Dr Nicholas was a medical doctor with wide scientific interests and is chiefly remembered as a geologist and biologist. On November 5th, 1819, he addressed the Geological Society of London on the subject ‘A Sketch of the Geology of the Island of Antigua’, a fuller version of which was subsequently published in America. He also sent the Geological Society large collections of rocks and fossils, carefully labelled as to their origins. Corals in this collection were later analysed by P. Martin Duncan whose findings appeared in 1863–64.
A travelogue by Charles Kingsley, author of ‘The Water Babies’, entitled ‘At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies’ refers to Dr Nugent’s Memoir on the Geology of Antigua (1821) as well as his paper ‘Souffriere of Montserrat’ in the Geological Society’s Transactions vol. I (1811). Dr Nugent graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University, where his son Oliver later studied. In the 1960s a South African etymologist, Clive Moran, contacted my father Oliver, Dr Nicholas’s great great grandson, about a cactus that was sent as a specimen to Edinburgh University in 1824. Later it had been transplanted to South Africa where it was apparently sticking in the jaws of cattle trying to eat it. They were able to work out that it was Dr Nicholas who had sent the cactus to Edinburgh!
He is remembered as the prime mover in the abolition of slavery in Antigua, though there was a degree of self interest in the move. In abolishing slavery at one go rather than gradually he and fellow assembly members hoped to be released from an unpopular tax imposed on landowners who had sworn allegiance to France during a brief period of French occupation. They were disappointed when this did not happen, though accounts suggest that the emancipation was peaceful with even former slave owners proclaiming things were much better without slavery. For his services to the island Dr Nicholas was presented with a silver table centrepiece or epergne. He was also presented with a silver dinner service by “inhabitants of Antigua”.
Though Antigua takes pride in being one of the first British colonies to abolish slavery, the condition of former slaves improved only slowly. The viability of the colony depended on sugar being produced at a competitive price which in turn depended on cheap labour. In his memoir of an Antiguan workingman ‘To Shoot Hard Labour’, Samuel Smith tells how working people, black or white, were paid just enough to keep them alive and that nine 9 years after emancipation ‘the wage paid to a black working on contract was less than what it had cost to feed, clothe and shelter a slave’. Working conditions, the book tells us, were virtually the same as for those previously enslaved, and estate owner brutality continued.
Mechanisation and trade unionism demonstrated what estate owners and managers had been slow to accept: that sugar production was not viable in Antigua once estates started to pay their workers living wages. From that time the sugar industry went into decline. Sugar is no longer grown in Antigua.
Source: Nugent Family tree; Family papers; On emancipation: ‘Emancipation in the West Indies’ by J Thome and H Kimball, New York, 1838; On geology: http://jgslegacy.lyellcollection.org/cgi/content/abstract/57/1-4/490; On cactus: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1219455; Correspondence between Oliver Nugent CBE and Dalmer Dew.
To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan workingman 1877-1982’ is authored by Smith’s grandchildren Keithlyn B Smith and Fernando C Smith and was published in Canada in 1986 by Edan’s Publishers; quotes are from the 1988 edition. The book is also cited on the page Lucretia, Lady Nugent.