edwards, Arthur||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17
EDWARDS, BRYAN (1743–1800), West India merchant, was born at Westbury, Wiltshire, on 21 May 1743. His father inherited a small estate, valued at about 100l. a year, and to support his large family endeavoured to add to his income by dealings in corn and malt. This attempt did not prove successful, and at his death m 1756 his wife and six children were left, in poverty. Fortunately for his children's sake the widow had two rich brothers in the West Indies, and one of them, Zachary Bayly of Jamaica, took the family under his protection. Edwards had been placed at the school of William Foot, a dissenting minister of Bristol, and a good instructor, though forbidden to teach his pupil Latin and Greek; but after his father's death the boy was removed to a French boarding-school in the same city, where he learnt the French language, and, having access to a circulating library, acquired a passion for books. In 1759 his younger uncle returned to England, and took his nephew to live with him in London. The pair quickly disagreed, and after an experience of a few months Bryan was shipped off to Jamaica to his other uncle, a man of kinder disposition and more enlightened mind, who engaged for the nephew's sake a clergyman to dwell in the family, from whom he learnt ‘small Latin and less Greek,’ but from whose instruction and example he gained a taste for composition. The nephew was admitted to a share, and after a few years succeeded to the entirety of his uncle's business, and is also said to have been left in 1773 heir to the great property of a Mr. Hume of Jamaica. Through Edwards's fostering care the business continued to prosper, and his talents secured for him a leading position in the colonial assembly, ‘where he attacked the restrictions placed by the government on trade with the United States.’ He returned to his native country for a time, and in 1782 contested the representation of Chichester in the independent interest against the Duke of Richmond's nominee. At the poll he was defeated by eight votes (239 to 247), and although he attempted to gain the seat by a petition in the commons and by an action in the court of king's bench, he abstained from prosecuting the petition to an issue, and lost his action. In the beginning of 1787 he repaired again to the West Indies, and dwelt there until the autumn of 1792, when he settled permanently in England as a West India merchant, and established a bank at Southampton. In 1794 he contested its representation with the son of its patron, and after a severe contest was rejected by the electors; but at the general election in 1796 he was elected, through the influence of the Eliots, as member for the Cornish borough of Grampound. By Mr. Speaker Abbot the new member was described as a ‘heavy-looking man,’ using language ‘very awkward and inelegant;’ but Wilberforce, with more candour, acknowledged that he found in Edwards, who supported the slave trade with certain restrictions, ‘a powerful opponent of slave trade abolition.’ He had long suffered from ill-health, and did not live through this parliament, but died at his house at the Polygon, Southampton, on 15 or 16 July 1800, and was buried in a vault under the church of All Saints, Southampton. He married Maria, younger daughter of Thomas Phipps of Brook House, Westbury, and left an only son, Hume Edwards, to inherit his vast wealth.
The chief work of Edwards was ‘The History of the British Colonies in the West Indies.’ Two volumes of this work, containing much information on the slave trade, were published in 1793, and in the same year an impression was issued at Dublin. The second edition appeared in 1794, when the owners of the first issue were enabled by a separate publication, entitled ‘List of Maps and Plates for the History of the British Colonies in the West Indies,’ to complete their copies by the purchase of the maps, plates, &c. which were contained in the improved edition. Not long after he had compiled this work he conceived the idea of writing a general account of all the settlements in the West Indies, but with especial attention to the French colonies. He visited St. Domingo shortly after the revolt of the negroes in 1791, and, although disappointed in his comprehensive scheme, published in 1797 ‘An Historical Survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingo,’ which was reproduced in 1807, ‘together with an account of the Maroon Negroes in Jamaica, and a History of the War in the West Indies, by Bryan Edwards. Also a tour through Barbadoes, St. Vincent, &c., by Sir William Young, bart.’ This volume, which was left unfinished through the author's death, and to which was prefixed ‘A Sketch of the Life of the Author, written by himself a short time before his death,’ was also issued as a third volume to the original ‘History of the British Colonies,’ and the whole work was at the same time reissued in three volumes with the date of 1801. The fifth edition was passed through the press in 1819. The complete work was translated into German, some parts were rendered into Spanish, and the history of St. Domingo was translated into French. Though the history was generally popular, and was highly praised by such competent critics as McCulloch, the opinions of the author did not meet with universal acceptance. The history of St. Domingo condemned the treatment which its negroes received from the settlers, and reflected severely on the conduct of its French inhabitants towards the English who came there after 1791, and for his views on these matters Edwards was attacked in a voluminous letter addressed to him in 1797 in both French and English by Colonel Venault de Charmilly. The modified continuance of slavery which Edwards advocated in these volumes provoked in 1795 a letter of remonstrance from William Preston of Dublin. Edwards succeeded Sir Joseph Banks in 1797 as the secretary 'of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa,'and the second volume of the society's 'Proceedings' contained 'an abstract of Mr. Park's account of his travels and discoveries, abridged from his own minutes by Bryan Edwards,' some copies of which were struck off separately for the private use of the members in 1798. The whole of the narrative of Edwards was incorporated in the large volume of 'Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, performed ... in 1795 and 1796 by Mungo Park' (1799), and it has even been asserted by some critics that Park was indebted to Edwards for the composition of that volume. Dr. Thomas Somerville was so informed by Bishop Majandie, who claimed to make the statement on trustworthy evidence, 'being not only a member of the African society, but having often been a witness of Mr. Park's putting his notes into the hands of Edwards, who afterwards arranged and transfused them into a collected and expanded narrative.' The abilties of Park were equal to its composition, and the probable conclusion is that although he sought the advice, and paid deference to the views of Edwards, the recital of his travels was in the main his own narrative.
Edwards was also the author of several smaller works. 1. 'Thoughts on the late Proceedings of Government respecting the Trade of the West India Islands with the United States,' 1784, in which he argued in favour of free intercourse in trade, and condemned the American war. This pamphlet brought him into controversy with Lord Sheffield, and provoked an address to him from a writer called John Stevenson. 2. 'Speech at a free Conference between the Council and Assembly of Jamaica on Mr. Wilberforce's Propositions concerning the Slave Trade,' 1790. 3. 'Poems,' printed and privately distributed among his friends about 1794. 4, 'Vindication of the Proceedings of the English Government towards the Spanish Nation in 163S,' in reference to Jamaica, which forms pp. xxix-xxxviii of 'Preface and Historical Documents to be prefixed to the new edition of the Jamaica Laws.' 5. 'Proceedings of the Governor and Assembly of Jamaica in regard to the Maroon Negroes. To which is prefixed on introductory account [by Edwards] on the disposition of the Maroons, and of the late War between these People and the White Inhabitants.' Edwards is said by more than one authority to have driven Dr. Wolcot, generally known as 'Peter Pindar,' from Jamaica, through the vigour of his satire; but Polwhele, who knew Wolcot's history well, asserts that the doctor came to England for ordination and admission to a good benefice in Jamaica. A portrait of Edwards was painted by Abbot and engraved by Holloway.[Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biog.; Censura Literaria. vi. 222; Somerville's Life and Times, pp. 323-4; Gent. Mag. 1800, pp. 702. 793-4; W. D. Cooper's Parliamentary History of Sussex, p. 15; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 196, 241, 277; Davies's Southampton. p. 398, Oldfield's Representative History, iii. 551; Hoare's History of Wiltshire. vol, iii. pt. i. pp. 32, 41; Life of Mungo Park in Journals of his Mission to Africa in 1805, pp. xvi, xx-xxxi, cix-cxi, and addends, pp. xx-xxv; Notes and Queries(1858), 4th ser. i. 58, 139.]