Jane Austen and the slave trade

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Did Jane Austen have anything in common with the “Black Lives Matter” movement? Surely not! Our Jane is the nation’s favourite author – she’s on our ten-pound note and we are all, regardless of our political differences, “Janeites”. Some adore her for her love scenes, especially if spiced up with a little wet-shirt action; some are nostalgic for the period costumes and gracious Georgian settings; others admire her wit and irony – “regulated hatred”, one critic called it.

Jane Austen herself said, “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress”, and it is true that her novels concentrated on three or four country families and domestic life, and shied away from the social and political upheavals of her day.

So she had nothing to say, for instance, about the slave trade, then? You might be excused for missing a couple of brief mentions of it in “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” – yes, “Emma”.

In “Mansfield Park” we might wonder what Sir Thomas was doing during his absence on his plantation in the West Indies. We might even ask ourselves how much of his wealth and power derived from the slave trade. Was he having problems with the running of his estate, or checking on the conditions of his workers? The first Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had been passed in 1807, prohibiting trade in slaves in the British Empire. The comprehensive ban on owning and trading slaves came with the Slavery Abolition Act passed in 1833, followed up with the shameful Slave Compensation Act, signed into law in 1837. Under this Act, slave owners– and only slave owners – were compensated financially, leaving them and their descendants to enjoy the fruits of slavery for generations to come. “Mansfield Park” was begun in 1811 and finished in 1814. The fact that Sir Thomas’s visit is protracted suggests problems, possibly commercial issues. Who knows, perhaps he had liberated his slaves and was having difficulties finding workers. Meanwhile, his sons and daughters are turning his house upside-down for amateur theatricals, and giving licence to their emotions in a rather risqué play.

His sudden return is a comic climax and a focal point in the novel, including for the shy, quiet heroine, Fanny, whose virtuous conduct has exposed that of her cousins. Her cousin Edmund tells her that her uncle is “disposed to be pleased with her in every respect” and  wishes she would “talk to him more”. Her reply is,

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

Edmund’s reply suggests that he and Fanny both assume Sir Thomas is at least a benevolent plantation-owner. Edmund thinks his father would have been happy to pursue the topic, which Fanny herself “longed to do but there was such a dead silence”, her cousins “sitting without speaking a word or seeming at all interested in the subject”. This implies that, for Jane Austen – as for Fanny, who is the moral centre of the novel – the  subject was indeed important, and one about which she felt strongly.

Hands up if you recall a reference to the slave trade in “Emma”, arguably Jane Austen’s greatest novel?

At a critical point of tension, the intelligent and talented Jane Fairfax gives way to a moment of bitterness as she begins to despair of her charming but volatile gentleman-lover. As a single woman of no fortune, she has few options apart from marriage, the alternative being the governess trade, which she views as a kind of slavery. While Mrs Elton is patronisingly offering help in finding her a position, Jane is resigned to “the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect”. Mrs Elton takes this as a “fling at the slave trade” and boasts that her brother-in-law was “always a friend to the abolition”. Jane’s reply, however, makes clear that, for her, being a governess will be a kind of slavery, though she revealingly points to the difference between that and the slave trade, namely, the “guilt of those who carry it on”and the “misery of the victims”.

As ever with Jane Austen, it is those who suffer who feel the sufferings of others. Fanny’s female cousins, of course, in their self-centred complacency, are not interested, and fail to benefit from the “lessons of affliction”. So who said Jane Austen had nothing to say about the slave trade?