As background material for my blog series about Mansfield Park, here are all the excerpts from Mansfield Park which touch on the West Indies (Antigua). For all the posts on Mansfield Park, click "Mansfield Park" on the menu on the right.
The other references to the West Indies have to do with the losses to the family income.
Further, the "good" people in the novel--Edmund and Fanny--are shown as being concerned for Sir Thomas during his absence. The fact that he is exposed to danger in his voyage home is their chief reason for objecting to staging a play. Other, more flawed, characters, like Lady Bertram and Mr. Yates, are not concerned about him. Mrs. Norris worries about him, but this is because she is dramatizing her own role in the family as chief counselor and director and imagining herself as the tower of strength who consoles the family when he dies.
Austen gives us zero particulars about the property in Antigua.
In the following excerpts, I have italicized some words and passages for emphasis and added some explanatory comments...
- [Mrs. Norris tells Lady Bertram] “Why, you know, Sir Thomas’s means will be rather straitened if the Antigua estate is to make such poor returns.” “Oh! that will soon be settled. Sir Thomas has been writing about it, I know.”
- The time was now come when Sir Thomas expected his sister-in-law to claim her share in their niece... and as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision.
- Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs, and he took his eldest son with him, in the hope of detaching him from some bad connexions at home. They left England with the probability of being nearly a twelvemonth absent. The necessity of the measure in a pecuniary light, and the hope of its utility to his son, reconciled Sir Thomas to the effort of quitting the rest of his family
- Lady Bertram did not at all like to have her husband leave her; but she was not disturbed by any alarm for his safety, or solicitude for his comfort, being one of those persons who think nothing can be dangerous, or difficult, or fatiguing to anybody but themselves.
- [His daughters are glad that he is leaving; another example of their lack of principle and good character, while Fanny feels guilty that she is not sorry to see him go]. “Sir Thomas, who had done so much for her and her brothers, and who was gone perhaps never to return! that she should see him go without a tear! it was a shameful insensibility.”
- The earliest intelligence of the travellers’ safe arrival at Antigua, after a favourable voyage, was received; though not before Mrs. Norris had been indulging in very dreadful fears, and trying to make Edmund participate them whenever she could get him alone; and as she depended on being the first person made acquainted with any fatal catastrophe, she had already arranged the manner of breaking it to all the others, when Sir Thomas’s assurances of their both being alive and well made it necessary to lay by her agitation and affectionate preparatory speeches for a while.
- [Mrs. Norris] was sure Sir Thomas had never intended it: and she must say that, to be [buying a horse] in his absence, and adding to the great expenses of his stable, at a time when a large part of his income was unsettled, seemed to her very unjustifiable.
- "when September came Sir Thomas was still abroad, and without any near prospect of finishing his business. Unfavourable circumstances had suddenly arisen at a moment when he was beginning to turn all his thoughts towards England; and the very great uncertainty in which everything was then involved determined him on sending home his son, and waiting the final arrangement by himself. Tom arrived safely, bringing an excellent account of his father’s health; but to very little purpose, as far as Mrs. Norris was concerned. Sir Thomas’s sending away his son seemed to her so like a parent’s care, under the influence of a foreboding of evil to himself, that she could not help feeling dreadful presentiments...
- The return of winter engagements, however, was not without its effect; and in the course of their progress, [Mrs. Norris's] mind became so pleasantly occupied in superintending the fortunes of her eldest niece, as tolerably to quiet her nerves. “If poor Sir Thomas were fated never to return, it would be peculiarly consoling to see their dear Maria well married,” she very often thought...
- [Sir Thomas] only conditioned that the marriage [of Maria to Mr. Rushworth] should not take place before his return, which he was again looking eagerly forward to. He wrote in April, and had strong hopes of settling everything to his entire satisfaction, and leaving Antigua before the end of the summer.
- The day at Sotherton, with all its imperfections, afforded the Miss Bertrams much more agreeable feelings than were derived from the letters from Antigua, which soon afterwards reached Mansfield. [Maria and Julia are sorry their father is to return from Antigua.]
- Mary Crawford to Edmund: "Your father’s return will be a very interesting event." “It will, indeed, after such an absence; an absence not only long, but including so many dangers.” “It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister’s marriage, and your taking orders.” “Yes.” “Don’t be affronted,” said she, laughing, “but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return."
- [Edmund says] “I think it would be very wrong. In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious to attempt anything of the kind. It would shew great want of feeling on my father’s account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger."
- Tom Bertram disagrees: "the expectation of his return must be a very anxious period to my mother; and if we can be the means of amusing that anxiety, and keeping up her spirits for the next few weeks, I shall think our time very well spent, and so, I am sure, will he. It is a very anxious period for her.”
- [Fanny] could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether.
- [Even Mary Crawford understands that Sir Thomas would not approve of play-acting if he knew about it] "Could Sir Thomas look in upon us just now, he would bless himself, for we are rehearsing all over the house."
- while [Mr. Yates and the Crawfords] no longer under any restraint, were giving vent to their feelings of vexation, lamenting over such an unlooked-for premature arrival as a most untoward event, and without mercy wishing poor Sir Thomas had been twice as long on his passage, or were still in Antigua.
- [Fanny] on having courage to lift her eyes to his face, she saw that he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate, every tender feeling was increased, and she was miserable in considering how much unsuspected vexation was probably ready to burst on him.
- Sir Thomas was indeed the life of the party, who at his suggestion now seated themselves round the fire. He had the best right to be the talker; and the delight of his sensations in being again in his own house, in the centre of his family, after such a separation, made him communicative and chatty in a very unusual degree; and he was ready to give every information as to his voyage, and answer every question of his two sons almost before it was put. His business in Antigua [whatever it was] had latterly been prosperously rapid, and he came directly from Liverpool, having had an opportunity of making his passage thither in a private vessel, instead of waiting for the packet; and all the little particulars of his proceedings and events, his arrivals and departures, were most promptly delivered,
- Mrs. Norris felt herself defrauded of an office on which she had always depended, whether his arrival or his death were to be the thing unfolded; [there had been a real possibility that he would die on this voyage]... in the most interesting moment of his passage to England, when the alarm of a French privateer was at the height, she burst through his recital with the proposal of soup.
- [Austen showing pity for Sir Thomas] Sir Thomas saw all the impropriety of [the play-acting] among such a party, and at such a time, as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much, indeed, for many words; and having shaken hands with Edmund, meant to try to lose the disagreeable impression, and forget how much he had been forgotten himself as soon as he could.
- [Fanny says] "I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. [About what, specifically?] I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done; but then I am unlike other people, I dare say.”
- "Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” “I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.” “And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like—I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”
- [Henry Crawford says] "I think if we had had the disposal of events—if Mansfield Park had had the government of the winds just for a week or two, about the equinox, there would have been a difference. Not that we would have endangered his safety by any tremendous weather—but only by a steady contrary wind, or a calm. I think, Miss Price, we would have indulged ourselves with a week’s calm in the Atlantic at that season.”
- Sir Thomas, by no means displeased, prolonged the conversation on dancing in general, and was so well engaged in describing the balls of Antigua, and listening to what his nephew could relate of the different modes of dancing which had fallen within his observation
The word "plantation" only appears in Mansfield Park in reference to Sir Thomas's land holdings in Mansfield Park. The word "plantation" is never used in relation to Antigua. Some scholars have pointed to the word "plantation" as being rife with meaning, but in fact it just meant an area that was planted in Austen's time. In these examples, the connotation is either neutral or, in the last two examples, it's associated with positive feelings of nature and happiness.
- [Mrs. Norris claims that her husband's poor state of health prevented them from improving the parsonage garden] we should have carried on the garden wall, and made the plantation to shut out the churchyard, just as Dr. Grant has done.
- [After Sir Thomas came back from Antigua he] had to reinstate himself in all the wonted concerns of his Mansfield life: to see his steward and his bailiff... to walk into his stables and his gardens, and nearest plantations; but active and methodical, he had not only done all this before he resumed his seat as master of the house at dinner, he had also set the carpenter to work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard-room, and given the scene-painter his dismissal
- on his looking in for a minute in his way from his plantation to his dressing-room, she called him back again, when he had almost closed the door, with “Sir Thomas, stop a moment—I have something to say to you.”
- What animation, both of body and mind, she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncle’s plantations."
- Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when farther beauty is known to be at hand.
In all of these excerpts, there is no discussion, no anxiety, no remorse, about enslaved persons. There were pleasurable and interesting aspects to talking about Antigua, for example, the balls held by the plantation-owners. Nothing in the way of condemnation or even doubt. Every reference to "his affairs" and "the estate" and "everything" and "business" in Antigua is as brief and vague and non-committal as could be. As I have written elsewhere, this reticence about calling Sir Thomas's "business" in Antigua a sugar plantation is not because slavery was a taboo topic in Austen's time.
Novelists of the time frequently used the East and West Indies as a place to send characters when they needed them out of the way for plot purposes, as I've mentioned before. As well, colonial fortunes were a handy source of sudden wealth for characters who couldn't marry because of poverty. Austen uses the West Indies as an "exit stage left" for Sir Thomas, but there is no sudden change in anyone's fortunes as a result, or rather, the family is already enriched by the returns from Antigua.
I agree with those scholars who conclude that the brief reference to the slave trade points to the idea that Sir Thomas is an ameliorationist; that is, he doesn't think slavery can be abolished overnight, but the condition of enslaved persons can and should be improved.
Many scholars also contend that Austen is being subtle and ironic. Every time we worry about Sir Thomas, it's really a condemnation of his business in Antigua. When Fanny is happy to see the leaves budding out on the plantations (ie, the trees) when she returns to Mansfield, she's participating in the evil that helps to support the family. The whole thing means the opposite of what Austen says. I disagree, and in the latter part of this article, I explain why.
I conclude that Mansfield Park is not a particularly useful text for exploring the topic of colonial enslavement in the West Indies. Many other 18th-century novels would be more useful in the classroom if you are using the literature of the time to study what British people thought about slavery. Here are two, for starters.
Finally, if the presence of slavery in the background of Mansfield Park make the book unreadable for you, and makes it impossible to stomach Sir Thomas, that's an opinion I would not presume to take issue with.