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Representation of Slavery in English Literature

If money-making was regarded as a 'dirty game' by the literary giants of English in the 18th century, why is it that almost all the writers of that and the next century made peace with slavery?

A delightful little book. Five literary historians take you on a guided tour through three centuries of English literature to explore how poets, dramatists and novelists had been looking at business. A wide canvas starting from the 18th century and covering the period of England’s rise to commercial and industrial supremacy. The essays make interesting reading, even for those with only a nodding acquaintance with the literature of the different periods. The literary giants have not been generally complimentary in their attitude to trade and business. Writers here and there would praise the diligence of small businessmen but the dominant mood has been akin to that of Chaucer in his Canterbury pilgrimage; the rogues include the merchant concealing his debts, the reeve deceiving his lord and the shipman adept at theft and not above murder when it suits his purpose. The first essay by W A Speck, an authority on 18th century history, arrests one’s attention. His 25-page survey of 18th century attitudes has just one page on literary condemnation of slavery. If money-making has been regarded as ‘a dirty game’ by the authors, as Arthur Pollard argues in his introductory essay, why is it that almost all writers in the 18th as well as in the subsequent century had made virtual peace with slavery? It disturbs you. As is well known, the growing commercial prosperity of Britain during the 18th century was founded primarily on the Atlantic trade. The ships sailed from England with a cargo of manufactured goods and exchanged these at a profit on the coast of Africa for Negroes, traded them at the next stop on the Caribbean plantations at more profit and brought to Britain a cargo of colonial produce, mainly sugar. That slave trade was bringing immense prosperity was common knowledge. The west Indian trader was a familiar figure in English society in the 18th century and his wealth and its source were the talk of the town. A very popular play, The West Indian, produced in London in 1771, opens with a tremendous reception being organised for a planter coming to London, as if it were a reception for the Lord Mayor. The servant philosophises: “He is very rich, and that’s sufficient. They say he has rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch.” Wealth of the planters was visible everywhere. The seaports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow were getting transformed beyond recognition.

The slave and sugar trades made Bristol the second city of England for the first five or six decades of the 18th century. “There is not”, wrote a local analyst, “a brick in the city but what is cemented with the blood of a slave. Sumptuous mansions, luxurious living, liveried menials, were the produce of the wealth made from the sufferings and groans of the slaves bought and sold by the Bristol merchants…In their childlike simplicity they could not feel the inequity of the merchandise, but they could feel it lucrative.”2 According to a Liverpool writer, there was nothing derogatory in the fact that their ancestors had dealt in ‘niggers’ and the horrors of the slave trade were exceeded by the horrors of the Liverpool drink traffic. But, after all, “it was the capital made in African slave trade that built some of our docks. It was the price of human flesh and blood that gave us a start.”3 No reader of English literature of that period will ever feel that behind the prosperity of England, lurked the human misery and agony of slave trade. What will strike him is the eulogy of the commercial spirit by the writers of that age. Pre-eminent among them was Daniel Defoe, giving the most expressive declaration of the centrality of mercantile values. Himself a trader, and not one of the most scrupulous, he brings authenticity and real personal experience to discussion of the subject. His Robinson Crusoe can be read as a paean of praise for business activity. His Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain never tires of expressing his delight and wonder at the pull of the London market on all other parts of the kingdom. In Roxana the merchant lectures the heroine on the advantages of trade over land, telling her “that an estate is a pond, but that a Trade was a spring; that if the first is once mortgag’d it seldom gets clear, but embarras’d the person for ever; but the merchant had his estate continually flowing.”

Dramatists Richard Steele and George Lillo were idealising the merchant, as the most deserving member of the community, a sort of ‘miracle worker’ and ‘modern true alchemist’: “This is he who turns all Disadvantages of our situation with our Profit and Honour. His Care and Industry ties his country to the continent, and the whole Globe pays his Nation a voluntary tribute due to him for his Merit. His handwriting has the Weight of Coin, and his good character is Riches to the rest of his countrymen.”4 This panegyric cast of mind was the expression of the Whig case that trade rather than land was the true source of national wealth and that the commercial, not the landed, classes were the most important sections of the community. “We merchants are a species of gentry that have grown into this world this last century – are as honourable and almost as useful as you landed folks.”5 Edward Young was at his lyrical best; he wrote an Ode in 1729 which was the virtual recasting of God as a business manager; “Planets are merchants; take, return,/ luster and heat; by traffic burn;/ the whole creation is one vast Exchange.”6 In his classic Fable of the Bees, Mandeville7 asserted, in morally provocative terms, that commercial activity was inconsistent with virtue. He takes the strictly utilitarian view that moral ethics has to be surrendered to acquisition of wealth and that effects are more important than motives. Pride, gluttony, lechery, envy and other sins motivate conspicuous consumption on the part of luxurious people, creating employment for the industrious and so generating and widely distributing wealth. One of his unsavoury examples: “A Highwayman having met with a considerable booty, gives a poor common harlot He fancies, Ten Pounds, to new-rig her from Top to Toe; is there a spruce Mercer so conscientious that he will refuse to sell her a Thread Sattin, tho’ he knew who she was? She must have Shoes and Stockings, Gloves, the Stay and Mantua-maker, the Sempstress, the Linen-Draper, all must get something from her, and a hundred different Tradesmen dependent on those she laid her money out with, may touch Part of it before a month is at an end.” All this was partly rationalised by David Hume: “A spirit of avarice and industry, of art, and luxury”, he philosophised, “was requisite and beneficial to modern states and only disadvantageous when pursued at the expense of virtue as liberality or charity.”

There were discordant notes. Jonathan Swift threw his acerbic barbs, but not at the commercial spirit as such but mainly at stock jobbers, “a set of upstarts” as he called them, observing that “through the contrivance and cunning of stock jobbers there hath been brought in such a complication of knavery and cozenage, such a mystery of inequity, and such an unintelligible jargon of terms to involve it in, as were never known in any other age or country in the world.”8 Such contempt reached its feverish pitch during the South Sea Bubble of 1720. (The South Sea company was one of the largest slave trading companies ever floated and Defoe was closely associated with it.) “Shall a poor pickpocket be hanged for filching away a little loose money” and “wholesale thieves that rob nations of all that they have be esteemed and honoured?” But such outcry soon subsided; there was little dampening of the new commercial spirit. Joseph Addison, championing the cause of the commercial community, catches the spirit of the luxurious age in one of his pieces in The Spectator: Our ships are laden with the Harvest of every Climate; Our Tables are stored with Spices, and Oilsand Wines: our Rooms are filled with Pyramids of China, and adorned with the workmanship of Japan:Our Morning’s Drought comes to us from the remotest Corners of the Earth: We repair our bodies with the drugs of America, we repose ourselves under Indian canopies. My friend, Sir Andrew calls the vineyards of France our Gardens; the spice-lands our hotbeds; the Persians our silk weavers and the Chinese our potters. It is no wonder that the flush of prosperity dulled the ethical sensibilities of the authors. The agony and misery of slave trade, the sources of wealth and the moral issues involved in the acquisition of wealth did not agitate their minds. Their preoccupation was elsewhere; they were concerned with the impact on English society of the activities of the new rich trading class and their relationships with the landed aristocracy. Slavery bypassed the literary scene. The landed classes were very critical of the new ‘monied interest’ group who brought about changes in the countryside as it did in London and were being dubbed as “a canker, which will eat up the gentlemen’s estates in land and beggar the trading part of the nation and bring all the subjects in England to be the monied men’s vassals”. They were accused of acting more like patricians than patriarchs, reducing the traditional relationship between them and tenants to a crude cash nexus. Parts of Britain were in the process of being transformed by intensive and advanced farming techniques. Goldsmith’s dislike of the mercantile world comes out in his Deserted Village, the poem crystallising in its pastoral vein the emotions underlying many politico-economic pamphlets of the 1960s of the century. Slavery bypassed the literary scene. Literary giants of the period seemed to have made peace with it.

Speck refers to the last volume of Tristram Shandy where Lawrence Sterne, somewhat incidentally, refers to the treatment of Africans by Europeans. Corporal Trim asks uncle Toby, doubtingly, if the Negro has a soul. Toby replies: “I suppose God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me…” “Why then an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?” “ ‘I can give no reason’, said my uncle Toby. ‘Only’ cried the corporal, shaking his head ‘because she has no one to stand up for her’. ‘Tis that very thing, Tim’, quoth my uncle Toby, ‘which recommends her to protection – and her brethren with her;’ ts the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now – where it may be hereafter, heaven knows’.” It was not his own that Sterne brought up this critique, but, as Speck comments, on a suggestion made to him by Ignatio Sancho, Duke of Montagu’s black butler. I can do no better than quote from Speck’s essay: Ignatio wrote: ‘I am one of those people whom the illiberal and vulgar call a nigger’. He had read and admired Tristram Shandy and also Sterne’s sermons.One sermon in particular,’Job’s Account of the Shortness and Troubles of Life Considered’, had impressed him because of what he called a truly affectionate passage on slavery. ‘Consider slavery-what it is’, Sterne observed in it,’ how bitter a drought! And how many millions had been made to drink of It. Sancho asked Sterne to write further on the subject, which, ‘handled in your manner, would ease the yolk of many, perhaps, occasion a reformation throughout the islands’ Speck singles out James Field Stransfield’s The Guinea Voyage as the rhetorical horizon of anti-slavery poetry; it is about an African being handed over to a slave ship: Confin’d with chains, at length the hapless slave, Plung’d in the darkness of the floating cave, With horror sees the hatch-way close his sightHis last hope leaves him with the parting light. There were other occasional poetic flashes, some rhetoric of condescending sympathy but these were partly persiflage. John Dyer whose poem The Fleece enthused about commerce drew the line at slave trade. James Thompson, the famous Scottish poet, the author, in 1740, of the most patriotic verse in English, “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;/Britons never will be slaves” had been the Surveyorgeneral to the Leeward islands, which included several prosperous slave-powered islands such as Nevis and St Kitts. He could not but have been acutely aware of what was going on but all that comes out in his writing is an indirect reference to slavery in his description of a shark following a slave ship:9 Lured by the scent Of steaming crowds, of rank disease and death, Behold!he, hushing, cuts the bring flood, Swift as the gale can bear the ship along; And from partners of that crude trade, Which spoils the unhappy guinea of her sons. Demand his share of prey -Demands themselves. There were minor works of literature attacking slavery. In his play The Prince of Angola (1788) John Ferrison looks forward to a time when the merchant “shall renew his proper character and cease to act as a plunderer and a pirate”.10

As the century wore on, a sort of uneasiness was creeping in. A few poets were smitten by conscience; William Cowper, John Majoribanks and Hannah More formed a school to take up the cause of slaves.11 If human misery and agony of slave trade and dependence of England’s wealth and prosperity on that was awkward to them, it found little or no reflection in their works. Johnson had always opposed slavery; whenever an opportunity presented itself, he would give vent to his violent prejudice against the West Indian settlers. Once when he was with “some very grave men” in Oxford, his toast had been: “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.” His views were opposed to conventional wisdom; these had no impact whatsoever even on Boswell who stuck to the accepted view. Quoting Johnson’s view that no man can by nature be the property of another, Boswell came out strongly in support of slave trade: “To abolish a status which in all ages God has sanctioned would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow subjects, but it would be extreme cruelty too the African savages. To abolish this trade would be to shut the gates of mercy on mankind”.12 Slaves in themselves were invaluable in that century as an international currency as well as a means of earning currency.

During the debate on slavery13 initiated by Wilberforce in the House of Commons in 1789 (the motion faced four successive defeats till it was passed in 1807) there was strident and sarcastic opposition to abolitionists by members who had interests in slave trade: any member, not owning any plantation, their argument ran, had no right to interfere with the interests of those who did. Adam Smith’s verdict that a merchant could not be caring of those with whom he dealt rationalised the reality of that age. There was no mention of the trade in slaves in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments he had argued against the institution of slavery, not on moral grounds, but as just one more artificial restraint on individual self-interest: “The experience of all ages and reform, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end dearest of all. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much and to labour as little as possible.” This passage had become quasi-scriptural among the abolitioniststs during the 1980s. The literary scene continued to be marked by cool aloofness. In the next century as well, a similar attitude of indifference to slavery and slave trade persisted among the literary giants. Emancipation of slaves did not enjoy their universal support. Wordsworth was completely indifferent to the “novel heat of virtuous feeling” that was sweeping through England. In 1833 he pleaded that slavery was in principle monstrous but was not the worst thing in human nature; it was not in itself at all times and under all circumstances to be deplored, and in 1840 he refused to be associated with the abolitionists. Coleridge sneered at the “philanthropytrade” and accused Wilberforce of caring only for his own soul; in 1833 he strongly opposed frequent discussion on the ‘rights’ of Negroes who should be “thankful to the providence which has placed them within reach of the means of grace”.14 But reaction at the blackest and cheapest was personified by Carlyle. Racist name-calling could sink to astonishing depths. “Would horses be next to be emancipated?” he asked. It was only the white men who had given value to the West Indies and the indolent “two-legged cattle” should be forced to work; “the Negro has the indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled – to do competent work for his living.”15 He pleaded for the planters who were suffering from severe labour shortage and “were on the verge of starvation”. He referred contemptuously to his “philanthropic-friends” as having no interest in the hard lot of the planters and were moved only by the plight of “our interesting Black population.”16 Carlyle finds a surprising ally in Charles Dickens. In a chapter of Bleak House titled ‘Telescopic Philanthropy’ Dickens ridicules a Mrs Jellaby who neglects her family for the good of Africans in ‘Boorrio-boolagha’.

On the cover of the serial version of Bleak House, we see Mrs Jelly holding two black children, and beside her is a sign reading Exeter Hall. (Exeter Hall, located on the Strand in London, served as the political centre of British evangelicalism.) All this provoked Lord Denman, chief justice of England, to lament that Dickens “exerts his powers to obstruct the great cause of human improvement – he does his best to replunge the world into the most barbarous abuse that ever afflicted it. We do not say that he actually defends slavery or slave trade; but he takes pains to discourage, by ridicule, the effort to put them down”.17 English literature during the age of commercial and imperial expansion had been mostly concerned with attitudes to money, loss of traditional values, the impact on social classes and hierarchy and the growing misery in urban centres of Manchester and Birmingham. England of that age was a claustrophobic world and in the evaluation of social changes and social values, there is little reflection of what the English merchants and colonisers were perpetrating in countries outside England. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas stresses the value of domestic tranquillity and in essence the value of the whole estate of his property in Antigua, “on the cacophony of cries raised by the slave driver’s whips on a sugar plantation”. But in her novel, there is scarcely any kind of disapproval of Sir Thomas’ wealth. Fanny asks Sir Thomas at one stage about the slave trade but her question is answered with a dead silence. In his Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said brings out the paradox: “There is a paradox here in reading Jane Austen which I have been impressed by but can in no way resolve. All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery.”18 We have to wait for a whole century till Joseph Conrad comes on the scene. Conrad gives us his sense of profound concern at the omnipresence of commercial ambition, the conspiracy of capitalism and the economic bondage of colonies. Almayer’s Folly, his first novel, set in the islands of the far eastern seas, exemplifies that an economic decision taken in one of the capitalist countries extracts human misery on the other side as its price, and not just in the lives of the exploited but of the exploiters too. An Outpost of Progress shows that the much-talked-about civilising mission of Europe to the underdeveloped world is a cruel joke or worse.

What is remarkable about Conrad is his portrayal of business entrepreneurs who were instrumental for colonial expansion. His Heart of Darkness is a paradigm for the insanity of imperialism. While European greed is the simple theme, Conrad fragments his presentation of it into several individual portraits: all, taken together, indict the attitude of a whole civilisation. “It was not just robbery, with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind – as it is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems is the idea only.” For Kurtz, the coloniser, the sword is the torch of redemption, and what Marlow, the narrator of the fiction, perceives in the blinding sunshine of Africa is the ultimate darkness of damnation. “I saw the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils that swayed and drove men – I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weakeyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles further.” Charles Gould, the owner of silver mines, in Nostromo, is Kurtz in this respect, believing that he can bring to Costaguana, the country of his adoption, “law, good faith, order and security”. For him progress is a synonym of material interests. “There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests – they have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.” Holryod is the typical American financier; “silver goes north and comes back in the form of credit.” He represents the quintessential international financier. “His parentage was German and Scotch and English, with remote strains of Danish and French blood, giving him the temperament of a puritan and an insatiable imagination of conquest.” Charles Gould, the mine-owner in Costaguana, soon realises that his freedom is illusory; he is owned by Holryod, the American millionaire. “It interested the great man [Holryod] to attend personally to the San Tome mine; …he was not running a great enterprise there; no mere railway board or industrial corporation. He was running a man.” But Holryod owns the country as well. He perceives the history of Costaguana in purely financial terms: “Now, what is Costaguana? It is the bottomless pit of 10 per cent loans and other fool investments. European capital had been flung into it with hands for years. Not ours, though. We in this country know just about enough to keep indoors when it rains. We can sit and watch. Of course some day we shall step in. We are bound to. But ther’s no hurry. Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of the God’s universe. We shall be giving the world for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics , and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking turns up in the north Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth. We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it – and neither can we, I guess.”19 A

portrayal of something more than a colonial entrepreneur, exploring the manipulation of backward countries by American and European capital. In essence Conrad addresses the forces that have been shaping business in the recent decades, restricted neither by time or location. He makes you see that glimpse of truth which, in the euphoria of globalisation, we forget to ask ourselves



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