Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 2

Slavery and the Arts, Pt. 2

Last week, inspired by a talk I was asked to put together for Black History Month, I wrote an introduction to looking at the history of depictions of slavery in British artwork and across a range of artistic genres. You can (re)visit my introductory post here. This week, I’d like to look at just a few examples of slavery in the arts to demonstrate some of the information that we can gather from artistic works.

I should note that my postgraduate research centred on identifying proslavery arguments, works, individuals and societies, and their efforts to combat popular abolitionism in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, up to the mid-1830s. As such, much of my work on the history of slavery in art was focussed on pro-slavery works, and the items I’ve selected here reflect this experience.

It’s important to remember that just because a piece of artwork, literature, music, or propaganda seems to state or promote one side of the slavery debates, this does not necessarily mean that the author or publisher held those beliefs. It could have been that he or she (although probably ‘he’ at this point in time) was aware of the market and what the public wanted, in order to maximise their chances of sales. In other cases the author or publisher clearly states that they are trying to contribute to the slavery debates. Finally, in some cases the author is an anti-slavery or West Indian society or representative, and so  the connection and motivation behind the work doesn’t need to be inferred.

Political Prints and Caricatures: ‘The Blind Enthusiast’, published by William Holland

blind-enthusiast

The Blind Enthusiast, pub. William Holland (1792)

The Blind Enthusiast is a very interesting piece. It is a political print, a format that was gaining popularity amongst the politically-aware and active elites in London during this period. Politicians and wealthier Londoners could collect prints: many more could view them in shop windows in London. To be a good print, the characters and scene needed to be recognisable. Wilberforce stands blindfolded in the centre of the scene, therefore his image must have been recognisable by members of the British public by the early 1790s.

The print is making a commonly-advanced anti-abolitionist argument: that the work, information, and propaganda being produced by abolitionists (here embodied by Wilberforce) is actually setting the colonies alight. The islands are labelled, just to make sure that the viewer sees that it is Britain’s West Indian colonies that are being enflamed.

At this time and across the following three decades, abolitionists would be charged again and again that by regularly challenging colonial slavery in Parliament (Wilberforce brought in bills to abolish the slave trade annually), sending missionaries to the colonies to inform and convert slaves, and spreading conflicting ‘incendiary’ information about British abolition through colonial newspapers, they were damaging master-slave relations and threatening the ‘peace’ in the islands.

Environmental Theatre: Using blackface to gain attention and support

‘The delusions practised, too, in order to work upon the people, and excite their sympathy, were of a ridiculous nature; and when his noble friend (the Lord Chancellor) stood for Yorkshire, there were persons led about in chains, with blackened faces, in order to rouse the feelings of the people.’

Alexander Baring, House of Commons, 15 April 1831

On 15 April 1831, MP Thomas Fowell Buxton brought in a motion for the abolition of slavery. The motion is introduced with a lengthy speech, typical of motions for abolition and emancipation at the time, that discusses the history of British slavery in the West Indies, what is believed to be the current state of slavery there, and the pressing demand for abolition. In the discussion that follows his motion receives substantial support and also some strong opposition. In the end, the debate is adjourned until after the forthcoming Reform debates.

I’d like to take minute here to look at one element of a sceptical MP’s argument. MP Alexander Baring presents a lengthy speech in defence of the colonies that points out holes and errors in the beliefs that underpin the stated arguments for abolition. In his speech, he intentionally downplays the importance of the ‘5,600 petitions’ by suggesting that, while they may indeed contain tens of thousands of signatures, they were all created by the same society. He then goes on to say the abolitionists have been going to towns and creating spectacles through blackface and and chains to bring awareness of colonial slavery to the wider British public.

I think such activities could be interpreted as early environmental theatre. Environmental theatre aims to remove the distinction between the audience/observer and the actors/show by typically removing the need for a stage and instead performing on the streets, in public forums and venues, with or without notice. The action takes place within the audience, and the audience may or may not know that they are viewing a planned or somewhat scripted performance. It can be used to draw attention to causes, which Baring believes to have been the intention here, and the nature of this type of theatre encourages the public to get involved, take a role, learn more, and be motivated to then do something. In Baring’s opinion, spectacles such as these may have unfairly affected both voting and the signing of petitions.

Wedgwood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ blue jasperware

wedgwood

Many of us are familiar with the phrase, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’, and the associated image of a kneeling enslaved man of African descent in chains. Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent abolitionist and the founder of the Wedgewood pottery business, worked with The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to place the iconic image on the famous medallions.  The resulting image was a massive seller in the 1790s and into the 1800s across a range of formats. Therefore, this was a commercially-successful image.

Wedgwood’s medallions in particular became a popular fashion accessory for women, but the image was also used on Wedgwood’s famous blue jasperware. Through the Society’s efforts and those of Wedgwood and his descendants (he died in 1795), they made this image and the plea for help with the abolitionist cause recognisable across Britain. At the same time, they also made a lot of money for their business and their cause.

This is a very specific image, however, that is being promoted and shared here for the purposes of spreading information and selling goods. It is the image of a man who is begging for help. He is unable to help himself yet he wants help, he is physically restrained by chains, and he is almost naked and therefore even more vulnerable. The Society is sharing a safe, reassuring, commercially-viable image with the British public, one that insists that enslaved Africans need help and that they are not a threat. The man in the picture is child-like, docile even, in need of paternal care. There is no sense of African agency or strength here. It was a success and has left a lasting impression.

You’ll find my list of suggested readings in the first of these two posts on slavery and the arts. If you’d like more information and many more examples of proslavery arts and culture in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s, why not check out Chapter 3 of Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition.

Advertisements

Proslavery Britain is out now!

Proslavery Britain is out now!

I am very pleased to announce that my first book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, comes out today from Palgrave Macmillan!

Dumas, Proslavery Britain

Proslavery Britain tells the story of how slavery was encouraged, defended, and repeatedly justified in the face of growing opposition in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It seeks to provide a fuller understanding of the story of the abolition and emancipation in the British Empire, a story that up until now has been largely one-sided. We know of the great work of the humanitarian abolitionists in Parliament and on the ground across the country. Proslavery Britain provides us with insight into the sometimes formidable force they were up against, right up to 1833.

A detailed examination of a wide range of sources, including parliamentary records, committee minutes, pamphlets, sermons, art, literature, drama, and poetry, placed within the wider context of national and international unrest, provides us with a greater understanding of the fights for and against abolition. It reveals the struggle to defend slave trading, slave holding, the colonists, and the colonies in the face of widespread opposition.

Here’s what early reviewers have said:

“As scholarly focus on Britain’s era of colonial slavery continues to grow, Paula Dumas has provided a valuable and wide-ranging analysis of pro-slavery advocacy in the age of abolition. This book reminds us that while the slave-owners lost the battle over abolition, they won the war over racial subordination.” -Nicholas Draper, Co-director of Structure and Signification of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833 project, University College London, England

“Comprehensive in its range and focus, Proslavery Britain offers a fascinating insight into proslavery arguments and rhetoric during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This painstaking study promises to reshape our understanding of slavery debates in Britain, not least through its attention to things such as proslavery arts and culture. We have long needed a book of this kind and Dumas has risen to the task magnificently.” -John Oldfield, Professor of History, Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, England

Order Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition from Amazon, Palgrave, or tell your local library or booksellers about Proslavery Britain today!

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 2

Earlier I began writing down some of my thoughts on why I think historians haven’t talked much about “proslavery” in British history. If you missed my first post, please click here. I wrote that I believed there were 5 main reasons for British proslavery to be missing from our understanding of British slavery and abolition.

Here’s a quick reminder of my first four points:

  1. The first histories of British abolition were written by abolitionists and tell their story.
  2. There are many more abolitionist primary sources to study.
  3. Abolition took place decades earlier in Britain than in the US.
  4. British colonial planters had less power and influence than their American counterparts by this period.

I had decided to leave the fifth point for another day, because I think its worthy of a discussion all its own. It’s also a bit more complicated than the others to get across.

I believe that British proslavery has been pushed aside, ignored, and downplayed in the traditional story and historiography of British slavery and abolition because people don’t want to remember it.

I think it’s a morality issue. Slavery, and definitely pro-slavery, is an awful thing to remember. The moral and ethical issues surrounding the study of how groups of men could justify, support, and encourage the enslavement of other groups of men are challenging to say the least. People said despicable things about the men, women, and children who were enslaved. They insulted, degraded, and demeaned them using a wide range of means that had long-lasting consequences, not least for colonial life and race relations. And a better understanding or official acknowledgement of the mind-set and historic support of Parliament might very well be used against the British Government to justify the case for reparations.

In the later 18th and early 19th centuries, people used the Bible to explain and justify slavery and the enslavement of people of African descent. They used contemporary beliefs and the latest “scientific” studies about race and “civilization” to justify it. They could draw on past parliamentary decisions and legal rights to explain and support it. These are not things to be proud of to say the least.

If someone wants to look at this era of history from a moral perspective, or with a view of finding something to celebrate or of which to be proud, then it sure isn’t going to be how the West Indian interest and their supporters within Britain continued justifying slavery right up to 1833. It’s going to be the hard work of the abolitionists – the winning side – that gets remembered and celebrated. That’s what the statues will remind us of. That’s what the memorials will be dedicated to. That’s what the ceremonies will commemorate on the anniversaries of beating the proslavery side.

The opinions and efforts of the British West Indian interest have been discussed in some of the major 20th century studies of British abolition, but from the earliest works they were judged and placed on the losing side of a moral, humane battle for liberty and good. Therefore, proslavery people couldn’t be discussed without being placed firmly in the context of the abolitionist fight. Any attention that was paid to them focussed on their decline, their doomed position, and their inability to compete against the moral campaign for abolition.

But we know that Wilberforce and his supporters lost many bills for abolition. They faced growing, substantial opposition and had to fight to earn public support and then fight for that public support to mean something within the halls of Parliament. By downplaying or even casting aside the opposition to abolition in the story of British abolition, then not only can we not fully understand abolition, but we aren’t giving the abolitionists enough credit for what they were able to achieve in spite of a strong, powerful, knowledgeable, legally-supported opposition.

Suggested Reading:

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Klingberg, Frank J. The Anti-Slavery Movement in England: A Study in English Humanitarianism. 1926. Reprint, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968.

Ragatz, Lowell Joseph. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. 1928. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1963.

Tise, Larry E. Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

The Case of the Missing Proslavery, Pt. 1

Why don’t we know more about British proslavery?

I have contemplated this question for years. Proslavery argument and rhetoric is a legitimate topic for historical study. We only need to look at the American case to see a fully developed historiography on the subject. When it comes to the absence of understanding of proslavery on the far side of the Atlantic, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but I have five educated guesses that I’m happy to lay out here.

First, the first historical accounts of British abolition were written by the abolitionists. Thomas Clarkson’s The History, Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament was first published in 1808 and provided a triumphant narrative of British abolitionists overcoming adversity to achieve abolition in 1807. He wrote a history of the abolitionists and portrayed it as though it were a history of abolition. This is a problem. We see the legacy of his work and this emphasis on the abolitionists last into the later decades of the 20th century.

Second, it is far easier to find primary sources created by abolitionists in their quest to end slave trading and slavery in Britain and her colonies than it is to find clear defences of slavery and slave trading. Abolitionists made mobilizing public opinion a goal and were impressive in their ability to reach groups that had not traditionally been involved in the political process, whereas West Indian organizations focussed much of their efforts on legitimising their position and defending the colonies in Parliament. As such, the amount of abolitionist propaganda dwarfs that of the anti-abolitionists.

Third, Britain abolished slavery in her Caribbean colonies in 1833, whereas it continued in parts of America for another 3 decades. From a historian’s perspective, that means an additional 30 years’ worth of sources to draw upon, a wider range of sources, and more modern, reliable sources. For example, a historian of American slavery could draw upon first-hand accounts, personal records, and interviews created in the first few decades of the twentieth century. American slavery was also far more visible to the American people, whereas by the late 1700s British courts had acted to end slavery at home, confining it to the colonies.

Fourth, for a variety of reasons American slave owners had far more political power and influence by the early 1800s than their British counterparts in the Caribbean and back in Britain. It’s not that the British West Indian interest couldn’t pull together a solid defence or that they were doomed (which is what you might think if you read some of the earlier studies on them). They won debates, defeated bills for abolition and emancipation, and earned several significant concessions in the final debates on emancipation, particularly compensation and continued labour via the apprenticeship scheme. But evidence also shows that their fortunes were waning and their positions in Parliament were increasingly under threat from the growing franchise and outpouring of public abolitionist sentiment.

I mentioned above that I have five main theories as to why we don’t know much about British proslavery. I know I’ve only listed four so far, but this post is getting far too long for my liking and my last point is worthy of its own discussion, so stay tuned for Part Two.

Want to know more? Check out my new book, Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, coming soon from Palgrave Macmillan.

Suggested Reading:

Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1975.

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Ryden, David Beck. West Indian Slavery and British Abolition, 1783–1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Compensation for who?

Why did the British Government, and the British people, pay the planters and not the slaves when slavery was abolished in her Caribbean colonies?

In the emancipation settlement of 1833, British slaveholders were given money to compensate them for the end of slavery. A lot of money. They were granted £20 million outright to be shared amongst those who could prove a claim (resulting in the wealth of information on British slave ownership that has only recently begun to be exploited by researchers and historians).

The slaves received no money. They were instead re-classed as “apprentices” in an attempt to ensure continuing productivity on the colonial plantations up to 1840. (Apprenticeship would in fact end 2 years early, in 1838.)

So why is it that the planters, whose family fortunes had often been made in the colonies through the exploitation of their fellow men, were the ones being granted compensation? Because the planters had a legal right to hold their property, and if the state was going to take away their property, then the property holders were entitled to compensation.

To understand this argument, we have to try to put ourselves in the mind-set that, legally, enslaved human beings were the property of their masters, and that their “owners” had as much legal right to compensation for the removal of this class of property as they did to any other.

This legal argument proved particularly effective in the final years of the slavery debates in Parliament. Outright proslavery arguments had faded from the parliamentary debates soon after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Instead, we see a rise in legal and pro-colonial arguments that were put forth to defend the planters’ careers and possessions.

As abolitionists worked to humanise enslaved Africans and those of African descent in the colonies, often employing sentimental rhetoric and emotionally-charged imagery in their work, and framing the issues of abolition and emancipation as humanitarian goals, anti-abolitionists continued to turn to supposedly-rational legal arguments to make their claim to compensation, in case the day were to come that slavery were ended in the colonies. This was a smart road to take, and it was highly effective.

Parliament was made up of landowners. If they had ended slavery without compensation, the British government would have been confiscating millions of pounds of property without giving anything in return. For them, this would have been setting a dangerous precedent! As Robert John Wilmot Horton remarked on March 6, 1828:

“In this country, if a canal were cut, or a street built, the interest of the individuals was made to yield to the public interest; but then it was well known that individuals always received compensation. Now, the West-Indian has property which he could only work by means of slave labour; and was he not, therefore, equally entitled to compensation, if deprived of that labour, as the man in this country was who had his property destroyed, either by the building of a street or the construction of a canal?”(Parliamentary Debates New Series XVIII col. 102)

Note that Wilmot Horton here emphasises land rather than human property, possibly as a means to avoid being drawn into to moral debate over slave ownership. But not everyone felt the need to dance around the matter:

“God forbid that there should be any thing like a forcing of a master to abandon his property in the slave! Once adopt that principle, and there was the end of all property.” – Lord Wynford, 17 April 1832 (Parliamentary Debates 3rd Series XII col. 630)

If some humans were considered property, and that property had been obtained through legal means such as financial investment and inheritance, than the owners, and not the property, would need to be compensated in the case of that property being removed or destroyed. And so we find that the masters, and not the slaves, were granted substantial financial compensation as slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

Suggested Reading:

Draper, Nicholas. The Price of Emancipation: Slave-ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Drescher, Seymour. The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dumas, Paula E. Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Green, William A. British Slave Emancipation: The Sugar Colonies and the Great Experiment, 1830-1865. 1976. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Planters and PhDs: Uncovering Britain’s Pro-Slavery Past

When I first started asking about the opposition within Britain to abolition and emancipation, there was next to no information available on the subject. The American case has a long-established historiography on the topic of proslavery; where was the research into the British case?

For so long we viewed the history of British abolition as though it was one-sided and inevitable, and as such our attention was focussed on the abolitionists who won the day. While I won’t get into the historiography of British proslavery history here (that’s a topic deserving of at least a post or two of its own), what’s exciting is that there is all sorts of research coming out of British universities now on British planters, merchants, slave holders and traders, and the legacy of slavery in Britain.

Some of the newest research into the topic is coming out of British universities in the form of PhD theses. These often-ignored sources of information contain years of study and research backing their conclusions. Here are some that have been released over the past few years:

  • Baker, Sonia. “Scots in Eighteenth Century Grenada: A Study of the Life and Times of Ninian Home (1732-1795).” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2015).
  • Barrett, Ian John. “Cultures of Pro-Slavery: The Political Defence of the Slave Trade in Britain c. 1787-1807.” Unpublished PhD thesis (King’s College London, 2009).
  • Donington, Kate. “’The Benevolent Merchant? George Hibbert and the Representation of West Indian Mercantile Identity.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University College London, 2013).
  • Dumas, Paula E. “Defending the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain in the Era of Abolition, 1783-1833.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 2013).
  • Mullen, Stephen Scott. “The Glasgow West India Interest: Integration, Collaboration and Exploitation in the British Atlantic World, 1776-1846.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Glasgow, 2015).
  • Taylor, Michael. “Conservative Political Economy and the Problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-33.” Unpublished PhD thesis (University of Cambridge, 2015).

Of course, I’m very excited that Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition, a book that evolved from my PhD research, is launching next month. We are creating a far more accurate, multi-faceted story of the struggle for abolition and emancipation.

If you’re a postgrad writing on the topic of British proslavery or know of someone who is, let us know in the comments!

Glasgow’s West India Committee

When we think of planters, absentee slave owners, and West Indian merchants living in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I think we’re most likely to think of those living on vast country estates and in the major ports of London and Liverpool. While absentee planters and London’s West India Committee have received a great deal of attention from historians, Glasgow’s West India Association remains under-discussed. Historian Iain Whyte, however, has argued that contemporaries viewed Glasgow’s Association as the most powerful West Indian society outside London. With fairly detailed minutes and records of the Association available on microfilm from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, one can catch a glimpse of the activities and interests of West Indian planters and merchants in Britain yet outside of London.

Glasgow West Indian merchants were wealthy, politically active, and influential, particularly prior to the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 which significantly widened the franchise. The first meeting of the Glasgow West India Association took place on 22 October 1807 at the Tontine Tavern in Glasgow. In attendance were approximately 20 planters and merchants with interests in the West Indies. At this first meeting they unanimously resolved: “That much inconvenience having been felt, and much injury sustained by the want of mutual co-operation in matters affecting the general interests of the Trade, it was an object of great importance that the different Planters and Merchants connected therewith in this Place should form themselves into a Public Association for the protection of their various rights, privileges and interests”. By 1808 the association had 28 company members and 43 individual members who all paid an annual subscription (25 guineas for company members and five for individuals).

Family and business ties connected many of the Association’s members over the years. The association also received support from the Glasgow Courier under the editorship of James MacQueen. West Indian planters and merchants in Glasgow were united in their opposition to emancipation and worked together to fight for compensation for absentees in Britain and slaveholding colonists.

Between 1807 and 1833 the Association addressed a number of issues of concern to its members. These included infrastructure, agricultural produce, slavery, legal issues, trade and taxation, committee work, and other general concerns of the West Indian interest. Their discussions specifically relating to colonial slavery revolved around the foreign slave trade, educating slaves, the African Institution, emancipation, potential problems following emancipation, private property, free labour (including ensuring the continuance of production and using other potential labourers), the slave population, the origins of colonial slavery, and compensation. When it came to organising and campaigning against emancipation and for support and compensation, the Association sent representatives and petitions to Parliament (records indicate that petitions were sent in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1833), pleaded on behalf of the colonists, and paid £50 to have an agent in London’s West Indian Society.

Suggested Reading:

Cooke, Anthony. ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783-1877’. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 32 (2012): 127-65.

Lambert, David. ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network’. Slavery & Abolition, 29 (2008): 389-414.

Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.