Monday, March 21, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and slavery II

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (The Slave Ship),
J. M. W. Turner, 1840 (detail)

Lord Mansfield, the Somerset case and the Zong massacre

Lord Mansfield, as was mentioned in the first post on Mansfield Park, was the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave and perhaps an inspiration for the character of Fanny Price. From 1756 to 1788 Lord Mansfield was also Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain. As Chief Justice he was called upon to decide two landmark cases relating to slavery and the slave trade.

Portrait of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, in his official robes as Lord Chief Justice,
by John Singleton Copley (1783) (detail)

The Somerset case, 1772:  James Somerset (or Somersett) was a slave purchased in the American colonies and brought to England, where he escaped. During his brief time of freedom, Somerset was baptized in the presence of three witnesses who stood as his godparents. Somerset was recaptured and imprisoned on board a ship that was bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold. But before the ship could sail, Somerset's godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Court of the King's Bench. He was taken off the ship and freed on his own recognizance while arguments in the case were heard.

Lord Mansfield found that the laws governing slavery in the American colonies did not hold in Britain:
The state of Slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being now introduced by courts of Justice upon mere reasoning, or inferences from any principles natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law;…and in a case of so odious a nature as the condition of slaves [the law] must be taken strictly.

...[N]o master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever...therefore the man must be discharged. [1]
Although Mansfield had ruled narrowly that once a slave was free, even if he had escaped, he could not be re-enslaved (a precedent set by Mansfield's court the previous year in the case Rex v. Stapylton [2]) the Somerset decision was widely interpreted as outlawing slavery in Britain. Mansfield, aware of the ambiguity of slavery's status after his decision and concerned for the fate of his adoptive daughter, made sure to write explicitly in his will that "I do confirm to Dido Elizabeth her freedom." [3]

The Zong case: In late November and early December 1781 the captain and crew of the slave ship Zong, with fresh water running low and disease spreading among the 440 slaves on board (it was later claimed that 60 of them had already perished), threw more than 130 slaves overboard to their deaths. The ship's owners then made an insurance claim under the maritime principle of "jettison": in extremity some cargo could be sacrificed in order to save the rest.

In 1783 a jury, hearing the case under Lord Mansfield's supervision, ruled that the insurers should reimburse the ship's owners for the dead slaves. The insurers appealed to the Court of King's Bench, which was also presided over by Lord Mansfield. Mansfield noted that the legal precedent for treating slaves as property was well established:
The matter left to the jury was, whether it [the killing of the slaves] was from necessity: for they [the jury] had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. It is a very shocking case. [4]
"Though it shocks one very much...It is a very shocking case." As in the Somerset case when he referred to the condition of slaves as "odious," Mansfield here seems to be signalling his own feelings about the treatment of slaves. However, as in the Somerset case, he felt constrained to rule on the narrow basis of firmly established legal precedents: in the Zong case, those governing the insurance of slaves as property.

The insurers' lawyers made two main arguments. One was that the only reason the water supplies were depleted on the Zong was as a result of the errors of the captain and crew: they had bypassed opportunities to resupply during the voyage, and had overshot their destination, Jamaica, by 300 miles. If the captain and the crew were at fault, the insurers should not be liable.

Another argument was that no "necessity" existed. Slaves had been thrown overboard on three different days; however, after the second group had been killed, a rainstorm broke, and the ship was able to substantially replenish its water supplies. Even so, that did not stop the killings: the day after the rainstorm, another group of slaves were thrown overboard.

This was information that had not come out at the first trial; as Mansfield said, "it is new to me. I did not know any Thing of it." [5] If no "necessity" existed, the insurers' lawyers argued, then the actions of the crew were mass murder: "a Crime of the Deepest and blackest Dye." [6]

Portrait of an African (possibly Olaudah Equiano or Ignatius Sancho), attributed to Allan Ramsay

The lawyers used the word "murder" repeatedly. Granville Sharp, who was advising the insurers' legal team, had been alerted to the Zong case by the antislavery campaigner and former slave Olaudah Equiano and had earlier advocated, unsuccessfully, for murder charges to be brought against the ship's officers and crew. Sharp was clearly working with the insurers' lawyers to try to introduce these charges into the appeal proceedings. Solicitor General John Lee, who was defending the appeal case for the owners, attempted to dismiss this argument:
What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner...The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard. [7]
However, Mansfield and the two other judges on the Court of King's Bench did not accept Lee's arguments. While they did not void the ability of slave-ship owners to insure human beings as property, they overturned the jury's decision in favor of the ship owners and ruled that a new trial was called for. But no retrial was held, apparently; the owners may simply have dropped their claim in order to avoid the negative attention garnered by the case.

Lord Mansfield, Jane Austen and the anti-slavery movement

Although the conservative Mansfield was himself not an abolitionist, these two cases made his name a watchword among the British anti-slavery movement. One member of that movement, the poet William Cowper, wrote in The Timepiece, Book II of The Task (1785), what seems a clear reference to Mansfield's decision in the Somerset case:
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall. [8]
Cowper was Jane Austen's favorite poet, according to her brother Henry. [9] There are allusions to Cowper in several of Austen's novels; in Mansfield Park Fanny Price says to Edmund Bertram when she hears of Mr. Rushworth's plans to cut down an avenue of trees on his estate,
"Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper?
'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" [10]
The quote is from The Sofa, Book I of The Task. Clearly Fanny is in sympathy with Cowper's opposition to all arbitrary and unjust exercise of power.

Another of Austen's favorite authors was abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, whose History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade was published in 1808, the year after Parliament passed "An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade" in the British Empire. [11] This act did not abolish slavery itself, however. "An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies" was not passed until 1833 and did not take full effect until 1840; even then, exceptions were made for India, Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena off the west coast of Africa. So at the time of Mansfield Park slavery was still widespread in the British Empire, and particularly in the West Indies.

Why is this significant for a discussion of Mansfield Park? Because Sir Thomas Bertram, owner of the Mansfield Park estate, also owns a plantation in Antigua; Sir Thomas is a slaveowner.

Next time: Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on "the ruin and labour of others."
Last time: Mansfield Park and slavery I: Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

  1. "The Substance of Lord Mansfield's Speech on the cause between Mr. Stuart and Somerset the Black, which was determined on Monday the 21st inst." The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Volume 41, January 1772, p. 268.
  2. James Oldham, English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield, University of North Carolina Press, 2004, p. 312.
  3. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 51.
  4. Quoted in James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 153.
  5. Quoted in The Zong, p. 154.
  6. Quoted in The Zong, p. 145. The insurers' lawyers argued further that, whatever the state of the supplies on the Zong, "as long as any water remained to be divided, these men [Africans] were as much entitled to their share as the captain, or any other man whatever" (The Zong, p. 146).
  7. Quoted in USI: Understanding Slavery Initiative, "The Zong case study."
  8. William Cowper, The Task, Book II: The Timepiece, lines 40-42.
  9. "Her favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse." Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818.
  10. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Volume I Chapter vi; 6.
  11. The publication of the second edition of Clarkson's work in 1839, and its discussion of the Zong case, may have inspired Turner's painting.

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