Britain and Slavery

The plot in Dewey Lambdin’s Alan Lewrie novels Sea of Grey, Havoc’s Sword, A King’s Trade, and Troubled Waters takes place in the context of slavery. Slavery in Haiti and British possessions in the West Indies, specifically, but more broadly in the context of the political and social struggle in Britain to abolish the slave trade.

In Sea of Grey, Lewrie’s frigate, HMS Proteus, is stricken with yellow jack and he loses several sailors. His relationship with his superior is not the best, a recurring situation for Lewrie, and he gets no help in bringing his crew up to full strength. In Havoc’s Sword, Lewrie acts as a second in a duel between a long time friend of his and a prominent local planter. His friend wins, but decides to leave Jamaica to avoid revenge attacks. As a parting slap at the planter’s family, Lewrie takes about a dozen slaves into Proteus as seamen. Initially, the former owners thought the slaves had run away to join Maroon encampments but in A King’s Trade they discover what actually happened. They have Lewrie convicted in a Jamaican court of stealing the slaves, a capital offense, and in Troubled Waters they appear in court in London to see that the sentence is carried out.

Britain had a very conflicted and contradictory history on slavery. While most colonial charters provided that the laws passed for the colony could not contradict laws in Britain, there was often hedging.

By about 1540 slavery was no longer recognize as an institution in Britain. The Cartwright case, in 1569, supposedly held “that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.” While this may be apocryphal or a misattribution of a bon mot from a 1702 case, it was clear that while there was little objection to slavery in Britain’s colonies, it was increasingly unacceptable in Britain.

In 1729, and again in 1749, rulings were made that slaves were mere property with no rights but the movement was definitively against slavery.

In what is known as Somersett’s case (1772), a slave who had absconded from his master in England was recaptured and sent aboard a ship for transport and sale in the West Indies. The man’s supporters brought a habeas corpus suit. Earl Mansfield held:

..The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

The struggle against slavery and the slave trade continued. In 1807, Britain outlawed the African slave trade and in 1834 manumitted all slaves in British territories.

A good starting point for understanding the nuance of the struggle, the power of the West Indies trade and agricultural interests, and the intertwining of the abolitionist movement with the social ferment underway in Britain while it was fighting Revolutionary France is the movie Amazing Grace.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Alan Lewrie Novels, Culture and Life Style Ashore

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