I have thoughts. And a lot of those thoughts have to do with disagreeing with the proposition that Jane Austen’s work has secret radical messages, or that Austen was a fierce social and political critic of the times she lived in. Click here for the first in the series.
In addition to works of fiction that discussed slavery, there were also many non-fiction books and pamphlets which discussed the West Indian colonies in detail. Some were abolitionist, some defended slavery, some were travel guides in which slavery was just a fact of life. In addition, there were extensive parliamentary debates and speeches.
Anyone could read opinion pieces on all aspects: humanitarian, economic, political.
An 1807 book titled A Permanent and Effectual Remedy for the Evils under which the British West Indies Now Labour was not about the evils of slavery, but the “evils” of the falling price of sugar and global competition, and the lack of support for the West Indies traders from the British government.
The Authentic History of the English West Indies (1810), described the geography and climate of the West Indies. The book included explicit accounts of the suffering of the slaves.
Many of the arguments in favour of slavery center around economic necessity; some are based on geopolitical strategic considerations, and a few even defend slavery on what might be called humanitarian grounds -- that enslaved persons would be slaves anyway back in Africa, or they were better off than in Africa, etc. (Yes, if you are new to this, these were in fact the types of defenses made). Here's an example of a so-called humanitarian rationale:
Observ. #51 If we give up the trade, the French will extend their share of it.
Ramsay's answer: "Suppose that others successfully rob and murder on the highway, must we join the lawless band? At present, the French buy many slaves on the coast from our brokers. Our goods pay for them, our factories accommodate them."
Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins (1759-1835) scornfully asked why "East Indian plunderers" [people who amassed major fortunes in India] were welcome in society, while a gentlewoman who helped a fallen woman was scorned: “No one thinks himself contaminated by associated with the East Indian plunderer, the usurer, nor the rich villain of any species—he visits him, he partakes his sumptuous banquet uncensored and unsuspected, but should a woman of unimpeached purity be seen to enter the door of one of dubious character, or known to have been kind even in secret to a frail sister, she would from that moment be stamped, as an impudent friend to immorality.”
A number of female authors wrote anti-slavery material for children:
Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743-1825) wrote in Hymns in Prose for Children:
"Negro woman, who sittest pining in captivity,
and weepest over thy sick child;
though no one seeth thee, God seeth thee;
though no one pitieth thee, God pitieth thee: raise thy voice, forlorn and abandoned one;
call upon him from amidst thy bonds, for assuredly he will hear thee."
Priscilla Wakefield's (1751-1832) book for children, Mental Improvement, or the Beauties and Wonders of Nature and Art (1800), included anti-slavery dialogues and encouraged boycotts of sugar, calico, coffee, rice, and rum, "and many other things procured by the sweat of their brow."
Far from being unable to express opinions about the slave trade because of social sanctions, women were at the forefront of the movement. As scholar Patricia Matthew pointed out, women were in charge of purchasing for the home, and advocated for a boycott of sugar--the "anti-saccharite" movement.
Given all this, it is peculiar that Mansfield Park, a book which expresses no opinions about slavery or the slave trade, is better known today as an anti-slavery novel than any work I've quoted in this post. Why is it more essential to advertise Jane Austen as being an abolitionist, while other women who spoke out forcefully are comparatively unknown? Why insist that it was dangerous, unfeminine, or unusual to discuss slavery in Austen's time?
Next post: Was slavery a taboo subject, part two, fiction
Mary Prince was enslaved in Antigua and Bermuda. She managed to escape in England and published her autobiography in 1831. Although my book A Contrary Wind: a variation on Mansfield Park is set before that time, I used the story of Mary in a discussion between Hannah More and some other fictional abolitionists in Bristol. That's when Fanny Price first learns more about the slave trade than she ever knew in Mansfield Park. Click here for more about my books.