The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

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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