Do Austen’s Novels Reveal Her Views on Slavery?

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My last blog explored the effort in England to abolish the slave trade—the buying and selling of human flesh—which was accomplished in 1807—as well as the effort to eliminate slavery itself throughout all British possessions, which was not accomplished until 1840.

Slave owners were helped through their “difficult” six-year period of adjustment, 1834-1840, with payments of twenty million pounds as recompense for the loss of their “property.”

Before England ended the slave trade in 1807, the selling price for a healthy adult male was about fifty pounds; women and children were less. Four in ten slaves died—one for every two tons of sugar produced. It was less expensive to buy a new slave than to feed an existing slave. The cycle was self-fulfilling. With new slaves constantly arriving, there was no financial incentive to feed current slaves properly. Without enough to eat, women could not reproduce, requiring more slaves to be brought in.

Slave owners portrayed their “workers” as living happy lives, much better than in their native Africa. The reality was horribly different, with four of ten slaves dying from the grueling work.

Twice during Austen’s life, slaves had the chance to earn freedom. The first was during the Revolutionary War, when American slaves were promised freedom if they fought for England against the rebels. When England lost, many of the freed blacks left with other Loyalists. It is estimated that England had about 15,000 freed blacks, mostly in London, where they took up typical lower-class occupations—and suffered many of the privations typical of the working poor.

A similar offer for freedom came in the French wars. By 1802, England had sent more than 90,000 sailors and soldiers to the West Indies. Half of them died of disease, including Tom Fowle, fiancé of Cassandra, Jane’s sister, who served as a chaplain on his cousin’s military ship. These huge losses caused the British army to buy 13,400 slaves locally to reinforce its troops. As before, the promise to blacks was freedom at the end of their service.

Evangelicals, particularly the Methodists, led the fight against slavery. In contrast, the establishment Church of England not only supported the institution—it also owned a slave plantation, bequeathed to the church in the early 1700s. The profit was used to take the message of Christ to America. That’s right: Anglicans sent the black man to his grave to save the soul of the white.

Before the entire slave trade was abolished in 1807, the abolitionist William Wilberforce (image above, with headline) pushed through a Foreign Slave Trade Bill in 1806. Authorizing the Royal Navy to intercept foreign slave ships, the bill was as much about hurting French interests in the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars as it was about helping slaves.

In an effort to curry favor with the British after his brief return to power in 1815, Napoleon signed a decree to end France’s slave trade. Though it had the effect of ending the slave trade for all the European powers, the edict did not stop England from taking Napoleon down a second time and exiling him to St. Helena in the far south Atlantic.

Slavery was not the only cause for Wilberforce, the Minister of Parliament who led the fight for twenty years. He supported many other charitable causes, providing relief for the poor and the “deaf and dumb” and founding the first society to prevent cruelty to animals. After giving away tens of thousands of pounds to charitable causes, the abolitionist died in poverty after an investment with one of his sons collapsed.

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Mansfield Park undoubtedly concerns slavery, but what does the novel really say about it?

The battle to end the slave trade came when Austen was reaching the height of her creative powers. Mansfield Park, published in 1814, has slavery as a major theme. The wealth of the Bertram family comes from a West Indies plantation, and Sir Thomas Bertram disappears for the middle part of the novel to tend to business there. The critic Edward Said leads a contingent that criticizes Austen for apparently accepting slavery, while author Paula Byrne leads a group that has Fanny Price speaking “truth to power” about slavery.

As proof of her abolitionist views, Austen supporters cite Fanny’s noted comment that when she raises the issue of the slave trade to her uncle in a room with the entire family, she is met with “dead silence!” The inability of Sir Thomas or his children—her cousins and, theoretically, her betters—to respond to her question about slavery is proof of Fanny’s moral superiority.

However, it’s not at all clear that Fanny’s “dead silence!” comment is a rebuttal of slavery and the family’s reliance on its revenue. The entire passage—not just the one sentence—needs to be carefully read and key phrases studied. I challenge every reader to decide what is really happening with the book’s heroine.

Thoughts?

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