Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of The First President of the Royal Academy by Ian McIntyre (2003)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of – if not the – leading English painter of the 18th century. He specialised in portraits, painting about 2,000 of them during a long and busy professional career, as well as 200 ‘subject pictures’, and over 30 self-portraits.

Self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1780) Note the bust of Michelangelo, the Rembrandtesque hat, and the text of one of his Discourses folded in his hand © Royal Academy of Arts

Reynolds promoted a ‘Grand Style’ in painting which was less interested in visual or psychological accuracy to his sitters than in placing them in idealised and heroic poses and settings. He was known – and criticised – for pinching aspects from the Old Masters – poses, tints, props, tricks of lighting and so on.

So when you look at this painting – of Reynolds’s lifelong friend, the successful actor David Garrick – you see that not only is he caught between the two allegorical figures representing Comedy and Tragedy, but that the figures are each painted in different styles – the figure of Comedy on the left in a flirty rococo style of Correggio, the figure of Tragedy is done in a consciously ‘antique’ or neo-classical style reminiscent of Guido Reni, dressed in Roman robes with a stern profile – and Garrick in the middle, is wearing a historical costume reminiscent of van Dyck but his face is done in an unashamedly realistic or figurative style.

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy by Joshua Reynolds (1760)

Reynolds was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He gave an inaugural lecture and this soon settled into an annual – later, biannual – lecture or ‘discourse’. At the end of his life these were published together as 20 or so Discourses about art, which were influential for decades afterwards.

The biography

Ian McIntyre’s biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds is a big book, weighing in at 608 pages, including index and notes (542 pages of actual text). What makes it hugely enjoyable is the way McIntyre very deliberately widens its scope to become a portrait of the age. Not a page goes by without entertaining and often amusing digressions away from the basic chronology of events.

For example, before we’re ten pages in we’ve had a whistlestop history of Devon and the town Reynolds was born in, Plympton, from Roman times to his birth in 1723. There’s an interesting explanation of the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Emblem Books and in particular the work of Jacob Cats, little known in this country but hugely influential on the continent. A little detour into the life of a well-known gypsy of the early 18th century, Bamfylde Carew. And so on.

The book is packed with footnotes, often as many as six on a page, giving biographical snapshots of every single person Reynolds comes into contact with, reads or meets or writes to or mentions, often with a bit of background about their achievements in art or literature – Reynolds cultivated friendships with the leading writers of the time – or, quite often, the wars or battles they were involved in, as a) Reynolds painted a large number of military and naval personnel and b) Britain was almost continually at war throughout the 18th century.

This blizzard of contextual information is partly explained because, as McIntyre candidly points out, we don’t actually know all that much about Reynolds’s life. We know he went to Italy to study the Old Masters for an extended stay from ages 25 to 27 (1750-52). Then he returned to London, set up a studio, and quickly became very successful. We have annual business ‘pocketbooks’ he kept, and these are packed full of appointments with sitters, practical notes about rents and paints and canvas and shopping (p.94). We have the accounts and minutes of the Royal Academy which he set up and ran from 1768 till his death in 1792, the Discourses he published to the world – the written version of the lectures he delivered at the Academy – and numerous descriptions of him in the diaries and letters of contemporaries – but not much more.

Reynolds didn’t keep a diary or interesting notes and thoughts about art which contain breath-taking insights and ideas. He never married, and so didn’t have either a wife or children to write memoirs about him. He doesn’t appear to have had affairs, or if he did they were kept very secret (the issue is discussed on p.85). His sister, Fanny, was his housekeeper for 25 years, followed by a niece.

Er, that’s about it in terms of a ‘personal’ life.

`So in a way McIntyre’s strategy of padding out the story with reams and reams of information about pretty much everyone else alive at the time was a necessity – a factual account of just Reynolds’s life would be quite sparse. Still, McIntyre’s encyclopedic approach makes for a highly enjoyable account.

As does his rangy, slangy style. He is at pains to emphasise that he is not a stuffy art critic, he’s one of the boys:

  • Then, brushing away a crocodile tear, he [an anonymous critic] put the boot in. (p.319)
  • Reynolds was taking a fair amount of stick in the press… (p.320)

18th century artists

Thus McIntyre doesn’t just place Reynolds in the 18th century art world – he introduces us to quite an intimidating number of 18th century artists, starting with Reynolds’s predecessors in Britain, referencing leading contemporary painters in France and Italy, and then a host of other contemporary painters – the famous, the not so famous, and the downright obscure. They include – and this list excludes all the many sculptors:

  • Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723) leading portraitist of his time
  • Francesco Solimena (1657 – 1747) leading Italian painter of the Baroque
  • Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745) whose book, An Essay on the Theory of Painting inspired young Reynolds
  • Joseph Highmore (1692-1780)
  • William Hogarth (1697-1764) leading English artist, caricaturist and printmaker
  • Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) ‘the other great middle-class painter of the century’ specialising in quiet domestic scenes, in contrast to either grand historical paintings, or pink and blue rococo
  • John Shackleton (? – 1767) Principal ‘Painter in Ordinary’ to George II and George III
  • Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) Reynolds was apprenticed to him
  • Francesco Zuccarelli (1702 – 1788) Italian landscape painter from Venice
  • Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702 – 1789) French portraitist working mainly in pastel
  • Francis Hayman (1708 – 1776)
  • Arthur Devis (1712 – 1787) started as landscape artist, then portraits of members of pro-Jacobite Lancashire families, then portraits of London society
  • Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784) rising star arrived in London from Rome in 1738, painted the definitive image of the coronation of King George III and a stream of royal commissions
  • Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 89) landscape and marine painter
  • Richard Wilson (1714 – 82) ‘the classic master of British 18th century landscape painting’
  • Henry Robert Morland (1716 – 1797) Young woman shucking oysters
  • Richard Dalton (1720 – 91)
  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • John Astley (1724 – 1787) portrait painter
  • George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) English painter of horses
  • Francis Cotes (1726 – 1770) pioneer of English pastel painting
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)
  • Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779) German artist, precursor of neo-classicism
  • Charles Catton (1728 – 98) coach painter to George III
  • George Barrett Senior (1732 – 1784) Irish, leading contemporary landscape painter
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) late Rococo painter of remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism
  • Robert Edge Pine (1730 – 1788)
  • George Romney (1730 – 1802) portrait painter in the Reynolds / Ramsay league
  • Sawrey Gilpin (1733 – 1807) English animal painter, illustrator and etcher who specialised in painting horses and dogs
  • Johann Zoffany (1733 – 1810) German neo-classical painter
  • Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797) to become Wright of Derby
  • Jeremiah Meyer (1735 – 1789) Painter in Miniatures to Queen Charlotte, Painter in Enamels to King George III
  • John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England
  • Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) first American artist to visit Rome, settled in London as a painter of historical scenes, early pioneer of neo-classicism
  • Nicholas Pocock (1740 – 1821) master of a merchant ship aged 26, he became a noted painter of naval battles
  • Ozias Humphry (1740 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Ozias Humphrey (1742 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833) pupil of Allan Ramsey, specialised in hunting pictures – Members of the Carrow Abbey Hunt
  • Robert Smirke (1753 – 1845) English painter and illustrator, specialising in small paintings of literary subjects
  • James Gillray (1756 – 1815) British caricaturist and printmaker
  • Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827) English artist and caricaturist of the Georgian Era
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist
  • John Opie (1761 – 1807) English painter of historical subjects and portrait, took London by storm in 1781
  • Thomas Phillips (1770 – 1845) leading English portrait painter of the day, notable for portraits of William Blake and Lord Byron
  • Benjamin Haydon (1786 – 1846) British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures,

As with many of McIntyre’s digressions about contemporary figures, I found it well worth taking a few minutes to look up each of these painters. I was particularly drawn to some of the pictures of Jean-Étienne Liotard who I’d never heard of before.

The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1744)

Provenances

An interesting aspect of Reynolds’s career is the number of portraits which have gone missing or are disputed. That the authorship of works of art can be disputed is significant: it shows you that, when the provenance of a painting is crystal clear, then the experts can confidently pontificate about its distinctive composition and style; but where there is no signature of clear history of ownership, where the authorship is disputed, then style and composition are not enough to determine the identity of the painter. Take this portrait of a black man.

Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay (1757-60)

It is instructive to learn that it was once thought to be a portrait of Olaudah Equiano and painted by Joshua Reynolds, but is now generally accepted to a portrait of the young Ignatius Sancho painted by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay. The point being that the ‘house style’ of 18th century portrait painters was so similar, overlapped at so many points, that even experts can’t tell them apart.

Destructions

McIntyre’s book is extremely thorough. He documents the sitters and the painting sessions for what seems like every one of Reynold’s nearly two and a half thousand paintings. But a theme which emerges is the dismayingly large number of paintings which have been lost or destroyed, by Reynolds:

  • Portrait of Lady Edgcumbe – destroyed by bombing during Second World War
  • Portrait of Thomas Boone – untraced
  • Portrait of Jane Hamilton – untraced
  • Portrait of Mrs Baddeley – untraced
  • Portrait of Alexander Fordyce – untraced
  • Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu – untraced

No fewer than nineteen works by Reynolds were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the family seat of the Dukes of Rutland, Belvoir Castle in Grantham, Leicestershire, in 1816 (in which also perished works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck).

Or other artists of the day:

  • Benjamin West’s Cimon and Iphigenia and Angelica and Medoro – untraced

Which gives rise to a meta-thought: I wonder what percentage of all the paintings ever painted, still exist? Half? A quarter? To put it another way – how much of all the art ever created has been ‘lost’?

[The beginnings of an answer are given in Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War where he writes that Dutch artists produced several million paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries combined – ‘of which perhaps 10 per cent survive‘ (p.816). 10% – is that a good working guesstimate?]

Miscellaneous notes

Reynolds’s first studio was at 5 Great Newport Street, in London’s West End. It was on the edge of the country, with a good sized garden both behind and in front (inconvenient in rainy weather since rich people’s carriages couldn’t park right outside the door, p.119). His rival, Allan Ramsay (1713 – 84) lived round the corner in Soho Square.

In 1760 he moved to a house on the west side of Leicester Fields, later Leicester Square. The Prince of Wales kept a big house dominating the north side. Hogarth had lived since 1733 in a house on the east side.

Reynolds’s style is considered ‘more masculine and less ornamental’ than that of his main rival, Allan Ramsay, who was therefore generally thought to be the better painter of women portraits (p.117).

Penny-pinching Reynolds was careful with money. Anecdotes abound. He got up early to visit the fishmarket to select the best value fish then returned home with detailed instructions to his servant about which ones to buy. He made a fuss about the value of an old mop (p.122)

Vandal Reynolds was fantastically disrespectful of old paintings. Apparently, he stripped back layer by layer of paint to see how they had been painted, a number of Venetian paintings and one by Watteau – stripped them right down to the canvas until he had utterly destroyed them (p.239).

Factory production None of your romantic waiting-for-inspiration nonsense, 18th century painters painted to order and commission and on an awesome scale. Allan Ramsay’s portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte dressed for his coronation (1761) was so popular that his studio i.e. assistants, produced no fewer than one hundred and fifty pairs of the paintings to meet the market; buyers including members of the royal family, sovereigns, heads of state, colonial governors, ambassadors, corporations, institutions and courtiers.

Knock ’em out, pile ’em high was the watchword. When one aristocratic sitter offered to come for an additional sitting so that Reynolds could have a session devoted to her hands (of which she was very proud) Reynolds casually told her not to bother as he normally used his servants as models for hands (p.137). (This chimes with the revelation in James Hamilton’s book that Gainsborough generally painted the entire body of his sitters from models, often his wife or grown-up daughters.)

Anti-romanticism

It has been the fate of arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.

To speak of genius and taste as any way connected with reason or common sense, would be, in the opinion of some towering talkers, to speak like a man who possessed neither, who had never felt that enthusiasm, or, to use their own inflated language, was never warmed by that Promethean fire, which animates the canvas and vivifies the marble.

If, in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from her visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a more solid mansion upon the earth.  It is necessary that at some time or other we should see things as they really are, and not impose on ourselves by that false magnitude with which objects appear when viewed indistinctly as through a mist. (Discourse 7)

No good at drawing Reynolds was acknowledged to be more interested in colour and tone than in drawing and design. He himself confessed he wasn’t too strong on anatomy. One of the hardest parts of pure figure drawing is hands and Reynolds’s sitters hands are often ungainly, stylised or hidden. He wasn’t too bothered about strict visual accuracy:

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (quoted on page 127)

‘Flying colours’ Throughout his career Reynolds experimented with materials that make an oil painting, incorporating at one time or another, asphalt, wax, charcoal, experimenting with non-traditional types of key colours such as incarnadine for red. This was often disastrous, as scores of anecdotes testify, the painter Benjamin Haydon just one who was sharply critical of his over-treatment of his paintings (quoted page 282).

One painting, being carried to its patron, was knocked in the street and the entire creation simply slid off the canvas and onto the street. Many others complained that the colours changed. The sky in Admiral Barrington’s portrait changed from blue to green within months of receiving it (p.362). Hence his reputation for ‘flying colours’ and many burlesques and parodies about them.

Rich As a result of his astonishing industry, Reynolds was by 1762 making £6,000 a year (p.141). By way of comparison, the homely parson in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village has a stipend of:

A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

By about 1780 it cost 50 guineas for a ‘head’, 70 guineas for a ‘half length’, 200 guineas for a full length (p.361).

Reynolds’s deafness In Rome in 1751 Reynolds suffered a heavy head cold which left him partially deaf. For the rest of his life he carried about an ear trumpet. There are numerous humorous anecdotes of him pretending not to hear unflattering or critical remarks.

Reynolds’s height Sir Joshua Reynolds was five feet five and one-eighths of an inch tall (p.149).

Reynolds and the king Despite his prolific portrayal of the British aristocracy, Reynolds was disliked by King George III and never got the post of Principle Painter in Ordinary which he aimed for. This post went to Allan Ramsay in 1761. A number of reasons are given for this dislike, for example that when Reynolds was offered the presidency of the newly founded Royal Academy in 1768 but said he’d have to consult his close friends, Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke. Since it was a royal appointment which the king had personally agreed, he was offended that Reynolds hesitated, and particularly offended at the mention of Edmund Burke, a critic of the king. And his friendship with John Wilkes, a radical critic of the king and the Establishment as a whole (p.322).

Reynolds and Dr Johnson I’d like to like Dr Johnson more than I do. At the end of the day, his bluff English pragmatism comes close to philistinism. His rudeness was legendary, as was his greed (the story of a host setting out bowls of clotted cream, strawberries and a jar of cider for a party of guests and Johnson eating the lot, or asking for pancakes and eating 13 in a row) and his addiction to tea. And his depression: letters are quoted in which he describes his morbid fear of being left alone to his thoughts. Which is why it was difficult to get rid of him; he’d pop round for tea then stay, talking interminably, till past midnight. If he was ever left out of a conversation:

His mind appeared to be preying on itself; he fell into a reverie accompanied with strange antic gesticulations. (Reynolds, quoted page 210)

Reynolds and his sister Reynolds’s sister, Francis (1729 – 1807), acted as his housekeeper from when he moved to London in the early 1750s until 1779, when some kind of argument – still unknown – led to her leaving and her place being taken by their nieces. Fanny was an artist in her own right, of histories and portraits. She also wrote and won the support of Dr Johnson, who encouraged her and remained friendly and supportive even after the break with her brother. Mutual friends were critical of Reynolds’s treatment of her, e.g. Mrs Thrale (p.327).

Reynolds and Gainsborough The ‘Grand Style’ which Reynolds spoke about in his Discourses meant improving on nature, removing blemishes and imperfections, creating an idealised image.

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (p.127)

And by ‘idealised’ he often meant aspiring to the style of Roman art and architecture, all pillars and togas. Thus Gainsborough and Reynolds disagreed about what their sitters should wear. Gainsborough, the more informal, casual and bohemian (p.338) of the pair thought it was an important part of capturing a sitter’s personality that they wore their own clothes; Reynolds, by contrast, kept a wardrobe of ‘idealised’ costumes and often painted his sitters in Romanised togas and tunics. The Dowager Duchess of Rutland complained that Reynolds made her try on eleven different dresses before settling on what she dismissed as ‘that nightgown’ (p.151).

Benjamin West, the American painter of historical scenes and second President of the Royal Academy, is quoted criticising Reynolds’s fondness for dressing his female sitters in antique robes, pointing out how much more interesting and useful for posterity it would be to see them in their actual everyday wear.

Technical terms

Conversation piece an informal group portrait, popular in Britain in the 18th century, beginning in the 1720s, distinguished by portrayal of a group apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity, very often outdoors. Typically the group will be members of a family, but friends may be included, and some groups are of friends, members of a society or hunt, or some other grouping.

Fancy picture Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depicts scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (Source: Tate)

Profile portrait The profile portrait ultimately derived from coins and medals from ancient Rome. It could be used as a commemoration of the dead, or as a tribute to the living great.

Eighteenth century London courtesans

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of courtesans which he began to make from the late 1750s onwards.

I include this list not out of a conscious or unconscious wish to define women by their sexuality, but because these women’s lives are fascinating, and the niche they occupied in the society of their time so startlingly different from our day.

Eighteenth century women artists

  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist

Those are the ones I noticed in the text, anyway. There’s a full list online:


Blog posts about the 18th century

Liberty / Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a lovely, big, open gallery space not far from Old Street tube station, devoted to exhibitions of photography by people of colour. It has just finished a ravishing exhibition by Senegalise photographer Omar Victor Diop, born 1980 in Dakar.

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

The ground floor exhibition space displays thirty beautiful digital photographs which feature Diop himself wearing the historical costumes of black people from defining moments in history. The photos are divided into two distinct projects:

Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest

This series reinterprets defining moments of historical revolt and black struggle in Africa and the diaspora. Diop dresses up as characters from key events such as the Alabama marches on Washington (Selma 1965), lesser-known resistance movements against colonial oppression in southeastern Nigeria (The Women’s War 1929) and the more recent Million Hoodie March in New York.

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Diop appears as the main character throughout the series, but also – thank to modern digital wizardry – sometimes also appears multiple times, as African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons and members of the Black Panther Party, as appropriate.

The Ibo Women's War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The Ibo Women’s War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The most immediately obvious thing about all the photos is how stunningly beautiful Diop is.

I took my teenage son to the exhibition with me and he agreed. He didn’t read any of the historic stories or references, he just enjoyed them as images in which an absolutely gorgeous young black man gets to dress up in lots of historical costumes.

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Project Diaspora

The second series is titled Project Diaspora. Once again Omar dresses up and photographs himself in images quoting or parodying portraits celebrating four centuries of notable Africans in the diaspora.

These include:

  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the abolitionist leader who was the most photographed person of his time
  • Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) a freed slave, writer and activist in London
  • St Bénédicte de Palermo (1526-1589), a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran church
  • Prince Dom Nicolau (c.1830-1860), the Congolese African leader
  • August Sabac El Cher (c.1836-1885), an early Afro-German soldier
  • Jean-Baptise Belley (1746-1805), who fought during the French Revolution, and so on
Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Each of these characters has an extensive wall label describing who they were and what they did and why they matter. For example,

Jean-Baptiste Belley was a native of Senegal, born on the island of Gorée and former slave of Santo Domingo in the West Indies who bought his freedom with his savings. During the period of the French Revolution, he became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundreds of France. He was also known as Mars. Original painting by Girodet.

I found it a struggle to assimilate so many diverse historical periods and events, and my son didn’t bother but just enjoyed the sheer beauty of Omar himself, captured in enormous photographs which are all composed with a strange, interplanetary calmness.

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

And the footballs? I wondered whether you’d notice that. In many of the historic poses the figure is holding a modern plastic football, often very prominent, brightly coloured and incongruous. Why?

In Diop’s own words:

‘Football is an interesting global phenomenon that for me often reveals where society is in terms of race. When you look at the way that the African football royalty is perceived in Europe, there is an interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.’

A beautiful young man dressed up in historical costumes and carrying a football. What more could you ask for in a photography exhibition?


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Review of photography exhibitions

Black Ivory (2) by James Walvin (1992)

Without the slaves there would have been no sugar and without sugar there would have been no national addiction to coffee and, later, to tea. (p.4)

I bought Walvin’s book 20 years ago, read it and found it as unsatisfactory then as I do now. He uses a thematic approach to grouping the material in order to loosely follow the slave experience. Thus the opening chapters describe the ways slaves were seized in Africa – in war or expressly for slavery – marched to the coast, he describes the coastal slaving forts, the Atlantic crossing, the slave auctions in America or the Caribbean, and then life and death on the different types of plantation.

It’s a valid enough approach, but the downside is it is very bitty. It creates a kind of magpie effect, picking out dazzling facts and incidents from Barbados in 1723 or Georgia in 1805 or Jamaica in 1671, fragmenting your understanding.

Not only is there little sense of chronological development and change, but some of the incidents he chooses are in reverse chronological order, so that the chapter about slave rebellions opens with the massive slave rebellion in Haiti in the 1790s, treating it at some length. But a) to do so he has to bend his own rules since Haiti – then called Saint Domingue – was a French colony and everywhere else Walvin restricts himself strictly to British colonies.

And b) he then works backwards from the Haiti revolt, to describe far earlier uprisings from the 1600s onwards, for example the Stono uprising in South Carolina in 1739, or jumps forward to uprisings near the end of the period – Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, 1831, or the 1822 Charleston uprising, and then back to Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica in 1760, then forward to the Baptist Uprising on Jamaica in 1831.

It all ends up being quite confusing. Much more sensible would have been to try and show what the slaves cumulatively learned about organising uprisings, and what the authorities learned about suppressing them.

Walvin repeatedly refers to the differences between plantation culture in the West Indies and on the American mainland, but never makes them as clear as Alan Taylor does in his outstanding book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (sugar grew best in the West Indies, tobacco in the Chespeake Bay area (Virginia, Georgia) and Europe-style agriculture from New York north into New England).

It was entirely these agricultural and climatic facts which gave rise to the intensive slave labour of huge sugar plantations in the Indies, to large but not-quite-so-vast tobacco slave plantations in the South, and to the relatively slave-free, family-run farms of the middle and northern states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England).

Most irritating of all, Walvin has a fondness for rhetorical questions, which often just seem lame. It’s as if a historian of the Holocaust kept stopping every few pages to sigh, ‘But where are the memorials to all the Jews that died at Belsen?’ or ‘How can we imagine the feelings of the Jews of Jewish mothers as they carried their babies into the gas chambers?’

The facts are quite horrifying enough. They don’t need lachrymose embellishments, such as:

When Lord Mansfield died, in March 1793, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey… But where are the memorials to those thousands whose lives were touched by the career of England’s Chief Justice? (p.22)

But how many watery miles would always remain between the slaves he had sold in Antigua and their loved ones in Africa? (p.43)

Nuggets

Nonetheless, the book does have loads of nuggets of information tucked away in it, and I thought I’d extract and list ones which stood out for me, as an aide-memoire:

Drinks The new fashionable drinks of the late 1600s and early 1700s – coffee, tea and chocolate – are all naturally bitter. They need sweetener. Sugar. Grown by slaves. What a stunning fact that a product from China (later imported into India and Ceylon), sweetened by tea from the West Indies, grown by slaves imported from Africa, became an addiction in cold northern Europe.

Puddings During the 18th century the British became famous for their puddings which required prodigious amounts of sugar: hot puddings, cold puddings, steamed puddings, baked puddings, pies, tarts, creams, charlottes and bettys, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys, junkets and ices, milk pudding, suet pudding, custards and cakes, and rice pudding (rice grown by slaves in Georgia and Carolina, sugar grown by slaves in the Indies).

Somerset v Stewart (1772) Slavery had never been authorized by statute in England and Wales, and Lord Mansfield decided that it was also unsupported in common law. Lord Mansfield tried to narrowly limit his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against their will, and said they could not. Nonetheless the case ‘aroused enormous interest and political controversy’ (p.305) and became one of the most significant milestones in the abolitionist campaign.

Mansfield had in his own household a black slave, Elizabeth Dido, born to a slave woman captured aboard a Spanish ship by a British pirate, who got her pregnant and passed the baby on to his relative Mansfield, who brought her up.

In his will Mansfield specified that Dido be freed and given an annuity for life.

The Zong case (1781) The Zong was a Liverpool-based slave ship. In September 1780 it departed the coast of Africa for Jamaica with 470 slaves on board. 60 Africans and seven crew had died from disease on the crossing when, on November 29, Captain Luke Collingwood called a meeting of his officers to decide whether to throw the sick Africans overboard in order to preserve the others and save drinking water. 131 slaves were thrown overboard. The owners of the Zong, Gregson, claimed the loss of their slaves (£30 each) from their insurers, Gilbert. The insurers refused to pay. The case was taken to court and provoked a storm of outrage. Another milestone towards abolition.

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

John Newton John Newton, later in life an ardent abolitionist and author of the hymn Amazing Grace was, early in life, captain of a slave ship and responsible for punishing and reprimanding uppity slaves. He used thumbscrews.

The Middle Passage It surprised me that, as a proportion, more of the white crews died in the Atlantic crossing, than the slaves. I have seen the diagrams of the slaves packed tight below decks hundreds of times, and they have been recycled in numerous works of art as symbols of unprecedented suffering. Who knew, that as a proportion, more whites died than blacks!

All Souls Barbados was the most densely planted and cultivated sugar island in the West Indies. The largest slave owner was Christopher Codrington. It was his land which funded the establishment of the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. It comes as no surprise to learn that in our politically sensitive times, the College is setting up a scholarship to help West Indian students.

West Indian output Between the 1660s and the abolition of slavery, the African population of the West Indian sugar islands rose to 1 million. During that period over 10 million tonnes of sugar were produced.

Task work Slaves were set tasks and, once these were complete, were free to tend their own gardens, practice artisan skills and so on. In fact, one of the biggest learnings from Walvin is that many slaves had a surprising amount of freedom and agency.

Many were trained in a very wide range of skills, from artisan work such as coopers, carpenters and smiths, to work gang overseers, to book keepers and accountants, while off to one side of field work was an entire hierarchy of domestic servants from lowliest char to senior butler and household supervisor.

I thought the chapter about ‘runaways’ would be about desperate conspiracies to break shackles, get through the barbed wire fence and escape – but this is completely wrong. It turns out many, many slaves had jobs which naturally took them far afield, taking all kinds of goods to local markets, fetching and carrying from towns or neighbouring plantations, and even operating boats and ships to carry plantation produce down river to collection centres and big towns.

Slaves were much more mobile than we might imagine. (p.165)

Some slaves’ jobs required them to be absent from the plantation for weeks on end, and so it turns out that the definition of ‘runaway’ is ragged round the edges. Many slaves didn’t ‘run away’ so much as stay away longer than a job warranted – for all kinds of human reasons, because they had a sweetheart to visit, or distant spouses and children they’d been separated from, to gamble and get drunk.

Free blacks Similarly, it is startling to have it brought home how many free Africans lived in the slave areas, specially of the Deep South. They also sailed the seas as free sailors, alongside white sailors, ending up in ports wherever European ships anchored – which is to say, right round the world.

Striking that Olaudah Equiano, who left a detailed account of his life, worked aboard a British ship which made an expedition to the Arctic in 1773!

If there is one really pervasive message to Walvin’s book, it is the counter-intuitive one that slaves – captured, enslaved Africans and their descendants – were emphatically not passive helpless victims, but adapted to their appalling new circumstances, spread into all walks of life available, acquired skills, saved up and earned their freedom, set up businesses and schools, and sailed the seven seas alongside their European one-time captors.

As Walvin puts it, everywhere historians look, they see:

the growth of an independent slave culture, linked to the world of plantation slavery but operating and thriving at an economically autonomous level. (p.115)

The black African element not only underpinned the wealth of the British Empire in the 1700s, but was everywhere visible in that empire.

It was news to me that there was a black drummer in the Scottish court in 1507, that Henry VII and Henry VIII employed a black trumpeter, that Elizabeth I had black musicians and dancers. At a celebration ball in London in 1764 all the musicians were black.

Black servants were highly fashionable among the 18th century aristocracy. And not just aristocrats. Samuel Johnson’s much-loved manservant Francis Barber was black, and Johnson not only made him his heir but left him most of his important papers.

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, with a black servant by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Death in the Indies The majority of slaves were imported into the West Indies where they dropped like flies, because of poor food, appalling conditions, and being worked to death by the brutal requirements of sugar production. Fewer slaves were imported onto the American continent, but more of them survived because working tobacco was relatively less onerous, food and conditions were better, and, above all, disease was less lethal.

Music Apparently, it’s racist to say that Africans have a special feel for music and rhythm – but the testimony of slave owners and visitors to plantations is full of evidence for the slaves’ fondness for music of all sorts, from chanted and sung words alone, to the accompaniment of instruments made from whatever came to hand, through to full proficiency on European instruments like the violin.

Christianity I’ve met no end of progressives, especially feminists, who think that Christianity’s influence was and is and can only ever be a terrible, calamitous thing. In some respects this may be true, but Walvin has a chapter ramming home the fact that it was the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, and the spread of Protestant missionaries throughout the slave colonies, the conversion of many slaves to Christianity, and then the widespread dissemination of Christian anti-slavery pamphlets, sermons and so on, from the 1770s onwards – which played a huge role in creating widespread public and political support for abolition.

The role of Christianity in freeing the slaves was ‘seismic’ (p.194).

Phases of abolition Anyone familiar with the subject knows this, but it’s worth emphasising that abolition came in waves.

In the 1780s there were attempts to rein in what were becoming the well-publicised excesses of plantation owners in the colonies. Parliament passed laws restricting the types of punishment (for example, the number of lashes) they could dole out.

Phase one was the campaign from the end of the American War of Independence (1783) to abolition in 1807. This first abolition was the abolition of the slave trading by ship. From 1807 no British ship was allowed to carry slaves. Parliament and the campaigners expected that  this would result in an improvement in the conditions of slaves in the West Indies, and they set up a demographic register to monitor change.

In the event, the evidence came in that it improved nothing. The condition of slaves in the Indies remained as miserable as ever. Abolitionism was put on hold during the Wars with France. When these ended in 1815, there was a period of intense political repression in Britain. But this slackened in the 1820s and a new generation called for further reform, and not just of slavery.

The new post-war generation chafed against the domination of the landed gentry under the old voting franchise. The industrialists of the north chafed against having no political power to match their new wealth. Apologists for capitalism insisted that Free Trade was the great panacea which would drive the British economy and so campaigned against trade tariffs. Christian missionaries provided a ceaseless supply of literature describing the appalling conditions and sufferings of the ongoing slave colonies.

This was the second wave of abolitionism, led by a new generation, which called for the abolition of slavery on moral, Christian, but also economic and political grounds. Free market economists insisted that slavery distorted markets, businesses and wages, thus hampering the growth of British trade and prosperity.

It was only after the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, and a new ‘reformed’ Parliament assembled, that a laws was finally passed to abolish the condition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

On 1 August 1834 all slaves under 6 were freed. Adults became ‘apprentices’ and were still forced to work for their owners for 40 hours a week, for nothing, for a period of 6 years. Some islands decided tojust get on and free all their slaves.

Many of the colonies had reacted to the unrelenting pressure from the church and the mother country against slavery, by steadily releasing slaves already, especially if they were old, ill or unable to work. Slavery was always first and foremost an economic consideration.

Full abolition only came at midnight on 31 July 1838. Freed slaves across the West Indies held marches and parades, made speeches, attended church, decked their houses and towns with flags and bunting.

The British enforced the slave trade Having seen the light, the British became enthusiastic opponents of the slave trade wherever it remained. It became a standing order of the Royal Navy to confiscate slave ships. Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.

American slavery But we no longer had jurisdiction over the United States. By 1860 there were some 4 million slaves in the USA, far more than had been liberated from the British colonies in the 1830s.

Their struggle for liberation, and the epic civil war it prompted, is another story.


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Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


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