Rethinking Bloomsbury: A Public Roundtable Discussion

By: James Dawkins

1826 Map of Bloomsbury, Western SegmentRethinking Bloomsbury was a public roundtable discussion held at UCL’s Petrie Museum on Tuesday 26th April, 2014.  This interdisciplinary event was organised by UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (LBS) in partnership with the university’s Petrie Museum, and sponsored by the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies (J-Figs).

London’s Bloomsbury area is prominent for its connection to art, culture, education and literature.  More specifically, it is a district that has historical nexuses to well-known writers, is the home of some of London’s best loved museums and is the base of UCL’s main campus.  Having said this, new research being undertaken across a number of UCL’s faculties has uncovered a myriad of forgotten connections which have led the university to reconsider the historical representation of the area.  The Rethinking Bloomsbury event emerged as a result of these findings and provided a stimulating intellectual forum within which this new research was discussed.   Five UCL-based speakers were invited to provide a five minute presentation on their work.  This was followed by a thought provoking discussion amongst the audience and the presenters regarding the finer points of their studies and how their findings can be used to enrich current understandings on the history of Bloomsbury.

The first presenter, Caroline Bressey, used paintings and drawings of Black people to speak about their academic, theatrical and political presence in Bloomsbury between 1919 and 1939Debbie Challis spoke about Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie and their impact on concepts and practices of racial science in Britain.  Subhadra Das elaborated upon activities of Francis Galton and discussed the collection of his belongings bequeathed to UCL and his ideas on eugenics.  Nicholas Draper gave a talk on Bloomsbury’s connection to British slavery and highlighted the considerable number of slave-owners that once resided in the area.  The final speaker, John J Johnston, spoke about Bloomsbury’s LGBT community and illuminated a number of historical figures from the academic and creative worlds who contributed to Bloomsbury’s diverse ambience.

We had a great turn out for the event which was rounded off with a drinks reception, exhibition on the slave-owners of Bloomsbury and further discussion on the snippets of research presented earlier on in the evening.

Margaret McPherson Grant and the legacies of slave-derived wealth

By: Rachel Lang

Margaret MacPherson GrantMargaret McPherson was born in 1834, three months before the Emancipation Act came into effect, and she never visited the West Indies. An only child, she was the daughter of the local doctor in Aberlour in Banffshire, north-east Scotland. Her mother was said to have married beneath her, although herself only the daughter of an impoverished minister.[1] At the age of twenty, Margaret’s life changed forever when she inherited a vast Jamaican fortune from her childless, self-made uncle Alexander Grant. Alexander left £300,000 in personalty as well as property in London, Scotland and Jamaica.[2] Margaret became hugely wealthy, dependent upon no-one and without social equal, which allowed her to live an unorthodox and ultimately tragic life. Margaret provides an unusual example of how the legacies of slave-derived wealth in Britain continued to be felt long after slavery had been abolished.

After gaining her inheritance, Margaret lived in the mansion built by her uncle on the banks of the Spey river about a mile from the village of Aberlour. Her main interests were salmon fishing and the Episcopal Church.[3] She occasionally visited London where, in 1864, she met Charlotte Temple, the 22 year old daughter of a Wiltshire landowner. They formed a close friendship and in the autumn of that year Charlotte came to visit Margaret in Aberlour, staying until the following spring. A few weeks after Charlotte returned to her parents’ house in Wiltshire, Margaret was back in London again, when she sent a telegraph to Charlotte asking for a meeting. Margaret visited Charlotte’s parents and begged them to let Charlotte live with her permanently, promising that because of her love for Charlotte, she would make her the heir to her Jamaican fortune. After much discussion, Charlotte’s parents agreed. Margaret had previously bequeathed her property to the Episcopal Church, but in 1865 on another visit to London, she changed her will, leaving the bulk of her fortune to an elderly aunt and thereafter to Charlotte: “She goes to the [lawyer’s] office and brings out the pen to Miss Temple, who was waiting in the carriage, saying to her, ‘Do you know what I have been doing? I have been making you my heir, and here is the pen I did it with; keep it!”[4]

Throughout the late 1860s, Margaret and Charlotte’s life together in Aberlour House was blighted by Margaret’s increasing alcoholism. “After getting her fortune, Miss Grant seemed to have given reins to herself. She got into a habit of tippling to a large extent, drinking not merely wine, but beer and brandy – a bottle and a half of brandy a-day sometimes. Miss Temple used arguments to wean her from that, and appealed to her self-respect, but without avail. She hid her failings when she could, and when she could not did her best to do so.”[5] Several newspaper reports after her death described periods of abstinence and times of excess. Her father appears to have had a calming effect, although he could not dictate the terms of her life; he came to live with them in Aberlour House in 1870 and she gave up alcohol for a while, only to relapse after his death in April 1871.[6]

Despite their difficulties, Margaret and Charlotte loved and cared for each other – perhaps, according to disapproving comments in newspapers after Margaret’s death, too much so. “Something like a marriage had taken place between them. Each pledged herself to celibacy; Miss Grant ‘married’ Miss Temple, placing on the latter’s marriage-finger a suitable ring, and thenceforth designating her ‘Charley’; Miss Temple not only reciprocated the extraordinary affection, but likewise manifested similar extraordinary proofs of it – she termed herself ‘Wifie’ in her letters to Miss Grant, she addressed the latter as ‘Jamie’ and in short, a lot of remarkable tomfoolery went on between the two.”[7] Public records of their lives at this time consist of reports of salmon fishing and grouse shooting expeditions and of entering stock into local agricultural shows.[8]

Margaret made large donations to a variety of good causes, in particular to the church: “Her almost boundless wealth enabled her to promote and carry out schemes of charity… Every popular movement had her sympathy and support”.[9] She continued to oversee the management of her Jamaican estates, dictating her correspondence to Charlotte when she communicated with her Jamaican factors. Despite being described as “very masculine in appearance and manly in dress”, Margaret’s wealth and charitable giving afforded considerable social leeway as the “’strong-minded’ but none the less highly respected proprietrix of that fine Speyside property”.[10]

In August 1875, the London Standard reported that, in the space of a few hours, a Captain Yeatman “bagged 26 brace of grouse, 2 hares and 2 plovers” on land belonging to Miss MacPherson Grant of Aberlour.[11] It’s not clear when Harry Farr Yeatman first became known in Aberlour, but by December 1875, Charlotte had become engaged to marry him. Margaret’s reaction to Charlotte’s betrothal veered from one extreme to another depending on her alcohol intake. At times she welcomed the alliance, offering to host their marriage in Aberlour House, and at other times she was distraught about the idea of Charlotte leaving her and scathing about the prospect of Charlotte’s potential “brats of children”.[12]

Shortly after the announcement of Charlotte’s engagement, a fire broke out in Aberlour House, the origins of which are unclear. After the fire, Margaret suffered what would probably in modern terms be described as a psychotic episode. Despite being shepherded to safety while the fire raged, Margaret became convinced that she had rescued a servant girl herself and carried her to safety. Much more worryingly, “She got so terrified and frightened she seemed to think there was a hole in her head, and asked people to look for it. She got her hair clipped sometimes twice a-day. She beseeched her attendants to look for the hole.” Living in a mire of unhappiness and drinking to excess, Margaret suffered from paralysis in her legs and died in April 1877, just two weeks before her 43rd birthday.[13]

Margaret revoked her will in November 1876 and died intestate. Her fortune was inherited by a cousin on her father’s side whom she had probably never met. Charlotte contested the settlement, claiming that Margaret was of frail mind at the time and under the undue influence of her Jamaican factor. A compromise was agreed, whereby Charlotte was allocated £10,000, most of which she exchanged for a watch she had previously given to Margaret, and Margaret’s diamond brooch.[14] After her death, Margaret’s estate was valued for probate at £195,500 including moveable estate on Bryan Castle, Brampton Bryan and Low Layton estates in Jamaica.[15]

There are three lasting legacies to Margaret in the north-east of Scotland. Firstly, she donated £3000 to pay for the construction of St Margaret’s Episcopal Church, still at the centre of Episcopal life in Aberlour. She also donated the organ to Inverness Cathedral, which has only lately been replaced. Finally, and most significantly, she was the first benefactress of the Aberlour Orphanage, still in existence today as the Aberlour Childcare Trust, which provides help to over 6,000 of Scotland’s most vulnerable children, young people and their families each year.[16] Although the websites of each institution describe Margaret’s role, none say where her wealth came from; the brutality of sun-drenched life on Jamaican plantations was a far cry from Margaret’s existence in Scotland.


[1] Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 27/12/1877, Issue 7131 p. 3.

[2] Alexander Grant in the LBS database: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/46343. Will of Alexander Grant of Arlington Street, Middlesex, PROB 11/2193/143. Alexander Grant’s fortune included £300,000 of moveable property as well as property in London and Scotland and plantations in Jamaica.

[3] See for example: Belfast Newsletter 23/02/1859 Issue 13315; Dundee Courier 02/05/1859 Issue 2217; Aberdeen Journal 08/08/1860; The Leeds Mercury 17/09/1863 Issue 7935.

[4] Petition of Charlotte Yeatman for the sequestration of the estates of Miss Margaret MacPherson Grant, describing their lives together and reported in several newspapers including Aberdeen Weekly Journal 14/07/1877 Issue 6989 p. 8, Dundee Courier & Argus and Northern Warder, 17/07/1877, Issue 7483 p. 3. Quote from Lachlan Shaw, History of the province of Moray. Comprising the counties of Elgin and Nairn, the greater part of the county of Inverness and a portion of the county of Banff (Glasgow, Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1882) p. 176.

[5] Quote from Lachlan Shaw, History of the province of Moray, p. 178.

[6] Another report states “Her father seems to have had no power over her at all”, Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 27/12/1877, Issue 7131 p. 3.

[7] Lachlan Shaw, History of the province of Moray, p. 178. Letters between Margaret and Charlotte are similarly mentioned in Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 27/12/1877, Issue 7131 p. 3 and reports of letters which could be made public in court appear in many other newspapers, for example, Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 01/11/1877, Issue 5876 p. 5.

[8] For example, Morning Post, 30/09/1864, Issue 28328 p. 3; Morning Post 16/08/1869, Issue 29855 p. 2; Glasgow Herald, 29/07/1869, Issue 9226, p. 4.

[9] Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 18/04/1877, Issue 6745 p. 2.

[10] See for example, Bristol Mercury, 07/07/1877, Issue 4554 p. 3; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 08/07/1877, Issue 1807 p. 8.

[11] Standard, 14/08/1875, Issue15928  p. 3.

[12] Lachlan Shaw, History of the province of Moray, p. 182. Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 02/01/1878, Issue 7136 pp. 3-4

[13] Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 27/12/1877, Issue 7131 p. 3.

[14] Lachlan Shaw, History of the province of Moray, p. 178. Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 27/12/1877, Issue 7131 p. 3.

[15] Inventory of Margaret McPherson Grant of Aberlour, SC2/40/30.

The Impact of ’12 Years A Slave’: Using Family History to address the Legacies of Slavery

Guest Blog by: Patrick Vernon[1]

 The success of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave at the Oscars provides a new opportunity to explore the legacy of enslavement through the lens of family history and mental well being. In his acceptance speech, McQueen stated “I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” Although it may feel coded, the expression ‘endured slavery’ is of major significance when exploring the emotional legacy of the enslaved past; this is because this past still has an impact in terms of behaviour, cultural norms, parenting, relationships, lifestyle choices and in how identity is projected and received, not only for people of African descent, but also for people of European descent. In the United States, academics such as Dr Na’im Akbar and Dr Joy Leary have used the concept of post-traumatic slave syndrome to explain the conditions of African Americans; whilst in the Caribbean, Dr Fred Hickling has established an approach called Psychohistoriography to articulate the post-colonial legacy of slavery and Empire. These approaches on enslavement and mental illness raise major debates on choice, agency and historical labelling of diagnoses which begs the question: where does structural/ historical racism start and personal lifestyle choices take over?

Antigua Slave Register 1817, TNA T 71/244Since there has been no Royal Commission, public inquiry, formal apology or any form of restorative justice which recognises this painful history, the concept of slavery has become further racialised as it has come to be associated with anyone of African heritage. This fuels stereotypes, shame and racism.

We have a national amnesia or are using selected memory about the system of slavery; for example, white British involvement in slavery has been ignored and the focus has turned to narratives in which Africans on the continent were the most important players in this inhuman trade. Such narratives exonerate any pain or guilt for anyone in Britain who was connected with the trade.

Despite the success and impact of Alex Hailey’s book and television series Roots in the 1970s and more recently Who Do You Think You Are which captured the lives of  a number of black personalities such as Colin Jackson, Moira Stuart, Hugh Quarshie and John Barnes , there is still a lack of awareness around family genealogy and intergenerational learning within the black British community.

who-do-you-think-you-are-350x262

Produced more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, which occurred in 1833, the film 12 Years A Slave now provides a real opportunity to have our own truth and reconciliation process by applying the Ubuntu [2] principles that Archbishop Desmond Tutu used during the Commission he chaired in South Africa after Apartheid. Our society needs to start an honest and open debate about the horrors and consequences of enslavement and how it has shaped modern Britain. This context provides a real opportunity to revisit the narrative of enslavement to see how it differs from slavery as it occurred and consider how this has contributed to the broader racial, gender and class inequalities in Britain today. It would show that the family histories of black and white people are intertwined with our shared and collective past of the history of slavery and colonisation.

I have spent the last 14 years not only researching my family history, but supporting thousands of people through establishing my website Every Generation with tips, advice, case studies, organising conferences, workshops, and writing articles on family history. However, after all these years those within the black community are still holding ourselves back from researching our past as result of the legacy of enslavement. Furthermore, many of the Windrush Generation elders, when coming to Britain, redefined their identities to start a new life which meant that some of the family narratives and facts were hidden or slightly fabricated. This applies for members of any migrant community who start a new life in a new country. However, the consequences of this are that when second and third generation members are researching their family history; they are discouraged, prevented or at worst lied to about key facts and information by our elders. This is one of the major barriers to researching black family history today.

Windrush PostcardBy opening the family Pandora box, the skeletons of the past may come to haunt us and thus for the majority of us it is easy just to mythologise our African and Caribbean identities and histories and not explore our personal family histories in detail. This also applies to the white families who benefitted from slavery who also create a mythology where each generation disguises or hides where the real wealth and money came from. Despite this, family history is still important to all of us as part of the healing process; it will enable us to move forward by recognising our family achievements and challenges of the past.

We need to reclaim our family history which will involve more soul searching within own families, but also we to demand resources and funding to support our research as part of a wider dialogue around reparations and restorative justice. I think we need to explore the following solutions below as part of a wider debate on repartitions and restoration for family history and mental well-being; this needs to holistic and creative in approach to build trust and encourage co-production between the black community and the general public.

  • Free genealogy DNA tests along with regular updates over a 5- 10 year period for X, Y and Admixture chromosome (including any new products on the market) to ascertain family history;
  • Genetic counselling and support in understanding the results of DNA tests and its implications;
  • Further research on enslavement and health inequalities around dementia, diabetes, mental health, cancer, fibroids, sickle cell and other hereditary diseases;
  • Free access to websites and online resources which charge a subscription for slave, passenger ship and other key records (e.g. Ancestry)[3];
  • Free support and equipment to digitise personal family history documentation;
  • Free copies of publications, maps, documents and photographic/audio material to support individual family history research;
  • Development of a free online community led ancestral data base and forum to support individuals and communities to share their family research and experiences around enslavement;
  • Support and encourage meetings around reconciliation and dialogue with descendants of the beneficiaries of slavery and of enslaved families;
  • Free access to family historians and genealogist to support individual and family history research;
  • Free access to trauma counselling support services which is cultural accessible and specific to the heritage of African and Caribbean communities;
  • Development of a workforce and leadership training programme in the NHS and third sector around peer support, talking therapies, commissioning in the development of holistic metal health services;
  • Development of family support and resilience programme to break the cycle of knife and gun crime;
  • Development of a culturally relevant Friends and Family Test for the community to assess the performance and delivery of public funded health and social care services;
  • Review the Public Sector Equality Duty to have specific provision on promoting and challenging discrimination against of people of African descent;
  • Equality and Human Rights Commission establishment of a race equality statutory committee with an Independent chair to monitor, review public and private sector services and policies which have a detrimental impact on the black community;
  • Funding bursaries to individuals and family members to travel to key location in the Caribbean, African, North America, Asia, Middle East and Europe as part of a process of healing and remembrance;
  • Development of research and academic fund to support more black academics and think tanks in developing research and social policy around mental health and health inequalities;
  • Establish an Emancipation Fund to support events, monuments and activities around Emancipation Day, Windrush Day and Black/African History Month;
  • Review and undertake a reclassification of the current clinical manuals around diagnosis of different forms of mental illness where people of African descent are over diagnosed;
  • Development of cultural specific support and counselling services for children and young people.

The trauma of enslavement is still ever present within the subconscious of both black and white people 400 years after the start of transatlantic slavery. It is reinforced by everyday racism and the consequences of government policy and globalisation. I guess my suggestions are radical proposals for how we can shape a new perspective on healing and unpacking our family histories to achieve equality for all by recognising the lasting legacies of those who ‘endured slavery’.

 


[1] The LBS Team would like to thank Patrick for this this guest blog. Patrick Vernon OBE is an Associate Fellow at Centre for the History of Medicine, Warwick University and founder of Every Generation Media  and 100 Great Black Britons.

[2] Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasises our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings. For further information see the Tutu Foundation UK’s website.

[3] At present, the Slave Registers are available for free on Ancestry.com; it is necessary to create an account to access them.

Historicising Slavery

By: Kristy Warren

I recently gave a talk as part of UCL’s Diversity Month, in which I discussed some of the issues surrounding historicising slavery and presenting information about this  topic to secondary school students.  Below I outline some of the key themes that I addressed.

The LBS team is currently expanding and deepening  the way we transmit histories of slavery to diverse groups, including young people. This involves contemplating how we can best enhance and revise existing learning resources in the face of new research and broadened understandings about how the system of slavery worked. It also includes considering how this history can be made meaningful and relevant to another generation. These considerations would be important at any time. But they are especially  critical in the face of soon to be implemented changes in the curriculum which see a renewed emphasis on the national, at the expense of  showing the extent to which the development of this island is linked to people in and of other places.

My colleagues Kate Donington and James Dawkins have already engaged with secondary school students studying History and English.  Kate’s experience has shown that being able to link slave-ownership to London streets, which students themselves walk, helps them to  engage more deeply with the topic. Meanwhile,  James has noted  in a recent blog entry, that the ability to show the links between a founder of the school where he was giving a presentation and slavery helped to bring home the local connections of a global system. I feel their experiences speak to the power of localizing history.

In this vein, the team has just embarked on a pilot Share Academy funded project called Local Roots / Global Routes in which we will be working along with Hackney Museum and Archives, community consultants and teachers to develop a resource for Key Stage 3 (students aged 13 – 14) which explores links to slavery and abolition in that borough. We are grateful to be partnering with staff from Hackney Museum and Archives as they have a wealth of experience and knowledge concerning community engagement and teaching slavery.  In addition to developing the resource, we will also soon add a page dedicated to this project on the LBS website.

To do this, it is important to consider what is already being done to teach slavery. Although activities which surrounded the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade did a lot to bring about the development of many key recourses and curriculum changes, inevitably certain misconceptions arose due to the focus of that year. Chief among these were that many people’s knowledge of slavery became implicitly and explicitly focused on the abolition of the trade and the British abolitionists, not on what came before or to the actual practice of plantation enslavement.

Additionally, there still remains a presumption in the minds of many that slavery is not connected to Britain due to the emphasis placed on the North American experience of slavery. This belief denies the importance of Caribbean slavery to Britain. This skewing of the British past is reinforced by the way in which the history of the enslavement of Africans is commonly taught as only being part of black history, often squeezed into the month of October. It is also not usually taught within a wider context of black presences in Britain or the history of the African continent before the trafficking in Africans began; although there are important exceptions to this which can be further explored on the black history 4 schools website.

The research being conducted by LBS means that information about slave-owners can be reinserted, broadening an understanding of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery. The information being gained in this project shows the connections between Britain and plantation slavery by including details about slave-owners and localizing the study in both Britain and the Caribbean.

Including information about slave-owners can give specific examples to show how individuals and families were enriched by their involvement in slavery. It also can show what impact these people had through engagement in politics, commerce, culture, the wider empire, the built environment and the construction of the history of slavery. This exploration includes discussing the content of the argument of the pro-slavery lobby, which has as much to tell us about Britain as the arguments made by the abolitionists. Furthermore, localizing the study can show how slavery worked in the everyday lives of those living in Britain and the Caribbean.

As a team, we want to use our research to build on the critical work conducted  already by so many groups such as the Understanding Slavery Initiative, who started reassessing slavery  long before the 2007 bicentenary.  In thinking about this aim, what Hackney Museum stated in their 2007 teachers resource pack Abolition 07 resonates: “Whatever their roots, race or ancestry, as British citizens living and learning in Britain today, this is part of their history. Young people need to learnwhy it has been hidden for so long. Young people need to own this history.”

What I learned from both preparing for the talk, and the engaging conversation that was had afterwards, is that in addition to providing new information, discovering ways of getting this information to teachers will be vital!

Twelve Years a Slave: the ‘war of representation’ then and now

By: Kate Donington

Steve McQueen’s intensely powerful film Twelve Years a Slave has raised important issues around the relationship between slavery, history, memory and identity. The film is based on the autobiographical narrative of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who lived in New York, but was kidnapped and forced into a life of slavery in the South. Although the film is set in the US, it functions as an uncomfortable reminder to all those nations who participated in and benefitted from transatlantic slavery that the historical injustices of the past continue to haunt the present. Whether people chose to disavow it or see it as an opportunity for a reappraisal, there is no doubt that the film has created a cultural dialogue in which people are talking about their relationship to this history.

 The importance of historical interpretation to the ways in which we understand ourselves as a nation has been exposed in the media by the spat between Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt over the memorialisation of the First World War. History has never been an apolitical subject; what we chose to remember and forget reveals much about the ways in which we see ourselves, as well as the way we would wish to be seen by others. Historians do not operate in a vacuum and history is written about and represented by people who have concerns firmly rooted in their own present. Indeed in that respect McQueen also holds a mirror up to those in modern society who, like their historical counterparts, are all too willing to turn a blind eye to persisting forms of coercive and unfree labour in a market driven quest for cheaper consumables. The film acts as a savage critique of the relationship between slavery and capitalism; the breakdown of human relationships in the pursuit of profit is at the centre of a film which is relentless in its representation of the transformation of men, women and children into units of production.

Frontispiece for Solomon Northup, Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (New York: C. M. Saxton 1859).

 Perhaps this is why it was so important for McQueen that the story he told began with a free man. Northup was a literate, articulate, skilled and creative individual. He and his family were presented as respectable and respected members of society living in the kind of freedom that would be recognisable and valued by modern and contemporary audiences alike. The decision to depict slavery through the lens of someone who had experienced liberty enabled the director to juxtapose black freedom with black slavery in a visually powerful way. This story was not, however, representative of the vast majority of those who endured slavery, something alluded to in the scene where a young enslaved man named Jasper looked on in fascination at a black man (Northup) being treated as an equal by a white shopkeeper.

 The emphasis on Northup’s learned exceptionalism has been raised by Hadley Freeman as potentially ‘problematic’ owing, she argues, from the ‘suggestion that the main character, Solomon Northup, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a stoical saint who was different from, even ‘above’, the other ‘typical’ slaves.’[1] This comment can perhaps be better understood when Northup’s text is considered alongside the literary traditions and racial politics of slave narratives.[2] The emphasis on Northup’s literacy, demonstrated in the opening sequence of the film which begins with Northup’s ingenious and yet ultimately futile attempt to write a letter, stems from a historically rooted cultural construction of race. As Henry Louis Gates (a consultant on the film) has argued, the ability to write ‘was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen… since mastery of the arts and letters was Enlightenment Europe’s sign of that solid line of division between human being and thing.’[3]

 Slave narratives were published for a specific audience and were often edited by white abolitionists who were invested (for obvious political reasons) in portraying their subjects in particular ways. For instance, the sexual abuse suffered by women like Harriet Jacobs was often glossed over in a bid to protect the Christian modesty of both the enslaved as well as the white female abolitionists who read the texts. In the case of Northup, as Sue Eakin has pointed out, his arrests for public drunkenness prior to his kidnapping are absent from the text, as they are also absent from McQueen’s film.[4] Representations of the enslaved had to be carefully controlled because, as with the case of Mary Prince, any suggestion of a blemished character would be seized upon by the proslavery lobby as evidence of an inferior nature.[5]

As a modern audience do we still need to be shielded from the human complexity of the enslaved? How should we read McQueen’s emphasis on Northup’s literacy and respectability? Do we consider Northup’s degradation as all the more complete because he embodied a cultured civility denied to those who were born into slavery? Do we find the scene in which he is initially beaten more powerful because moments earlier he had been seated in a plush dining room surrounded by the accoutrements of the ‘civilised’ world? Or is it important first to see his humanity before we witness the process by which he was stripped of it?

 Given that the majority of African-Americans in the film are enslaved, the initial manifestation of Northup as a freeman offers an alternative representation which rejects racial assumptions propagated by the proslavery lobby of the natural ‘inferiority’ of black people. As Northup wrote himself, quoting Samuel Bass, the Canadian who helped him gain his freedom ‘If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything.’[6] Northup then represents potential, he stands for what could be if only freedom were a reality for all.

‘Scene in the slave pen at Washington’, taken from Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.45.

 The contradiction between a ‘civilised’ liberty loving society and the practice of slavery threads throughout the film, acting as a reminder that the land of the free was forged through a brutal system of racialised unfreedom.[7] Northup’s own narrative is prefaced by a poem by William Cowper which included a remonstration to the man who would be ‘a despot absolute, and boast / Himself the only freeman of his land.’[8] The tension between civilisation and barbarism also manifested itself in the construction of the slave-owner William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are echoes of Gone With Wind’s Ashley Wilkes in the character of Ford, although McQueen is entirely more critical in his portrayal.

 The trope of the paternal master was one which the proslavery lobby returned to time and again during the abolition debates in both Britain and later the United States. This construction can be found in the proslavery play The Benevolent Planters which included the closing line ‘we declare, that you have proved yourselves The Benevolent Planters, and that under subjugation like yours, slavery is but a name.’[9]  Appropriating the language of benevolence and paternalism, the construction of the ‘good’ slave-holder became a vital part of what Catherine Hall has described as the ‘war of representation.’[10] During the debates over abolition the representation of the planter and the enslaved became contested ground, with each side determined to prove the ‘truth’ of their version of slavery. Playing on racialised notions of African ‘barbarity’, those who supported slavery argued that the institution offered a means to ‘civilisation’ through exposure to European culture and Christianity.

 This concept was masterfully undermined by McQueen in his depiction of Ford, who the audience is first introduced to at the slave auction. Ford’s impotence in the face of the slave auctioneer’s refusal to sell him Eliza’s daughter was demonstrative of a morally bankrupt system which could not be mitigated by the existence of ‘humane’ slave-owners. This point was reinforced during a scene in which Ford’s sermon to the enslaved was drowned out by Eliza’s anguished cries. McQueen touches several times upon the relationship between slavery and Christianity. The use of religion as a form of social control is evident in the scene with Ford as well as the scriptural justifications for slavery employed by the cruel and violent Epps, played with disturbing brilliance by Michael Fassbender.[11] ‘Separation of Eliza and her last child’, taken from Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.85.

 In his book, Northup differentiated between the men who claimed ownership in him. He described his  experience with Ford as the ‘bright side of slavery.’[12] Whilst Northup praised Ford as a ‘good man’, he also included a passage which shed a more practical light on Ford’s benevolent behaviour. Northup recalled a discussion between Ford and Tibeats in which the former chided the latter for using hatchets and broad axes on the enslaved. Ford claimed that this would lead to an increase in runaways and that ‘A little kindness would be far more effectual in restraining  them, and rendering them obedient, than the use of such deadly weapons.’[13] In the end, the relationship which Northup had established with Ford was not enough to save him; under slavery Northup was a chattel possession and despite Ford’s good intentions he was still sold to repay a debt. Even the kindest master was still complicit in a system which put a monetary value on human life.

Interestingly, Ford’s relatives have weighed into the debate to defend the reputation of their ancestor. ‘He was a highly moral man’ said his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford, who also suggested that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly.’[14] One of the things that the film makes clear is that fear (instilled through both physical and emotional violence) was an invaluable commodity and one which was an absolute necessity for maintaining control on the plantation. Whilst Epps was a brutal master, it was Ford who sold Northup to an unknown fate. The failings of a defence of the benevolent planter are perhaps best explained by Northup himself who wrote, ‘There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones, there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved, and miserable; nevertheless, the institution which tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one.’[15]

 When we consider the vast scale of suffering which the institution wrought it is perhaps easy to lose sight of the humanity, not just of the enslaved but also of the enslavers. McQueen’s film has been hailed for its unflinching visualisation of slavery, but arguably one of the things that it does most successfully is to humanise the actors involved in the system. Northup himself believed that slavery was degrading to both master and slave, he wrote that ‘The influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.’[16] Does this mean we should feel pity for the slave-holder? No, but it does tell us something about the complexity of human nature and the ultimately corrosive effects of unfettered power.


[2] Sarah Churchill, ’12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film’, The Guardian, Friday 10 January 2014.

[3] Henry Louis Gates, Figures in black: words, signs and the ‘racial’ self (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.25.

[4] Ed. Sue Eakin, Twelve Years a Slave (Eakin Films and Publishing, 2014).

[5] Prince published her narrative The History of Mary Prince in 1831. She was then subject to character assassination by the proslavery supporter James MacQueen in a letter to Blackwood’s Magazine. There then followed two libel suits. For more on the case, see Barbara Baumgartner, ‘The Body as Evidence: Resistance, Collaboration, and Appropriation’ in The History of Mary Prince’, Callaloo, Vol. 24, No. 1, (Winter, 2001), pp. 253-275.
[6] Solomon Northup, Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (New York: C. M. Saxon, 1858), p.267.

[7] This tension has been raised in relation to Britain as well. See Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). For the pre-abolition period see William Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[8] William Cowper quoted in Northup, Twelve Years a Slave.

[9] Thomas Bellamy, The Benevolent Planters (London: Debrett, 1789), p.13.
[11] For an interesting discussion of religion within the film see Donovan Schaefer, ‘Our Peculiar Institution: American Protestantism, Shame, and McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (film review essay)’, Religion Bulletin, 6 November 2013.
[12] Northup, Twelve year a Slave, p.103.

[13] Northup, Twelve years a Slave, p.150.

[15] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.206.

[16] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.261.

An Evening Lecture at North London Collegiate School

By: James Dawkins

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project has received continual attention and contributions from a wide range of individuals and organisations who have expressed an interest in the research being undertaken.  This autumn we were contacted by the students’ historical society at North London Collegiate School for girls who expressed a specific interest in, and invited me to deliver a lecture to their senior pupils (16-18yrs) on, the Dawkins family and their connection to Britain’s Caribbean plantation economy.  The society’s student ambassador stated that the topic of abolition and emancipation had only been covered during year 8 (12-13 yrs) over a period of four weeks.  This narrow focus on British slavery, particularly the preoccupation with its tail end, along with the lack of attention paid to the institution in the two preceding centuries,  is part of a wider and more systemic inadequacy of England’s national curriculum which is concerning.

Using the publicly available LBS online encyclopaedia during the composition of my lecture, I discovered an interesting link between North London Collegiate School and slavery.   In July 1836 Reverend David Laing (b.1800-d.1860), an active founder, teacher, and advisor to the school, was awarded a total of £2,881 in compensation for the emancipation of the 152 enslaved Africans attached to the Mount Lebanus estate in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas-in-the-East.  According to the compensation notes, he was the designated trustee of the Mount Lebanus estate and was both the son and son-in-law of Jamaican slave-owners.  Upon his passing, Ms Frances Mary Buss, the founder and subsequent head of the North London Collegiate School, established six Laing Scholarships offering free education in his memory.  During the talk I made it explicitly clear that I was not arguing that the profits generated from British slavery directly financed the establishment of North London Collegiate School. Rather, I incorporated this connection into the lecture with the intent of increasing the relevance of my talk and demonstrating the penetration of slave-ownership into British society.

The lecture was followed by a lively discussion in which the students raised a series of important questions concerning the difference between the ‘slave trade’ and ‘slavery’, the motives for the distribution of compensation to Britain’s 46,000 slave-owners, and the connection between North London Collegiate school and Reverend David Laing.  It was clear that the nexus between school and the slavery business made the lecture much more relevant to them due to the level of discussion that was generated.

This experience demonstrated the effectiveness of drawing direct connections between places, people and historical events.  This alludes to the wider issue of engaging all levels of the British public with the topic of slavery.  Elevating awareness and garnering interest through the use of direct connections over time, space and place has, in this case, proved to be a useful platform upon to engage in a discussion on this sensitive and difficult chapter in Britain’s history.

In terms of slavery’s geographic and civic permeation, North London Collegiate School is just one of many examples which demonstrates the reach of slavery beyond the port cities and coastal towns commonly associated with this form of human commerce.

Georgians Unrevealed

Guest Blog by: Miranda Kaufmann[1]

“Win a luxury country break”: a prize that would no doubt have appealed to those who received compensation for relinquishing their slaves in 1834 as much as it does to those visiting the new Georgians Revealed exhibition at the British Library today. One man who received compensation in 1834 might have been particularly surprised to see this notice at the back of the exhibition guide. For what is advertised as the “Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire”, he would have recognized as Dogmersfield Park, his childhood home.  Having recently reviewed Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann’s new book Slavery and the British Country House for the TLS, I was immediately curious about the history of this Georgian house, now a luxury hotel. A few minutes with the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database confirmed my suspicions that it, like many other country houses built in the Georgian period, can be linked to the history of transatlantic slavery.

Humphrey St. John Mildmay (1794-1853) was one of five beneficiaries from Barings Bank who received over £50,000 in compensation between them, in relation to 1015 enslaved Africans working on seven different estates in British Guiana. When I was surveying English Heritage properties for links to slavery back in 2006, Nick Draper’s research was one of my first ports of call. In this case, it again provides a way into a wider story of how slavery-related wealth and colonial experience pervaded the lives of those who lived in places like Dogmersfield Park.

Madge Dresser and Nick Draper have shown that historic properties can be linked explicitly or implicitly to the history of slavery in various ways. These range from houses built or renovated directly with the profits of trafficking in men or a colonial plantation, such as Harewood House in Yorkshire, to more indirect links, such as proprietors who dealt in slave-produced goods such as sugar, coffee and tobacco, financed colonial trade as bankers or held an official post in the administration of the colonies. Further links can be made where a proprietor was involved in the political and legal struggle for or against abolition, such as Lord Mansfield of Kenwood, who also had a personal connection to the history in the form of his great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Looking at Humphrey St John Mildmay and his family we see many of these categories in action. His strongest link is through the banking world, but he also played a political role in the debates surrounding abolition and its aftermath, and his family history also shows how marriage could bring slavery-related wealth into the fold. Mildmay does not appear to have owned colonial property himself, but rather claimed compensation in 1834 as a mortgagee, as a partner in Baring’s Bank.  He was no mere employee: his marriage to Anne Baring in 1823 actually made him Alexander Baring (1st Baron Ashburton)’s son-in-law. Ashburton himself had also made an advantageous marriage: his wife Anne Bingham of Philadelphia brought a £20,000 dowry and later inheritance from a family whose wealth originated in Martinique.

I had already encountered the Baring family when researching their home Northington Grange, now managed by English Heritage. Laurence Brown has since conducted further research into the property, which he has written about in a chapter in the Slavery and the British Country House book, as well as in this more in-depth report for English HeritageBaring’s Bank helped to fund the Louisiana Purchase between 1802 and 1804, which created thirteen new slave states in the American south, resulting in $1 million in commissions, and a substantial personal windfall for Alexander Baring. Mildmay was also a Director of the Bank of England, which provided capital to finance slave voyages from its inception in 1694.

In terms of his political career, Mildmay was a Tory MP for Southampton from 1842-1847. He opposed the Slave Trade Suppression Bill in 1843, following in his father’s footsteps- Sir Henry Paulet St John (1764-1808) had opposed abolition, voting for its postponement in 1807, aligning himself with the patron to whom he owed his Westbury seat, Lord Abingdon.

Humphrey was a younger son, so didn’t inherit Dogmersfield. But how much of his compensation money, and other profit from Barings, was spent beautifying his own country retreat, Shoreham Place in Kent? At his death, he left £300,000.

This history, conjured up to me by one snapshot of a country house included in the exhibition materials solely as a promotional gimmick, is not revealed in the Georgians Revealed exhibition. Rather, its focus on the pleasures of the age, without any interrogation of how those pleasures were financed, reinforces the traditional image of the period, and casts a veil of silence over the sorts of histories that the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project is working so hard to uncover.

The Georgian period (1714-1830) saw over 10,000 slaving voyages, the profits of which helped to fund the genteel pursuits such as theatre, dancing, gardening, gambling, shopping and tea drinking on display at the British Library. However, cartoons of the South Sea Bubble are on show without any acknowledgment of the fact that the South Sea Company transported thousands of enslaved Africans to South America under the terms of the Asiento treaty of 1713. Neither is it noted that Handel, who appears elsewhere in the gallery, was not only an investor in the company, but even profited by selling his shares before the Bubble burst.

Meanwhile, the issue of abolition lies obscured on a tea table- Cowper’s 1788 pamphlet- “A subject for conversation and reflection at the tea table” is displayed without any indication of its subject. Only the extremely careful reader would be able to pick out the capitalised words “A TRAFFIC IN MEN” in the text. A Wedgwood “slave medallion” is also on display, but its significance is crowded out by other Wedgwood exhibits in the same case.

There were some 15,000 Black people living in Georgian England. But here their presence is unremarked, marginal to the narrative. Unexplained images of Equiano and Sake Deen Mahomed’s bath house appear amongst the prints hung high in the opening gallery, and the occasional figure can be glimpsed in images such as Hogarth’s Southwark Fair or I.R. and G. Cruikshank’s Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic. The British Library has recently acquired 15 of Ignatius Sancho’s letters, however even he- a friend of Garrick, who composed music and dances, owned his own grocery shop and voted in elections- was not present, as Vincent Carretta remarked when he came to speak about Sancho in November.

When guiding press round the gallery last month, curator Moira Goff claimed, while pointing out the Cowper pamphlet on the tea table that her exhibition had “not neglected the serious.” However, the serious subjects of British involvement in the slave trade and the growing black presence in Georgian Britain will remain as invisible to most visitors as the slave-produced sugar in a Georgian cup of tea. Without someone to point out the histories that lie beneath the surface of this exhibition, the silence will remain unbroken and Dogmersfield Park will continue to masquerade as the Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire.


[1] The LBS team thanks Dr. Kaufmann for this guest blog. More information about her research interests and output can be found on her website.