The slave owner who helped abolish slavery

BLOG HOLL LATE 246

SEATED IN A CHAIR ON A STONE PLINTH, surrounded by a small pond and often with a pigeon on his head or shoulder, Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (‘Lord Holland’; 1773-1840) gazes benevolently towards the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by German bombs during WW2. The fine cast metal statue was sculpted by George Frederic Watts (1817-1914) with technical assistance from Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890). I have walked past this statue innumerable times and never given it much of a thought apart from being amused when I have seen pigeons resting on the crown of Holland’s head. A friend of ours pointed out that the sculptor has included, unusually, a depiction of Holland’s wedding ring, a memorial to his marriage which was to prove very interesting with regard to his political activities. Today, the 20th of June, I walked past it yet again, but with the recent interest in statues and their subjects’ relationships with the slave trade, I wondered whether Lord Holland had any connection with it. What I have discovered is somewhat surprising.

 

Lord Holland was the nephew of the Whig statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806). According to the British History Online website:
“On the death of his uncle … Lord Holland was introduced into the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal; but the strength of the Whig portion of the Government had then departed, and the only measure worthy of notice in which his lordship co-operated after his accession to office was the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.”
This suggests that Holland was an abolitionist.

 

However, things are never so simple. When visiting Florence (Italy) in 1793, he fell in love with Elizabeth Vassall, wife of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet. She and Webster divorced and then Elizabeth married Lord Holland. The “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography” (‘DNB’) records that in 1800
“… Holland assumed the additional name of Vassall to safeguard his children’s right to his wife’s West Indian fortune.”
When her first husband died in 1800, Lord Holland became the owner of the Vassall plantations in Jamaica. By accident, the abolitionist became an owner of slaves.

 

According to a website published by the Portobello Carnival Film Festival 2008:
“By all accounts, the Hollands were humane and improving proprietors who supported anti-slavery measures against their own financial interests. It can even be argued that he was more use to the abolitionist movement as a slave owner than he would have been as a mere politician. Nevertheless, in perhaps the defining local paradox, the finest hour of Holland House as the international salon of liberal politics was financed by the profits of slave labour.”
The site continues by pointing out that after his uncle died, Lord Holland:
“… was on the committee that framed his uncle’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Meanwhile Lady Holland founded the area’s multi-cultural tradition by employing Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and Italian servants – in order to enhance the foreign image of her political salon.”

 

VE Chancellor wrote in his article “Slave‐owner and anti‐slaver: Henry Richard Vassall Fox, 3rd Lord Holland, 1800–1840” that Holland regarded a slave:
“…not as mere chattel, but as an individual with feelings and abilities no less than those of other men …”.
However:
“… he justified the continuing history of slavery in the British Empire in Whiggish terms of the right to property and the need to obtain the consent of those who owned slaves before Abolition could be achieved…”
So, it seems that Holland, an avowed Abolitionist and ‘accidental’ owner of slaves, was placed in a difficult position. Chancellor records that the great Abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) regarded Holland as:
“… a ‘most zealous partisan’ of slave trade abolition …”,
And the DNB relates:
“Holland himself was an equally keen supporter of the abolition of slavery in 1833, despite its adverse effect on his West Indian income.”
Holland gave his full support for the Slave Trade Abolition Bill when it passed through the House of Lords. The passing of the Bill was accompanied by sizable tax relief to sugar producers in the West Indies. Lord Holland benefitted from these, as the University College London ‘Legacies of Slave Ownership’ website notes:
“Lord Holland, awarded part of the compensation for under three awards for the enslaved people on his estates in Jamaica…”
Chancellor wrote that Holland, who had benefitted financially from the tax relief concessions:
“… learnt the lesson that those called on to make sacrifices in a good cause do so the more willingly when potential loss is compensated.”

 

So, now returning to the statue covered with bird droppings in Holland Park, what are we to think? No doubt, Lord Holland became an owner of slaves, but by an accident caused by one of Cupid’s arrows. Had he married someone else, he might not have become the inheritor of Caribbean plantations with slaves. If William Wilberforce was happy to regard him as a bona-fide Abolitionist, that is for me a favourable contemporary character reference for Lord Holland. Some, including me, looking at his statue with hindsight, might ask why he, an avowed Abolitionist, did not emancipate his slaves as soon as they came into his possession. I am willing to believe that the answer to this is far from simple.

[For reference to Chancellor, see: https://www.tandfonline.com/d…/abs/10.1080/01440398008574816]

Sun lover

MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.

Hel

My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.

While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.

By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.

Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.

Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England.  It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.

After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.

It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.

The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.

My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.

My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.

My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now.  When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.

Shrouded in shame

This tale is based on a true story related to me

Life has not treated Zafar well. Even his wife Zubeida feels that her burqa is barely sufficient to hide her shame. The couple scrimped and saved to pay to educate their daughter Rubina so that she was qualified sufficiently to be able to enter a college in Ahmedabad.

And, what made their beloved daughter do what she has done? And, why did she run off with her Hindu neighbour’s son Rajesh? And, what came over her to marry Rajesh, who is little more than a dunce with no prospects whatsoever? Did she not trust her parents to choose a suitable grroom for her? Only He above might possibly know.

By choosing a ‘love marriage’, that selfish Rubina has not only shunned her parents but has also caused her family to be ostracised by the rest of their community. And, there is more woe to relate. The imam of Zafar’s community has instigated a case against his family, a case to be tried under Shariah law. Zafar is already facing a hefty fine imposed by his community and, even worse, he has already had to pay the hospital’s huge fees required to recover his wife from a paralysis brought on by Rubina’s selfish act of folly.

And, with sorrow, there is yet more to relate. Zafar has since lost his good job. Who would want to employ a man who has lost control of his daughter, you might well ask. Ask you might, but whatever the answer might be, life has not treated Zafar well.

View of palms

I am not certain when I first saw palm trees. Maybe, it was when I was three years old. Then, my parents took me for a holiday in South Africa, where they were born.

Some of the first palm trees that I remember seeing are still growing in a small garden next to the entrance of St John’s Wood Underground station near Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We used to visit St John’s Wood regularly when I was a child because our family dentist, Dr Samuels – a refugee from Nazi Germany, had his surgery opposite the station.

My first view of palm trees growing en-masse was from the air on an early morning in late December 1993. Our plane was landing at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were travelling via Colombo to Bangalore in India. A week or so after seeing this vast plantation of palms, my wife and I were married during a colourful Hindu ceremony.

Although I have seen many, many palm trees since then, I still find them beautiful and exotic.

Mistress

A man might have one ‘mistress’ or even several. However, there is no male version of this word in English. The word ‘mistress’ sometimes carries negative connotations, but it also suggests a more formal or longterm relationship than a casual one. In any case, having a mistress implies a relationship with a woman, who is not married to the man.

So given that there is no male version of a mistress , how does a woman refer to a man with whom she is having a relationship out of wedlock?

The word ‘partner’ is sometimes used. So, is ‘boyfriend’, ‘lover’, ‘guy’, ‘common law husband’, or even ‘paramour’. None of these words carry exactly the same interpretations as ‘mistress’.

To me, boyfriend suggests young love. When I was practising as a dentist, some quite elderly women used to mention their ‘boyfriends’, who were often at least as old as they were. To my ears, ‘boyfriend’ sounded wrong in these cases. ‘Partner’ seemed a better choice of word.

Years ago, a friend of my father, the late Cyril Sofer, used to refer to girls’ close male friends as their ‘chaps’. Although I like this term, it is still not a male version of the word ‘mistress’ with all of its implications.

Seen girl bring ring

Arranged marriages where parents choose the bride and groom are still very common in India. Often the girl and boy hardly know each other, or may have never met, before the wedding ceremony.

In India when a marriage is not ‘arranged’ except by Cupid’s arrow, it is called a ‘love marriage ‘. My wife and I had a love marriage. When our daughter was very young she must have learned about arranged marriages from someone or at school because one day she said to us, assuming that we had had an arranged marriage :

“When I grow up, I am going to marry whoever I like unlike you.” We told her that we had chosen each other.

I am not qualified to discuss the relative merits of love and arranged marriages but both of them can be quite successful. To westerners, arranged marriages might seem strange. The reverse is true for many Indians, for whom the idea of love marriages often seem alien.

Once, I was talking to some young men in a bookshop in Bangalore. When I told them that my wife is Indian, one of them asked me if we had had a love marriage. I said we did have one. They asked me how I felt about love marriage. I told them that I can recommend it.

My in-laws, both Indians, married in India in the late 1940s. In those days, the majority of marriages were arranged. My in-laws were very unusual for that era because they had a love marriage. My father in law and his bride came from different communities. At first, the marriage could not occur because the bride’s family did not want their daughter to marry out of her community. After some time, they softened their views and a very successful married life began.

My wife and I come from different continents, but no objection to us marrying came from any quarter.

Recently, we were chatting with an elderly Indian gentleman, whose story illustrates how little say the participants in an arranged marriage might have. He told us that he had married in the late 1940s. He said that he did not meet his bride until the day he got married. He was working away from his home town when he received a telegram from his mother. It contained the words:

“SEEN GIRL BRING RING”

Thank you, Queen Victoria

From worlds far apart,

Two folk come together:

Cupid’s bow does its job

 

When our daughter was a little girl in junior school, the members of her class were asked to name the greatest Briton in history. She nominated Queen Victoria. Her choice was based on the following facts: her mother’s parents were born in India and my parents were born in South Africa. When Queen Victoria reigned, she argued, both countries were part of the British Empire. This, she felt, made it more likely that both her parents would study in England and meet. Without Victoria, she concluded, my wife Lopa and I might never have met, and she would not have existed. Well, maybe she was right. I believe that the reason we met was due to two men who gave us career’s advice: Professor Lewis Wolpert in London and Major General SL Bhatia in Bangalore.

As I approached the time when I had to choose a university undergraduate course, I had no idea which subject to select. I was interested in biology, physics, and chemistry, but had no interest in studying medicine, or even dentistry, which I studied many years later. Careers advice at my secondary school was not helpful.

My South African-born parents knew many South Africans living in London. One of these was my father’s close friend, the late Cyril Sofer, a sociologist. It was through the Sofer family that we met Lewis Wolpert, who was born in South Africa. First, he trained to become a civil engineer. By the time I first met him, he had become an eminent biologist, specialising in cell and developmental biology.

Wolpert, on learning that I was having difficulties choosing a course of study, kindly invited me to his office in Middlesex Hospital in central London. He spent about an hour with me, listening to what I had found interesting in the science subjects I had studied at school. Having heard me out, he suggested that I study physiology at university. This subject would, he thought, encompass all that interested me so far. He told me that the best places to study physiology were Cambridge and University College London (‘UCL’). Of these, he considered the physiology department at UCL to be the best. I was pleased to hear this.

About five years before meeting Wolpert, my father and I had visited UCL because a friend of the family, the art-historian Leopold Ettlinger, worked there. All that I can remember of this visit was walking across the lawns in UCL’s elegant Front Quadrangle and thinking how beautiful it seemed. So, when Lewis Wolpert suggested that I apply for admission to UCL, I was happy about that.

At about the time I was discussing my academic future with Wolpert in London, a young lady, my future wife Lopa, was discussing the same thing with another eminent scientist 5000 miles away in Bangalore. The scientist, Major General SL Bhatia (1891-1982), had known Lopa’s mother’s father from when he studied medicine in Bombay. The two medics became close friends. When Lopa’s mother Chandra was born, Bhatia became the equivalent of Chandra’s god-father.

Chandra’s father died young having succumbed to blood poisoning while treating one of his patients. His friend Bhatia had a glittering career in science, medicine and the Indian Army. It was during his retirement that Lopa met him at his beautiful old-fashioned bungalow in Bangalore. Bhatia had studied medicine not only in India but also at St Thomas’s Hospital in London during the second decade of the 20th century. While in London, he had conducted research with leading physiologists. Like Wolpert had done for me in London, Bhatia recommended that Lopa, who was not keen on studying medicine at that time, pursue a course of physiology at UCL, because he knew it to have a fine reputation in that subject.

One morning in October 1970, I arrived at the Physiology Department at UCL, having travelled from my home in north-west London. I was one of nine students who had been accepted for the course. Lopa was one of the others. She had travelled over 5000 miles to join the department. We were greeted by the department in the Starling Room, named after a famous physiologist who had worked at UCL. This common room is where I met the young lady who was eventually to marry me.

SL BHATIA 3

In the bar at the Bangalore Club

Our wedding reception in Bangalore was held in 1994 at the Bangalore Club, a prestigious ex-colonial institution in the heart of Bangalore. Although he could not attend, Major SL Bhatia was the first Indian President of that elite club. Before that, all the Presidents had been British. Bhatia’s widow was at the wedding. She claimed, not without some reason, that it was she and her late husband, who were responsible for getting Lopa and me together.

The late queen_800

Just as our daughter is eternally grateful to Queen Victoria for bringing Lopa and me together, I am equally thankful to Professor Wolpert and Major General Bhatia for getting our paths to cross. I cannot acknowledge them for what was to follow; Cupid and his arrows are to be thanked for that.

Picture sources: semanticscholar.org (Bhatia) & retractionwatch.com (Wolpert)

Tact

nehru

I married in Bangalore in January 1995. A week or so before the marriage, I was introduced to Mr Krishnan, a tailor who worked in his home near to Cunningham Road in the heart of Bangalore. He was an elderly, dignified gentleman, and a good craftsman.

Mr Krishnan made me a suit for the wedding ceremony, a white Nehru suit with a high collar. a bandh gala. This kind of garment pre-dates India’s post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru; it derives from the Mughal years. The one that Mr Krishnan made me was precision fitting. I could breath in it, but it would not tolerate even the slightest increase in my girth. The same was true for a western style suit that he made for me at the same time.

A year later, we returned to Bangalore. Happiness in marriage and over-indulgence at meals had resulted in a change in my dimensions, notably an increase in my girth. We returned to Mr Krishnan with the suits he had made, which no longer fitted me. Fortunately, being a skilful tailor, Mr Krishnan had left plenty of material in the seams of the clothes in order to enlarge them.

Mr Krishnan measured me carefully, noting down my dimensions in a large book. When he had finished my wife asked him:

“Out of interest, how much has my husband increased in size?”

Mr Krishnan replied:

“Madam, I can not tell you that because I have lost your husband’s original measurements.”

Not only was Mr Krishnan a great tailor but also, he was a master of tact.

It began with a bang

First experiences of India

My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.

COCO 3

We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.

Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us.  This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.

After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.

My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!

On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.

As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.

At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).

Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.

By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.

After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.

COCO 0

Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.

COCO 1

After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.

COCO 2

I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.