Displaced Memories of Slavery and Slave-ownership

By: Catherine Hall

My work on the LBS project has been particularly connected with investigating how the slave-owners and their descendants told the story of the slave trade and slavery – how they contributed to the formation of collective memories. One of the puzzles we have had to think about is why slavery disappeared from national consciousness after abolition and how it was that the triumph of abolition – as it was seen – displaced the memories of slavery. It was very noticeable in 2007 how the focus was so often on remembering the abolition of the slave trade and being congratulatory about Britain having done that, rather than thinking about Britain’s long involvement in the trade. Was the the bi-centenary about celebration or commemoration? After abolition in 1833 any discussion of slavery seemed to disappear very quickly from the national arena – it was over, finished, Britain had done its duty and eradicated the stain. Now the focus could be on those other countries which had not yet followed Britain’s lead. When we started the project in 2009 we had no idea how significant the writings of slave-owners might be in constructing accounts of the past and its implications for the present – it has turned out to be a very rich area for research.

One of the key figures that I became interested in is Captain Frederick Marryat (sometimes spelt Marriott) who was an extremely popular novelist throughout the nineteenth century and indeed long after. One of his most popular books was Children of the New Forest which is still widely read and his naval novels remain in print. The naval tales are rip-roaring stories of war and adventure in the Napoleonic era with young heroes who triumph over adversity and end up safely married and with property. These adventures often take place in the Caribbean and gave Marryat plenty of opportunities to introduce black characters who are invariably stereotyped as inferior to their white counterparts. Captain Marryat was a strong defender of slavery until the moment of abolition. He then shifted ground – argued that slavery had been a bad thing but that Africans were not ready for freedom. His novels for children were manuals for would-be colonisers, educating his young readers to see their role in life as to take English values and civilisation to benighted others in the empire who could be civilized in so far as that was possible.

His father was Joseph Marryat, a leading slave-owner with plantations in Trinidad, Grenada, Jamaica and St Lucia who was very active in defending slavery,  publishing pamphlets, engaging in a  long running controversy with the leading abolitionists James Stephen and Zachary Macaulay, speaking in the House of Commons, and representing the interests of the planters at every opportunity. Since the launch of our database in February, I have been really pleased to receive further information about Joseph Marryat from one of his direct descendants who has been doing work on the family history. He has established that Joseph went to Grenada as a young merchant in the 1780s and while he was there had a ‘natural daughter’, Ann, probably the child of an enslaved woman. This daughter Ann is probably the same person as the Ann Marryat on our website who was compensated for 13 enslaved men and women. I had not known this connection and was puzzled as to what relation Ann might be to Joseph. This connected with a talk I went to last month by Cassandra Pybus, an Australian scholar who is doing amazing research on the mixed-race children of white men and enslaved and free women of colour in Grenada and Demerara in the C18. Cassandra has traced an extraordinary number of these children, many of whom were sent back to Scotland or England to be educated, some stayed in the metropole, others returned to the Caribbean. She has also traced a significant number of women slave owners, some like Ann Marryat, the illegitimate daughters of white fathers who gave them property in enslaved people, others who established their own fortunes through huckstering and hiring and became significant slave-owners in their own right, often in towns but sometimes running plantations. This points to the gap in the way histories of slave-owners have been written, how it tends to be assumed that they are all men. Cassandra has also established that marital patterns in the C18 Eastern Caribbean were much more complicated and varied than used to be thought – again a hidden history to explore!