A couple of months ago we had a political storm here in Australia when Scott Morrison, our prime minister claimed there had been no slavery in the colony of New South Wales. Horrendous abuse of the indigenous population, yes, slavery, no.
In the other colonies, principally Queensland, there were some extremely dubious labour practices including blackbirding, but Queensland is not New South Wales, so we’ll give Scotty some slack and say that there was no slavery in NSW.
Half a world away, in Scotland, there has recently been a growing realisation that the profits from the sugar industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that enhanced the wealth of the middle classes were founded on slavery. Just look at the character of Sir Thomas Bertram in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, should you want an (English) example.
I’ve even spent some time researching my own family history to search for possible links to the slave trade – of which there are probably none, they were almost certainly too far down the economic pecking order to have money to invest in sugar, but let’s be honest, they may well have wanted to.
Now, I’ve recently just finished Catie Gilchrist’s Murder Misadventure and Miserable ends in which she recounts notable cases from the Sydney Coroner’s court in the nineteenth century. I read it as background to the Dow’s pharmacy documentation project – NSW being rather more slack than Victoria in the licensing of pharmacists, which meant that that trope of Victorian melodrama – husband poisons wife and runs off with governess, or wife poisons husband and runs off with the under footman – persisted for longer in New South Wales.
In truth the murders were a lot less glamourous, but then reality is always a grubby affair.
During a great part of the nineteenth century, the Chief Coroner was Henry Shiell. who was from a plantation, be implication slave owning family, in Montserrat in the Caribbean.
Now, when the slaves were emancipated in August 1834 (while Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it remained legal to own slaves until 1834. Some slave owners, despairing of getting encouraged their slaves to breed, including the sexual exploitation of their black female slaves.), Britain actually paid the slave owners compensation – as many of the plantation owners were also landed gentry in England, this was akin to the gentry rewarding themselves for past crimes.
Some, like Henry Shiell’s forebears tried to keep their plantation going with paid labour, but without slavery there was no profit in it, especially given the increasing production of sugar from sugar beet after the Napoleonic Wars.
Others most probably took the money and ran. And where did they run to?
Well one place was most certainly Australia with its developing wool industry in the 1840’s (Magwitch in Great Expectations if you want a literary connection).
So it would not be a surprise that if we were to look hard enough, we would find that some of the wealth of the squatocracy came indirectly from slavery …