Those of us who read Jane Austen are not startled to face facts about the British Empire’s centuries-old role in slavery. Although Austen’s references to slavery are muted, in both Mansfield Park (1814) and her last novel, Persuasion (1818), the wealth she describes derived from British-owned plantations in the Caribbean.
Indeed, in Persuasion, Mrs. Smith, a once well-off married woman, became a poor and partially crippled widow, in part because her husband’s wicked executor had neglected his duty and had not transferred an income-producing Jamaica plantation to her. (All is resolved by the end of the story; Mrs. Smith regains enough income to once again live well, and her health improves, too.)
The income from these West Indies plantations, enriching Mrs. Smith and stabilizing the grandeur of Mansfield Park, was produced by slaves.
Just as my knowledge of Exodus (the Old Testament) was acquired by losing myself entirely to The Ten Commandments (1956), which my best friend Sue and I saw two and a half times until her father came into the theater and pulled us out, my awareness that England banned its slave trade in the early 1800’s and slavery itself by the middle 1800’s — decades before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — came from a pretty good movie, the fictionalized history, Amazing Grace (2006).
Until now, I’d never considered what happened regarding the monumental horror of slavery in the United Kingdom after the legislation effected by the anti-slavery movement. For one thing, unlike the United States, England’s homeland did not have many slaves or, for that matter, dark-skinned people; Britain was not faced — literally — with Reconstruction and centuries of fighting to restore full civil rights to a large, newly liberated but vulnerable population.
Englishmen could, and apparently did, turn their eyes away from the horrible history they had created and maintained. “We freed them, aren’t we terrific, not our problem anymore.”
So until now, until Sam Knight wrote “Home Truth: Long venerated as symbols of an idyllic past, Britain’s country houses now reveal a darker history,” published in the August 23 New Yorker, I did not realize how the effects of slavery permeate contemporary British culture.
I, unlike a majority of Brits, who have elevated denial to majestic heights, am flabbergasted, outraged and nauseated.
Between 1698 and 1807, some twenty-one hundred slaving voyages departed from [Bristol]–one every nineteen days. In two and a half centuries, British ships and merchants trafficked a total of more than three million African people, mostly to the colonies of the New World. The “triangular trade” involved exchanging British-made products for people in West Africa, selling enslaved Africans in the colonies, and then importing cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other good produced by slaves. (My bolding)
I didn’t know this.
Sam Knight enters his subject — Great Britain as an empire — through Britain’s National Trust. Established in 1895 to protect and open to the public vast areas of then-private property, i.e., “places ‘of beauty or historic interest,'” mostly land, the Trust, “fulfills at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure.”
The Trust which, “more than any other institution, helped to create the idealized version of the English country house,” owns more than 300 historical buildings. Country houses became a focus of Trust acquisition in 1934, when “the eleventh Marquess of Lothian…a noted appeaser of Adolf Hitler…could not afford to keep” his four country houses, thanks to inheritance taxes.
Lothian came to the Trust with an idea: that entire estates, intact with their furniture and paintings, could be left to the charity–and later opened to the visiting public–instead of breaking them up to pay the taxes.
But how did those palatial country houses come to be built in the first place? That is, how did men–many of them, like Robert Clive, born in fairly middle-class circumstances, become so fucking rich? In Clive’s case, of which Knight gives a powerful, sickening exegesis, lut: “Lut, the Hindi word for plunder, was one of the first Indian words to enter the English language.”
Clive ripped off India, killing his way to massive wealth and an accumulation of Indian treasures. (If you want to know the role played by the East India Company and its huge military force, you’ll need to read the entire article — which you should read anyway.)
In her book “Country Houses and the British Empire, 1700-1930,” [Stephanie] Barczewski [a professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina] estimated that up to one in six manors were bought with the proceeds of imperialism, with at least two hundred and twenty-nine purchased by officials and merchants returning from India.
And then there is Tibet:
Sometimes the legacy of empire is too much to hold. Did you know that Britain invaded Tibet in 1903? Thousands of soldiers were sent into the Himalayas to end the region’s isolation and thwart any ambitions on the part of the Russians. Some three thousand Tibetans were killed–“knocked over like skittles” by British machine guns, according to the memoir of one soldier–and trunks full of painted scrolls, thankas, lamas’ robes, and gold crowns were shipped back to Britain. Paintings, weapons, and manuscripts ended up in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Let’s go back to West Indies slavery, though, and what it did for Englishmen:
…Penrhyn Castle…in North Wales …was [built by] Richard Pennant, [who at the end of the eighteenth century] plowed his family’s wealth, which came from sugar plantations in Jamaica, into the Welsh slate industry. Pennant never met or saw the thousand people whom he owned.
Pennant was only one of many thousands of Brits who became rich (and entitled) from slavery.
And now I come to the point when, as I was reading this stunning article, I screamed.
Among the many things I never thought about was how did slave-owning and profiting Brits cope when their slaves were freed in 1833-34? Did they, like American Southern slaveowners, start a civil war?
No. They didn’t.
Because of reparations.
Reparations to the 800,000 freed slaves?
No. To their owners. Brace yourselves and I’m bolding this entire paragraph:
Under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British government had agreed to pay twenty millions pounds, the equivalent of forty per cent of its annual budget, to compensate plantation owners, the absentee investors, for the loss of their human property. Dividing the money involved a complex series of simultaneous equations: to work out the price of a driver in Barbados compared with that of an enslaved child in St. Kitts.
British slave-owners were paid. They were paid off. And kept getting paid off. And the money they made from these payments went into their British properties, not to their freed slaves.
The actual last sentence of that bolded paragraph above is, “The British government finished paying off the debt in 2015.”
Until six years ago, the British government was paying off slave-owners. Thanks to the Legacies of British Slavery database, names can be named.
The Legacies of British Slavery database, which went online in 2013, contained the names of around four thousand slaveholders based in Britain who claimed compensation in 1834. (The project has since grown to trace twelve thousand estates…back to 1763, and some sixty-two thousand owners.)…Eighty-seven Members of Parliament (around one in eight) were involved in the compensation process, either directly or as relatives of claimants, along with a quarter of the directors of the Bank of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury received nine thousand pounds for the loss of four hundred and eleven slaves.
That infinity symbol represents the short break I had to take after typing what preceded it. I needed to breathe.
Recently, The National Trust made a decision to get into the disturbing history and in 2020, produced a report identifying the Trust’s historic houses which had “links with Britain’s colonial and slaveowning past.”
“I’ll tell you when the iron entered my soul,” Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph…told me. “It was after George Floyd, because then I could see what was going on. The Trust reacted by endorsing B.L.M.” Moore regards B.L.M. as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues…The idea that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them seemed absolutely dreadful.”