The Heart of the Matter

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer & slave owner

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer and slave owner.

The recent revelations in our media about the treatment of British subjects that has become known as “the Windrush scandal” has rightly shocked many people. What decent person could fail to be horrified by the degrading and inhuman treatment of fellow citizens who should be approaching their later years as respected members of our society, not facing poverty, fear and deportation?

Something else has intensified my personal feelings of revulsion however. By coincidence, I have been researching and writing an article about the conduct of some slave-owners in the West Indies. Most, if not all, of the “Windrush generation,” are, almost certainly, the descendants of slaves who worked on British-owned plantations in the Caribbean. Having spent the last few weeks reading about the horrors of slavery in the Leeward Islands, I have watched my government treat them, not with the humility and contrition that might be expected, but with hostility and aggression. I never thought I would ever read about a British citizen fearing “the knock on the door in the night.” That fear, until recently, firmly belonged to people living under oppressive, totalitarian regimes.

Anyone who has read about the atrocities of the slave trade will feel that we owe the descendants of slaves a great deal. Citizenship, certainly. Arguably, Britain also owes them compensation in some form. Yet, just before this scandal broke, the Treasury revealed that although compensation had been paid, it was not to the victims of slavery but to its perpetrators. Last February it tweeted: “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

The government department clearly thought this was the cause of celebration, but the tweet was deleted the following day after it was received with some anger. As the historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian: “… the £20 million was paid out to the 46,000 slave owners, to compensate them for the loss of their human property. By one calculation that is the modern equivalent of about £17bn. Is this really something we should regard with collective pride?”

One of the families that received compensation for the loss of their slaves was the one I am researching. The Greene family were an important and respected dynasty in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. Benjamin Greene, the man who founded the famous Greene King brewery there in 1799, produced some distinguished descendants, including his eldest son, Benjamin Buck Greene, who became Governor of the Bank of England, and his great-grandsons, Hugh Carleton and Graham Greene, who were Director-General of the BBC and a highly-acclaimed novelist respectively.

By 1830, the Greenes had acquired several sugar plantations in St Kitts, Montserrat and Antigua, which they either owned or managed, eventually running eighteen estates. They made a great fortune out of sugar and, far from being ashamed of their involvement – the prevailing atmosphere in Britain at that time was in favour of abolition – Benjamin Greene dedicated himself to arguing the case for slavery to continue, claiming that slaves had better lives than the agricultural labourers who worked on his Suffolk estates. He even bought himself a newspaper in which to put his views forward. In contrast to the thousands of words in print debating the subject from the point of view of both slave-owners and abolitionists, the slaves themselves were forced to remain silent. They were rarely given a voice in either the official records or the printed media of the time. To catch a glimpse of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean, we must go back to a few decades before the Greene family became involved, to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):

“When I was in Montserrat I knew a negro man, named Emanuel Sankey, who endeavoured to escape from his miserable bondage by concealing himself on board of a London ship, but fate did not favour the poor oppressed man; for, being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master. This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ancle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and dropped it all over his back. … It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed, on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c, … were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over… I grant indeed, that slaves are sometimes, by half-feeding, half-clothing, over-working and stripes, reduced so low, that they are turned out as unfit for service, and left to perish in the woods, or expire on the dung-hill… It was almost constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations of the chastity of the female slaves… I have even known them gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.”

The official abolition of slavery in St Kitts did not immediately improve the situation for what were supposedly now “free” slaves. For several years, slavery was replaced with an “apprenticeship” system in which slaves over the age of six had to work for forty-six hours a week, scratching out a subsistence living in the time that was left to them. The resulting rebellion, when black labourers refused to work, was ruthlessly suppressed by a regiment of British soldiers shipped in from Barbados. British newspapers reported: “We regret to learn that an insurrection has broken out in St Kitts. The particulars we have not heard; but it appears the deluded wretches, on being fired on, charged en masse with the intention of overwhelming the military. They were, however, received with coolness, and bayonetted on the spot.”

Even in the dying years of slavery, the Greenes continued their ruthless treatment of their black workers. It does not seem to have ever been a source of shame to them. One of Benjamin’s sons, Charles, was reputed to have fathered thirteen children in his brief time managing the family estate in Nicola Town, St Kitts, before he died at the age of nineteen. In 1970, Hugh Carleton Greene wrote an article about “great-uncle Charles” for History Today, in a tone that now seems repellent:

“In the possession of my family is an inventory of slaves on some of Benjamin Greene’s estates prepared in 1819. On one estate alone there were 43 men, 43 women, 37 boys and 35 girls to a total value of nearly £15,000. Against their names are such comments as ‘ruptured’, ‘infirm’, ‘broken leg’, ‘one eye’, ‘wooden leg’, ‘elephantiasis’, ‘leprosy’, ‘subject to fits’, ‘eats dirt’ and ‘pregnant’. The girls about to be born would have been ripe for Charles fifteen years or so later. Whether the exact number of his children was thirteen one may never be able to find out: some there certainly were. … William’s diary makes many references to their riding excursions and to the nervousness of the negro workers when they broke into a gallop. One likes to think of Charles, like King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, dismounting and bestowing his casual favours on girls working in the fields. … Many of his children no doubt sank back into the great anonymous mass of negro labour.”

Benjamin Greene’s descendants were part of a liberal élite but, at best, they were wryly amused by their family’s exploitation of the black people on their Caribbean estates and almost wholly dismissive of them as fellow human beings. Hugh’s brother, the writer Graham Greene, worked for the Anti-slavery Society briefly, perhaps in an attempt to expiate his family’s sins, but it was hardly enough. The Greenes, along with 46,000 other slavers wanted compensation for the loss of their slave “stock.” The list of compensation claims, listed on the UCL Database of Slave Owners, is an example of how Britain has never addressed the crimes that it committed. As a nation, Britain still likes to think of its colonial era as a time of adventure and endeavour, rather than atrocity and oppression. We prefer to talk about abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson than to recall the horrendous exploits of people like the Greenes. Until Britain starts to face up to the crimes of its past, it cannot begin to repair the damage it has done in the world.

In recent years, people have been forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families and detained without due process. As Hugh Muir recently wrote in the Guardian “Behind the scandal were questionable philosophies, assumptions and attitudes, and it is those we need to unearth.”

We can find some of those philosophies, assumptions and attitudes in the history of Britain’s involvement with slavery.

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How to sell your wife

Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.

It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.

In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common.  Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!

The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”

In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”

I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.

Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:

Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered his wife in exchange for an ox provided he would let him choose one out of his drove, the grazier accepted the proposal and the wife readily agreed, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”

Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”

Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbour for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”

Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story:  “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).

A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.

Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802),  Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.

“Gypsy blood” – an eviction of travellers at Blaxhall in Suffolk

George Ewart Evans was born in South Wales in 1909 but moved to Suffolk and wrote several fascinating books about East Anglian folklore, including Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956) and The Horse in the Furrow (1960). In his books about the folklore of the horse and the horseman in Suffolk, he drew heavily on the local knowledge that he obtained by talking to the people of his village, Blaxhall, where folk culture appears to have remained alive right through the twentieth century and beyond. The local pub, the Ship, has long been a centre for traditonal folk song which deservedly received the attention of another scholar’s Ph.D. thesis (published as The Fellowship of Song : Popular Singing Traditions in East Suffolk by Ginette Dunn ca. 1980).

Evans believed that the strange combination of mysticism, folklore and practicality that imbued the role of the Suffolk horseman (think “horse whisperer,” if it helps) came from the gypsies who travelled around East Anglia. In fact, there were several families in Blaxhall who were descended from gypsies who had settled in the area and some local folkloric and musical traditions may have come to the area with the gypsies and thus from other parts of the British Isles and other travelling people.

The first official record of the presence of gypsies in Britain was made in 1505, but oral tradition suggests that they were present in East Anglia following the Black Death of 1348-9. Presumably, they were attracted by the opportunities to work after many villages in Suffolk had been completely depopulated by the plague. Many gypsies travelled around East Anglia working on the land, the Fens being the most favoured area as agricultural labour was more readily available. There are many examples of a generally happy co-existence between the gypsies and local people, for example, descriptions  – probably romanticized – of massive gypsy weddings are common in local literature. The East Anglian Magazine often featured letters and articles of recollections about gypsy life right up until the 1970s. George Borrow and John Heigham Steggall also wrote (perhaps fancifully) about the subject in the nineteenth century.

A gypsy family camping on wasteland in Ipswich, date unknown.

The reality may have been a little harsher. The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, volume I, (1888-9) tells us that “between 1513 and 1523 some “Gypsions” were entertained by the Earl of Surrey at Tendring Hall, in Suffolk (Works of H. Howard, Earl of Surrey, ed. Nott, London, 1815, vol i. Appendix, p.5). On October 7, 1555, the Privy Council Register of Queen Mary records at Greenwich a letter to the Earl of Sussex and Sir John Shelton, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, returning again to them the passports and licences of ‘suche as name themselves Egiptians of wch company they had some in prison requiring them to examyne ye truth of their pretended Licenses, and being eftsons punished according to the Statute to give order forthwith for their transportaticon [sic] out of the Realm.’ ”

The following January, a further letter to Mr. Sulliarde, Sheriffe of Norfolk & Suffolk, instructing him to “proceed” with the 5 or 6 “Egiptians” he had apprehended. They should be sent out of the Realm with charge not to return upon “pain of execution.”

“About 1650 Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676) says, in his Pleas of the  Crown  (1778, i. 671): “I have not known these statutes much put into execution, only about twenty years since at the Assizes at Bury [St. Edmunds, in Suffolk] about thirteen were condemned and executed for this offence, namely for being Gypsies.’ (p. 24, Early Annals of the Gypsies in England by H T Crofton.)

The last known gypsies to be executed (for the “crime” of being gypsies) in Britain were, in fact, put to death in Suffolk in the 1650s.

The travelling families that settled in Blaxhall seemed to be well-integrated into village life by the time that George Ewart Evans made his study of the area. However, there was still a consciousness of differences between those villagers who were “local” and those who had “gypsy blood,” as he described in Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay:  “To say that a man has gipsy blood in him is to put him down as unreliable, And finally to place him beyond the pale of the true village community.”

Even Evans’s use of language seems strikingly hostile to the present day reader, he uses the expression “the accusation of gypsy blood,” for example,  although he was in fact sympathetic. When he was interviewing people in Blaxhall they would recall the gypsy origins of some of the families in the village:  “Oh, his grandfather (or great-grandfather) married a travelling woman. The Picketts and the Taylors and the Becketts were the names you used to meet most among the travellers. I believe it was a Pickett he married. They were nice folk but they had a different line o’ life entirely to us.”

Despite the apparent integration, however, events took a sour turn in around 1900:  “About 50 years ago…  the travellers were turned off their usual pitch on the Common. The reason given for this action was that their horses and donkeys roamed about at night and broke into and spoiled the villagers’ common yards. But they also worried the farmers by poaching, and by surreptitiously letting their horses on to the pastures late at night, retrieving them early in the morning before any of the farm people were about. …

“The Parish Council, on which two or three of the most influential farmer’s served, [my italics] was the chief agent in banishing the travellers. Robert Savage was himself a member of the Parish Council for 52 years and recalled the occasion: ‘All the village didn’t want the travellers to be moved off the Common. And I came in for a few shots at the Ship, mostly from people who were hinting that I was running in with the farmers in having the travellers turned off. But at the next Council meeting when the chairman asked, “Is there any other business?” I got up and said: “Yes, there’s more parish business done at the Ship than there’s done here!” And I told ’em my mind.  Nobody said nawthen to me after that.’

“The eviction was accompanied by a kind of ceremony – a ceremony of ejection – that many of the old villagers remember vividly. The body of men, who emphasized that they had nothing against the travellers – ‘The people wor all right: it wor the horses and donkeys!’ marched from the Ship Inn in a column headed by a trumpet and mouth-organ. This military seeming demonstration, however, met with no resistance; for the travellers had already had word. By the time the column arrived their horses and donkeys were harnessed ready to pull their caravans and carts on to the road. This they did, and the police are waiting on the high road to compel them to move on to another parish.”

Presumably, there are many people in East Anglia who have gypsies or other travelling people amongst their ancestors. Not only that, they have made a largely unacknowledged contribution to the traditions, language and culture of the region.