What are your links to slavery?

Some of those connected with the slave trade by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography have only the most tenuous of associations


This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 2020, Jesus College, Cambridge announced its intention to remove the seventeenth-century marble memorial monument to its benefactor Tobias Rustat (right) from the college chapel where he is buried. Rustat, declared the college, a Stuart courtier described by John Evelyn as a “very simple, ignorant, but honest and loyal creature” acquired his enormous fortune through the slave trade, some of which he then redistributed to Jesus College. He had to go.

I am not on the side of the statue-smashers

I am not on the side of the statue-smashers, but I initially unquestioningly accepted Jesus College’s description of Rustat as having made his money through slavery. So I was therefore surprised to discover that Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade consisted of buying a few shares in the Royal African Company after he had already become wealthy. In fact, he had lost money through his purchase and had probably made the investment simply to demonstrate his loyalty to the King.

These facts came to light at the Consistory Court hearing on the monument, during which several Jesus fellows were reduced to incoherence under cross-examination. One was described by the judge as an “underwhelming witness who was firmly wedded to her own entrenched opinions and unwilling to recognise any views other than her own”.

The real star of the hearings was Professor Lawrence Goldman, a Jesus man who served as editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His careful evidence and damning questioning of the Jesus witnesses demonstrated that Rustat’s shareholding in the Royal African Company was an incidental part of his biography at the very most, to be set against his many qualities, not least his philanthropy. Rustat had sinned through his involvement in the RAC, but everyone is a sinner. The judge was convinced: today, the monument in question continues to adorn the chapel.

But the reductionist approach convincingly demolished by Professor Goldman is very much in evidence in the ODNB today, the mission of which is supposed to be to dispassionately record the lives of “significant, influential or notorious figures who shaped British history”. Since the cultural convulsions of 2020, the ODNB editors have added detailed descriptions of slavery links in hundreds of biographies. Context-free and prominently placed, they instantly reduce any person they touch to their links to slavery, and nothing else.

This seems reasonable if the subject in question was, for example, a slave trader. But many of those dishonoured as slavers were not involved with slavery at all. Consider Alice Abadam: a suffragette born 33 years after the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. A third of the introductory paragraph of her entry is given over to the fact that she grew up in a house acquired by her grandfather, who had owned slaves in Jamaica. 

The classicist Andrew Lang, born a decade after the end of British slavery, is stigmatised because he married a woman whose father had owned slaves. The colonial administrator Sir James Robert Longden is targeted because his wife’s grandfather had owned slaves. 

This emphasis on hereditary and associative guilt is not an accident. The data on slavery association is sourced from University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery database. The project’s entire approach is predicated on the notion that slavery links are to be found more or less everywhere across British society, down to the present day. No association, no matter how indirect, escapes its notice.

Funded by generous American donors, the UCL data has been used by Cambridge to “locate students from slave-owning backgrounds” and by campaigners to ask for reparations from specific families, centuries after slavery was abolished. Laura Trevelyan, a former BBC journalist and scion of the famous Trevelyan family, has even used the database to stigmatise her own family. She left the BBC to become a full-time “slavery reparations campaigner”.

This is not the only area where the ODNB is now engaged in frenzied revisionism. In 2019, it produced an exhaustive count of “the number of lives [i.e. articles] of people of broadly African origin included in the ODNB for their British historical significance”, arriving at a total of 296. The figure deliberately excludes those whose significance was mainly to the wider British world as opposed to the UK, even though the ODNB has always understood “British” in its wider sense by including, for example, the first generation of post-independence African leaders.

Given that very few black people lived in the United Kingdom until very recently, 296 articles does not seem a hugely inadequate figure. And this is even before the question of whether historical figures should be considered primarily in light of their race. Obviously, the editors disagreed: they commissioned 18 new articles about black British people who had been overlooked for inclusion in earlier editions.

Of the 18, there are two beggars, a gardener, and one maidservant (herself a slaveowner): her only trace in recorded history is her involvement in an obscure lawsuit. Many of the new articles are interesting and informative, but none of their subjects are “significant, influential or notorious figures who shaped British history”, the criterion for inclusion in the ODNB.

The ODNB is not a reference work like any other. Conceived by Leslie Stephen as a collective national biographical monument, it has survived more than a century to become the definitive record of the lives of the British great and good as well as the less great and bad who nevertheless left an imprint on British history. Most historians of British history use the ODNB as their biographical go-to when it comes to the lives of historical figures. The distortion of the ODNB’s content for essentially political reasons will have reverberations on our understanding of our national history for decades to come.

The man who has overseen all of this is the historian Sir David Cannadine, who took over as the editor of the ODNB from Professor Goldman in 2014 and whose earlier published work should have given him a measure of immunity to this fashionable nonsense. In his 2001 book Ornamentalism, he argued that class mattered far more than race within the British empire. Even two decades ago, an analysis that strayed so far from the race-centred consensus was sailing close to the wind. He duly received his share of abuse.

I have no reason to doubt Sir David’s sincerity, although one of his former students uncharitably suggested to me that the more letters he gained behind his name, the more risk-averse he became. Long exposure to American mores as a Princeton professor cannot have helped either. His caution has clearly paid off: he is now a knight, a FBA, FRSL, FSA, FRHistS, and FRSA. In time he will certainly become OM or CH, or perhaps both. This is considered a standard and fitting reward for a distinguished yet safe pair of hands.

However, most of those who are memorialised in the ODNB will never be so garlanded. Not for them the detail and nuance of carefully-researched biographies. For all intents and purposes, their Dictionary entries will be the only account of their lives and form part of the historical record. They deserve better than to be reduced to their association with slavery and nothing else — especially if they were not involved with slavery at all. And the ODNB deserves better than to be rewritten for the sake of presenting a distorted version of British history.

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