‘The guilt of those who carry it on’: the slave-trade in Mansfield Park and Emma

Mansfield Park is a deeply disturbing book. Barely concealed underneath a thin veneer of politeness, good breeding, and calculating charity, lie domestic discord, unkindness, and disregard for basic human rights and dignity. The Bertrams’ wealth has been built on the profits of slave labour, but it is sexual misbehaviour that is irrevocably condemned – the former is glossed over, while the latter is expatiated on.

However, if the opinions carefully gathered together by the author are anything to go by, her contemporaries might have held a different view. Mr Egerton, its publisher, ‘praised it for it’s Morality.’ So did Lady Robert Kerr and Miss Anne Sharpe. At a time when so many English families benefited either directly or indirectly from slavery, it might not be expected that they should wish to be reminded of that connection. The term ‘Mansfield Park complex,’ used to describe the deliberate attempt to turn a blind eye to the associations between English country houses and the Atlantic trade, might well be used to describe a more widespread attitude. ‘No people spend more freely, I believe, than West Indians,’ says Mr Parker in Sanditon, anticipating financial gain.

In 1760, the Revd George Austen was appointed as a trustee of an Antigua plantation owned by James Nibbs, an Oxford contemporary who would later become James Austen’s godfather and send his son to the Steventon school. In January 1801 Jane Austen mentioned ‘Mr Nibbs’ among the pictures that hung in the rectory. Her aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot, née Cholmeley, had been born in the West Indies and sent to school in England at six. Her brother Charles married the portionless daughter of a former Attorney-General of Bermuda, and, a few years after she passed away, one of her sisters.

Frank Austen, who as a naval officer had to enforce the prohibition of the slave-trade was deeply shocked by the horrors of the Middle Passage. In 1807 he called at St Helena:

The inhabitants are chiefly English, or of English descent, although there is a considerable number of negroes on the island, which with very few exceptions are the property of individuals or of the Company, slavery being tolerated here. It does not however appear that the slaves are or can be treated with that harshness and despotism which has been so justly attributed to the conduct of the land-holders or their managers in the West India Islands, the laws of the Colony not giving any other power to the master than a right to the labour of his slave. He must, to enforce that right, in case a slave prove refractory, apply to the civil power, he having no right to inflict chastisement at his own discretion. This is a wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery, and it is much to be regretted that any trace of it should be found to exist in countries dependent on England, or colonised by her subjects.

In 1813 Jane Austen claimed to be “in love with” Thomas Clarkson, having read his History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Her favourite poet William Cowper was also an active abolitionist, whose work The Negro’s Complaint, published in 1793, became hugely popular. The dialogue between Mrs Elton and Jane Fairfax about the sale of human flesh leaves no doubt as to which side of the debate she was on.

Slaves working on a plantation, by William Clark

Mansfield Park is not, however, a scathing indictment of West Indian planters. For one thing, Jane Austen does not ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ For another, she keeps to what she knows. ‘Let the Portmans go to Ireland,’ she advises her niece, would-be novelist Anna Lefroy, ‘but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them.’ She herself had never been to Antigua, so that part of the story could not be told – except for a passing reference to the balls in chapter 25, from which we may conclude that Sir Thomas is interested in ‘different modes of dancing.’

Sir Thomas Bertram is the absentee proprietor of a sugar estate on that island, who finds it ‘expedient to go’ there ‘himself for the better arrangement of his affairs.’ His sister-in-law, always prone to exaggerate financial difficulties when it suits her petty goals, talks of ‘poor returns,’ adding later that ‘a large part of his income was unsettled.’ What prompts him to travel? A labour shortage that the abolition of the slave-trade has made hard to fill? Unfair competition from slave-trading colonies? Supply problems resulting from the wars? The extravagance and mismanagement of the local steward? Henry Crawford, for instance, is considering a trip to Everingham:

I have half an idea of going into Norfolk again soon. I am not satisfied about Maddison. I am sure he still means to impose on me if possible … I must make him know that I will not be tricked … that I will be master of my own property. I was not explicit enough with him before. The mischief such a man does on an estate, both as to the credit of his employer and the welfare of the poor, is inconceivable. I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put everything at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from.

Perhaps they share similar worries – is Sir Thomas concerned for the well-being of his slaves? Since the mid 18th century, Moravian and Methodist missionaries in Antigua had been seeking to convert them to Christianity and improve their lot, something the planters themselves might have tolerated or encouraged in order to avoid a repetition of the 1736 Conspiracy. Had they succeeded, the plotters would then have blown up the hall where a Great Ball was to take place. As it happened, the accused were publicly tortured and executed.

In chapter 2 we are told Sir Thomas is an MP who regularly attends sessions, so he must have voted on the slave-trade issue. We may assume that, as a plantation owner, he was aligned with the West India Lobby and therefore opposed the abolition.

‘There are places in town,’ says Jane Fairfax in Emma, ‘offices, where inquiry would soon produce something–Offices for the sale–not quite of human flesh–but of human intellect.’ Mrs Elton hastens to clear her Bristol friends of any part in the slave-trade the port was infamous for: ‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.’ No one tries to vindicate Sir Thomas.

Slave ship diagram

When he comes back to England, Edmund tells Fanny he wishes she would talk more to her uncle.

‘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?’

‘I did–and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.’

‘And I longed to do it–but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like–I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.’

This is the only mention of the slave-trade in the book. There is no reference to slaves or slavery. Edward Said speaks of ‘what is hidden or allusive,’, of ‘the aesthetic silence or discretion of a great novel.’ In his view, ‘everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery,’ and therefore the ‘dead silence’ would ‘suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both.’ On the whole I agree, but I do not think his interpretation is directly supported by the text.

Fanny’s reply seems to point to her cousins’ frivolity and inability to care about anything beyond their little performance. On closer examination, however, we realise it is his daughters that, in her opinion, Sir Thomas would have wished had taken part in or at least paid more attention to the conversation. Tom must have seen slavery first-hand on his father’s estate and surely Edmund knew enough to find the subject too sensitive to speak. From the fact that the printed matter in Fanny Knight’s pocket-book for 1809 contains an anti-slavery story, Claire Tomalin infers that most ladies would have been in favour of the abolition – else the publishers would not have included it. Thus, Maria and Julia’s indifference would reveal a character flaw as well as a shortcoming in their education.

The ‘dead silence,’ then, would have been the product of boredom. But, at a deeper level, it might hint at the lack of a shared language between the world of human values and the world of cruelty and brutality. I do not think this is what the author consciously meant, however. Austen simply does not write about what she does not know from personal experience or observation. To a lesser extent, the absence of a common language poses a barrier to communication between Edmund and Fanny, on the one hand, and the Crawfords, on the other. Mary speaks lightly about what Edmund considers serious subjects, without intending to hurt his sensibilities:

She would not voluntarily give unnecessary pain to any one, and though I may deceive myself, I cannot but think that for me, for my feelings, she would–Hers are faults of principle, Fanny; of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind. Perhaps it is best for me, since it leaves me so little to regret. Not so, however. Gladly would I submit to all the increased pain of losing her, rather than have to think of her as I do.

And Fanny thinks her brother’s words are meaningless: based on his past thoughtlessness, she foresees his future inconstancy.

We are not told exactly what she asked Sir Thomas, only that the question was about the slave-trade, which had been abolished in 1807. Although he had undoubtedly been involved, it was no longer an issue – slavery still was. He must have answered, somehow, or else Fanny would not have found ‘pleasure in his information,’ and Edward would not have said that his father would have liked to ‘to be enquired of farther.’ If that is what he expected, he cannot have openly declared he approved of the practice. Fanny would not have thought him ‘so discerning, so honourable, so good,’ if he had. On the other hand, he cannot have said anything he felt uncomfortable with, for in that case he would not have wished to pursue the matter.

West India Docks, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

My guess is that he said something about current improvements in the living and working conditions of his slaves, or tried to explain the problem of unfair competition from countries where the trade was not forbidden. And, as far as landowners and masters go, we must acknowledge he could be worse. He employs Dick Jackson’s father ‘all the year round,’ which to Mrs Norris is quite a kindness, and insists on the fire being lit in the East room, so that Fanny may be warm:

I understood that you had the use of this room by way of making you perfectly comfortable … It is highly unfit for you to sit, be it only half an hour a day, without a fire. You are not strong. You are chilly … I understand. Your aunt Norris has always been an advocate, and very judiciously, for young people’s being brought up without unnecessary indulgences; but there should be moderation in everything.

Some believe his sister-in-law was named after the notorious slave-trader Robert Norris, who, giving evidence before the Privy Council, stated that the slave’s ‘apartments,are fitted up as much for their advantage as circumstances will admit. The right ankle of one, indeed is connected with the left ankle of another by a small iron fetter, and if they are turbulent, by another on their wrists.’

Perhaps Jane Austen is suggesting that not all slave-traders or slave-owners are the same …Sir Thomas is, after all, among those who, ‘not greatly in fault themselves,’ are ‘restored ‘to tolerable comfort’ in the final chapter – whereas his daughter, guilty only of sexual indiscretion, is banished from his house:

He would never have offered so great an insult to the neighbourhood as to expect it to notice her. As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted; but farther than that he could not go. Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family as he had known himself.

Personally I find these double standards virtually impossible to account for, except in terms of social values too deeply ingrained to be questioned. It might be argued that relative misconduct is not judged here in relation to the slave-trade or slavery, as the novel is not really about them. This might sound rather flimsy, but would be borne out by Jane Fairfax’s words in Emma:

I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade … governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.

No way Sir Thomas could get off with a slap on the wrist, then … Assuming the author remains consistent in her views, I can only conclude, therefore, that in Mansfield Park she focuses on his behaviour as the head of an English household, overlooking what is going on overseas.

This interpretation would be confirmed by the final chapter of Persuasion, where the hero helps Mrs Smith get back her own plantation:

Captain Wentworth, by putting her in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man and a determined friend, fully requited the services which she had rendered, or ever meant to render, to his wife.

The Antigua estate is not at the centre of the Mansfield Park plot, and social as well as personal attitudes must be considered in their historical context. Yet I cannot help feeling shocked, as the owning of fellow human beings is so quickly disposed of, while sexual misbehaviour prompts such self-righteous garment-rending. As Edward Said puts it, ‘There is a paradox here in reading Jane Austen which I have been impressed by but can in no way resolve.’


Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Davis, Gregson. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: the Antigua Connection. Retrieved from http://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/antigua/conference/papers/davis.html

Dresser, Madge and Hann, Andrew, eds. 2013. Slavery and the British Country House. London: English Heritage.

Hubback, John H., and Hubback, Edith C. 2012. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011.Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Said, Edward W. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Wilberforce, William. 1789 Abolition Speech. Retrieved from http://www.brycchancarey.com/abolition/wilberforce2.htm

5 thoughts on “‘The guilt of those who carry it on’: the slave-trade in Mansfield Park and Emma

  1. It has been a while since I read Mansfield Park as it is not my favourite novel by Jane Austin. As a reader I had assumed that Sir Thomas was sent to Antigua simply to get him out of the way for several months to allow the plot to develop, the fact this is not enlarged on should not be taken that Jane Austin was in denial on the subject.
    There is a lot that Jane Austin does not write about in her novels, such as the Napoleonic Wars, servants must exist in Jane Austin’s world but they are largely invisible in the novels even mealtimes and food do not on the whole play a large part in the novels excepting the picnic in Emma. The social and industrial changes taking place in Britain are hardly mentioned and yet some of the characters in her novels would have direct involvement such and would surely have been aware of the conditions under which the poor laboured.
    Whether Jane Austin should have been writing campaigning novels exposing the ills of society as did Dickens and Disraeli at a latter date is another matter. I suspect that to many of her devoted admirers the intrusion of the issues of slavery and other social ills would not be welcome additions to her novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for commenting, Stephen. I agree that MP is not about the slave-trade or slavery, but, as the subject is mentioned, I thought it would be interesting to look at the ensuing silence from different perspectives.


  3. There’s a large underlying context here that should not be overlooked: “Mansfield Park” is an undeniable oblique reference to Lord Chancellor Mansfield, whose 1772 Somerset decision ruled that slavery was not legal in England. The British public was so overwhelmingly anti-slave trade that parliamentarians who opposed closing the trade were tossed out in large numbers. There’s a lot Austin doesn’t say in MP, because at the time it didn’t require saying. I wrote a talk on this a few years ago called “Who put the Mansfield in Mansfield Park?”


  4. Thank you, Cwhigh, for commenting. I’ve thought about it too – she might have meant to emphasise that the Mansfield ruling applied only to England. Mansfield Park is in many respects a ‘paradise’, shielded from the unpleasantness, dangers, and evil of the outside world, though its wealth, just like England’s, is built on slave labour.


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