Monthly Archives: July 2012

‘Bogle Corbet’ by John Galt

1833, 334 p.

You may not have heard of Bogle Corbet, or of its author the Scottish writer John Galt but he was an incredibly prolific author, celebrated in both Scotland and Canada as an important Romantic-era author who based his narratives on “theoretical history” drawn from his observations and empirical facts . Indeed, there is a whole field of “Galt Studies” with books and conferences- none of which had entered my Antipodean awareness, I must admit.   I have a particular interest in John Galt because he socialized with my research interest, Judge Willis, when they were both in Canada in 1828.  But although John Galt may have a higher profile in Canada, and especially in Guelph which he helped establish in the 1820s, he’s not exactly a household name in Australia.

Bogle Corbet  is fiction, but it is very much the sort of book that you might expect a land and emigration entrepreneur, as Galt was, to write.  It is not autobiography, but instead a distillation of the ‘typical’ immigrant experience that he observed as part of his own role, especially as it related to the Canada Company.   However, the span of his narrative works, and particularly Bogle Corbet has prompted a reappraisal of him as a transnational author, and hence important in historical and cultural studies today.

Bogle Corbet is,  I gather, amongst his many books the one  that deals most with the immigrant experience. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable.  It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book.

The historian in me enjoyed seeing the historical reality of British emigration fictionalized, but it’s not exactly riveting stuff.  Originally of Jamaican birth of Scottish planter parents, Bogle Corbet was sent back to Scotland for his education, as was the usual practice. He seemed to fall into a career as a Glasgow merchant, a very Scottish profession, and when business faltered after the Napoleonic Wars, he travelled to the West Indies to see how their contacts were faring over there.  His observations of slavery were of the time, but the language used in characterizing the negroes sits very uncomfortably today.  I don’t even want to quote from it:  it is better left submerged in this rather obscure book.  He returned to Scotland, married rather diffidently, and when his financial prospects failed to improve, he decided to emigrate to Upper Canada instead.  His status and contacts ensured that he became the leader of an emigration scheme, shifting poor Scottish labourers over to a dedicated settlement in Upper Canada, and although some were tempted to go south into America, several soon returned chastened by their experience to take up labouring jobs to raise the money to purchase their own farms eventually (in good rather Wakefieldian fashion).

There’s a rather neat little switch where his reminiscences all of a sudden burst into the present tense, and some clever meta-narrative with a couple of self-referential passages where he comments on the act of writing. But to be honest, such gems are few and far between.  I have a particular reason for reading this book, but you probably don’t and frankly, there are better ways to spend 300-odd pages.

If I haven’t discouraged you completely, you can download all three volumes at the Internet Archive or as an e-book at Google Books.

‘British West Indian Slavery 1750-1834’ by J. R. Ward

1988, 279 p & notes

I have sometimes heard parallels drawn between action on climate change today and the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. There is a limit to how far one can push the analogy because the physical science of climate change has its own inexorable reality, unlike a human-created social and political system like slavery.  But both climate change and abolition policy face/d common challenges: the perceived threat to the whole economic structure of the day, the Parliamentary influence of lobby groups and reference to moral underpinnings that are/were derided by opponents more concerned about the economic impact.  They also have/had in common the argument that accepted that change had to occur up to a point, but that improvement could improve gradually and willingly as long as it is not forced by government or external bodies.

This was the argument mounted by British West Indian plantation owners, both in the West Indies and through their Parliamentary lobby groups in the UK.  The initial prohibition of slave-trading was hoped to improve conditions for slaves because if slave numbers could no longer be replenished by a seemingly never-ending supply from Africa, then slave owners would need to look after the slaves they already had more carefully.  New regulations introduced during the 1820s were intended to increase the  oversight of plantation conditions and to reduce the most egregious examples of cruelty and mistreatment.  Just leave us alone, the planters said, and we will make improvements ourselves.

Slavery might be disagreeable, but its character was steadily improving and would continue to do so if the colonies were spared outside interference.  Eventually the institution would melt away, just as it had done in England (p. 2)

This book examines the planters’ argument that “amelioration”  of slave conditions pre-empted the need for outright abolition.  The author draws on the plantation records of a number of different British slave-owning families, many  of whom were absentee owners whose plantations were managed by overseers who needed to report ‘home’. By drawing on a wide range of records, he is able to trace changes over time from the seventeenth through to nineteenth centuries, and across different slave colonies.  In particular, he distinguishes between the “old” sugar colonies where the soil was often depleted and profits were falling, and the newer colonies like  British Guiana which were able to benefit from technological developments and a different geography.

This is a strongly economic book, replete with statistics and tables, generating a “balance sheet” on the effect of amelioration, and later abolition.  As a more socially- and culturally- attuned historian, I found such an abstract treatment of human beings rather distressing and compromising: as if I was almost complicit in a balance-sheet approach.  I was more attracted to the moments when the human experience broke through- like, for example, the observation that in the 1780s two-and three-year olds were sent out into the fields alone to gather grass, but that increasingly the children were brought to the house for their lunchtime meal so that their health could be observed and to foster feelings of gratitude and respect.  Or, for example, the observation that horsebeans as a source of food gradually reduced during the 18th century, which was a thoroughly good thing. They required a great deal of boiling, and often slaves lacked the time, energy or even sufficient water to do this properly, and so ate them raw.  “Like a negro’s T— that ate horse-beans” was a simile that came naturally to a planter when discussing some poorly made sugar (p.21).  But example and anecdote, for all the richness they provide, can only take you so far.  In the end, just as with climate change debate, you need hard data rather than emotion.

And so, looking at the hard-data, shorn of the babies in the fields and the horse-beans, did amelioration work?  Yes, to a point, Ward argues.  The measured output per head of the population grew as rapidly on the sugar estates as it did among industrial workers in Britain, but not markedly more.  This growth in productive efficiency was accompanied by a marked improvement in the slaves’ material state, which in many ways was no worse than that of industrial labourers in British cities.   However, although death rates among slaves declined, there was not a corresponding rise in the birth rate until the abolition of slavery and the shift away from the plantation sugar economy.

So why did this improvement not come to the notice of the abolitionists in England?

First, it was largely an invisible improvement, gained by degrees and without the shiny, visibly new products of the industrial revolution in Britain.  Second, although there was demographic evidence that pointed to the effectiveness of amelioration, this same evidence could just as easily embarrass the slaveholders because it highlighted that it was sugar production, in and of itself, that prompted the low birth rate.  Third, planters could hardly crow about the improvements in their profitability brought about by amelioration when they were at the same time agitating for a reduction in their tax burden as the price of sugar fell.  Finally, the preponderance of lobbyists for Jamaican plantation owners was not a good look, as Jamaica had a particularly negative death:birth ratio and was a declining sugar industry in any event.

Ward suggests that the abolition of slavery in British colonies was a strong, landmark decision with which to inaugurate the new Parliament, elected under the new conditions of the Reform Bill.

So far as working planters were concerned, amelioration provided a means to reinforce slavery, by making it function more efficiently.  For humanitarians in the mother country, however, amelioration was a step towards a higher social state, undermining basic principles of racial authority and subordination…The nineteenth-century slave, however well maintained and lightly worked by earlier standards, was still a slave, liable to arbitrary punishment, likely to be denied Christian instruction and marriage.  Faced with such abuses, a moral cause could not be satisfied for long merely by further adjustments to the details of plantation life. (p. 276)