Room 8: Mansfield Park: The Global Contexts

‘Dead Silence’ and the Slave Trade

Mansfield Park was published in 1814, seven years after the first abolition laws were passed in Britain. But the trade of enslaved people was still a controversial topic. Some believed that the laws didn’t go far enough, while others objected to abolition altogether.

Fanny Price is the only Austen heroine who raises questions about the slave trade in conversation. After Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, Fanny asks him ‘about the slave-trade’ but is met with ‘such a dead silence’ by her cousins that she stops. There is implicit criticism of the Bertram family who stay ‘sitting by, without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject’ – even though their own luxurious lifestyle is supported by the labour of enslaved workers on the family’s Antigua estate.

In this exchange, Jane also highlights the lack of power that women often felt when trying to contribute to the debate on the slave trade; even some male abolitionists, including the famous campaigner William Wilberforce, objected to female involvement in the campaign.


Context: Abolition and the Slave Trade

After more than 20 years of public campaigning, the trade of enslaved peoples was banned across the British Empire with the Abolition Act of 1807. However, the practice made so much money that many people continued in it and the trade still flourished illegally. The new laws were hard to enforce and until 1811 even those who were caught were only given a fine as punishment.

Furthermore, the 1807 laws barely improved the quality of life of enslaved people. The slave system was replaced with a form of apprenticeship which still forced people to work long hours for tiny wages, often in terrible conditions. Jane’s brother Frank, who encountered many slaving ships during his time in the Navy, commented that ‘Slavery, however it may be modified, is still slavery.’ Full emancipation did not come until 1838, when freedom was legally granted to all formerly enslaved people across the British Empire.


Mansfield Park and Antigua

In Mansfield Park, some of the Bertram family’s wealth comes from their estate in Antigua (likely a sugar plantation). Jane Austen was no stranger to stories of plantation life in Antigua and the wider Caribbean. In 1760, Jane’s father, Reverend George Austen, became a trustee of a sugar plantation in Antigua belonging to his former student James Nibbs. This meant that if Nibbs died early, George Austen would be responsible for the estate and its workers (although in the end, this didn’t happen).

Several others within the Austen family circle also had connections with or investments in Caribbean plantations, including their cousins the Hampsons, the Walters and the Leigh-Perrots. Jane’s brothers Frank and Charles both visited the Caribbean whilst on duty in the Navy. Indeed, Charles was posted to Bermuda in 1804 and spent the next five years serving on the North American Station in St George’s Town. Here he met and married Fanny Palmer, the daughter of the island’s former Attorney general, who had been born on the island.


Coincidence or Controversy?

Why the name ‘Mansfield Park’? Many think it references Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England from 1756-88 and a family connection of the Austens. He played a key role in ending slavery in England with his judgment on the famous ‘Stewart vs Somerset’ case of 1772. The case involved a trader, Charles Stewart, who tried to seize a formerly-enslaved African, James Somerset. Mansfield ruled in favour of Somerset, confirming his freedom, and the court concluded that ‘a master could not seize a slave in England’.

In 1783 Mansfield ruled again on a landmark court case that dealt with the legality of slavery. This case dealt with the slave ship Zong. In 1781 the crew of the Zong threw at least 130 enslaved people to their deaths at sea, in order to raise an insurance claim for lost ‘cargo’. The court had originally found the insurance company liable to pay, arguing that enslaved people were the same as any other cargo, but Lord Mansfield overturned this judgement.

From then on, even though no laws had been changed, it was widely believed that Mansfield’s decisions had abolished slavery. This was incorrect, but he certainly set legal precedents that played a hugely important role in its abolition.

Is it a coincidence that Jane Austen’s only novel with a plantation-owning family shares a name with a person who was famously connected with the abolition movement?