I have recently released the third book in my Miss Mary Investigates series. These books feature Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice as the sleuth, and each mystery takes place in a different novel by Jane Austen. This newest book, Death of a Dandy, takes place within the world of Mansfield Park, right around the time when Sir Thomas returns from Antigua and interrupts the production of the play they are preparing.
It is almost impossible to consider Mansfield Park without at least acknowledging the elephant in the room–the dark shadow of slavery. And therefore, it was something I felt I had to address in the context of my mystery.
Jane Austen never says anything specific about the Bertrams and their business in Antigua; however, it seems more than likely that their holdings include sugar plantations, which in turn implies a huge workforce of enslaved people. Furthermore, Austen never voices her opinions on slavery in so many words, but she alludes to it in some of her works. In Emma, Jane Fairfax talks with horror about the institution in a conversation with Mrs. Elton.
“…There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”
“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.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “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.”
Furthermore, Jane Austen was known to admire the writings of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and later in life, her brother, the Rev. Henry Thomas Austen, attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, which drew some 500 delegates. Austen also included a mixed-race heiress in her unfinished novel Sanditon, which suggests she had a great awareness of racial issues and was sympathetic to the abolitionist movement.
There had been voices crying out against the injustice of enslavement for decades in the British Empire. In 1772, Lord Mansfield of the Court of the King’s Bench decreed the capture of an escaped slave unlawful, stating that no legislation existed to establish slavery in England, calling the institution “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it.”
The judgement was generally taken at the time to say that slavery did not exist under English common law and was thus prohibited in England. One must wonder whether Jane Austen had Lord Mansfield in mind when she wrote her novel Mansfield Park.
Laws that began to chip away at the institution of slavery began to appear throughout the Empire. The Act Against Slavery, passed in Upper Canada in 1793, was the first law limiting slavery within the British Empire, and in 1798, Chief Justice James Monk in Montreal ruled that there was no basis for slavery or indentured servitude within the law of Lower Canada.
In 1783 a group of Quakers in England founded an abolitionist organisation, whose petition was presented to Parliament by Sir Cecil Wray, and the Bishop of Chester called on the Church of England to end its involvement in the slave trade and to work, instead, to better the conditions of enslaved people in the Caribbean. Africans and escaped slaves also played a huge role in the abolition movement, demonstrating that they were intelligent and sophisticated people advocating for their liberty. Two such men were Ignatius Sancho (c1729–1780) and Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 –1797). I don’t have space to write about them here, but they are worth reading about.
Other efforts to turn public opinion towards the abolition of slavery included the famous Wedgwood Medallion of 1787, which became a sort of badge of the movement, and public talks throughout England by white abolitionists and Black men who had escaped from slavery. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed in 1787, and its cause was led through a parliamentary campaign by William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Through his efforts and those of his allies, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, and the Slave Trade Felony Act of 1811 made involvement in the enterprise a felony. While the slave trade was now illegal, it was still permissible for men to own slaves in the colonies. The campaigns continued, and in 1833, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. William Wilberforce was in poor health at the time he but lived long enough to see the act passed.
Here is an excerpt from Death of a Dandy: A Mansfield Park Mystery.
The two slowed their horses to a trot as they crossed the final fields to the stables. At this gentler pace, Alexander was able to converse with his companion. “Am I impertinent to ask where you are from? You do not sound like you are native to these parts.”
The Black man chortled. “Neither, my friend, do you!”
Alexander threw his head back in an answering roar of laughter. “Very true. I was born and raised in a small village near Glasgow. My father was the local doctor.” He waited for John to respond, which he did in short time.
“I don’t remember much of my family. I was born on the island of Antigua. My parents were slaves. Perhaps they still are; I have had no news of them.” There was no bitterness in his voice, but there was a tinge of sadness. “The late Sir Thomas—the present master’s father, that is—was visiting his plantation there and decided I would be a fitting gift for his wife. I was seven years of age, small and by all accounts bright and of suitably pleasant features, and upon his return to England he ordered that I be prepared to accompany him, like a piece of furniture or a piece of art. If my parents objected, their voices were not heard. I served as Lady Bertram’s personal attendant for a time, bringing trays of tea from the kitchens and entertaining her friends almost as an exotic pet. Eventually I grew too tall to be considered fashionable, and was given a place in the stables.”
Alexander grimaced. “I was curious. I did not want to ask. And now?” He both needed and dreaded the answer. No matter John’s legal standing at present, the fact of his past and his arrival in England was deeply troubling. Alexander was uncomfortable being deferred to by servants. For him, the notion that one man might claim ownership over another and might take a child away from his parents as a toy was nothing short of abhorrent. How could one man hold such sovereignty over another’s entire being, depriving him of the fundamental value of humanity, of control over his own body? Being an owner of men must surely destroy a soul.
He stifled a bitter laugh. Mary was concerned to the point of distress about the state of Alexander’s immortal soul, but she happily attended church with a family that lived off the unwilling sweat and pain of others, and seemingly without a thought.
Heedless of this series of thoughts, John answered Alexander’s question. “When I arrived on English soil, I became free, as is the law here. This I learned later, when I began to ask questions. But I was a child with no family or friends and was equally dependent upon the Bertrams as if I were their slave. I could set out and try to make my way, but I have a home and a position here. It is all I have known, so far as I can recall. I ought to be most grateful. I can read and write, and I am paid according to my position, just like any other groom. I am far better off here than I would have been had I remained with my kind in the West Indies. And yet…”
His voice trailed off. He did not need to finish the thought. He was a man without a people, torn from his homeland and his family at the whim of others. No matter his present circumstances, the cruelty of the situation must never be far from his mind. They were never far from Alexander’s. He suddenly felt a deep kinship with this dark and intelligent man, and wished he might one day work with him again.
You can find Death of a Dandy: A Mansfield Park Mystery in eBook and paperback at your favourite on-line bookseller.