Slavery during the Regency period
The social scope of Jane Austen’s novels rarely seems to extend beyond the small provincial societies she sketches so astutely: the focus is on the interaction between a small cast of characters and the tensions caused by their living in close proximity, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Yet it is quite common for historians to cite passages of Jane Austen’s novels as evidence of diverse aspects of Georgian life, since the social, historical and political context of the novels informs all their events. One of these topics which is not immediately obvious or central but certainly provides an underlying current of tension is that of slavery.
Much of the wealth of the British Empire in the Georgian period was dependent on slave labour in the colonies. It was therefore relatively easy to avoid head-on confrontation with the topic for a well-to-do middle-class woman living a sheltered life in rural Britain; but a great deal of Jane Austen’s historical value lies in the extent and depth of her social perception particularly as regards matters of money, and her references to the topic in Mansfield Park are subtle and potentially ambiguous, but indisputably present.
Mansfield Park centres on the presence of poor relation Fanny Price in the home of her aristocratic uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. Significantly, Fanny has grown up in a naval household in Portsmouth, a port city associated both with merchant shipping and with the navy. Like Jane Austen herself, the Prices – the father a naval lieutenant, the mother of aristocratic decent – uncomfortably straddle the divide between the upper and emergent middle class. Neither the Austens nor the Prices, however, belonged to the upper echelons of society most likely to benefit from the slave trade, unlike Sir Thomas Bertram, who derives much of his wealth from a sugar plantation in Antigua, an island in the West Indies. Plantations such as Bertram’s relied entirely on the use of local slave labour to cultivate the sugar cane.
Mansfield Park was written between 1811 and 1813, and published in 1814. Owing chiefly to the parliamentary campaign of William Wilberforce, the ‘Slave Trade Act’ had been passed by Parliament in 1807, but this act prohibited only the trading in slaves in the British Empire, and crucially not slavery itself. Within Britain, slavery had been found unconstitutional in 1772; but, so long as they did not bring any of their slaves into Britain, slave owners such as Sir Thomas Bertram remained free to profit from the exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833.
Jane Austen does not explicitly state her own position on slavery, but the critical consensus tends to recognise her position as in keeping with that of the rising middle class of the later Georgian period, embracing early principles of Liberalism. The middle class as represented by the Austens, rather than by the self-made businessmen who would come to be frequently ridiculed in Victorian literature, did not feel itself to profit directly from slavery in the colonies; importantly, furthermore, they were intellectuals with enough leisure time to study social, historical and political writings. Under these social and political conditions, an intelligent woman in Jane Austen’s position would have been unlikely to have supported slavery.
Both direct and indirect evidence of this may be found in Mansfield Park. Famous post-colonial critic Edward Said has criticised Jane Austen for what he calls her ‘reticence’ on the topic in a novel that would have allowed considerable scope, in its selection of content, for social critique, but he also allows that,
‘…everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “there was such a dead silence” as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both.’
I would argue that there are more subtle hints of Jane Austen’s position to be found throughout the novel. The character of Fanny Price is one example. Claire Tomalin, in Jane Austen: A Life, has pointed out the significance of Fanny, usually shy and timid, choosing to question her uncle, on whose sufferance she lives at Mansfield Park, on precisely this topic. But we can take this further: as a poor relation in an aristocratic household, Fanny, although her position cannot be compared to that of a slave in the colonies, is obliged to contribute to the household with her obedience and unpaid labour, and may well have been sympathetic to other exploited people as a result.
I would suggest, furthermore, that the title of the novel cannot have been coincidental. The decision that slavery was unsupported by English and Welsh law resulted from the case of Somersett v Stewart in 1772. The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, who presided over the case, was law reformer Lord Mansfield.
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