Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Emma, Slavery, and Cultures of Captivity

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Emma, Slavery, and Cultures of Captivity

Article excerpt

In July 1813, Jane Austen wrote her brother Francis inquiring whether lie "happened to see Mr Blackall's marriage in the Papers last Janry. We did," she continues. "He was married at Clifton to a Miss Lewis, whose Father had been late of Antigua. I should very much like to know what sort of a Woman she is" (3-6 July 1813). Austen's speculations about the nature of Miss Lewis stem in part from her previous acquaintance with the Reverend Samuel Blackall (sometimes mentioned as a potential suitor following his 1798 visit to Steventon). Yet the specific note of Miss Lewis's West Indian connections (father "late of Antigua") and her wedding near Bristol (details that anticipate Mrs. Elton) reveal something more. That comment, like other passages in the letters and in Emma, represents what might be considered a "culture of captivity" in which Austen lived and wrote. Historian Linda Colley uses the term "culture of captivity" to characterize the period when widespread patriotic pride in British colonial success, albeit one built upon the captivity of others, existed alongside a persistent anxiety about individual subjects' risk for captivity at the hands of others (for example, as a Barbary captive). Yet, that cultural anxiety isn't directed toward only global possibilities for British captivity. It also marks an awareness of the many authorized (often institutionalized) forms of what can be considered domestic captivity that shaped Regency culture. The domestic configurations of captivity that appear in Austen's novels and letters always co-exist with a knowledge of more removed forms of captivity that result, in part, from Britain's global reach and its involvement in the slave trade.

Published less than a decade after the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, Emma appears at a time when the trade of enslaved persons was newly illegal. The abolition of the slave trade, however, did nothing to dismantle the existing extensive financial investments in enslaved labor (or, of course, to emancipate the enslaved). Numerous individuals with whom Austen associated--from family members to acquaintances--had some measure of financial interest in slavery in the British Atlantic, as we've known for some time. New scholarship on British slave ownership demonstrates that financial involvement in the slave-based economy in the British Atlantic--though often invisible--extended to a much wider, more diverse range of the population than ever previously recognized. The careful analysis of the records of the Slave Compensation Commission--which paid out more than 20 million [pounds sterling] compensating individuals who claimed a financial loss with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833--provides the opportunity to "to identify every owner in Britain holding 'slave property' in the colonies at the time the slave system ended" (Draper 18). The results explode the conception of British slave ownership as limited to a small number of owners of very large estates (the Sir Thomas Bertram model). Rather, slave ownership cut across class, gender, age, and geographic lines, creating "continuities ... in the mainstream of British life" (Hall 2). Notably, at the time of abolition, forty percent of those with financial interests in slavery were women. Individuals who owned slaves, in fact, ranged from members of the gentry and aristocracy to those of the middling classes, such as rectors and widows.

In addition to representing a wide-spread economic investment, the slave economy also represented a considerable psychological investment in terms of the cultural imagination. As historian Emma Rothschild observes, "the multiplier effects of empire" existed, "in which individuals at home were connected by information and expectations to events" in the colonies (2). For Austen, such information and expectations were immediate and personal. With two naval brothers serving in the British Atlantic and a host of connections who lived or had lived in the West Indies, Austen, as her letters reveal, could imagine the world of empire with great specificity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.