Inquiring readers, this rather serious topic of British slave ownership plays a role in Jane Austen’s world and her novels. She addressed the issue in an indirect way in Mansfield Park and Emma, with the Bertram fortune resting on slave trade and Mrs. Elton’s merchant father situated in Bristol, one of three major slave-trading centers in Britain. I am sure that her two sailor brothers related vivid tales of their travels in their letters and when they returned home for a visit. Jane, who was well-read and participated in family conversations, was keenly aware of human trafficking and exploitation. Ironically, a few years after her death, Charles actively patrolled the seas against the slave trade. In this post, Tony Grant addresses the legacies of British slave ownership. The British, godbless’em, abolished slavery decades before the U.S. and in a more civilized and peaceful manner. (Tony Grant, who lives in Wimbledon, is a frequent contributor to Jane Austen’s World. Visit his other blogs at London Calling and The Novels of Virginia Woolf. He traces his ancestry to the slave trade. As for me, I was born a Dutch citizen. The shameful actions of the Dutch in transporting slaves from Africa and their role in the slave trade is well documented.)
(Researched at UCL (University College London) by Catherine Hall Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History and her project team.)
The above title is an umbrella title which has been given to two projects, one called, “Tracing the impact of slave ownership on modern Britain,” and the other, “Legacies of British Slave Ownership.” These will lead to a further project entitled, “Structure and significance of British Caribbean slave ownership 1763 -1833.”
In 1974, I was in my second year of teacher training. I was doing a three year teacher training course at Gypsy Hill teachers training college situated on Kingston Hill, about a mile from the centre of Kingston upon Thames. The college was eventually amalgamated with Kingston University. The new university education department did not retain it’s rather romantic sounding epithet, Gypsy Hill, unfortunately. My teaching practice during that second year was to spend six weeks teaching English at Henry Thornton’s Secondary School situated on the south side of Clapham Common. It was a tough place to go as a young teacher. Although Clapham is not quite classed as inner city the area was home to lot of disadvantaged families some of them ethnic minorities and many of them West Indian in origin. Henry Thornton would have been pleased about the ethnic mix in the school. My first English lesson, reading and discussing, Cider With Rosy,by Laurie Lee, was to be with a class of fifteen-year-olds. As soon as I walked into the classroom a large powerfully built West Indian lad, swaying back in his chair staring at me, trying to stare me out, nonchalantly raised his right fist and smashed it through the pain of glass in the window next to him overlooking the corridor. I think the blood must have drained rather quickly from my face and I asked another pupil to get the head of year who came rushing to my help immediately. Coming from Southampton, on the south coast, this was my first experience of Clapham.
However that experience has many connections with Britain’s past history in the slave trade and with what I am going to write about in this essay. Henry Thornton, was born in Clapham on the 10th March 1760. His father had been one of the early founders of the Evangelical movement in Britain. His father and his cousins were bankers. In fact his brother Samuel Thornton became The Governor of the Bank of England. Henry himself was a very successful banker. The bank – Down, Thornton and Free – became the most successful bank in London. Henry Thornton is credited with being the father of the modern central banking system. He was a great theorist and wrote books about banking.
Henry became the Member of Parliament for Southwark, which is situated just across London Bridge from The City. However, he was unlike other bankers of the time. Britain’s wealth was closely tied up with the slave trade, but Henry Thornton was an abolitionist. Henry Thornton was one of the founders of the Clapham Sect of evangelical reformers, who incidentally met and worshiped together at Holy Trinity Church, which nowadays is directly opposite Henry Thornton’s school where I had my momentous teaching experience. He was foremost a campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. His close friend and cousin was William Wilberforce. The two men lived together with their families at Battersea Rise on the opposite side of Clapham Common to the church and where the school that uses his name is situated. Henry was the financier behind the Clapham Sect in their many campaigns.
Catherine Hall and her project team are endeavouring to understand the extent and the limits of slavery’s role in shaping the history of Britain and its lasting legacy. They are focussing on various aspects such as commerce, culture, history, the Empire, physical attributes, such as the great houses and estates financed by slavery and also political aspects. How was slavery was involved in national and local politics? In Henry Thornton we see many of these aspects even if his actions and beliefs were contrary to the slave trade. He was a member of parliament who campaigned against slavery. He used his wealth to counteract slavery. I wonder if the West Indian lad who broke the window in my lesson realised that his destiny and the generations of his family before him were connected with the man whose name was on the school he was attending?
There is rather a surprising link and revelation about Henry Thornton in the research and data the UCL team has gathered. Kate Donnington, one of the PHD researchers on the team, has written a thesis about George Hibbert, one of the most influential characters and one of the major figures amongst West Indian merchants.
George Hibbert was a leading member of the pro slavery lobby and so one of the main adversaries of Henry Thornton over the slavery bill. However, Hibbert was a philanthropist and did many good works for charities. In 1824 he helped set up the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. Nowadays that has become the RNLI, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which saves the lives of many around our coasts to this day. He was also involved in creating The Royal Institute. The running and creation of the Royal institute for the arts and science also involved, Henry Thornton and his brother John. It seems that individuals could be absolutely opposed to each other over slavery but work together in other aspects of the nation’s life.
This project by UCL is of national and international importance, but it also has a very personal meaning. Another of the researchers in the project team, James Dawkins, is studying the slave owning presence of his own family, the Dawkins, through the data collected. This inspired me to look up my surname, Grant, to see who amongst the Grant clan from North East Scotland around the Spey Valley, was connected with slavery. I didn’t have any hopes for direct ancestors to myself being involved in slavery unless were crew on the slave ships; we were labourers in the fields and workers in the whisky distilleries. We owned no land as such and certainly had no wealth.
I discovered there were many Grants involved in the slave trade and plantation ownership though. There were various Alexander Grants, not all the same person I am sure. Alexander, must have been a popular name amongst the Grants. In fact my son, Samuel, has Alexander as his second name. There is an Alice Grant, one of my daughters is called Alice, a Betty, and various Anne Grants. It quickly becomes evident that many women, perhaps through inheritances, were investors in and owners of slaves. The list of Grants goes on.There are one hundred and eighty five Grants listed. I have an uncle, John Grant. There are many John Grants in the list and my father is Robert and yes there are many Roberts in the list. My own family’s Christian names are amongst the most prevalent Christian names associated with Grants in the survey. But my surname Grant is one Scottish surname amongst hundreds. If my families name is mirrored in the survey by all the other Scottish clan names there must be an inordinate number of Scottish families connected with the slave trade.
I took one Grant to look at more specifically. Alexander Grant , the survey does not show when he was born but he was born at Abelour, Banffshire. He died on the 7th may 1854 He was a slave owner, planter and merchant on the island of Jamaica. He had Abelour House built for him in 1838. The house still exists today. His will left £300,000. His estates in Jamaica and Scotland were inherited by his niece, Margaret Gordon McPherson Grant.
An interesting character I discovered on the UCL website was Ann Katherine Storer (née Hill, 1785-1854) She was born in Jamaica, where she married Anthony Gilbert Storer. She inherited her husband’s estates after his death, which not only included his Jamaican estates but also Purley Park in Berkshire, England. Anthony Gilbert Storer died in June 1818 and Ann Katherine returned to Purley Park with her five surviving children. There were problems with large debts and disputes over recompense. A rather strange and disturbing story is related about Ann Katherine Storer. When she returned to England she brought some slaves with her to work at Purley House.
“In 1824, Ann Katherine Storer was accused of the maltreatment of Philip Thompson, a black servant who was bought as a slave in Jamaica and brought to England by the Storers. According to Philip Thompson’s testimony, “flogging was the usual punishment for any misdemeanour and he was often ill treated… One day in July 1824 Mrs Storer was already up when Philip rose at 6 am. Finding that he had not been up in time to clean the lobby she ordered him to be taken to the “whipping place”. After removing his coat, waistcoat and shirt, he then received about a dozen lashes from a hunting whip wielded by the butler so that the blood ran down his back… Mrs Storer was said to have been present and said [to Robert Stewart, the butler], “Well done, Robert, give him more”…
There is an element of sadism in this. She almost seems to take pleasure in the ill treatment of Philip. Ann was born and brought up on a slave plantation and was obviously used to dealing with slaves. This story made me wonder if this was a usual sort of treatment that was commonplace.
I mentioned above that the project team are focusing on aspects such as commerce, culture, history, the Empire, physical attributes such as the great houses and estates financed by slavery and also political aspects. Money from slavery was used to build Abelour House in Scotland as one example and the estate still exist today. George Hibbet was a philanthropist as well as a slave owner and he did many charitable works including setting up the forerunner to the RNLI as well as the London Institution, which was for the diffusion of useful knowledge in the arts and sciences. He acted as both its president and vice president between 1805 and 1830. He was a member of a number of learned societies and clubs including the Freemasons, the Linnean society and the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Hibbet collected books, prints and art. He also inherited a house with its estate called Munden in Hertfordshire. I am taking George Hibbet as an example, but the point is that this sort of philanthropy and range of interests in the arts, literature, science, charities and so on is replicated throughout the four thousand individuals of wealth and property identified by this research.
Slavery and it’s proceeds were and are bound up with the whole of society, good and bad, and we must still be benefiting from it today. Eric Williams, the historian who wrote, “Capitalism and Slavery,” believes that the slave trade and slavery, “provided not only essential demand for manufactures and supply of raw materials but also vital capital for the early phases of industrialisation. This has been partially substantiated through the histories of particular family firms.”
In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in Britain and it’s Empire. In 1833 slavery was abolished by the British Parliament in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and The Cape. These people in the survey have been identified as the recipients of compensation for the loss of wealth when slavery came to an end. However it is important to note that what replaced it was not much better. The great sugar, tea. cotton and coffee plantations were still there. The slaves got their freedom but were then signed up to what was called an apprentice scheme. This meant that they signed up for work on the estate for a minimum number of years. Life did not materially or actually change for them. In many ways, it is interesting to think about what slavery is and means. Slavery is obviously the worst sort of work contract but we all have to work. We all have no choice once we have signed a contract. The conditions of work are very favourable on the whole for us but there are legal and social requirements we have to fulfill. The jobs we have can in no way be compared to the plight of a slave but there are degrees. Is working for someone else and being contracted to work a type of benign slavery?
The research Catherine Hall and her team are doing is fantastic but it has had its critics. There have been concerns both in the United Kingdom and in the Caribbean that the project team is white. One argument in defence is that white people as well as black people were all part of the slave trade. By putting the emphasis in the study on individual slave owners there is a fear that the case for reparations to be made by the state could be weakened. There is also a concern for banks and legal firms founded in the 17th century or before who have continued to this day and who have inherited the benefits derived from slavery in the past. The UCL group has said they are prepared to share their empirical data with these firms but also the contextualisation of that evidence.
Professor Hall and her colleagues suggest that there are some key questions and problems that remain to be addressed:
- “What proportion of Britain’s nineteenth-century wealth was linked to slavery?
- How significant was this injection of capital into the burgeoning industrial economy of the 1830s?
- Was investment in other parts of the empire seen as desirable?
- How did this capital contribute to consumer spending – on houses, gardens, books or paintings?
- Did philanthropic institutions significantly benefit?
- We have also been exploring the political activities of the slave owners – to follow them in parliament, to see what positions they took on domestic and imperial matters, how active they were in local politics or what contributions they made to cultural institutions.
- We have also investigated the ways in which their writings represented the slave trade and slavery.”
The UCL website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/