Austen and Antigua – Slavery in Her Time

Much has been made of Austen’s directly addressing the slave trade in her famous novel Mansfield Park, but a lot of the scholarship is contradictory and some of it just downright flawed.  This brief passage in the book has created quite a stir among literary critics, Janeites, students, and even the casual reader.  While there are no clear answers, scholars have examined nearly every aspect surrounding this very brief passage to come up with some possible explanations for its placement in the novel.  The mention of what would have been the recently abolished slave trade comes during an exchange between Edmund and Fanny:

“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.”

“I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence!” – Mansfield Park

The only direct reference to the practice of slavery or the slave trade in the entire book is Fanny’s recollection of a half-hearted attempt at conversation with her uncle who had just returned from Antigua on business of his plantation.   However, its importance to the plot and character development cannot be ignored.

The Slave Trade during the Early 1800s

British ships were involved in two rather reprehensible activities during the early 1800s.  One was the transportation of prisoners to Great Britain’s colonies (New South Wales particularly).  The other was the shipment of enslaved African people from the eastern seaboard of Africa to the American South and the islands of the West Indies, including the plantations of Antigua as referenced in Mansfield Park.

When the slave trade was at its peak, approximately 74,000 slaves were being transported from Africa to America, and over half (approximately 38,000 by way of British ships).  The slave trade was a very profitable endeavor for Britain, and it remained so until people were no longer able to ignore or deny the horrific results of this practice.  Ships would sail from England bound for the eastern coast of Africa loaded with manufactured goods (often trinkets and baubles).  The slave traders would barter these worthless items for men, women, and children who had been bought or often kidnapped to be sold to the British slave traders (Lane).

The Slave Trade Triangle

These slave ships (often British ships like the Brookes which became famous when prints of her interior were published in 1788) would then begin the second part of the journey, the horrific transatlantic passage to America and the West Indies, where their human cargo would be sold as slaves. The conditions the slaves faced in the long journey were dreadful.  Slaves were packed into cargo areas, where there was no light, no fresh air, little food and water, and no restroom facilities. The atmosphere was absolutely inhumane. We have an account by a Reverend Robert Walsh entitled “Aboard a Slave Ship” that chronicles just how awful this voyage was for these people.

Diagram of The Brookes Slave Ship

Once the human cargo was offloaded and turned into profit, the ships would then be loaded with raw materials like sugar, something for which Britain had developed an increasing taste since its introduction to Europe in the 1490s.  Once the raw materials were offloaded, the triangular journey was started again. This practice continued until people’s consciences demanded an end to the barbaric and deplorable economic practice of slave trade (Lane).

What was the 1807 Abolition?

The emblem for the Abolitionist movement

The abolitionist movement had been gaining ground in Britain for twenty years or so before any meaningful legislation was passed.  The slave trade was an economic staple for cities like Bristol and Liverpool, and the social and political aristocracy believed that ending the slave trade would mean economic disaster for the cities dependent on its commerce and the nation at large (Stromski).  However, after extensive campaigning and exhaustive petitioning by activists like William Wilberforce, on March 25, 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act entered England’s statute books.  This act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies.  If a ship were stopped by the British navy and found to be participating in the removal or transport of slaves, several penalties would be implemented. Here are a few:

  • A penalty was imposed for trading in or purchasing slaves of 100 pounds per slave. The fee was applicable to the owners of the vessel AND those they employed (like the ship’s captain and crew).
  • The vessels carrying on the slave trade would be forfeited to the crown.
  • The slaves themselves were forfeited to the custody of Britain.
  • Any company that insured transactions concerning the slave trade would be penalized 100 pounds and three times the amount of the premium.
  • Officers and sailors would receive bounty or prize money for seizures. (Wilberforce Central)

This law did not end slavery as a practice, but it did abolish the slave trade in the British colonies.  America followed suit with its own measure to end the slave trade on the mainland and colonies, The Act of 1807.  The ultimate goal of both America and Britain’s acts was the abolishment of slavery all together, but it soon became apparent that this was not likely to completely end slavery.  As a result of the Act’s failure to abolish the institution of slavery, the Anti-Slavery Society was established in1823 to implement a gradual abolishment of slavery across the empire.  As a result of the society’s efforts, the West Indian planters made several concessions and promised to implement improvements to conditions and rights of enslaved people in an “amelioration programme.”  When it became clear that the planters were not following through with their promises, the abolitionists hardened their stance, and demanded total and immediate abolition of slavery.  It was not until ten years later that Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which finally ended the practice of slavery completely in the British colonies (Stromski) .

West Indies: Slavery, 1833

What did the Austens have to do with slavery?

By the end of the eighteenth century, the sugar plantations of the West Indies (like Sir Thomas’s plantation in Antigua) were pumping four million pounds into Britain as compared with only one million pounds from Britain’s interests in the rest of the world (The Abolition Project).  The West Indies provided a huge chunk of Britain’s wealth; so much so that even people without direct connections to these colonies often found themselves involved in the operations of the sugar plantations. As a matter of fact, few English families of this time were completely free of some connection to slavery, direct or indirect (Tomalin).

From Ten Views in Antigua, W. Clark, 1823

There are several connections between the Austens and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. Jane Austen had cousins (her father’s nephews) who settled in the West Indies, her mother’s brother married an heiress to an estate in Barbados, and Jane’s younger brother Charles married the daughter of the former attorney general of Bermuda (Choudhury and Rosenthal 236-237).  However, the Austens’ closest link to slavery comes in 1760 when Reverend George Austen, Jane’s father, became a trustee of an Antigua plantation, owned by his Oxford contemporary (possibly a student of Rev. Austen) James Langford Nibbs, who would later become godfather to James Austen, Jane’s brother (Tomalin).  This connection would ultimately result in Jane Austen having intimate knowledge of the social and economic realities of the Caribbean’s plantation societies.  Her father’s relationship with the planter would have almost certainly afforded the perceptive Austen knowledge of the changing fortunes of Nibb’s sugar estate holdings in Antigua, providing fodder the Antigua element in Mansfield Park (Davis).


Another connection the Austen family had with slavery comes through her brother Sir Francis Austen, who in the course of his naval career intercepted a Portuguese slaver in Caribbean waters.  As commander, one of his responsibilities was the policing and enforcing the 1807 Abolition Act; however, he was only sanctioned to stop English vessels. His letters report his disgust and revulsion not only for the slave trade itself, but also the entire slave system.  Given Austen’s intimate relationship with her sailor brothers, Francis and Charles, it is probable that she would have shared Francis’s intense antipathy for slavery (Davis).

There is also compelling evidence in Jane Austen’s correspondence that she was drawn to abolitionist literature.  In one of her famous letters to Cassandra, she talks of her “love” for the writing of a prominent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Davis).  It may also be worth noting that one of the favorite poets of George and Jane Austen was William Cowper, a fervent abolitionist. His poems like “The Negro’s Complaint” would likely have been read aloud en famille (Tomalin).

Jane Austen’s personal feelings on slavery as evidenced in her writing, particularly Mansfield Park

It is certain that Austen and her family would have shared the abolitionists’ distaste for the slave trade and slavery itself, despite the possibility of Rev. Austen having to manage an Antigua plantation upon Nibbs’ death.  Evidence of Jane Austen’s distaste for slavery, and really any form of oppression, is clear in her writings, particularly in the “Chawton Novels”:  Mansfield Park (1811-1813), Emma (1814-1815), and Persuasion (1815-1816). These three novels were written in the decade after the 1807 Abolition Act and reflect the abolitionist climate in which they were written (Warraq).

Mansfield Park takes its slavery context from the time period in which is it set.  The novel is set in the early 1800s, when the abolitionist movement was really gaining some steam.  While slavery doesn’t take a central role in Mansfield Park, much of the action occurs due to the fact that Sir Thomas Bertram spends two years in Antigua on urgent business.  This urgent business is vague in its nature, but Austen gives readers some information with statements about the “poor returns” from the Antiguan property and that “a large part of his income was unsettled.” Readers are left to sort out for themselves the causes and solutions of these financial problems. Standard economy histories note a slump in sugar prices in the West Indies, but Austen fails to provide a specific cause for Bertram’s Antigua plantation’s financial struggles.  The causes of the declining profits and “unsettled” income could be related to a diminished labor force (due to the Abolition Act of 1807), which would have put his plantation in direct competition with foreign sugar-producing colonies that continued to practice the slave trade.

The solution offers just as much room for reader speculation as the causes.  There are seemingly two possible ways that Bertram turned the fortunes of the plantation around.  One might be that he formed a plan for replenishing his labor supply through the then illegal slave trade.  This is certainly the most cynical and malign reading.  The other possibility is that he would have improved his existing labor supply by implementing more humane treatment of his slaves.  As malign as the other solution is, this one is equally benign.  The actuality would likely lie somewhere in between (Davis).  Whether or not the reader sees the solution as malign or benign, the silence that greets Fanny Price’s inquiry on the slave trade is evidence of the family’s unwillingness to address the island plantation that likely supplies much of their income.  Her exchange with Edmund recounts her shy questioning:

“Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

“I Did – and was in hopes the question would be followed 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!”

The family’s silence can be interpreted many different ways.  One is that the family is completely uninterested in the plantation that furnishes their comfortable lifestyle.  They sit staring at her because no one but Sir Thomas knows anything about the Antigua operations (including Tom who spent a year there with his father before being sent home early – the cause of which is another element of speculation).  Another explanation might be that the family (particularly Sir Thomas) is embarrassed at the trade’s role that certainly plays a part in the maintenance of his income.  Economic studies of Antigua plantations of the time (particularly ones the size of Nibbs, which was presumably the model for Bertram’s) indicate that the plantation would have produced an income of several thousand pounds a year – a pretty substantial amount.  Since Bertram’s country estate would likely have survived on his Antiguan income based on human traffic and labor, it is unlikely that he would have been comfortable talking about the consequences of banning that traffic in front of his entire family (Davis).

From: Ten Views of Antigua, W. Clark 1823

The family’s silence (regardless of the reason) serves as a subtext for Austen’s progressive ideas on the humanitarian issue of slavery.  The silence, whether the product of disinterest or embarrassment, serves as an indictment of Bertram and his family for their willingness to live a comfortable lifestyle regardless of the source of that income.  While Bertram doesn’t dash back to Antigua and make a formal declaration to free the slaves, the man at the end of the novel has learned that peace of mind cannot be found in the attainment of money.  The events that began while Bertram was away culminate in disastrous results, and we are left with the lesson that there must be more to life than mercenary pursuits.

There is another connection between Mansfield Park and slavery – the novel’s title itself. The title may be connected to the famous Somerset (Sommersett) Case where Lord Mansfield presided over the case of James Somerset, a slave who escaped from his owner while on English soil.  The slave was recaptured and was to be sent to Jamaica to be sold to a plantation there.  A writ of habeas corpus was produced, and Lord Mansfield ordered the case be heard.  His ultimate ruling sent a shock wave through England when his decision declared that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England against his will (Wikipedia). The title Mansfield Park could be arguably related to the judge whose famous verdict stated, “The state of slavery… is so odious… whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore, the black must be discharged” (White). The irony of such a title would no doubt have appealed to Austen.  Bertram’s country estate was supported by a slave driven economy.  By naming his estate Mansfield Park, Austen was delivering a quiet jab at slavery, an institution against which its namesake struck a blow thirty years earlier.

William Murray (1705-1793) 1st Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice

Austen continues her quiet crusade in Emma when she takes the opportunity to deliver another jab at slavery and the trade of “human flesh” while making a statement about the miserable treatment that governesses often received.  Jane Fairfax compares the agencies that supplied governesses to those who dealt in the sale of “human flesh.”  Mrs. Elton is quick to respond by saying, “If you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend of abolition.”  Jane Fairfax clarifies her meaning when she responds, “The guilt of those who carry it [the slave trade] on” would differ widely, “but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it [the difference] lies.” While Austen’s focus is on the misery of governessing, not slavery, it is clear that she takes for granted that her readers would agree that the slave trade is a guilty profession and that institution of slavery itself is a source of misery for its victims (Tomalin).

Unlike Mansfield Park and Emma, Persuasion does not mention slavery or its abolition in specific terms; however, it does center around a celebration of the Royal Navy, an institution Austen would have certainly supported due to her brothers’ naval careers. Without the enforcement of the Act of 1807 provided by the Royal Navy, the stoppage of the slave trade would have been impossible.  The Navy implemented the enforcement of the law; therefore, a reasonable argument can be made that a celebration of the enforcing body can be tantamount to a celebration of the law being enforced (White).

At the end of the day, Jane Austen, like Fanny Price, seems to revel in standing up for the underdog.  Fanny seems to sum up Austen’s agenda in her novels when she says, “To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed! Nothing could be more grateful to her…”  Unfortunately, Jane Austen’s early death in 1817 meant that she did not live to see the Abolition Act of 1833 and the results of her “her undermining the status quo of chattel slavery” and “celebrating the abolition of the British slave trade” (White). However, I am certain that she would have been pleased with the results of her quiet subversive efforts to be that “friend of the poor and the oppressed.”

Adams, Carol and Douglas Buchanan & Kelly Gesch. The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen. New York: Continuum. 2008. Print.  

Davis, Gregson.  “Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: the Antigua Connection.”  Antigua and Barbado County Conference Reprints. The University of the West Indies. 21 April 2004. Web. 17 January 2014.

Hannon, Patrice. 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Jane Austen Avon, MA: Adams Media. 2007. Print.

Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author. Holbroook, MA: Adams Media. 1996. Print.

Stromski, Tom.  “Romanticized Slavery, Enslaved Romanticism.” Romantic Politics.  The University of Tennessee. 2012. Web 17 January 2014.

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997. Print.

Warraq, Ibn. “Jane Austen and Slavery.” New English Review. World Encounter Institute. July 2007. Web. 17 January 2014.

White, Gabrielle.  Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: ‘A Fling at the Slave Trade.’ New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Web.

Wikipedia contributors. “Somersett’s Case.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

16 responses to “Austen and Antigua – Slavery in Her Time

  1. Bluesongo

    Hoorah! At last someone has noticed that it is the silence that matters…In the context of a female novelist thought of as producing parlour comedies at the time, getting involved in heavy political debate was probably not a good idea, apart from not being her style. However, you wouldn’t have to know about her brother intercepting and freeing slave ships and her support of abolition to guess that she was aware of what was going on at the time (1807 Act) and that it was major issue. I think she deliberately left it like that to provoke debate just as the fairness of fees entailed in male were left to debate by P&P.

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  3. Karen Lewis

    I will always have respect for Jane Austen! I recently learned of the Zong Massacre Case, 1781, which Dido Elizabeth Belle was influential in the court ruling against slavery in England.

  4. The Western seaboard of Africa is on the other side of the continent from the Americas… Slaves were transported from the eastern side of the African continent to the western side of the Americas.

  5. I see that you corrected your own mistake.

  6. Thanks for the feedback. After additional research, I will go back and correct the error. My original source, mistakenly credited the letter to the wrong Cassandra. Thanks for the careful reading.

  7. Allo

    What has always puzzled me is the relationship to the rest of the book, not the comment as a stand alone! Sir Thomas returns from his slave plantation (where he may indeed have improved his profits by increased severity, rather than kindness or illegal trading) and is morally (mortally) offended by….the performance of a play (which now reads very innocently indeed. And the referencing of slavery seems to confirm that Austen is conscious of this irony. But the whole book is puzzling. If Fanny is the heroine, why is she such a prig, while Mary Crawford is so engaging? And the ‘rears and vices’ sodomy joke, thrown in so casually? I do not make it out at all……


    Having just come back from the JASNA AGM in Kansas City, I was reminded by one of the speakers,of the other possible reference in Persuasion to slavery – that is, Mrs Smith’s husbands “property” in the West Indies. Fascinating. Great article.

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