Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.

The slave owner who helped abolish slavery

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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]

Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers

I have just seen a performance of the much-hyped, sold-out, “Lehman Trilogy” at London’s National Theatre. It is written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and ‘adapted’ into English by Ben Power. Starring Simon Russell Beale and two other actors, the three-and-a-half-hour drama charts the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers and the financial establishments they created. It is in three parts separated from each other by intervals. The first part and the beginning of the second narrate the Lehman’s family saga clearly, entertainingly, and quite interestingly. Then, the latter part of the play seems to ‘lose the plot’.

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Seligmann store in Barkly East, South Africa

The Lehman bank’s operations literally collapsed in 2008. Although I am the son of an eminent economist, I do not understand the subject at all. I was hoping that the collapse of the Lehman Bank might be explained in relatively simple terms as the “Lehman Trilogy” drew towards its finale, but it was not. Rather than explore the dramatic possibilities of what was surely a very dramatic demise of a great financial establishment, the playwright and his ‘adaptor’ merely hinted at the disaster but made no obvious attempt to depict the momentous events that led to a frightful ending that greatly impacted on worldwide news and financial affairs. So, as you can gather, I was not altogether satisfied by the play itself. However, it got me thinking about my own ancestors, who, like the Lehman brothers, left Bavaria in the mid-19th century to seek their fortunes away from Europe across the oceans.

The Lehman brothers, who migrated to the USA in the mid-19th century, were born in Rimpar (Bavaria), near Würzburg. Heinrich (later’ Henry’) Bergmann, my great-grand uncle, was born 50 kilometres south-east of Rimpar in Ditenheim (Bavaria). He was only a few years younger than the Lehmans. In 1849, aged 18, he sailed to Cape Town in South Africa. Soon after arriving, he became the manager of a general store opened in the newly-established town of Aliwal North in the same year. Like the Lehman brothers, Heinrich became very successful as a middle-man. Like the Lehmans, during bad times he gave the farmers (his customers) credit, which they repaid when the wool harvests were brought to his shop (to be sold on to wool merchants). By the early 1860s, soon after marrying the daughter of a Jewish banker in Frankfurt-am-Main, he became the manager of one of the Aliwal’s three banks. Eventually Heinrich’s bank took over its two rivals. For reasons that are not at all clear, young Henrich shot himself in 1866.

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The grave of Heinrich (‘Henry’) Bergmann in Aliwal North, South Africa

Heinrich’s death was not the end of the story. During his time in the Cape, Heinrich was joined in South Africa by his brother and some of his cousins. The cousins in question came mainly from Ichenhausen in Bavaria, 163 kilometres south of Rimpar. Heinrich’s brother married Klara, a daughter of Jakob Seligmann, a successful merchant in Ichenhausen.  Klara’s only brother Isak Rafael Seligmann and his wife had 18 children, of whom 15 lived to adulthood. One of the sons, Sigmund, Heinrich’s nephew, migrated to South Africa from Ichenhausen. He did not join his uncle, but began working for another German, a merchant in Lady Grey, which is not far from Aliwal North. Other young men from Ichenhausen including Sigmund’s brother Jakob and the Reichenberg brothers, one of whom joined Heinrich Bergmann, migrated to South Africa.

Sigmund Seligmann was offered a partnership in the business in Lady Grey but turned it down. He left Lady Grey to open his own shop in Dordrecht, a small place in the Cape. Soon after this, he opened a branch in Barkly East in the heart of a sheep grazing district. Like the Lehman brothers who bought cotton and sold it on, and also acted as bankers for the cotton-growers, Sigmund bought wool from his farmer customers and sold it on as well as lending money to the farmers when times were lean.

The Lehman brothers set their sights high. They moved from being merchants to becoming brokers, and then bankers. Their descendants continued the progression until, finally, others took over the running, and eventual ruining, of the business. Sigmund and many others like him, who went from what was to become ‘Germany’ to South Africa, more often than not retired to Germany when they had made their fortunes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, life in South Africa was a lot less comfortable than in civilised Germany or the USA, parts of which were becoming very sophisticated. Those who returned to end their lives in Germany had to face WW1 and then later the advent of Hitler’s regime. Sigmund and his children left Bavaria for Palestine, thereby escaping the fate of many Jews who remained in Germany.

Before Sigmund left to retire in Germany, he left the running of his by now very successful business in the hands of some of his very numerous nephews. One of these, who arrived in South Africa in about 1903, was my grandfather Iwan Bloch. Hardworking Iwan, like his father-in-law the future Senator, Franz Ginsberg (an industrialist in the Cape, who had migrated there from Prussia), maintained the successful running of his business as well as entering politics. Iwan became the first and only Jewish Mayor of Barkly East. His life was cut short by ill-health, but had he lived longer I feel sure that he would have entered national politics following in the footsteps of his father-in-law Franz.

With the exception of Iwan’s ill-fated uncle Heinrich Bergmann, this extended Bavarian Jewish family did not take the same road toward high finance as the Lehmans did, but they started at the same point.

Furthermore, the Lehman fortune began to be built from the labour of black slaves in Alabama. This is skirted around casually in the play. Although formally, there were no black slaves in South Africa when my ancestors arrived there, much of the dirty work required to make their fortunes was performed by black Africans, whose treatment by the white Europeans was very far from admirable.

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Adam Yamey’s grandfather, Iwan Bloch, brought the railway to Barkly East in South Africa

I am glad I saw the “Lehman Trilogy” because it is engaging and, although there is little acting, what acting there is was good. Also, it got me thinking about my own history. However, like the doomed bank, the quality of the plot declines gradually as the three and a half hours pass by. Would I recommend it? The answer is “no”.