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.