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The source of Mrs Elton’s wealth, and that of her brother-in-law Mr Suckling, appears to be closely tied up with slavery.
Bristol, where they come from, was second only to Liverpool as a slaving port and dealt primarily in slave-produced commodities such as sugar.
Jane Austen gives a sarcastic hint about the trade of Mrs Elton’s father: ‘Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called.’
In 1562, John Hawkins became the first major English slave trader.
Jane’s remark about “the sale—not quite of human flesh—but—”, immediately brings the name of Mr Suckling to Mrs Elton’s lips and she hastily defends him from a nonexistent charge.
In addition to these well-known points, here are some more:
Pity For Poor Africans (1788) by William Cowper
I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!
[A modern-day analogy might be with battery hens. Unless you approve of chickens being crammed for life into wire cages so small they can barely move, with almost every natural instinct frustrated, then you buy free range eggs or find egg replacements. Opponents of slavery, too, needed to boycott its products.]
Mrs Elton famously champions Maple Grove, which is ironic because to opponents of slavery, maple groves were renowned for producing ‘sugar not made by slaves’! Indeed, the abolitionist friends of Thomas Jefferson (U.S. president, 1801-1809, who championed the growing of maple groves, banned the importation of slaves, called slavery an ‘abomination’ and owned over 600 slaves himself), hoped that large-scale production of maple sugar would hasten the end of the slave trade. An 1803 farmer’s almanac exhorted: ‘Prepare for making maple sugar, which is more pleasant . . . than that ground by the hand of slavery, and boiled down by the heat of misery’. And again in 1805: ‘Make your own [maple] sugar, and send not to the Indies for it. Feast not on the toil, pain and misery of the wretched’. [Slavery-free sugar from India was the most common substitute in England, while hundreds of thousands of people, according to Thomas Clarkson, stopped eating sugar altogether.]
Coffee was produced with slave labour, unlike tea, so kindhearted Miss Bates says “No coffee, I thank you, for me—never take coffee.—A little tea if you please”.
Thomas Jefferson said that “a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man. . . . It is not [the slaves’] labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us”, while James Hammond’s plantation rules emphasised the importance of sucklers: ‘The period of suckling is twelve months . . . The amount of work done by a suckler is about three fifths of that done by a full hand . . . Sucklers, old, infirm and pregnant receive the same allowances as full-work hands.’
In the West Indies during the 1700’s, however, it was the general opinion of slave-owners that “suckling children should die for they lost a great deal of the mother’s work during the infancy of the child”, or put another way, that ‘females are above three parts of their time taken up in breeding and suckling a tedious and precarious offspring, from which no profit can be expected for many years to come’. This buy-not-breed attitude gradually changed, however, and after Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the continuation of slavery became entirely dependent on suckling.
Mrs Elton: “If you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.” A friend to the end of slave trading, but not—the implication is—to the rearing of slaves on his plantation.  ‘Mason labeled the slave trade as “diabolical,” “disgraceful,” “infamous,” and “detestable” immediately prior to arguing that slave owners’ rights be strengthened. Obviously, opposing the slave trade was not equivalent to opposing slavery.’
‘Proving that bought Slaves, who keep not up their Numbers by the Births, do not nearly refund their Purchase-Money, and that the Planter’s true Resource is to rear his Slaves . . .’ by William Dickson, Letters to Thomas Clarkson [of whom Austen was a big fan] (London, 1814). Mitigation of Slavery. Since this book was published the same year that Jane Austen wrote Emma, Mr Dixon, a common variant spelling of Dickson, may well be a tribute. Mr Dixon saves Jane (who compares governessing to slavery) from dying at sea, while William Dickson’s campaigning helped to end slave-trading which saved thousands of slaves from a watery grave—on average about 15% died during a sea voyage. (In 1787, Dickson told Clarkson about a voyage where ‘above one fourth perished on the voyage to the West Indies’.) Mrs Elton tries to bully Jane into becoming a governess/slave prematurely, while the Dixons encourage her to stay with them in Ireland.
From Encarta: ‘The first whites to denounce slavery in Europe and the European colonies were members of the Society of Friends—commonly known as Quakers. Unlike the prevailing idea of the time that blacks were inferior to whites, Quakers believed that all people, regardless of race, had a divine spark inside them and were equal in the eyes of God. These beliefs led them in the mid-18th century to take steps against slavery in Great Britain and the British colonies in North America. The first goal of the Quaker abolitionists was to end slave trading among fellow Quakers because the barbarity of the buying and selling of slaves was more obvious than that of the institution of slavery as a whole. . . . In Europe, Great Britain had the strongest abolitionist movement. The major turning point in its development came in 1787 when Evangelical Christians joined Quakers in establishing the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Led by William Wilberforce . . . and Thomas Clarkson . . . the society initiated petition drives, mass propaganda efforts, and lobbying in an attempt to end British involvement in slave trafficking.’ In The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, Thomas Clarkson devotes a whole chapter to the American Quakers and explains their importance to the eventual abolition of the slave trade in Britain. ‘It may be asked, How the Quakers living there should have become forerunners and coadjutors in the great work now under our consideration. I reply, first, That it was an object for many years with these to do away the Slave-trade as it was carried on in their own ports. But this trade was conducted in part, both before and after the independence of America, by our own countrymen. It was, secondly, an object with these to annihilate slavery in America. . . . The American Quakers, lastly, living in a land where both the commerce and slavery existed, were in the way of obtaining a number of important facts relative to both, which made for their annihilation; and communicating many of these facts to those in England, who espoused the same cause, they became fellow-labourers with these in producing the event in question.’ All of this is relevant to Emma because the famous Quaker ship that left England for America in June 1657 was the Woodhouse. [Mr Woodhouse: “I have been long perfectly convinced . . . that the sea is very rarely of use to anybody. I am sure it almost killed me once.”] ‘Her coming was one of the most important landings on North America’s shores. It brought the seven men and four women who planted the Quaker seed in England’s North American colonies.’ Mr Woodhouse is exceedingly nervous and shaky, so, in other words, he’s a quaker. ‘Poor Mr. Woodhouse trembled as he sat.’
‘To members of this religion, the words “Quaker” and “Friend” mean the same thing.’
‘Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse’s family, less as a governess than a friend’ (in light of Jane Fairfax’s comments about governesses, this is particularly striking). She and Emma ‘had been living together as friend and friend’ and Mr Woodhouse (‘beloved for the friendliness of his heart’) ‘liked very much to have his friends come and see him’. ‘Friend’ is an important word in Emma and, along with its various derivations, occurs far more frequently than in Jane Austen’s other novels—309 times in Emma compared with 186 in Pride And Prejudice, for example.
Mr Elton marries Miss Hawkins which gives him a Bristol connection. He’s an unpleasant character so, naturally, Jane Austen links his name (and his wife’s) with slavery. Abraham Elton was Mayor, and in 1722 became MP, for Bristol. He ‘invested in slaving voyages and owned a brass works which supplied brass goods to many slaving ships (brassware made up a large part of the trade goods carried to exchange for slaves in Africa).’ His son Abraham II, who also became Bristol’s Mayor, continued the involvement in the brass industry, while ‘Elton’s brothers Isaac and Jacob invested directly in slave ships’. The biblical Christian names suggest religion and Abraham Elton V, in fact, was a West Bromwich curate before inheriting the title in 1790.
Cotton was a slave crop so it’s no surprise that the box in which Harriet Smith enshrines Mr Elton’s court-plaster ‘was well lined with’ this slave-produced product. This ‘putting by in cotton a piece of [Mr Elton’s] court-plaister’ is the only mention of cotton in the book.
Austen may have been alluding to the black African Ottobah Cuguano through her use of the name Campbell. It was Alexander Campbell who purchased and brought him to England and (probably) freed him. Cuguano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, which was first published in 1787, is still in print and was the first abolitionist publication in English by an African.
In America, one of the resolutions of the July 1774 Fairfax Resolves was a recommendation that no slaves should be imported into the British colonies. The resolutions took the opportunity of “declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop forever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.” Additionally, it ‘resolved that the claim lately assumed and exercised by the British Parliament, of making all such Laws as they think fit, to govern the people of these colonies . . . is totally incompatible with the privileges of a free people, and the natural Rights of Mankind; will render our own Legislatures merely nominal and nugatory, and is calculated to reduce us from a state of freedom and happiness to slavery and misery.’ The Fairfax Resolves, therefore, may have given rise to Jane Fairfax’s name. Jane ‘had long resolved that one-and-twenty should be the period [of starting her slavery as a governess]. With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice’; ‘. . . the sacrifices [Jane] had resolved on’; Jane had “actually resolve[d] to break with him entirely!”.
Both Mr Martin and Mr Knightley go to Kingston—a name that conjures up thoughts of Kingston, Jamaica:
Jamaica had the largest demand for slaves of any British colony in the Americas. It received one-third of retained slave imports shipped by Britain. In some periods, such as in the 1720s and the 1790s, Jamaica’s share of Africans shipped by Britain to the Americas was between 40 and 50 percent. . . . Kingston quickly became the major market not only for slaves intended for the largest British sugar island, but for those resold to most of Spanish America as well.’
In the days before photography, and with artists not drawn to the subject, few pictures of slave ships and slave-trading existed. Nicholas Pocock, later famous for his paintings of naval battles, is therefore notable for having drawn ‘pictures of ships, featuring slave trading on the coast of Africa’, such as his The Southwell Frigate. Below is his painting King’s Weston to Bristol Channel.
Mrs Elton: “We [she and the Sucklings] had had a delightful exploring party from Maple Grove to Kings Weston.” [Note the different punctuation from the previous “We explored to King's-Weston twice last summer”.] On the left of the picture is Kings Weston House, home of the Southwell family from 1679-1822. Edward Southwell (Tory MP for Bristol from 1739-1754) married a woman with wealth inherited from her family’s Caribbean plantations. He ‘actively promoted the city’s involvements in the slave trade’.
Jane Fairfax compares the plight of governesses with slaves.
Jane: “You have everybody dearest to you always at hand, I, probably, never shall again.”
Olaudah Equiano: ‘In this manner [by being sold at market] . . . are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again . . . and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery, with the small comfort of being together’.
“I was soon put down under the decks, and . . . I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.”
“Dear Jane at present . . . really eats nothing . . . I dare not let my mother know how little she eats.”
“Jane [having quarrelled with Frank and facing the prospect of life as a governess) would hardly eat anything . . . everything they could command . . . was distasteful.”
Slaves aboard ship so often refused to eat that a device was invented—a speculum oris—to pry their jaws open so that the sailors could force-feed them.
‘The world is not their’s, nor the world’s law.’
Frank Churchill is by far the most prominent Churchill in the novel, of course, but Mrs Churchill is also a significant offstage figure. Unpleasant people in Emma are linked with slavery and Mrs Churchill “has no more heart than a stone to people in general”. (‘What I hear of their hardships . . . Is almost enough to draw pity from stones’.)
Travel books were hugely popular in Jane Austen’s time and one that had long been widely circulated was Churchill’s A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1732). Amongst the many accounts of travels abroad are a few that deal with slavery, including a slave uprising on the Don Carlos. The tales of slavery are applicable to Mrs Churchill, the rest to Frank—and talk about his (potential) journeys to and from Highbury fill a large amount of the text.
‘He had wanted very much to go abroad—had been very eager indeed to be allowed to travel.’
“As soon as my aunt gets well, I shall go abroad,” said [Frank]. “I shall never be easy till I have seen some of these places . . . I have more than half an expectation of our all going abroad . . . I feel a strong persuasion . . . that I shall soon be abroad. I ought to travel.”
“I shall go abroad for a couple of years.”
Emma also makes bitingly ironic comparisons between spoilt Highbury life and the slave trade—nearly all of it in the chapter beginning ‘It may be possible to do without dancing entirely’.
‘The Middle Passage was the longest, hardest, most dangerous, and also most horrific part of the journey of the slave ships. With extremely tightly packed loads of human cargo that stank and carried both infectious disease and death, the ships would travel east to west across the Atlantic on a miserable voyage lasting at least five weeks, and sometimes as long as three months . . . The terrible Middle Passage has come to represent the ultimate in human misery and suffering.’
At the Crown: ‘Another room of much better size might be secured for the purpose [of supper]; but it was at the other end of the house, and a long awkward passage must be gone through to get at it. This made a difficulty. Mrs. Weston was afraid of draughts for the young people in that passage; and neither Emma nor the gentlemen could tolerate the prospect of being miserably crowded at supper.’ ‘Each slave had both feet shackled to other slaves . . . The narrow space lacked light and fresh air, sitting was impossible, and it was difficult to change positions without hurting one’s neighbor. Things were worse when bad weather was encountered. During these times, slaves stayed below for extended periods. After the storm, seamen often found dead Africans intertwined with others who were still alive.’
But perhaps Emma and friends could just skip the supper? ‘A wretched suggestion. A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women.
Slave ships were appallingly filthy: ‘The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse’. ‘After forty or fifty days at sea, the slave ship would stink of urine, faeces, and vomit.’
At the Crown: “This paper is worse than I expected. Look! in places you see it is dreadfully dirty”.
Much thought went into packing slaves into ships for transportation. Occasionally, slaves were packed loosely (so fewer died), but never too few or there wouldn’t be enough to make the voyage financially worthwhile. Normally, though, slaves were crammed into the hold so tightly that, prior to their going onboard, any observer would wonder in what possible manner they could be disposed of. ‘It was impossible to imagine how they could all have been stowed away.’ As soon as they entered the ship, male Negroes were chained together in couples.
In Emma, it’s apportioning space to dance in that’s the source of concern:
‘pacing out the room they were in to see what it could be made to hold’.
‘portioning out the indispensable division of space to every couple’.
‘five couple are not enough to make it worth while to stand up’.
‘it became a certainty that the five couple would be at least ten, and a very interesting speculation in what possible manner they could be disposed of.
Slave ships were notorious for packing slaves so tightly that they had ‘scarcely room to turn’ in.
At Randalls, Frank Churchill says, “We allowed unnecessary room. Ten couple may stand here very well.” Emma demurred. “It would be a crowd—a sad crowd; and what could be worse than dancing without space to turn in?
The Middle Passage – A Way of Death
At the savage Captain’s beck,
Now like brutes they make us prance
Smack the cat about the Deck
And in scorn they bid us dance.
This late 18th century verse refers to the action now known as ‘dancing the slave’. The enslaved Africans were brought daily above deck and [as they crossed the Passage] were made to ‘dance’ as a way of exercising their muscles after the long periods of cramped positions below deck.’
At Randalls: ‘The doors of the two rooms were just opposite each other. “Might not they use both rooms, and dance across the passage?” [No, because good old] ‘Mr. Woodhouse opposed it earnestly, on the score of health. It made him so very unhappy, indeed, that it could not be persevered in.’
The dance was to take place at the Crown Inn, which is not surprising as the British Crown had long had close ties with slavery, profiting directly from it, licensing it (as with the Royal African Company) and actively promoting it (in 1770, King George commanded that slavery not be abolished in the colonies). Jane Austen must have taken particular wicked delight in dedicating Emma to the Prince Regent.
Life below deck was frequently damp, airless and for many slaves literally uninhabitable as the appalling conditions frequently killed them. Mr Woodhouse’s words about the Crown, therefore, form a perfect analogy: ‘A room at an inn was always damp and dangerous; never properly aired, or fit to be inhabited’.
Olaudah Equiano: ‘The stench of the hold . . . was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there . . . the air soon became unfit for respiration’.
Mr Woodhouse is much concerned with damp in general and slaves had good reason to fear it: ‘Their huts . . . are often open sheds, built in damp places; so that when the poor creatures return tired from the toils of the field, they contract many disorders, from being exposed to the damp air in this uncomfortable state.’
All of these digs at slavery are not just confined to Emma. Perhaps the most detestable character in Mansfield Park, for example, is Mrs Norris, and since Mansfield Park itself is financed through an Antiguan slave plantation, it’s no surprise to find that she shares the surname of ‘Robert Norris [who] was a trader in West Africa from the 1750s to the 1780s. In the late 1780s, Norris represented Liverpool slave traders by appearing before governmental investigative committees. Through his work during the investigation and his defence of the slave trade in his Memoirs, published in 1789, Norris was influential in preventing heavy regulation of the slave trade through the early 1790s.’
Additionally, the selfish and unprincipled Henry and Mary Crawford have a name of chilling significance when applied to the brutal Middle Passage. ‘Derived from the Gaelic “cru” meaning bloody, and “ford” meaning ‘pass or crossing,’ the CRAWFORD surname is believed by most to mean a crossing of blood.’ [Given this association with 'bloody', their Christian names may also hint at bloodthirsty Henry VIII (“I once saw Henry VIII acted”) and his daughter Bloody Mary.]
Jane Austen’s own family had a link with Antiguan slavery—at which she’d hardly have been delirious—and if you look at the map of Antigua showing plantation owners, you'll find four very familiar name (Willoughby, Wickham, Elliot and Lucas)—an adorable bunch of characters. Willoughby and Wickham are the principal “villains” of their respective books, while the obnoxious Sir Walter Elliot is pompous and selfish. Charlotte Lucas isn’t arrogant or nasty, but like the other characters (and slave owners) has a lust for money and comfort that overrides her better feelings.
Four minor names also crop up: Martin, Freeman, Oliver and Parry—all offstage characters who we never get to meet. West Indian sugar plantations were notorious for having absentee proprietors, and consequently, all of these characters are absent from the books!
Note that the names are all grouped in a small arc around Willoughby church in the SE—apart from 'Elliot' who’s sandwiched between two Wickham properties slightly higher up.
Mr Woodhouse’s doctor, Mr Perry, is probably Austen’s most famous offstage character and so, predictably, on the map there’s also a Perrie—which is a common variant spelling of Perry.  
The Theme of Emma
Theme of Emma
Emma Woodhouse