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Sir Thomas Bertram and the Slave Trade

A great deal has been written about Jane Austen’s reference in Mansfield Park to the slave trade—the capture, sale, and transportation of enslaved Africans to the British West Indies.  The first readers of the novel, published in 1814, would have assumed that Sir Thomas Bertram’s business in Antigua was a sugar plantation worked by enslaved people, as were all West Indian enterprises.  And since Sir Thomas was a member of Parliament, they could have further assumed that he was familiar with the bill to abolish the slave trade.  Parliamentary debates regarding abolition continued for twenty years, culminating in passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which prohibited British ships from transporting slaves from Africa to the West Indies.  In the years before passage of the act, abolition was one of the great public issues of the day, a cause célèbre.

Jane Austen herself was well informed about the Slave Trade Act.  In a letter to her sister, she says that she is “in love with” Clarkson, apparently referring to Thomas Clarkson’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, published in 1808 (24 January 1813).  At that time, she was writing Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas Bertram sits in the House of Commons while abolition is debated.  Sir Thomas is, in fact, her only character who is a member of Parliament.  An examination of Clarkson’s History and the long campaign that it chronicles provides a deeper understanding of Jane Austen’s own knowledge of the issue, the context in which her fictional Sir Thomas lives and works, and the implications of the question Fanny Price poses to her uncle “‘about the slave trade’” (198). 

In shaping Mansfield Park, Austen created a patriarch who is both a West Indian planter and a member of Parliament, thus deliberately placing him in the thick of the great political controversy chronicled by Clarkson.  The slave trade is mentioned only once, but it is a crucial aspect of the subtext informing the novel and bearing on the character of Sir Thomas.  To understand the question Fanny asks her uncle, the reader must know what Sir Thomas knew about the trade and the abolition debate.  This essay provides that context and considers Sir Thomas’s position regarding the slave trade. 

Mansfield Park’s historical context 

For this analysis, it is helpful to understand the timing of events in the story.  According to Cassandra Austen’s note on the composition of her sister’s novels, Austen began Mansfield Park in February 1811 and finished it “soon after June 1813” (Minor Works, plate facing page 242).  In his introduction to the Cambridge edition of Mansfield Park, John Wiltshire discusses the “double time scheme of the novel,” referring to chronologies proposed by R. W. Chapman and Brian Southam.  Wiltshire says that “[t]here is no reason to dispute” Chapman’s correlation of the novel with almanacs for 1806–1809 (xxxi).1  Southam, on the other hand, argues for a later time frame, 1810–1813 (xliii).  Wiltshire believes that these differing analyses are both possible because, during the lengthy period of the novel’s composition, Austen may have begun with one calendar in mind but later made revisions with reference to calendars closer to the time when she was completing the novel (xxxi).  Under Chapman’s scheme, Sir Thomas and his son Tom go to Antigua in 1806, Tom returns about a year later, in 1807, and his father returns in October 1808.  Southam’s chronology has Sir Thomas leaving for Antigua in 1810 and returning two years later, in October 1812 (xliii). 

In Chapman’s scheme, the slave trade ban begins while Sir Thomas is in Antigua; in Southam’s, Sir Thomas’s Antiguan sojourn takes place a few years after the ban has taken effect but overlaps with another significant development.  As Southam explains in his influential essay “The Silence of the Bertrams,” the Slave Trade Act came into force in two stages:  from May 1, 1807, no ship carrying slaves could sail from any port in the British Empire, and from March 1, 1808, no slaves could be landed in the colonies.  But meaningful enforcement of the law by the Royal Navy was limited during the Napoleonic Wars, and, further, violations were penalized only with confiscation and fines, risks that traders were willing to take.  To give the law more weight, in 1811 Parliament passed the Slave Trade Felony Act, which made trading a crime carrying a penalty of up to fourteen years’ transportation (13).  Thus, whether Jane Austen intended the action in Mansfield Park to culminate in 1809 or in 1813, she and her first readers knew that the slave trade had been effectively abolished and that its abolition would have had an impact on Sir Thomas’s business in Antigua. 

In a family gathering shortly after Sir Thomas returns from Antigua, Fanny Price asks her uncle “‘about the slave trade.’”  We learn of her question in a conversation the next day with Edmund, when she says that after she asked the question, “‘there was such a dead silence!’” (198).  Whatever the internal dating of the novel, Fanny had good reason to expect Sir Thomas to be knowledgeable about the slave trade and to have recently observed the effect in Antigua of its abolition. 

British Anti Slavery

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1787)

Austen’s (and possibly Fanny’s) sources for this information included Thomas Clarkson’s History.  Volume 1 of the History records Clarkson’s extensive research and the information he compiled about the trade for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which Clarkson calls the Committee.  He explains why the Committee limited its aim to abolition of the slave trade, rather than abolition of slavery itself, which did not occur until 1833.  At the time the campaign began in earnest, in 1787, abolition of slavery in the empire would have been opposed, vigorously and probably successfully, by slave owners and the public as the uncompensated confiscation of private property.  If the trade were abolished, however, owners (called planters by Clarkson and others) would have no supply of new enslaved workers and would instead need to treat their existing slaves humanely, lighten their work load, and allow them to marry and raise children (1: 384).  Consequently, at that time the term “abolition” referred to abolition of the slave trade. 

The Committee’s policy decision is rightly viewed today as an immoral strategy to employ enslaved men and women to produce enslaved children.  It was of a piece with Britain’s other imperialistic policies and pursuits and the privileged position of private property.  Clarkson’s Committee believed it was the only strategy that could succeed at that time and was the first step in their years-long campaign to abolish slavery in the empire, the goal that Clarkson and others pursued to completion in the decades after the slave trade was abolished. 

Volume 2 of the History provides lengthy accounts of the Parliamentary debates that took place over a period of twenty years as drafts of the abolition bill were introduced, argued, rejected, and finally adopted.  The controversy was widely covered in newspapers of the day, and Jane Austen would no doubt have read reports of the proceedings in the Commons.  This essay focuses on Clarkson’s account because, based on her stated admiration of it, we can infer that it influenced both Austen’s opinion on the question of abolition and her composition of Mansfield Park

Sir Thomas in the House of Commons 

A close examination of Clarkson’s History allows us to read with Jane Austen, and sit alongside Sir Thomas, as abolition debates unfold in the House of Commons.  Clarkson reports that the first Parliamentary discussion of abolition took place in May 1788, when Prime Minister William Pitt and Charles James Fox, normally political enemies, both spoke in support of it.  Because William Wilberforce, chief proponent of abolition in Parliament, was ill and unable to attend, however, a full inquiry was postponed to the next session (1: 503–07). 

A month later Sir William Dolben, a strong supporter of abolition (and, like Sir Thomas, a baronet), introduced a bill to regulate the slave trade for the purpose of alleviating suffering until abolition could be accomplished.  Dolben’s bill would limit the number of Africans permitted to be carried as human cargo on ships in the Middle Passage—that is, the period from the Africans’ entry on a ship until they reached the West Indies, a journey of four to six weeks or longer, depending on wind and weather.  The period often included days or weeks onboard a ship before it left the African coast (1: 527–29). 

Merchants from Liverpool, a primary locus of the slave trade, presented testimony against the bill.  One of their chief witnesses was Robert Norris, former trader and captain of a slave ship, well known to Clarkson and to readers of the History.  Clarkson had described his earlier meeting with Norris in Liverpool and Norris’s willingness to speak frankly about the “inhumanity, injustice, and impolicy of the trade” (1: 381).  Clarkson was shocked when, several months later, Norris appeared in London on behalf of the Liverpool merchants, testifying first in a preliminary Privy Council inquiry and then in hearings on the Dolben bill.  Clarkson says that the testimony of Norris and the others gave an entirely false picture of the comfort and health of the Africans during the Middle Passage, including the representation that “the voyage from Africa to the West Indies ‘was one of the happiest periods of a Negro’s life’” (1: 535–36).2 

When the Liverpool witnesses were cross-examined by supporters of the Dolben bill, members in the Commons learned these disturbing facts, contradicting all that had been said before:  Each man, whatever his size, lay in a space only five feet, six inches in length and sixteen inches in breadth.  The floor was covered with bodies packed according to this allowance, and a platform creating another floor was fitted above for more bodies.  The space between the two surfaces was on average five feet, two inches.  The men were placed in iron cuffs two and two together by their hands and their feet.3  They were allowed one pint of water daily and were fed once or twice a day with yams and beans.  After meals they were made to jump in their irons for exercise and were whipped if they refused.  They were usually kept for fifteen to sixteen hours below deck, but, in case of bad weather, they might not be brought up on deck for two or three days at a time (1: 536–39).  One of the Liverpool witnesses, another captain known to Clarkson, admitted that on his last voyage he had lost a third of his sailors and a third of the Africans, presumably to disease, another twelve men had drowned, and twenty or thirty captives had died before the ship left the coast of Africa (1: 541–42). 

The Dolben bill passed overwhelmingly in the Commons and was then taken up in the House of Lords, where it passed by a much smaller margin (1: 551).  Clarkson reports that one of the most conspicuous among those who opposed the bill in the Lords was the Duke of Chandos (1: 554).  Jane Austen (great-grandniece of the 1st Duke of Chandos) would have known that this was James Brydges, 3rd Duke of Chandos, whose second wife owned a large slave-holding estate in Jamaica.  Chandos and other opponents of the bill thus distinguished themselves as opposing regulations whose only purpose was to alleviate human suffering and whose enactment did not deprive planters of enslaved workers for their West Indian properties. 

The so-called Dolben Act, passed in July 1788, imposed limits on the number of Africans that could be carried in a British ship.  By its terms, it was in effect for one year and was thereafter renewed by Parliament annually, with additional humane regulations included, and was made permanent in 1799.  It was the first regulation of the British slave trade, but it was far from abolition, the goal for which Clarkson’s Committee and William Wilberforce continued to work. 

Slave ship section

Detail of diagram showing the placement of enslaved Africans on the Brookes, included in Clarkson’s History
(Click here to see the complete plan of the ship.)

 Clarkson reports that soon after passage of the Dolben Act, the Committee published its famous diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, showing the number of Africans and their placement below deck as permitted under the act (2: 111).  Over the next several years, the diagram was widely displayed throughout England and is included as a plate in the History (between 1: 2 and 1: 3).  It is a graphic presentation of the inhumane treatment of the trade’s human cargo.  Clarkson says, “No one saw it but he was impressed. . . . It brought forth the tear of sympathy in behalf of the sufferers” (2: 187).  The diagram raised wide-spread public support for abolition and demonstrated that mere regulation of the trade was an inadequate solution.  In the world of Mansfield Park, Austen’s Sir Thomas Bertram and others in his family would have known the diagram. 

Clarkson’s Committee further appealed to the public through pamphlets and books outlining the case against the slave trade and expostulating on its injustice and immorality. By mid-1788, he says, 51,400 pamphlets or books had been distributed, “not at random, but judiciously, and through respectable channels” (1: 571).  Members of both houses of Parliament were among those judiciously targeted (1: 499).  The Committee continued this form of public and Parliamentary lobbying throughout the twenty-year campaign. 

Jane Austen may have been interested in one pamphlet in particular described by Clarkson.  In 1787 the Committee published Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, by John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who had renounced the trade and had for many years been an Anglican minister (1: 463).  In addition to reading in the History about Newton’s role in the campaign, Jane Austen would have known him as co-author with one of her favorite poets, William Cowper, of the Olney Hymns (1797) and as author of the Preface to Poems by William Cowper.  She mentions the Austen family’s edition of Cowper’s poems in letters to Cassandra (25 November 1798, 18–19 December 1798).4  Austen may also have read Newton’s Preface in the first edition of Cowper’s poems, held in her brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park (Sabor 35).5 

John Newton’s pamphlet provides a disturbing picture of the slave trade.  He tells, for example, of a British seaman drowning an African’s crying baby because it disturbed his sleep and of an occasion when a slave ship ran low on drinking water and the captain had more than 100 Africans thrown into the sea to fix their loss on underwriters (18–19).6  Newton alludes to the routine rape of women and girls by British sailors and concludes:  “Surely, if the advocates for the Slave Trade attempt to plead for it, before the Wives and Daughters of our happy land, or before those who have Wives or Daughters of their own, they must lose their cause” (20–21).  Can we imagine Sir Thomas arguing either side of the cause before Lady Bertram and his daughters? 

Clarkson reports in detail the first full hearing in the Commons on the question of abolition.  William Wilberforce, who spoke for three and a half hours, described the way in which slaves were obtained—through kidnapping by traders and wars carried on by rival African princes to capture enemies for sale to traders eager to fill British ships.  Wilberforce reiterated the inhumane treatment of Africans in the Middle Passage and the resulting large number of deaths by disease that occurred onboard and after the arrival of ships in the West Indies (2: 40–52).  And he made a point that would certainly have resonated with Jane Austen, whose brothers were serving in the Royal Navy.  Citing a report by Clarkson containing information that Austen would have read in volume 1 of the History, Wilberforce responded to the argument that abolition of the slave trade would ruin the navy by depriving it of experienced seamen.  Clarkson’s evidence showed that seamen were often recruited in a drunken state and bound by onerous contracts and that on slave ships many were subject to mistreatment by lawless captains and fell ill or died from crowded, unhealthy conditions.  Wilberforce said “it appeared, that, instead of the Slave-trade being a nursery for British seamen, it was their grave.  It appeared that more seamen died in that trade in one year than in the whole remaining trade of the country in two” (2: 59–60). 

Clarkson also reports on arguments against abolition presented by members of Parliament for Liverpool.  They predicted “ruin and misery” if the trade were abolished, saying that “no less than seventy millions were mortgaged upon lands in the West Indies, all of which would be lost” and demanding compensation for the planters.  They also said that as a result of the Dolben Act passed the year before, “many ships were laid up and many seamen out of employ” and that abolition would ruin the shipping business (2: 73).  Whatever his opinion of abolition, Sir Thomas Bertram would presumably have been sympathetic to arguments on behalf of the planters and the demand for compensation.  In fact, Clarkson reports that the debate became heated and sometimes provoked personal responses from members who were planters: 

In the course of the debate much warmth of temper was manifested on both sides.  The expression of Mr. Fox in a former debate, “that the Slave-trade could not be regulated, because there could be no regulation of robbery and murder,” was brought up and construed by planters in the house as a charge of these crimes upon themselves.  (2: 101) 

As Jane Austen developed the character of Sir Thomas, she was aware of the arguments he would have heard and the effect that they may have had on him, intellectually and emotionally. 

To the disappointment of Wilberforce and the Committee, after a month of testimony and debate, the question of abolition was again deferred to the next session.  When it was taken up the following year, Clarkson notes that “peculiar circumstances” were at that time unfavorable to the cause:  the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791), arguing for political revolution when a government fails to safeguard the rights of its people; and the continuing effect of the French revolution, begun two years before.  The two together had produced a growing “dissatisfaction among thousands” of citizens that alarmed “persons of property,” prompting opponents of abolition to accuse the Committee and its supporters in Parliament of having “the purpose of overthrowing the state” (2: 208–09).  At the same time, reports were circulating in England of slave revolts on French West Indian islands and an insurrection on the English island of Dominica.  The Committee’s opponents stoked fears that abolition would embolden slaves, leading to uprisings and the massacre of planters and overseers (2: 210–11). 

It was in this hostile atmosphere that Wilberforce once again introduced the slave trade bill and debate resumed.  Members on both sides of the question reiterated arguments made previously.  Wilberforce also spoke to the rationale underlying the case for abolition:  if the planters no longer had a regular supply of captives from Africa, they would, of necessity, treat their enslaved workers better, allow them to marry, and rely on their increase by the birth of children.  In making this point, Wilberforce described the prevailing mistreatment of enslaved workers—their inadequate diets, excessive workloads, and cruel punishment—resulting in lives of misery and early death (2: 227–30).  An important cause of this mistreatment, he said, was the non-residence of planters.  He cited testimony from witnesses who “had seen the slaves treated in a manner, which their owners would have resented, if they had known of it.”  Hired agents were motivated to produce large crops at small expense, “too little considering how far the slaves might suffer from ill-treatment and excessive labour” (2: 230–31).  Jane Austen must have been interested in this argument as she shaped the story of Sir Thomas Bertram, nonresident planter with a troubled business in Antigua. 

The debate continued for three months, culminating in July 1791 with the first vote on the slave trade bill.  It was defeated, with 163 opposed and 88 in favor (2: 337).  In spite of this loss, Clarkson says that public support for abolition was strong:  “Of the enthusiasm of the nation at this time none can form an opinion but they who witnessed it” (2: 353).  During the next year hundreds of petitions supporting the slave trade bill were presented to Parliament (2: 354).  It was also at this time that many ordinary people showed their support for abolition by leaving off the use of sugar (2: 349). 

When Parliament reconvened, debate on Wilberforce’s bill resumed, with a repetition of arguments on both sides.  Members who were opposed or on the fence about abolition now adopted a new strategy—supporting abolition but pressing for its postponement until 1800.  Clarkson and the Committee believed the motive of some members was to defeat abolition by prolonging debate for years (2: 453).  Sir Edward Knatchbull proposed a compromise—that abolition be approved to take effect four years in the future, on January 1, 1796.7  Though the compromise was approved in the Commons, the Lords postponed consideration until the next session, effectively defeating it (2: 459–60). 

For several successive years Wilberforce renewed the bill for immediate abolition of the slave trade, but without success.  Clarkson’s Committee continued to circulate publications and visit towns throughout the island to bolster public support.  Their message focused on the injustice and immorality of the slave trade and the shame it brought on a Christian nation. Clarkson records that in the nineties “the great cause of the abolition was secretly gaining ground” and that even some of the West Indian planters in Parliament began to “see through the mist of prejudice which had covered them” (2: 485). 

By 1805, after a hiatus of five years, Wilberforce judged the time right to resume the fight in Parliament.  Debate and procedural wrangling continued for two years, but victory was finally achieved.  The Slave Trade Act was passed in both houses, by overwhelming majorities, on March 24, 1807, and signed by King George III the next day (2: 579). 

Under Chapman’s dating scheme, Sir Thomas would have been in Antigua when the final vote was taken, though he would have heard the many years of debate preceding passage of the act.  Under Southam’s scheme, Sir Thomas left England in 1810, returning in 1812, and was in Antigua when the Slave Trade Felony Act was passed, imposing much harsher penalties for violations of the 1807 law and resulting in stricter enforcement, thus allowing Sir Thomas to observe the effect of abolition before returning to England. 

Fanny’s question 

Sir Thomas, with first-hand knowledge of both the Parliamentary debate and the conduct of the slave trade in Antigua, was in a perfect position to answer Fanny’s question “‘about the slave trade.’”  Why, then, was her question met by a “‘a dead silence’” (MP 198)?  A number of critics have addressed this brief, pregnant passage, reaching different conclusions about the significance of Fanny’s question and Sir Thomas’s position on abolition.  This sample of interpretations demonstrates the difficulty of reaching a conclusion regarding Austen’s purposely ambiguous text. 

Judith Terry, citing the 1811 Slave Trade Felony Act and adopting Brian Southam’s dating scheme, says that “Fanny’s question is a much more pointed enquiry than it superficially seems.”  In effect, Fanny is asking, “Is abolition working at last? Have they finally succeeded in stopping the slave trade?” Though Terry cites no text in support of her opinion, she concludes:  “As to Sir Thomas’s reply, I have no doubt that Jane Austen envisaged him as an abolitionist” (98–99). 

In “The Silence of the Bertrams,” Brian Southam takes the position that Sir Thomas would naturally have been a member of the West Indian planters lobby in Parliament—MPs who owned slave-holding plantations—and thus would have voted against the Slave Trade Act.  “Fanny gets no reply to her forbidden question,” Southam argues, “because none is possible from a man who has supported the slave trade as a buyer of slaves—lawfully in times past, or even illegally since 1808—and whose own fortunes have depended on it.”  Southam believes that “Fanny is unmistakably a ‘friend of the abolition’”8 and “the logic of history, biography and the text itself places Austen beside Fanny Price” (14).  In Jane Austen and the Navy, Southam adds: “What Jane Austen communicates though the ‘dead silence’ at Mansfield Park is that, at this time, the autumn of 1812, the ‘slave trade’ was still a topic too close to the bone for a plantation-owning family to discuss freely and openly” (198).  He further suggests that the same taboo may have prevailed within the Austen family. 

Ruth Perry’s analysis is similar to Southam’s, though her judgment of Sir Thomas is more subtly expressed.  Discussing Fanny’s question in the context of passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, Perry suggests that the “dead silence” “indicates others’ lack of interest or opposition to the measure [the abolition act], quite as much as a breach of decorum through which one glimpses the ugly exploitative relations which undergird the social position and material luxury of Mansfield Park.”  Perry goes on to say that Fanny’s question “figures her own continued status and treatment at Mansfield Park. . . . It is prelude to her passive resistance to Henry Crawford’s suit and Sir Thomas’s masterful pressure” (100), referencing Sir Thomas’s position as master of both Mansfield and his Antiguan estates. 

Responding to these readings and others, in “Decolonising Mansfield Park,” John Wiltshire argues that prevailing postcolonial interpretations of Mansfield Park and slavery, based on Fanny’s question, are wrong.  According to Wiltshire, the single reference to the slave trade, coming as it does during a conversation the following day between Fanny and Edmund, was never intended by Austen as an important subject.  He compares Austen’s technique in this case to Rembrandt’s:  controlling the viewer’s attention to his canvas by painting a vivid detail in one place with other parts merely sketched in opaque paint (313).  In Fanny and Edmund’s conversation, Wiltshire argues, Austen means the reader’s focus to be not on the subject of last night’s after-dinner talk but on what Edmund now tells Fanny about herself and Mary Crawford’s opinion of Fanny.  Last night’s event is one of the “recessive planes” employed by Austen “to make the foreground seem the more present” (315). 

My own view is that, when Jane Austen includes a detail in a novel—whether it is Lady Bertram’s pug,9 the choice of Lovers’ Vows, or Fanny’s question about the slave trade—it is intentional and meaningful.  We know that Austen read and admired Clarkson’s History of the twenty-year campaign in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.  We know that her character Sir Thomas Bertram owns an Antiguan plantation worked by enslaved people and that he is a member of Parliament.  In the face of such carefully selected details, it is not possible that Austen considered either Fanny’s question or the slave trade as unimportant.  The abolition debate and its outcome must certainly have been significant and even personal for Sir Thomas and his family. 

Sir Thomas’s position in the debate, however, is difficult to discern.  June Sturrock says that the text of Mansfield Park “communicate[s] nothing at all” about Sir Thomas’s views on the slave trade.  Perhaps, but the text reveals a great deal about his views on other matters, from which his position on the slave trade might be inferred.  His actions and decisions throughout the novel show him to be a conventional member of the landed gentry and, at the same time, a negligent patriarch, from his failure as a parent and mentor to his elder son to his delegation of authority to the untrustworthy Mrs. Norris, his complacent acquiescence in Maria’s unsuitable but economically advantageous marriage, and his attempt to force Fanny to marry a wealthy man against her wishes.  The problems on his Antiguan plantation appear to be the result of his prolonged absence and reliance on an ineffective manager.  Is this a man who would have had the courage and principle to vote with abolitionists in Parliament against his own caste and its economic interests, or is he, as Brian Southam asserts, a typical West Indian planter who bought and sold slaves, depended on the trade for human inventory, and thus opposed abolition? 

This issue continues to be debated because Austen’s rendering of Sir Thomas—one player in the moral drama set in Mansfield Park—does not dictate a single, clear interpretation of his position regarding the slave trade.  It is significant that Austen’s only mention of the slave trade is in the form of an unanswered question.  In both text and subtext, she provides clues that illuminate Sir Thomas’s character and his attitudes, but in the final analysis, she makes the artistic decision to leave the unanswered question hanging in the air.  It is a bold choice, ahead of its time stylistically for the novelist who perfected realism, and it invites the discussion and debate that it has generated. 

Regarding Jane Austen’s personal opinion, I think that, having read Clarkson’s detailed accounts of the criminal capture and sale of Africans, their shockingly inhumane treatment in the Middle Passage, and their lives of misery on West Indian plantations, Austen herself supported abolition of the slave trade.  She is, however, an artist, not a pamphleteer, and her attitude is embodied not in a polemic but in a complex work of art.



1Vladimir Nabokov independently determined that the main action of the novel takes place in 1808–1809 (12, 47). 

2Scholars have suggested that Jane Austen chose the surname Norris for Fanny’s tormenter Aunt Norris because of its association with the former slave captain Robert Norris.  But there is more:  as Ruth Perry points out, based on Clarkson’s History, Austen knew not only of Norris’s participation in the slave trade but of his betrayal of Clarkson and his employment by Liverpool merchants to provide false testimony about the trade in an attempt to defeat both humane regulations and abolition (99). 

3Clarkson includes in the History drawings of leg irons and arm irons employed on slave ships, as well as an instrument of torture called a thumb screw used to punish disruptive slaves and a tool to force open the mouth of a slave who refused to eat (between 1: 274–75 and 1: 276–77).  John Newton’s pamphlet describes the torture of captives with thumb screws and the use of leg and arm irons (Thoughts 14–15, 17). 

4I would like to thank Peter Sabor for this information concerning Newton's Preface:  the Preface was suppressed shortly after the release of the first edition of Cowper’s poems because the publisher feared that Newton’s evangelical sentiments would adversely affect sales.  Cowper later asked that the Preface be reinstated, and the publisher accordingly included it in the fifth and all subsequent editions (Russell 43).  Deirdre Le Faye says that the Austens would have purchased either the sixth or seventh edition (Jane Austen’s Letters 376 n10). 

5John Wiltshire, discussing the location of the fictional Mansfield Park, places it near the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire, just across the border from Northamptonshire, a location he says Austen may have chosen because William Cowper lived there for several years (“Exploring” 84).  Wiltshire does not mention that in Olney Cowper became close friends with John Newton, who published their Olney Hymns in 1797.  Newton, in his Preface to Cowper’s poems, writes with affection of the seven years they were together (vi).  Austen read about Newton’s abolitionist pamphlet in Clarkson’s History and knew of Cowper’s famous antislavery poems “The Task” and “The Negro’s Complaint”; Clarkson reports that the latter was widely distributed by abolitionists in the 1790s as a pamphlet titled “A Subject for Conversation at the Tea-table” and was later set to music (Clarkson 2: 190–91).  Austen thus may have placed Mansfield Park near Olney because of its association not only with Cowper’s poetry but also with Cowper’s and Newton’s abolitionist activities. 

6This is a reference to the murder of Africans on the slave ship Zong in 1781.  The event became notorious in England when the owners’ claim for insurance payment for the lost captives was litigated, and Lord Mansfield ruled against the owners (Krikler).  See also Danielle Christmas’s essay on the Zong in this issue. 

7Edward Knatchbull, baronet and member for Kent, was a cousin of Jane Austen’s friend Mrs. Catherine (née Knatchbull) Knight, her brother Edward’s adoptive mother.  In 1820 Austen’s niece Fanny Knight married Sir Edward’s son and heir, also named Edward (Le Faye 265). 

8Southam slightly misquotes Augusta Elton in Emma, who comes from Bristol, another center of the British slave trade.  When Jane Fairfax alludes to “‘Offices for the sale of—not quite of human flesh,’” Mrs. Elton replies, “‘[I]f you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition’” (300). 

9Stephanie Howard-Smith notes that the breed of pug dogs was associated with Lord Penrhyn, a West Indian slave owner and MP from Liverpool, mentioned in Clarkson’s History as a prominent opponent of abolition (193–94).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  4th ed.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.
  • _____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933–1987.
  • Christmas, Danielle.  “Lord Mansfield and the Slave Ship Zong.”  Persuasions On-Line 41.2 (2021).
  • Clarkson, Thomas.  The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament.  2 vols.  London: Longman, 1808.
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