The story of Dido Belle

The London Times of Saturday 7 July has a two-page spread inspired by the story of Dido Belle the mixed-race niece of the eminent judge, Lord Mansfield, portrayed here next to her cousin, Elizabeth. The piece is by Paula Byrne, whose book, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, forms dido and eliza 3the basis of the rather pedestrian and frequently inaccurate film based on her life. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Byrne’s book, but it is clear that she has told an important and hitherto little-known story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to life.

There are a couple of small inaccuracies in the Times piece. Wilberforce’s friend, Lady Middleton, who is said to have been one of those who inspired him to take up the cause of abolition, is wrongly described as Lady Margaret Middleton. That would make her the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, rather than the wife of a knight (her husband was the MP, Sir Charles Middleton), and would make her rather grander socially than she actually was. These distinctions are important for understanding late-eighteenth-century society. Without grasping them we cannot, for example, understand the nuances of Jane Austen’s novels.

The second concerns Wilberforce directly. As I report in my book (pp. 199-201) on 2 April 1792 he spoke in Parliament about the plight on a slave ship of

a young girl of fifteen, of extreme modesty, who finding herself in a situation incident to her sex, was extremely anxious to conceal it.

But the ship’s captain, courageously named by Wilberforce as John Kimber, beat her, tied her up by the legs, then beat her again. The tortures continued until she died. This shocking narrative inspired Isaac Cruikshank to produce a grotesque and semi-pornographic caricature, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade’. For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce it here, but it can easily be found through a google search.

Byrne describes this unnamed young woman as pregnant, and writes that it was her courageous refusal to dance that cost her her life. Yet a careful look at Wilberforce’s exact words suggests that she was menstruating and embarrassed about her condition. He would not have balked at the word’ pregnant’ but would have felt very constrained in talking about menstruation to an all-male House of Commons. The point of the story is, of course, its savage cruelty and its poignancy lies in the fact that this young girl remains nameless, so perhaps the exact nature of her condition doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we owe it to her to be as accurate as possible. Deprived of dignity on that terrible ship, she deserves an account of her death that is as truthful as possible.

There is an interesting take on the film here. The article notes a couple of distortions in the film and pays proper tribute to the veteran abolitionist, Granville Sharp, a man Wilberforce revered greatly.

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The Clapham Sect and the language of race: some thoughts

The Daily Telegraph of 2 June 2014 has a timely article by the conservative journalist and politician, Daniel Hannan, which argues that racial insults are unacceptable, not because of the dictates of political correctness but because of simple good manners and respect for fellow human beings. This is a point that would have been self-evident to the members of the Clapham Sect, who were careful not only to avoid racial insults but to counter the prejudice that lay behind them.

In the writings of Hannah More, we can observe a process of self-correction over racial language. Here she is at the end of 1792 when her counter-revolutionary tract, Village Politics, went to the press:

We follow the French! Why they only begun all this mischief at first, in order to be just what we are already. Why I’d sooner go to the Negers to get learning, or to the Turks to get religion, than to the French for freedom and happiness.

When she came to revise Village Politics in 1801 she altered the n-word to the then less offensive ‘negroes’. Someone must have told her that the term was unacceptable. Of course she was still disparaging African culture, but this disparagement represented her view of the current state of Africa rather than an essentialist view of African nature. Writing about the mental capacities of women in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1798), (vol. ii, pp. 30-1) she argued that

…the question must always remain as undecided as to the degree of difference between the masculine and feminine understandings, as the question between the understanding of blacks and whites; for until Africans and Europeans are put more nearly on a par in the cultivation of their minds, the shades of difference, if any there be, between their native powers can never be fairly ascertained.

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The Bristol slavers and the Wilberforce link

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Charles Pinney’s house in Great George Street, Bristol, now open to the public as ‘The Georgian House’

In the wake of the film ’12 Years a Slave’, the Observer has published a timely article about Britain’s economic ties to the slave trade and slavery. The article focuses on Bristol in particular, where the historian Madge Dresser has done such valuable work, and one of the families it names is that of John Pinney. What isn’t so well-known is the link between the Pinney and Wilberforce families. This precipitated a particularly traumatic family crisis in 1827, which I set out in detail in chapter 14 of Wilberforce: Family and Friends.

By the late 1820s William and Barbara Wilberforce were spending a considerable amount of time in Bath. They went there for his health, but for Barbara it was also a pleasant opportunity to revive memories of her girlhood. She and her husband had met there in the spring of 1797 and had married within six weeks of their meeting. On their trips to Bath the couple were accompanied by their only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1801. Elizabeth was a lively, intelligent girl, but she often experienced poor health and was prone to depression, which might have been an unconscious reaction to her constrained life-style. While the lives of her four brothers were expanding, she seemed to be going nowhere.

In Bath, the Wilberforces became friendly with two widowed sisters, Elizabeth Baillie and Mary Ames. Mary Ames had married into a well-known Bristol banking family, and her late husband had been a partner with her younger brother Charles Pinney in the firm of Pinney, Ames & Co. The sisters occupied themselves with good works and seemed an exemplary pair to the Wilberforces.

Who was Charles Pinney?  He was the third son of the Bristol merchant, John Pinney, who was the owner of a substantial slave estate in Nevis. Charles had been born in 1793 in the house in Great George Street now open to the public as the Georgian House. He had inherited his father’s business skills and when John Pinney died in 1818 he inherited the Bristol house,  the Nevis property – and the slaves. Some time in the mid-1820s he met the Wilberforces probably through their common friend, John Scandrett Harford, the owner of the nearby Blaise Castle.

In April 1827, while the Wilberforces were lodging at no 3 Queen Square Wilberforce  was approached by Pinney, who asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. With what seems like astonishing naivety, Wilberforce responded sympathetically. In his letter to Pinney he discussed the possible marriage settlement but made no mention of his prospective son-in-law’s substantial interests in the West Indies or in the fact that he was also involved in granting mortgages to planters in need of funds. This was worse even than being a slave-holder as he was involved in slavery at a distance and had no control over the working conditions of the slaves.

The day after Wilberforce in effect agreed to the marriage, he received a blistering letter from his fiery abolitionist brother-in-law, James Stephen (great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf) which distressed him so much that he became ill. Suddenly the marriage did not seem such a good idea.  Barbara suggested that the family travel to Rothley Temple in Leicestershire to consult the family oracle, the evangelical landowner, Thomas Babington. A week later they set off. Of course in theory the choice rested with Elizabeth. At the age of 26 she had the legal right to make her own decision. But what could she do? After listening to Babington, Elizabeth broke off the relationship. As her mother put it in an apologetic letter to Mary Ames, she could not destroy her father’s peace of mind.  Wilberforce noted with relief in his diary that she did not seem too troubled by her decision, but the next day he had to report that she had been confined to her room all day with a headache. The crisis was over – but not without its casualties. Elizabeth’s thoughts on the subject have not survived, but it must have been an extremely distressing time for her.

In a somewhat petulant and ungracious letter, Charles Pinney accepted that the engagement was over. However, he continued to see himself as a wronged man. In her excellent Slavery Obscured: The Social History of Slavery in an English Provincial Port (Continuum, 2001), Madge Dresser suggests that his courtship of Elizabeth was self-interested, as he was a member of the West India Association, which was in the midst of conducting a transatlantic campaign to undermine the emancipation programme. In the general election of 1830 he was to help defeat the anti-slavery candidate, Edward Protheroe. In the following year he became mayor of Bristol and married the daughter of a Wiltshire landowner. This proved a bad year for him, as he lost control of the city during the Bristol riots and was tried (and acquitted) for neglect of duty. When slavery was abolished in 1834 he claimed about £36,000 as his share of compensation.

There was no happy ending for Elizabeth. Following the example of her godmother, Hannah More, she immersed herself in philanthropy, visiting the cottages of poor people and possibly undermining her own health in the process. In January 1831 she married a clergyman, the Rev John James of Lydney, and went to live in his poor Yorkshire mining parish at Rawmarsh. By this time she was already suffering from a hacking cough. In October she gave birth to a baby daughter, Barbara. She then went rapidly downhill and died in the Isle of Wight in March 1832.

The sad story of Elizabeth’s abortive courtship tells us a number of things. It shows us Wilberforce’s declining mental powers – he was to die six years later – that led him to take his eye off the ball and sanction a marriage that would have disgraced him in the anti-slavery community. It also shows the close links between abolitionists and the slave-holding community. In the tight-knit society of late-Georgian Britain it was not possible for these two communities to live discrete lives apart from each other. They were bound to come into contact socially and to get on with each other as best they could.

James Ramsay: the unknown abolitionist

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James Ramsay (1733-89), by Carl Frederik von Breda

The Independent journalist, Patrick Cockburn, has discovered that he has an ancestor who isn’t famous, yet who certainly should be. This is the Reverend James Ramsay, rector of Teston (pronounced Teeson) in Kent, a pioneer in the movement to abolish the slave trade. The standard life is F. O. Shyllon’s James Ramsay: the Unknown Abolitionist (Canongate, 1977).  I describe in my book how he had formerly been rector of the Caribbean island of St Kitts, where his experiences of what he described as a ‘nightmare of cruelty’ turned him into a passionate opponent of the slave trade and of the institution of slavery. In 1784 he wrote his Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, a ground-breaking work that for the first time drew attention to the human cost of the production of the sugar that was such a mainstay of the British diet. I treat this more fully in a blog I wrote for my friend, Norman Geras.

A few years ago, another friend, the Reverend David Williams, went to the parish of St John Capisterre on St Kitts, as a stand-in for the regular rector. He took photographs of the church and the congregation, but even more remarkably, he photocopied some baptismal and marriage registers from St John’s and also from the sister church of St Paul from 1826 and 1830. 

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Ramsay 2

PICT0302By this time Ramsay was long dead (1789), the slave trade had been abolished (1807), Wilberforce had retired from Parliament (1825), and since 1823 pressure had been building up to end the institution of slavery itself. The records show that Ramsay’s successor, the Revd. J. J. Kerie, was busy baptising slaves and conducting marriages. Most of the slaves made their mark rather than signing their names, but this was perfectly valid legally. The fact that they couldn’t sign their names isn’t necessarily evidence that they were illiterate, as reading and writing were taught separately.

In baptising and marrying the slaves, Kerie was granting them an autonomy and human dignity otherwise denied them.  For this reason, many planters forbade slave marriages and baptisms.  Below is a photograph of the church – not the original building, I imagine, but its successor, attended by a lively congregation, no doubt the descendants of the slaves baptised and married by Ramsay and Kerie.

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