[Many thanks to Michael O’Neal (Slavery, Smallholding and Tourism) for bringing this item to our attention.] Andrew Anthony (The Guardian) reviews Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery (Canongate Books, 2021) by Alex Renton. “The author of Stiff Upper Lip examines his own family history to expose the extent to which the fortunes of the UK’s wealthiest relied on a dehumanising trade.”
This is an important book and not just because it is a chilling account of slavery and commerce in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s important because it establishes a vital link between then and now, cause and effect, history and its long and damaging legacy.
If Alex Renton’s last book, Stiff Upper Lip, exposed the wealthy’s perverse complacency about abuse in Britain’s boarding schools, Blood Legacy lays bare the ruling class’s most heinous historical crime: the brutal project to reduce human beings to the condition of working farm animals for financial profit.
Just as Renton used his own dubious privilege of a boarding-school education to bring a personal perspective to his previous work, so he draws on his family’s involvement in slavery as a moral touchstone here. One set of his ancestors were from Ayrshire, an area of Scotland whose large landowners disproportionately invested in plantations in the Caribbean (Scots owned more slaves per capita than any other nation in the UK).
The Fergussons of Kilkerran, of whom Renton is a direct descendant, were powerful members of the landed gentry. Sir Adam Fergusson was an 18th-century lawyer, MP and someone who knew many of the key figures in the Scottish enlightenment. He was thought of as a well-educated and highly cultured man. And he ran the family’s slave plantations in Tobago and Jamaica for almost 50 years.
Fergusson was also a meticulous keeper of accounts, which survive largely intact. In assessing this blandly sinister primary source, Renton asks how someone who took an intellectual interest in progressive debates could also methodically approve of collars, handcuffs and chains used to bind and torment innocent human beings. This is the question, in one form or another, which recurs throughout this compelling narrative.
One answer is that, as Fergusson never set foot in the West Indies, let alone on his plantations, the appalling reality of slavery was something that could remain safely abstract, consigned to some distant universe in which human suffering didn’t register. In a sense, this has also been this country’s experience of slavery, something that took place long ago and far away.
Unlike the US, where slavery and its continuing aftermath have shaped and disfigured so much of contemporary society, the UK has been able to remove itself from the scene of the crime. Instead, the whole sordid episode of paying staggering amounts of compensation to the slave owners has been hidden behind the patriotic tale of the battle to end slavery. [. . .]
[Above: An illustration depicting slaves loading coal in Morant Bay, Jamaica, in the 18th century. De Agostini/Getty Images.]