I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to drive pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
William Cowper ‘Pity for Poor Africans’ Northampton Mercury 9th August 1788
Theft of Life is my sixth novel, and my fifth set in the 1780s. It’s also my first to deal with slavery. I’m often asked why I chose to write about this period and I talk about how the Georgians in their letters, diaries, architecture and music feel very close to us in spirit. I talk about the growth of consumer culture and the beginning of industrialisation. I also talk about how at the same time life could be brutal and short. After researching and writing Theft of Life, I see all of that, the civilities and the brutalities, in a very different, harsher, light.
I am sure that many readers of, and contributors to, this blog are well aware how Britain profited from slavery, but I suspect there are others who might not be. I wasn't, and I've been studying the period for some time. Basically when I thought of the slave trade I thought of the role of people like William Wilberforce in ending it. I remembered the references in Mansfield Park to Sir Thomas’s West Indian property. I thought of slavery and its legacy being primarily an American problem. I think you can see a little of this attitude in some of the responses to the brilliant 12 Years a Slave. I never really considered the fact that much of the wealth pouring into the country throughout the 18th century was blood money and with it we built those beautiful Georgian streets, those wonderful country houses and paid for all that art and music of which I am so fond. There are some examples from historian James Walvin here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/building_britain_gallery.shtml
I thought slavery horrific, of course I did, but I didn’t really think of it as being part of my cultural history, and it is.
It’s probably worth saying that I think there were many in England in the 18th century who were similarly ignorant. Some wilfully, some not. The prevailing attitude is summed up in the satirical lines from William Cowper which are at the top of this post and form one of the epigraphs of Theft of Life. In the novel I have written are characters who have benefited from slavery, and some who have been enslaved. There are some who try and make amends for their ignorance and some willing to defend their freedom both as a fact and a principle. It is only a novel, but I hope that reading about my characters might encourage some readers to find out more about the individuals who inspired them and read their works, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano in particular. Equally I wish the works of the early campaigners against slavery, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, were better known. I also hope readers might think a little of all the lost stories of the millions of Africans who were murdered for profit.
I shall be very interested to see how the government responds to the ten point plan on reparations adopted by Caricom this month. For those people who say that it was all a long time ago, and its unfair to expect apologies and reparations now, I’d just like you to remember that fifth slide on the Walvin link above. The collection that helped found the British Museum, the collection that formed the basis of the National Gallery were both donated by individuals whose wealth was slave wealth. So we are, make no mistake, still enjoying the profits of slavery today.
For those who are interested in a non-fiction perspective, these are excellent:
Theft of Life is published on 22 May 2014