Meet Our Men in Brazil The adventures of the Hesketh brothers

HILARY Sargen had long known that an ancestor served as a British consul in the dim and distant past, but details were thin on the ground.

The couple got swept up in it as more and more stories emerged of an era that certainly had its dangers. The brothers’ duties brought them into contact with rebellion, piracy, shipwrecks, mutiny, and the cruelty of the slave trade.

One of the brothers had to flee down the Amazon with his family and other ex-pats to escape rebels bent on violence. Another spent many years on the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro, trying to combat aggressive slave-traders. A third was sacked by Lord Palmerston, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, after protesting at a 65% cut in his salary.

At the end of their quest, which included a three-week trip to Brazil in 2005, the Sargens were left with a mass of intriguing and colourful information. Rather than let it gather dust in a file or on a shelf, Ian’s pulled it together in book form.

Our Men in Brazil: the Hesketh brothers abroad paints a vivid picture of the life of a 19th Century consul battling tropical heat – and sometimes quarrelsome compatriots! – to help British merchants, seafarers and African slaves. “It is a timely reminder,” says the author, “that great causes, like the growth of a newly-independent nation like Brazil or the abolition of the heinous slave trade, often depend for their success on the quiet work of forgotten men like the Hesketh brothers of Liverpool.”


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Those siblings, born in Portugal, were three of the nine children of John Hesketh. The wine merchant – Hilary Sargen’s great-great-great-great-grandfather – ran his business from the city of Porto. Robert was born in 1789, followed by John junior in 1791 and William in 1794.

When the time came for the brothers to make their own way in the world, eyes looked to South America. They already spoke Portuguese, the language of Brazil, and the country was opening up as a potential market. England was keen on developing trade.

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Robert settled in S�o Luis and despatched cotton to northern England – taking manufactured goods in the opposite direction. “He did very well there for 20 years and became very well off,” says Ian.

When the British Government decided the time had come to be officially represented in this nation, it appointed consuls to look after the growing British community, encourage trade and sort out the problems with shipping that inevitably occurred. So in 1812, almost as soon as he arrived and at the age of only 22 or so, Robert was installed as British consul “for the whole of the northern coast of Brazil! A vast area.

“Eventually he appointed a vice-consul in Bel�m, though he was a bit of a washout and did very little work, and Robert eventually had to sack him. He had little alternative but to appoint his brother, who’d arrived by that time in Bel�m.”

That was John, who had been a merchant in Britain before travelling out in 1819 to the town on the banks of the Amazon, a few hundred miles to the north west of S�o Luis. He began a business there.

William, meanwhile, followed Robert to S�o Luis and filled in for his brother whenever he was away; which, bearing in mind 19th Century transport and the vast distances involved, was sometimes for months at a stretch.

For much of the time the brothers’ consular duties ran in parallel with their commercial enterprises. Cotton went to Liverpool before continuing by pack-horse to the Lancashire mills. Manufactured goods such as clothes and hats made the opposite journey. Other exports from Brazil included nuts, hides and timber.

In 1832, after a couple of decades as “our man in S�o Luis”, Robert was promoted to Rio de Janeiro, then the capital. “Unfortunately, it coincided with a very British decision to cut the salaries of consular officials. He’d been paid �1,000 a year in S�o Luis, and then they cut it and cut it and cut it, and eventually he was paid, when he went to Rio, �300! He’d pleaded for a change, so he felt he had to accept.”

Robert stood up against people-traffickers when the trade was at its height. Slavers amassed riches by taking unfortunates – often as young as nine – from Africa, cramming them into ships bound for Brazil. The slaves would be sneaked ashore and sold to plantation owners and the like.

British Navy vessels tried to intercept the slave-ships and officials sought to prosecute the captains of these miserable floating prisons before courts operating within a mixture of British and Brazilian legal systems.

At one time, says Ian, a prosecutor was threatened with death and fled the city. “Robert took over and defied the thugs and the assassination merchants.” He also campaigned for rescued “slaves” to be given good medical care and food before leaving Brazil.

“He had 20 years in Rio and was quite an important man. Robert eventually retired to England, and is buried at Southampton. He had a much younger wife” – Georgiana was 19 when she married her 47-year-old husband – “and they continued to have children into his retirement.” (They had 13 altogether.)

John, who had married a Brazilian woman after coming out to Bel�m in 1819, encountered hard times in later years. “They forgot to pay him for a while, and then in 1829 he had an absolute financial disaster.” The author’s not sure exactly what happened, but John was clearly in terrible trouble and Robert injected more than �5,000 to rescue his brother: an enormous sum. “John never really prospered financially after that. He was a good consul, highly regarded by the Foreign Office for his work, but probably spent too much time on it.”

It was John who had to flee for his life down the Amazon. Brazil had gained independence from Portugal in 1822, but the transition wasn’t smooth. There was constant trouble along the coast.

“The rebellion in Bel�m was by far the most murderous and unpleasant. It was called the Cabanagem Rebellion and was vicious. It stuttered into life and then broke out in earnest in 1835 when a group murdered the military governor, took over, and sat there,” says Ian.

“Eventually the Brazilian authorities in Rio de Janeiro reacted, sent an inadequate squadron who attacked the city disastrously, and the result was that every white person, and quite a few others, was threatened with assassination.

“John, together with a Royal Navy ship that was there, and the French community, the British community and the American community, fled down the river to save their lives. So suddenly did they have to leave that he left his official papers behind. It was hazardous.”

While John survived that scare, his life was to end tragically. He’d become vice-consul in 1824 and full consul in 1836. Two years later he died. Ian doesn’t know why, though John was still penning letters a couple of days before breathing his last. He’d had the stress of the rebellion to deal with, and an awkward colleague. Perhaps it was a heart attack, or a tropical disease . . .

Worse, his wife, thought to be aged about 31, went into a stupor and died three weeks later, leaving eight orphaned children. Three went to England in 1841. Of that trio, only one survived to any age – providing Hilary Sargen‘s ancestral line. The five youngsters who stayed in Brazil seemed to flourish, however, and the Sargens have recently been in touch with a descendant.

William, meanwhile, appears to have continued with his mercantile activities and died in Brazil in 1856, reasonably wealthy. He was a bachelor, though there’s evidence of an illegitimate daughter who sadly died quite young.

William had his ups and downs with London. He had “raised his head a bit too high above the parapet, and complained about the salary he was getting whenever he took over from Robert”. Ian thinks William must have thought he’d get the job in S�o Luis when his brother moved to Rio, but he balked at the salary on offer and declared that nobody sensible would do it for that money. Unfortunately, they found someone who would!

Minor disagreements aside, there’s no doubt all three brothers did much for their mother country. Hilary’s certainly fascinated by their lives and achievements.

“I think one of my sisters said it for us all after she’d read the book. She said she felt quite proud to be associated with such men.”

n Our Men in Brazil: the Hesketh brothers abroad is �10.99. ISBN 978-1904244530

THE Sargens’ quest to find out about the consul in Hilary’s family began in 2002. Ian had “warmed up” with investigative work on some old letters that had been gathering dust in his desk for 40 years. They were nothing to do with the Heskeths – they’d actually come from a church jumble sale in Manchester where his mother was helping, and were about a Yorkshire family – but had to wait decades before he could look at them.

When Ian retired from teaching in 1999, after about 20 years as head of Sir John Leman High School at Beccles, he finally had time to probe the stories and people behind the correspondence, as an historical project. It gave him a taste for writing and experience in searching in archives, and he had an article published.

Appetite whetted, he seized on Hilary’s suggestion of trying to put flesh on the bones of her somewhat-vague family story.

They went to the National Archive in Kew and within the first hour found there was not one but three brothers who had gone out to Brazil and become British consuls. In all, there were about 90 volumes offering rich detail. The couple also examined records in Preston, and later went to Brazil.

“We had an astonishing stroke of luck,” says Ian. “in that the British consul in Bel�m, after looking after us very kindly for several days, suddenly produced a pile of very grubby paperwork – the remnants of old letters and documents that had simply been in storage in the consulate for about 200 years.

“There were no replicas in London; it was all fresh stuff, and that was an amazing moment.”

Another memorable occasion came when Ian was reading old travel books in the university library in Cambridge.

“I was looking for evidence of what Brazil was like in the 1820s and came across a book by Henry Lister Maw, who was among the first British people to come down the Amazon from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

“I was reading dozily in the early afternoon and suddenly realised I was reading an account of a dinner party at John Hesketh’s house! There was a long description of what they had to eat; what the house was like; how pretty his wife was – all some 200 years ago. It made it all come alive.”

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