2007 - 2021

Heritage, Slavery and the NTS

Like many ‘visitor attractions’ Brodick Castle is closed to the public at present. It was also closed for extensive renovations in the 2017 and 2018 summer seasons. Out of curiosity, and rather reluctantly, I took the opportunity last year to make a rare visit inside the building to see what had changed. I found additional space had been made available for interpretation of the lives of the Hamilton and Beckford families during the period when the the castle took its present form. While there was some reference to the louche lifestyle of Arran’s early 19th Century aristocrats, what stunned me at the time was that, in 2019, it was possible and apparently acceptable for the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to refer to the source of the obscene wealth which funded Brodick Castle and its contents as ‘sugar plantations’. There was no interpretation, or information regarding slavery.

A very personal and moving letter from my friend and long-time Arranach Cicely Gill appeared in the ‘Arran Banner’ of 19th June, and, with her permission, it is reproduced here:


I am thinking about everything that is going on as a result of George Floyd’s death. ‘No man is an island’ as the poet said, though here on Arran it is easy to think of ourselves apart from the world.

We have no statues to ask the council to remove, but we do have Brodick Castle.

Before I go on, I should declare an interest: my father’s name was Beckford. He was Jamaican. His forebears were plantation slaves.

Many of you will have seen the silver in the Beckford Room in the castle, acquired with money made from the plantations. I was utterly dismayed on a visit last year to find there was nothing in the accompanying explanatory notes to indicate that there was anything untoward in the way the plantations were run – exploitation, the cruelty, even the fact that the people being employed had been forced away from their country of origin into slavery.

I would have expected that after the much-heralded overhaul of the castle, an effort might have been made to rectify this. I could not stay in the room, I felt sick. No exaggeration.

I meant to write a letter then to complain and did not, but now — although the castle is unfortunately shut — with racism being the number one topic at the moment I decided it would be timely to raise the matter.

Surely, given the thousands of tourists of all ages and from many different countries who pass through the Beckford Room, it would be responsible to educate and inform and shine a light of honesty on the silver.


Cicely Gill, Whiting Bay

Brodick Castle has been an important location since medieval times. It was in the hands of the Hamilton family from 1470 until it passed to the Montroses in 1906 by marriage, and subsequently to the NTS in lieu of death duties in 1958. Tom Johnston (‘Our Scots Noble Families’, 1909) took the following withering view of our aristocracy: “Show the people that our Old Nobility is not noble; that its lands are stolen lands – stolen either by force or fraud, show people that the title-deeds are rapine, murder, massacre, cheating or Court harlotry. Dissolve the halo of divinity that surrounds the hereditary title.”

Johnston gives an example.

“The Hamilton history is the history of our “noble” families, with this peculiarity, that if there was any dirty, low, sneak-mean-thief treachery to be done, a Hamilton would do it. The relation of one instance will be sufficient. About 1452 the Hamiltons and the Douglases were in close alliance and practically dictated terms to the King (James II). Douglas, however, was treacherously murdered, and Hamilton, for some time, with the other powerful adherents and friends of the Douglases, carried fire and sword through Royal Territory in reply. But the King gradually recovered the upper hand, and no sooner did the crafty Hamilton see this than he called his kinsmen and followers “quietly together” and “carried them over to the Royal Camp and was received by the King with open arms, but for the sake of appearances, was sent to Roslin Castle for a few days.” Result — granted part of the lands of the now forsaken Douglases in Renfrewshire, and other spoil; created a Lord, gets his clutches on the lands of Draffan from the monks of Lesmahagow and Kelso, and on land at Bothwell, Crawfurdjohn, Linlithgow and Kirkcudbright.”

Like others of their class, the Hamiltons had form, and were well prepared for developments in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 4th Duke of Hamilton was seen as the nominal leader of the anti-Union factions prior to the Act of Union in 1706-1707, his family having a claim to the Scottish throne. At best his commitment to Scotland was fickle, however. (He abstained on the critical vote, claiming to have toothache). His family subsequently benefited hugely from access to English trade as the then British Empire opened up. Britain’s demand for sugar from the Caribbean was insatiable, and that trade was hugely profitable due principally to slavery.

What of the Hamilton/Beckford connection? The 10th Duke (1767-1852) who was seemingly capable of losing vast sums of of money, on horse-racing, was saved from ruin by his marriage to the heiress Susan Beckford (1786-1859). Susan was the daughter of William Beckford, the wealthiest commoner of his day in England, a paedophile, who almost escaped public censure due to his extreme wealth and powerful connections. The Jimmy Savile of his day? That story is worthy of some attention in itself. Beckford’s huge wealth was accumulated from the slave trade and plantations in the West Indies. Brodick Castle would not exist in its present form without the suffering of black slaves.

And this is not all. The provenance of the Beckford silver also demands interpreting. During the 16th and 17th centuries most of the world’s silver was mined at Potosi (now in Bolivia) by Inca slaves. Some eight million of them died in the process, and once that genocide came to its natural end they were replaced by slaves from Africa. “If it were not a futile exercise” says Eduardo Galeano (in ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, 1973) “Bolivia — now one of the world’s most poverty stricken countries — could boast of having nourished the wealth of the wealthiest.”

So just what is the NTS up to here? Its mission is to protect our heritage (cultural and natural) for posterity. Its role is not to feed us with sanitised pro-aristocratic pap — and lies. If we enter an ‘interpretation room’ then we need to call slavery, slavery. Short of melting down the dust-collecting silver and finding something useful to do with it, we need to be able to acknowledge the vast and tragic human costs attached to its manufacture. And, for that matter, in the interests of candour, we also need to be reminded about the ‘rapine, murder, massacre, cheating and Court harlotry’ which gave us an aristocracy in the first place. If we are to continue to exhibit the silver, it is essential to have an explanation of its history alongside it.

And what of the present day? The Trust appears to have no more sense of social responsibility than the slave owners and mine owners of the past. They appear to be shaping up to make most of their ranger service staff redundant, and a proportion of their gardeners. As in many other rural communities, this will be really tragic for Arran. And it might be just the wrong thing to be doing at this point. Unfortunately that latter consideration has never stopped the NTS senior management before. The NTS faces a financial crisis as a result of loss of visitor and membership income as well as letting property income. With the overdue focus on Scotland’s role in the slave trade coming hot on the heels of Covid-19, and climate change looming over us, you would think a forward looking strategy would prioritise natural heritage over the sad culture of our 19th Century aristocrats.

Here in 2020, we should be thinking of access to garden space and wild countryside, outdoor education, socially-distanced hospitality, staycationing and increased provision of self-catering accommodation. Are people still going to want to crowd indoors to get their face-masks on and view the oversized furniture, sombre oil paintings and grotesque silverware of the Hamiltons and Beckfords?

“Reassessing (British) history is not about race. It’s about integrity” says Afua Hirsch. “It’s about the fact that the past is linked to the present in a smooth continuity, from slavery, colonialism and pillaging of resources, to immigration. . . . . Seeing this differently would affect reality for everyone.”

And now, just don’t start me on (NTS President) Prof Neil Oliver.

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  1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    The ‘trouble’ with artefacts like the Beckford Room at Brodick Castle lies undoubtedly in their interpretation.

    The interpretation of the Beckford Room is the narrative(s) that structure(s) its presentation. The same artefact is susceptible to different interpretations; the presentation of the Beckford room can be structured in different ways by a variety of different narratives.

    The ‘trouble’ arises when we ask which (if any) is the ‘true’ interpretation when everything, including the narratives themselves, is an interpretation. Every fact presents as an interpretation, every interpretation is an historically conditioned fact; this is the historian’s version of the problem of the hermeneutic circle.

    As a trained historian as well as philosopher, I’ve always found it liberating to treat the presentation of artefacts like the Beckford Room as itself an historical artefact. Thus my task is not to interrogate the room for its narrative but to interrogate rather the presentation of the room for its narrative. The question is not what the room tells me about the room itself but what it tells me about its curation, why it’s, in fact, being presented to me in this way rather than in some other way. Clearly, this doesn’t liberate me from the problem of the hermeneutic circle, but it does enable me to use the rotation of that circle to bore a little more deeply into the mystery.

    The Catalan historian who turned me on to this way of doing history, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, suspected that the sort of metanarratives that inform our interpretations and representations of artefacts function as what he called ‘mythomoteurs’; stories that we tell ourselves to fix our sense of identity. I share his suspicion. Thus, the Beckford Room expresses its curators’ drive to identify with the virtues rather than the vices of the 19th-century Scottish aristocracy, and in particular its romanticism; it could equally have been curated to express a drive to identify with the victimhood of the slaves whose suffering made those virtues possible.

    There is a small, token nod in the curation in acknowledgement of the fact that the fortune that Beckford dissipated was built on slavery, as well as to the sexual scandals that led to the gothic novelist’s ostracism from polite society. But, beyond these footnotes, the self-image that the curators promote is thoroughly in the heritage tradition of that Sir Walter Scott invented.

  2. Lindsay Ross says:

    Excellent article! Raises points I, with my Scottish education up to post grad level, was not aware of. Shame on me! Shame on NTS! Shame on education system!

    1. James Mills says:

      ”Shame on me ! ”
      Why ? Were you aware of this ‘history’ and chose to ignore it ? Did you have some material impact on keeping the public in the dark over past injustices ?
      We can get too masochistic about events in the past that we had no control over nor say in .

      Fine , today we can re-assess many of the things we knew little of , like the history of many of our ”great families” and how they accumulated their wealth etc… but don’t self-flagellate over events/history we had not participated in .

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        A couple of years ago, the Nigerian novelist, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, wrote in The New Yorker about her great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic in the late 19th century under license from the Royal Niger Company, the English corporation that governed southern Nigeria at the time. (Even though slavery had long been abolished in the United States and the British Empire, his slaves could still be legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil.) I copied the following passage into my commonplace book:

        ‘“He was a renowned trader,” my father told me proudly. “He dealt in palm produce and human beings.” “Are you not ashamed of what he did?” I asked. “I can never be ashamed of him,” he said, irritated. “Why should I be? His business was legitimate at the time. He was respected by everyone around.” My father is a lawyer and a human-rights activist who has spent much of his life challenging government abuses in southeast Nigeria. He sometimes had to flee our home to avoid being arrested. But his pride in his family was unwavering. “Not everyone could summon the courage to be a slave trader,” he said. “You had to have some boldness in you.”’

        Adaobi maintains that it would be unfair to judge a 19th-century man by 21st-century principles. Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel Africans to cast the majority of their heroes as villains, denying them the right to fully celebrate anyone who hadn’t been influenced by Western ideology. The Enlightenment idea that ‘all men are created equal’ was completely alien to traditional religion and law in her great-grandfather’s society.

        Adaobi also maintains that slave traders like her great-grandfather didn’t suffer any crisis of morals or legality over the nature of their trade. He didn’t need any religious or scientific justifications for his actions. He was simply living the life into which he’d been raised, which was all he knew. His people had been trafficking slaves to white traders since the 15th century.

        Adaobi regrets but feels no need to be ashamed for what her great-grandfather did. I find this attitude both healthy and mature.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    Don’t the NTS talk slavers all the time?

  4. John Learmonth says:

    Up until the industrial revolution every society on the planet was based on slavery.
    So basically every building/artefact worldwide prior to the mid-19C is tainted. The past is the past and moralising over it is a pointless exercise as everybody involved is DEAD.
    Far better to do something about modern day slavery, for instance the circa 7m black people currently enslaved in sub-saharan africa by other black people, doesn’t fit the narrative though……

  5. Wul says:

    The author is being unfair, I think.

    We can hardly expect an organisation that was set up as a vehicle for toffs to avoid tax and get free housing for two generations to reveal the ugly truth about their wealth. Although the grotesque tat that they fill their houses with is a sure sign of easy, ill-gotten gains.

    Now that NTS is struggling financially ( although not quite enough to threaten NTS managers’ jobs, just the folk that do actual work), it may be looking for a new model of historical interpretation “going forward”. Various stately homes could take on a role similar to that of the Auswitch-Birkenau Museum; a reminder of the terrible, shameful deeds which can result from the insanity of de-humanising another people and a warning for those living today to avoid the subjugation of one group of people for the benefit of another.

    1. Josef Ó Luain says:

      You may have nailed our selective Nihilists, Wul, methinks.

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      I’m not a big fan of museums, which are conservative in nature, their purpose being to curate objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance according to one narrative or another. Whenever I visit a museum, I get the discomforting feeling that I’m being led and educated.

      I’d much rather that the buildings that once served as stately homes and now serve as museums were repurposed as ‘musea’: public retreats set apart for study and participation of the arts, whence anyone (and especially those who are normally excluded from participation) could go for the purpose of recreation through making rather than for the consumption of packaged ‘heritage’.

      Such musea would probably be prohibitively expensive, however; these buildings cost a lot to keep up, and musea as such don’t really generate any income.

      Maybe we should take a leaf out of the history books. In my neck of the woods, redundant buildings used to be knocked down and the materials used to build new ones. There’s many a bastle and castle round here that’s been repurposed as a byre, dyke, or ferm-cottage.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Way to totally miss the Horrible Histories zeitgeist, NTS! My impression of the records of time was that slavery was something held in horror by most people who would often use the term to denote their abhorrence of any kind of forced labour, humiliating role or demeaning social status (as objectors to British Royal Navy impressment did). Since many people today are still pro-slavery, it makes as little sense to talk of 21st-century values as it does of 19th-century values. However, it is revealing when people privilege only a relatively small section of the human population as having the views of the time.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      And yet human trafficking as an enterprise was generally more acceptable, both morally and legally, to people in 19th-century Europe and America than it is today, which bespeaks a cultural value change between then and now. How does it NOT make sense to speak of such a change?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Anndrais mac Chaluim, for a start, it makes no sense to talk of “a cultural change” as if we were talking about a single, homogenous culture with a single set of beliefs at any one time. Actual beliefs are individual, while orthodoxies may be generally observed, hypocritically disobeyed or contested. There were in any case public debates stretching back to Valladolid in 1550–1551. Christian orthodoxies generally held the view of one human, one soul. Indeed, many Christians (and Europe was largely formally Christian in the period) viewed the world as a vale of tears, full of sin, suffering, wicked people and wrongdoing. This means that ‘what went on’ in those times is largely irrelevant to the question of moral prescription.

        Furthermore, the political systems of those past centuries were dedicated to suppressing the views of the mass of people and concentrating political power in the hands of a small elite, in Europe monarchies, aristocracies, church hierarchies, generals and interest groups like landowners, industrialists and merchants. It would be very surprising if ‘what was done’ reflected ‘what the mass of people wanted’ therefore. In fact, the British slave trade formally ended for a number of reasons, and when chattel slavery was formally outlawed in parts of the British empire, it was not a moral choice by slave owners, but took a fantastically large bribe of compensation to prise their chains open.

        That the colonial elites still had no scruples about exploiting the people of Africa should be evidenced by the scramble for Africa carve-up between European powers formalised by the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. No Africans were invited to give their say, but then neither was it a democratic choice of European commoners. The genocidal atrocities of these empires, perhaps the worst being in Belgian Congo, reached their peak in the 20th century, if anything marking a decline in moral standards. And (as I have noted before) British histories are lacking when it comes to documenting all the forms of forced labour which followed chattel slavery in the British Empire. Walter Rodney touches on some of these in his work on How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which describes how having economic and political control through colonization gave enormous coercive powers to the European empires in Africa, and very little oversight for the common European.

        Secrecy, then, is a major reason that it is impossible to logically assert that common Europeans found slavery and later forms of colonial forced labour to be ‘acceptable’. Indeed, investigative journalism played a significant part in exposing these atrocities, informing the publics, and creating pressure to end them. The abolitionists, including ex-enslaved-people who gave first-hand testimonies, were first and foremost educators. Once the common people were informed of the atrocities of slavery, opposition to it steadily mounted (while ways to avoid such scrutiny were concocted and deployed).

        And again, you decide that the views of Europeans and an unqualified group of Americans are paramount in deciding what was and was not acceptable in an era. Blistering bias, Tintin! The people with firsthand experience of slavery and human trafficking are the first people we should be listening to, as the institutions can hardly have been kept secret from them. Human history, as you should know, is deeply entwined with the power relations throughout and between past societies. Look at any atrocity, say the witch burnings that happened in Scotland, and apply your logic to claim that ‘It was acceptable back then’. Populations were largely terrorised, but then that has been a fairly common case, and we have been under the shadow of nuclear annihilation by state terrorists since the end of WW2. Historical record, archives, narratives and standard interpretations have been silenced throughout. The British Empire employed enormous, extensive eradications of their imperial history, such as Operation Legacy. It cannot be the case that ordinary Britons accepted the mass incarcerations, tortures, killings, terror and forced labour in places like Kenya if they did not know about them at the time (and much effort expended to keep these away from Parliamentary inquiry and press publication).

        There may have been little public objection to the transportation of German WW2 PoWs around the British Empire and forcing them to labour for years to pay reparations. The USAmerican prison system today has been likened to a modernised enslavement of disproportionately African-descended people. Presumably many British people exploit trafficked sex workers at home and abroad without their views on the subject being available for public consideration. Modern slavery is a worldwide abuse, yet the UK is allied with some of the countries most suspected of its perpetration. What is, and is not, acceptable to Britons then?

        Finally, you should be aware of the philosophical problem of other minds, where we cannot directly or indirectly tell what people were thinking, so we cannot definitively say that people anywhere, anytime believed this or accepted that. We can only look at recorded behaviour and make inferences. We cannot, for example, say how many Europeans believed in a Christian God. This is of especial ethical importance, since presumably people only fear God if they believe in God’s existence, and fear implies coercion. Therefore in ethical terms it is very difficult to say what people really believed was right and wrong in a Christian Europe where various threats from Church and State and neighbour could lead to horrible, life-shortening outcomes. Plus, of course, with the outpourings of social media nowadays not so constrained, we hardly see a consensus on moral issues emerging, and contention is far more normal, as indeed we see in the comments on these very pages.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          Aye, but no one’s talking about a single homogenous culture with a single set of beliefs at any one time. We’re talking about a heterogenous culture in which human trafficking was generally acceptable and another heterogeneous culture in which it is not generally acceptable. The latter being historically a continuation of the former, it’s perfectly legitimate to speak of a value change within a cultural tradition.

          To say that human trafficking was morally and legally acceptable in Europe and America in the 19th century isn’t to say that everyone agreed with it; it’s to say rather that it was permitted by the moral and legal institutions of the day. Likewise, to say that human trafficking’s no longer acceptable in Europe and America isn’t to say that everyone now disagrees with it; it’s to say rather that it’s no longer permitted by the moral and legal institutions of the day.

          I think your mistake lies in thinking that values are private rather than public phenomena; psychological facts about dissociated individual subjects (or ‘minds’ as you might have been taught to call them) rather than social institutions.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, you mix authoritarian, top-down declarations of what is currently morally approved with (if I have interpreted you correctly) a competing intersubjective view of ethics. I was not sure you believed in intersubjectivity because I would regard it is an emergent property of the complex, adaptive systems of human societies. But anyway, the first is imposed rather than being accepted (and states with established churches or Papal authority imposed often harsh penalties for dissent or heresy, and of course there was widespread censorship and controls on the spread of ideas).

            The second, intersubjective view is more interesting, but somewhat more difficult to establish. We might suppose that someone is more likely to behave as they saw fit without coercion, and/or the assumption that no-one will ever observe their actions, but that is unrealistic . Or that the test of their beliefs might be the willingness to lay down their lives for them, or risk death and terrible harms. Certainly, the extreme force, tortures, penalties, security, legal measures, threat/terror applied to keeping slaves in slavery (from Roman to Atlantic trade times) is a good guide that slaves did not willingly submit to enslavement, and in themselves are widely considered moral wrongs, although elites have historically prioritised property rights over human rights. My view is that a core of ethics comes from our biology, and there is no other natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanation for how similar this core is between different human cultures. Where some difference lies is the boundary between ‘human’ and ‘other’, but since Africans were typically converted to Christianity before or after shipping across the Atlantic, they were clearly viewed as human enough by the standards of the day.

            These standards, since antiquity have generally expressed versions of the Golden Rule, one of the consistent components of core cultural ethics:
            So yes, humans believe, but societies and cultures (which cannot ‘believe’ as such) hold intersubjective or shared, common values. You seem to confuse ‘permitted’ with morally acceptable. There are many things permitted in modern European culture that many (possibly even a majority) find morally objectionable. For example, some recent polls have found strong majority opposition to nuclear weapons. And if you have reasonable doubts about such polls, you can hardly assume to know the ethical stances of mass populations in 19th century Europe on slavery. But you seem to be saying that nuclear weapons are acceptable today because powerful elites permit them; and similarly you are saying that the ecological destruction of the planet is also acceptable. And, in conclusion, that the views of aristocrats on slavery matter because they are and were the ruling class and they decided what was and was not acceptable. That is an elitist view of ethics that I reject, find absurd, and of course morally wrong.

        2. John Learmonth says:

          So what do you propose to do about the current slave trade in Africa?

          1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            I don’t have the power to do anything about the current slave trade in Africa. Do you imagine you do?

  7. Arboreal Agenda says:

    There was a programme on the BBC I saw a little while ago about Harewood House (hosted by Mary Berry – it was mostly a cooking programme ), built in the mid 18th century (with interior design by Robert Adam). At one point Berry asked someone from the Harewood House Trust about who built it and how they made their money and she said it was Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood (the family still owns the house), who made his money ‘in plantations in Jamaica’ and it was left at that though there was on odd pregnant pause at the end of the conversation as if something was left unsaid. Of course Edwin Lascelles was a slave trader and the huge wealth he accumulated was from that and subsequent income from the sugar plantations they worked. But this dark fact was left out presumably because it was deemed not the right ‘tone’ for such a programme. I considered that a gross oversight however.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Well, the dark fact wasn’t ‘left out’; it was implicit in the phrase ‘in plantations in Jamaica’. It’s hardly Mary Berry’s fault if people can’t be bothered to educate themselves sufficiently to be able to unpack such phrases.

      Anyone who really gives a toss could begin with Harewood House itself. As a visitor attraction, it runs a history tour for schools, which includes The Slave Trade as a key historical moment. ‘Find out about the history of the slave trade and its evolution in the West Indies,’ runs the promotional patter. ‘Free labour was used to grow tobacco, cotton, sugar and rum. Discover how so many of Britain’s institutions, including Harewood House, were funded through these plantations.’

      Moreover, back in 2007, to celebrate the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Harewood House also staged a production of Carnival Messiah. a radical reinvention of Handel’s Messiah that fuses traditional and contemporary music, dance and carnival practices. Its creator was Geraldine Connor, a theatre director, musician, and educationalist from Trinidad, and was born of Geraldine’s desire to celebrate both her Caribbean and her British roots. The production ran for over two weeks in a big top in the grounds of the Harewood Estate, with a cast of over 100 community performers from Chapeltown supported by a cohort of international artists.

      Incidentally, the Geraldine Connor Foundation (https://www.gcfoundation.co.uk), which Harewood House was instrumental in setting up and which it continues to support (both Terry Suthers, former CEO of the Harewood House Trust, and Diane Howse, who developed and oversees Harewood’s cultural policy, serve on the GCF Board – Diane currently chairs its meetings), is well-worth supporting if you’ve a few bob to spare.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Arboreal Agenda, yes, cooking or more specifically baking programmes are well placed to educate people (including the small children who might be watching with families) about where ingredients come or came from. Elizabeth Heyrick, whose compelling abolitionist pamphlet is referenced in the article linked, called for a sugar boycott in the UK:
      People today may want to think about their own cake ingredients, and which ones are particularly exploitative of people or planet. By searching for a non-slavery product cake recipe, I didn’t find one, but I did find a story that relates how the Southern white abolitionist Grimké sisters ordered a wedding cake with slave-free sugar. This kind of history demonstrates how women could take part in political actions in societies that they had no vote in, and is useful in correcting the crippling conception that ‘politics’ is somehow confined to political parties and elections.

      1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

        Fairtrade sugar is widely available.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Anndrais mac Chaluim, perhaps some fairtrade products are available in some places, but if baking programmes regularly covered how cake ingredients were produced, perhaps it would have been more difficult for Nestlé to drop fairtrade sugar and cocoa from their Kitkat product (itself involving a story including Rowntree and English confectionary history).
          Most notably, the ‘business-as-usual’ assurances that Nestlé gave Rowntree after buying them out, then shortly renéged on, and what that means for consumers and corporations and civic authorities in world going forth (see the Financial Times’ story The hard truth about soft centres from 2009 for example).

      2. Arboreal Agenda says:

        Really interesting SleepingDog, thanks.

        And yes that was my point – this prime time TV programme was a very good place to at least acknowledge how such places as Harewood were built and educate the casual viewer who would not necessarily associate plantations with slavery, but they did not (and this is not really about Harewood specifically). It may even have been that they did discuss it but it was edited out. What Harewood does otherwise to highlight this issue is not relevant. It is those who produced the programme that I have a problem with, not Berry necessarily, as they clearly decided to ignore the issue. It would have been better had they never mentioned the owner at all really as they hinted at it but then left it. Why?

        As for earlier comments about judging things only from a past perspective, the obvious question is whose perspective? What that seems to mean is the perspective of those who we now regard as being involved in reprehensible acts e.g. slave trading. But what about those who opposed such acts, and they were many? Is their perspective irrelevant? When you look back what is noticeable is that the justification for slave trading was not moral in the sense that is was an acceptable thing to do (though that perspective did exist) but economic – we rely on this money, you can’t just ban this! When objections finally reached a head the main defence against banning the slave trade was exactly that, monetary. Interesting that one of the first cases in the UK was in Scotland involving Boswell who was defending a black man who was brought back by his owner to carry on being enslaved in Scotland, which was deemed illegal and so no slaves were allowed on this island at least. Funnily enough Boswell was pro-slavery and was just doing his job so he sought the advice of Johnson as to how to help his client, Johnson being vehemently anti-slavery. It’s all in the Life.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          One must (and, indeed, can only) judge things from one’s own perspective. From my perspective, human trafficking is wrong… full stop. It was as wrong in the 19th century as it is today. In relation to human trafficking, I’m fairly conservative in my attitude, insofar as it’s consonant with the morality that prevails in my society rather than with any of the dissident moralities on the margins of that society.

          My earlier point was that my attitude towards human trafficking would have been fairly radical in the 19th century, insofar is it would have been dissonant with the morality that prevailed in 19th century Europe and America, which held that human trafficking was permissible for precisely the sorts of reason you adumbrate.

          Ethics doesn’t transcend history; it isn’t a body of absolute truths about what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to which ‘good’ people are somehow attuned and ‘evil’ people aren’t. Ethics is a social institution that expresses current social praxis; that is, the activity through which we create and change our historical world and ourselves. As the nature of this productive activity changes, so too and accordingly does a society’s ethics change. That’s Marx for you in a nutshell.

          The ‘wrongness’ of human trafficking isn’t written in the stars; it’s relative to our social praxis. Likewise, relative to the social praxis of preindustrial Europe and America, human trafficking was morally permissible on the grounds you indicate. The individuals and societies who made money from human trafficking weren’t ‘moral monsters’; they were mostly the children of their time, not ours.

          1. Arboreal Agenda says:

            I think that is all pretty sound though I would question your downplaying of the objections to slave trading as ‘dissident moralities on the margins of that society’. Samuel Johnson was not on the margins of society, for example.

            Now, I am no expert in this but when you say it was consonant with ‘morality that prevailed in 19th century Europe and America’ (and we should extend that to the 18th century) what is this assumption based on and was it the same everywhere? It certainly was not the same in GB compared to the US as it was illegal to keep slaves in GB so clearly that was considered wrong. Everything was very remote for most people in this country and I suspect they were far from aware of what it really entailed and the spread of ideas and information was much harder to do. History is told to us mostly by those who had power so where would find out so much about those who did object? And how much power did they have? What we do know is that the road to abolition was very long indeed so required dedicated work from those and especially those who did have some power (like Wilberforce). What I am wondering is how many people when asked the moral question of whether slavery was right and good ‘in the eyes of God’, say, would they, as a big majority, say ‘yes. it’s fine’. And I am really not so sure but how do you really show this to be the case if not?

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, I am not quite sure how ethics rules out other perspectives (when in Rome… etc.), but anyway I disagree with your central point about moral relativism. Developmental psychology has consistently shown that very young children have a sense of fairness before they have acquired cultural norms. Not only children: monkeys and other social animals have been shown to demonstrate intolerance of unfairness:
            So, in a Cinderella-type arrangement, when two children are pampered and the third child in the family has to slave for them, this unfairness will be self-evident to the children involved.

            This supports my contention that a core part of our ethics comes from biology. Not the entirety of ethics, of course. And different species with different biology might be tolerant of some kind of slavery, for example a social caste-species like ants, perhaps.

            It is noteworthy that Greek philosopher Plato in describing his ideally just city-state (The Republic) did not maintain that people were born into different castes; they were to be told a ‘noble lie’ to make them believe that this was so, to encourage social harmony and toleration of this artificial hierarchy.

            So a core ethics comes from our biology as a social species, and indeed transcends history. And because that core includes a profound sense of fairness about sharing and equal rewards for work, slavery in humans is essentially unfair, unethical, and has to be justified by lies, noble or otherwise.

          3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            @Arboreal Agenda

            My claim that human trafficking was consonant with the morality that prevailed in 19th-century Europe and America is based on the observation that it was permitted by the moral and legal institutions of the day. These were not exactly the same everywhere, but they were more or less equal with respect to their tolerance of human trafficking.

            The appeal to ignorance (that ‘most people’ may have been far from aware of what human trafficking really entailed) is difficult to establish. How can we know what ‘most people’ in 19th century Europe and America were and weren’t aware of?

            That said, however, it’s demonstrably the case, from the list the individuals who received compensation under The Slave Compensation Act of 1837, which was compiled by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London, and which is freely available online through its database, that human trafficking was largely a joint-stock affair, with people from all walks of life having invested their savings in the buying, breeding and selling of slaves. It was hardly a dark secret. (Incidentally, the database has also established that only just over 10% of Britain’s wealthy families at the time had anything to do with slavery; it seemed to be a mainly lower-middle-class venture.)

            We simply have no way of determining how many people, when asked whether slavery was right and good ‘in the eyes of God’, say, would have replied, ‘Yes, it’s fine’. Which is why, as an historian, I prefer to excavate the praxis manifest in visible social institutions, rather than speculate about the invisible consciences of ‘most people’, when I’m interrogating the values of a society.

          4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:


            If ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are reducible to biological difference, then being ‘bad’ can be no more or less reprehensible than being ‘black’ or being ‘autistic’, and vice versa.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, I have repeatedly offered the view that a core (not all) ethics comes from our biology. Ethics is an emergent property, and like human culture in general, cannot be reduced to its component precursors. Ethical values may have a strong biological component, but ethical systems are based on complex interactions between adaptive agents, environments and culture. I do not understand your point about comparisons with non-ethical biology.

            So in my view, people rationally make a distinction about morally bad female genital mutilation in some cultures on the grounds of its biological harm and damage, while considering male circumcision which does not lead to such biological harm and damage (if painless) as morally neutral. And we can extend ethics from our own biology into the living world to value non-human life, and make comparisons about how we should treat animals to avoid or minimise their suffering.

            So far, you have summarised your viewpoint along the same lines as the Dungeons and Dragons alignment of lawful evil:
            which is given other names by practitioners. Rulers such as Henry VIII have tried to unify political and moral authority under their own absolute rule (after undermining rival authority of church orders), but perhaps people will be more familiar with modern examples of fascisms which attempted the same. You are arguing that only what these political rulers and moral authorities permit should be considered ethically good in their jurisdictions.

            I am going to use the word ‘absurd’ in its philosophical logical refutation sense here.

            I think your view of ethics as permitted activities is absurd because ethical systems are as much about positive acts, duties, such as protection of values as about prohibitions. Royalty (for example, Royal African Company) and Church (say, Codrington Plantations) participated in (not just permitted) slavery.

            I think your view of ethics as emanating from political rulers and moral authorities is absurd because then there would be no way of ethically evaluating such sources, when we know that history is replete with such dissent and challenges. Slavish obedience to authority in any case can hardly involve ethical consideration. Furthermore, elites were widely perceived as corrupt, divided, remote, incoherent, unstable, alien and often outright malign; plus elites often practiced hypocrisies (public virtue, private vice) and double standards (one law for rich, another for poor, and so on). Many through history have pointed out deeply illogical inconsistencies in supposedly moral guidance texts like the Christian bible. For the average person in the street, drawing some kind of moral code from what some never-seen throne-squatter may or may not have managed to formulate is an absurd fantasy.

            What we do know is that when such rule and authority were cast off (as during the Civil War period when the ‘Antichrist’ — according to many — Charles I was beheaded after being found guilty of treason) or their censorship relaxed (as happened for a period after legislation lapsed after the initial Restoration clampdown) we find a flourishing of diverse ethical ideas being published. One important Christian tradition of individual conscience was developed by Quakers into the still, small voice within. Many saw newly-translated-to-vernacular Bibles as the moral authority, certainly not any corrupt church hierarchy. The question of whether slavery was ethical at the time could be addressed by the common Christian question of “What would Jesus do?”. The idea of Jesus being on the side of slavers seems absurd to me, as I imagine it would to common people of the heigh-day of British transatlantic slavery. Indeed, plantation owners were keen to keep seditious missionaries from spreading the gospel of universal brotherhood amongst their enslaved people.

            Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) makes the common sense case that we develop a moral sense through sympathy. If people at the time felt sympathy for the sufferings of enslaved people at the time and expressed this in terms we can understand as moral disapproval, then it is reasonable to infer that a section of the public of the time regarded slavery as a moral wrong, regardless of whether their political rulers or so-called ‘moral authorities’ permitted the practice or not.

          6. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:


            You’re flailing at straw men. Where did I say that ethics emanates from political rulers and moral authorities? All I’ve said is that, in 19th-century Europe and America, human trafficking was as a matter of fact morally and legally permissible under the prevailing ideology of the time.

          7. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, did you not write:
            “My claim that human trafficking was consonant with the morality that prevailed in 19th-century Europe and America is based on the observation that it was permitted by the moral and legal institutions of the day”

            I may have conflated some of your comments but I think the sense is still that you argued for an elitist interpretation of imposed morality (or lack of it), rather than one that included individual conscience or views of dissident groups (like nonconformist churches), or a social contract view that the general will ‘accepted’ certain things as morally permissible. It is hard to see where you get a straw man from. For myself, it is more significant for ethical debate that the UK legislature was dominated for a period by the West Indian planters’ faction so I used the term ‘political rulers’ in a sense intended to include them. Do you want to clarify your previous comments?

          8. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            No, they’re clear enough.

          9. Arboreal Agenda says:

            Actually you haven’t given any evidence it was ‘morally’ acceptable just that it was in law. You added morally to give it weight. The law does not always operate morally but through expediency.

          10. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            @Arboreal Agenda

            I didn’t say that it was morally acceptable per se, but that it was permissible under the moral thinking that prevailed in 19th-century Europe and America.

            I’m not denying that there was a contrary moral position; indeed, that contrary position eventually prevailed to become the dominant ideology as European and American economies transitioned further from mercantilism and agrarianism respectively towards free-market capitalism, for which slavery was an ‘inefficiency’.

            The evidence I offered (remember?) was that of praxis; that fact that human trafficking was permitted by the moral institutions that prevailed at the time is its own evidence that it was morally permissible under the moral thinking that prevailed at the time.

            I suppose it depends on whether you think morality is a social institution or you think it transcends history. As far as I’m concerned, morality is just moral thinking, and our moral thinking is, like all thinking, a product of our social praxis.

            All of which I’ve said before (remember?):

            ‘Ethics is a social institution that expresses current social praxis; that is, the activity through which we create and change our historical world and ourselves. As the nature of this productive activity changes, so too and accordingly does a society’s ethics change. That’s Marx for you in a nutshell.’

            What do you think morality is?

          11. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, what do you mean by ‘prevail’ and ‘dominate’? I was watching a documentary on games of the period and the presenter glibly stated that the middle class played a different selection of games from the (from their perspective) coarse working classes and (louche, corrupt?) aristocracy for moral reasons. The example was the Game of the Goose, with its squares meant to convey moral lessons (stay out of the tavern). That is very much in the vein of the article above. So if you mean whatever pretensions (some of) the ruling classes had, this would be a social minority not a majority. Why not simply see the forceable practice of slavery as “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and nothing to do with morality?

            Whereas, the UK Parliament was seen as enormously corrupt (even English Heritage says so) with its rotten boroughs, bribed electorates and drunken members which of course included Lords Spiritual. That was why there was such a popular desire for reform, expressed in mass gatherings, and crushed at the massacre of Peterloo, followed by the draconian Six Acts of repression. Previously the ruling class had been terrified of the prospect of democracy spreading from France. And the Georgian kings were widely mocked for their vices, while the Bloody Code was hardly popular, with its elitist raising of property rights over the lives of ordinary people (stealing a loaf to feed one’s starving family may have been most people’s idea of a morally good act, but the punishments were severe).

            Elizabeth Heyrick, along with other abolitionists, appealed to reason, nature, and biological sympathy with the sufferings of enslaved people to make their cases. She wrote:
            “greater victories have been achieved by the combined expression of individual opinion, than by fleets and armies; — that greater moral revolutions have been accomplished by the combined exertion of individual resolution, than were ever effected by acts of Parliament.” Damned right.
            Abolitionists used maps and models of slave ships to demonstrate the appalling physical (biological) conditions experienced by captives during the Middle Passage. What are your moral authorities, then? Why not just name them, these dominant justifiers of slavery that somehow you are enthralled with but who seem irrelevant to so many contemporaries?

            By your statements, how can any law be evil, or indeed moral pressure to change the law? How can there be any contemporary moral condemnation of legal South African apartheid, or accounting for those who refused to see the Spanish Inquisition as a good thing? What is a moral authority, and where do they get their morals from?

          12. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:


            ‘prevail’: to prove more powerful

            ‘dominate’: to have power over

            ‘Why not simply see the forceable practice of slavery as “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and nothing to do with morality?’

            Because every practice is susceptible to moral judgement; that is, to being judged ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by us, in accordance with some or other criterion of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’.

            ‘What are your moral authorities, then? Why not just name them?’

            In 19th-century Europe and America, the moral authorities were, for example, those to whom Elizabeth Heyrick, along with other abolitionists, appealed in their reformist crusades. Today, they are those to whom our present-day reformers appeal in their campaigns and from whose prevailing morality our moral dissidents dissent.

            ‘[H]ow can any law be evil?’

            Because we judge it so, in accordance with some or other criterion of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’, ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

            ‘What is a moral authority…’

            A moral authority is the author of whichever morality prevails in a society at any given time.

            ‘…and where do they get their morals from?’

            Morals (the criteria of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ we employ in making our moral judgements) don’t ‘come’ from anywhere like tablets of stone. They emerge as expressions of our own social praxis (remember? – Marx? – I’ve said this before) and change as that praxis changes.

          13. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, thank you for your detailed and patient reply, and if I find it unintelligible, opaque, occasionally circuitous, puzzlingly dogmatic and surprisingly detached from historical example, the fault may be mine.

            You have your historical facts wrong about Elizabeth Heyrick’s pamphlet on Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition, though. For abolitionists like her, the moral argument had been long won. She was not trying to persuade gradualist legislators like Henry Dundas (who had been impeached for immoral conduct under elite rules) but to gather support for a popular sugar boycott aimed at bankrupting the West Indian planters and ending their slave economy. The Abolition laws supported not condemned the idea of enslaved people as property, and rewarded not punished slave owners with eye-watering compensation payments.

            I am not sure why you are trying to drag Karl Marx into this, unless you are attempted to discredit him by association. His writings came after abolition, while those of Adam Smith on the origin of moral sentiments came before, yet you have not explained why you reject Smith’s theory that moral sentiments derive largely from sympathy, which may be backed by psychological research into mirroring and helps explain why young children have demonstrated a moral sense even before they can talk.

            Indeed, if you look for relevant cultural critiques, in the Shakespeare plays the moral crimes grow in magnitude as you ascend the social scale. The ‘best’ royal amongst a bad, bad bunch is Henry V, who escapes the corruption of the court to the less morally dissolute environment of common thieves and prostitutes, but even then fails to convince his soldiers that his cause in France is just (they imagine a horrible reckoning of dismembered bodies calling the king to account).

            ‘Prevail’, ‘dominate’: that is an absurd view of ethics, which is the measure by which powerful abuses are held to account. Your unitary view of legal-moral supremacy is equally ridiculous. There was no such thing then, and no such thing now. Your view is like a patriarchal father claiming that his moral pronouncements alone had weight, and that they continued to be right even when they broke their own moral rules since they were incapable of being wrong ex officio.

            If you are a published philosophically-trained historian, perhaps wiser commentators than I have pointed out similar objections.

          14. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:


            Well, that’s me told! 🙂

          15. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            @SleepingDog (a.k.a. CheekyBastard)

            So, I guess I just won’t take a telling. Finding myself for the moment idle, and with the time weighing heavily on my hands, I thought I’d bait you some more. Here are my thoughts on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, since you wonder why I reject it. I suspect these thoughts may be equally beyond you, but the fun is in the writing. Seeing what you try to make of them might also be amusing.

            I’m actually a big fan of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments; while I can’t subscribe to his theory, it being a child of its time, I think that, as a child of its time, it’s a valuable historical artefact from which we can reconstruct the kind of morality that was rising to dominance during the Enlightenment as part of the ideology of capitalism.

            Key features of Smith’s Theory are:

            1. there are two levels of virtue, the commercial virtues and the noble virtues;

            2. both the commercial virtues and the noble virtues are egoistical;

            3. the commercial virtues – prudence, justice, industry, frugality, constancy, and so on – aim to maximise the agent’s material wellbeing;

            4. the noble virtues – benevolence, generosity, gratitude, compassion, kindness, pity, friendship, love, etc. – aim to maximise the esteem in which the agent is held by others in society;

            5. the cardinal virtue – the one that holds the others together, like the keystone in an arch – is self-command or stoicism; it’s through the exercise of self-command that an agent can bring his/her sentiments into a balance that harmonises with the divine order of the universe, which harmony is what, in stoic philosophies, constitutes human happiness;

            6. in order to bring about the happiness of mankind and, with it, the completion of the divine order of the universe, all human beings have been endowed by a beneficent and utilitarian deity (Smith’s famous ‘Invisible Hand’) with sympathy – the capacity to enter into the emotions of other people and to see one’s own sentiments reflected in those others;

            7. however, moral education (discipline and punishment) is required to awaken and cultivate this innate capacity, in order for us to progress from having no standards of moral judgement as children (in a state of nature) to having widely shared standards of moral judgement as adults (in a state of society);

            8. thus, our moral sense does not exist (as it did for Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson) as a kind of intuitive ‘sixth sense’, but only as a latency that is actualised through some process of discipline and punishment.

            It’s evident from his Theory of Moral Sentiments that, as a moralist, Smith can be classified in the historical pantheon as a deist who subscribed to a stoic morality. As a deist, he viewed the creator as a benevolent but detached force in the world’s order – an Invisible Hand. As a natural religionist more generally, he considered the universe to be governed by irrefutable natural laws through which God orders His creation; morality he viewed as comprising part of those natural laws. Being a child of my time, I just can’t bring myself to subscribe to such a theory.

            Smith’s project in his Theory was to elucidate the principles that, as a matter of fact, govern our conduct in the practical world (our morals), principles which we have a religious duty as God’s creatures to enact in our social interaction. Smith envisioned a system of stoic morality that had been designed by God with the aim of human happiness and universal harmony, in the enactment of which individuals unknowingly benefit the good of all by pursuing their own private interests. This is the morality of classical and neo-liberalism.

            However, as Marx would have said, Smith had it ‘butt-end foremost’. What’s expressed in his Theory are the principles that govern our social interactions as these have been determined, not (as he reckoned) absolutely by ‘the Invisible Hand’ of some beneficent creator, but historically (as is reckoned by auld Marxists like myself) by the existential relations of production, distribution, and exchange that we call ‘capitalism’.

            If you ever fancy reading Smith’s Theory (and it’s well worth a read as an historical curiosity and an example of the ideological nature of morality), you can download it thriftily from https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/smith1759.pdf

            Since you also wonder why I’ve dragged in Karl Marx, here’s a link to an article I wrote way-back-when, which I anticipate might also flummox you:

            Happy reading!

          16. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Apologies! The link above doesn’t lead to my 1980 paper; this one does https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KLgHxtMTE5fMvH1yt0rvrQxaUeLvnqnZ/view?usp=sharing

          17. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, I did not address the full scope of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments but just his description of the origin of these from a sense of sympathy or fellow feeling, stemming from our shared biology, which is inescapably relevant to slavery. It has been a while since I read his rather turgid volume. Perhaps a modern word-processor would have helped, or Enlightenment philosophers adopted a style designed to close the eyes of heretic-burning censors. Of course they had to credit a God of sorts at that time, I wouldn’t read too much into that, nor in the patriarchal use of ‘his’ (or you could get the impression that the theory only applies to males). That Smith’s view of ethics was ‘egotistical’ is challenged in the Amartya Sen introduction to the copy I have. Anyway, Smith sets out his stall clearly: however selfish (not a part of ethics) any human might be, they have principles (ethics) in their nature (biology) which interest them in others, joying in they joy, sorrowing for their sorrow.

            I am afraid I am a slow reader, and have a sprawling stack of books to-read, but your offer is appreciated.

            Would it be cheeky to suggest that you have spent considerable time and effort here to promote the view that might makes right? That it is the masters of society that set the prevailing, dominant code of ethics which must be accepted by later historians as defining the rights and wrongs of the day?

          18. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Ah, but Smith didn’t locate the origin of bourgeois morality in an active sense of sympathy; that was the position of his teacher, Hutcheson, of which Smith was critical. Smith located it rather in a latent capacity for sympathy, which requires education to activate as a moral sense. What’s more, for Smith this latent capacity is a gift of God rather than an immanent feature of our biology. It’s all there, in black and white, in the text itself.

            Anyway, that I’ve ‘spent considerable time and effort here to promote the view that might makes right’ is news to me. Before you went off on one, I’d merely made the point that it may be unjust to judge the behaviour of our ancestors by the moral standards that prevail in today’s society, for the reason that the moral standards that prevailed then were different from those which prevail today. A player who’s offside by today’s rules might not have been offside in the 1950s.

            I’d also here add that, even if it were just, the whole exercise would be to our minds pointless; it would be like digging up dead people to throw stones at them, or hang them like they did Cromwell’s remains.

            Finally, it’s not the business of an historian to define the rights and wrong of the day; it’s rather to glean from the artefacts that have come down to us how – by what structures and processes of their social praxis – the contemporary agencies themselves defined those rights and wrongs.

          19. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim (aka Thrasymachus), but your response is symptomatic your bizarre notion of ethics: firstly that ethics equates to law (the laws of the game of association football, you might want to look up Law 11); secondly that one set of moral rules ‘prevails’ or ‘dominates’ at any particularly time in History as in the international with one authority (as in the International Football Association Board); thirdly that the authorities were unified, consistent, and applied the same moral codes to themselves and all sections of human society at home and abroad. This is ahistorical nonsense. What are the “the moral standards that prevail in today’s society”, exactly? Why did you have to give an example from football instead of one more relevant to slavery?

            I never said anything about judging slavery from 200+ years ago on the basis of modern standards, I argued that the behaviour of people as recorded throughout history indicates a general sympathy for the suffering of others on the basis of shared biology, which is a universal trait, and a core of ethics emerges from this during normal socialization (and therefore is historically universal but does not happen in the same degree to all cases, it is after all noted that a small minority of humans display sociopathic and/or sadistic tendencies).

            As for Adam Smith’s crediting God, I believe the legislation under which Thomas Aitkenhead was executed some sixty years before Theory of Moral Sentiments was still in force until a generation after Smith’s death. What would you say the consequences of Smith’s *not* crediting God likely to be? Anyway, as God supposedly created biology, it seems unnecessary to claim a special, magical ethical property was needed in addition.

            If you can tell me what today’s moral authorities are and what they say on the modern question of nuclear weapons, I would be obliged. Scotland hosts nuclear weapons, but it has no formal say, and its legal sphere is partly dominated by the laws of the UK, and further by international treaties and obligations, while effectively also such weapons are under some practical control of the USAmerican empire. An international law against nuclear weapons is in the process of being ratified by sovereign nations of the world. There are popular movements against, and for, nuclear weapons, although you seem not to take these into account. Some countries have them, most do not. So are nuclear weapons right or wrong by today’s moral standards?

          20. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            ‘…the behaviour of people as recorded throughout history indicates a general sympathy for the suffering of others…’

            What is the evidence for this claim? Which people? What records?

            ‘If you can tell me what today’s moral authorities are and what they say on the modern question of nuclear weapons, I would be obliged.’

            I’ve already told you: ‘…they are those to whom our present-day reformers appeal in their campaigns [for change] and from whose prevailing morality our moral dissidents dissent.’ Here we go round the mulberry bush yet again!

            In relation to the specific issue of nuclear weapons, the prevalent view (of which there are a number of variations) is that our possession of them is morally permissible; the dissident view (of which there is again a number of variations) is that it isn’t. Whether it is morally permissible or not will depend on the view you buy into.

            As an historian and as a philosopher, I strive to remain impartial and subscribe to neither view. It’s what, on the road, we used to call ‘keeping our pockets clean’ – a.k.a. ‘methodological scepticism’. As I said before, it’s not the business of an historian or a philosopher to define the rights and wrong of the day; it’s rather to discover and analyse the structures and processes of social praxis (including the political struggles between them) by which the various agencies themselves define those rights and wrongs for society as a whole.

          21. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, if the war of all against all was human nature, we should logically have died out by now. We know humans have had social-positive norms because of the track record of mutual aid (we even have paleontological evidence that sabre-toothed tigers looked after their wounded and non-productive), as we also have evidence of social-negative norms. But since our species has survived and multiplied, the positive so far seems to have outweighed the negative. As I have mentioned previously, the consistent appearance of the Golden Rule in human cultures throughout the ages indicates that treating others with the respect you hope to be treated with is at least paid lip service through recorded history. In fact, the vast majority of cultural forms would be unintelligible if people did not identify with or sympathise with the characters in them, and stories have long been used for moral education on that basis. Anthropologically and otherwise, the prevalence of hospitality norms to strangers in subsistence cultures is well-attested, as well as pre-historical collectivism (I read something about Nelson Mandela’s description of Ubuntu recently).

            There have been interesting experiments on what it takes to override one’s biological sympathy towards another’s apparent suffering (a man in a white coat worked part of the time for some). There are also those who wrote of their horror at seeing Caribbean slavery for the first time, then somehow rationalising it as less evil as they presumably absorbed the norms of slavery society. These rationalisations may have required racist formulations (they are not like us, they feel less pain etc). However, many who discovered the true nature of such slavery remained horrified and some became leading abolitionists, including ex-enslaved people.

            What is this flannel about campaigners trying to appeal to the ‘moral authorities’ to change their minds? And how can you be a moral authority if non-authorities persuade you to change your mind anyway?! Surely the point of democratic, popular and revolutionary change is to replace those in power who you disagree with, not change their minds. Again with the prevalent… what moral authority do the state nuclear terrorists have, exactly? Again, woefully unspecific. “Whether it is morally permissible or not will depend on the view you buy into”, applies the same to British imperial chattel slavery.

            English common law and to some extent military ethics have a foundation principle of things “mala in se”, always wrong in themselves whether legally permitted or not. Unsurprisingly, these include the core biology-based moral crimes like murder, rape and separating children from their families (all committed extensively during the enslavement of peoples). Nuclear weapons like chattel slavery are mala in se, and the former threaten not only a grave threat to planetary biology but annihilation of human history.
            Both have been defended by some on moral grounds of being lesser or necessary evils, but I have never heard a convincing argument along those lines, nor ever expect to. The alleged ability of nuclear weapons to destroy incoming asteroids does not justify them being pointed at cities full of millions and millions of people around the planet.

            On the limits of Marxism (and Foucault) to explain historical movements, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation has some valuable insights from a feminist perspective, where she talks about, amongst other things, the hidden history of women’s slavery, and the resistance movements women took part in and sometimes led against it, often popular heretical movements that were mostly eventually savagely crushed. Just as some women participated in enslaving others, or getting them burnt as witches, Marx’s economic-class-based theories have not modelled the complexity and contention within human society (as far as I know, and I did study a bit of Marx). Federici also describes the double (plural, with class) standards applied to women in the transition to capitalism, and how in many cases they experienced a regression in social status (becoming banned from professions). One recorded moral reason for parts of British society rejecting chattel slavery was that families were torn apart on the whim of their enslavers (while keeping children together with their families as they all wage-slaved together in factories counted as progress).

          22. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Away you go again… Is it a kind of hysteria, I wonder? I didn’t ask for examples of people being nice to each other. I wondered what evidence you have for the claim that ‘…the behaviour of people as recorded throughout history indicates a general sympathy for the suffering of others…’ I reckon you could come up with just as many examples of people being shitty to each other.

            Moreover, our species has survived and multiplied not because we’ve been nice to each other, but because the instability of our biochemistry produced physical variation among each generation’s prodigy that’s sufficiently wide to ensure that we haven’t been weeded out in the natural selection process.

            ‘What is this flannel about campaigners trying to appeal to the ‘moral authorities’ to change their minds?’

            I’ve no idea. Those reformers who campaign against the prevailing moral orthodoxy appeal to its authors to change their ways rather than their minds. Abolitionists campaigned for the abolition of chattel slavery, for example, not for a change in the way people feel about chattel slavery; campaigners for unilateral nuclear disarmament campaign for (yes, you’ve guessed it) unilateral nuclear disarmament, not for a change in the way people feel about the risk of mutually assured destruction.

            ‘“Whether it is morally permissible or not will depend on the view you buy into”, applies the same to British imperial chattel slavery.’

            Precisely! There are no moral absolutes; all ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ is relative to our social praxis. THAT’s the whole point; that’s why it may be unjust to judge the behaviour of our ancestors, nearly all of whom benefitted from human trafficking, by the moral standards that prevail in today’s society?

            Do you get it now? Has the penny dropped?

          23. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, the job of many historians appears to be to paint the ancestors of their patrons in the best possible light. In the British Empire, historians have been secretly employed by the state to lie in order to justify the overthrow of democracies (as apparently happened before the overthrown of Mossadeq). Historians have covered up British war crimes, according to Antony Beevor, and have failed to tell the true story of empire and slavery. Tom Devine apologised for this on Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame, and other historians have protested about the current whitewashing of the official handbook for the citizen test:
            And so it goes.

            So why would historians go to such lengths of deception if they could get away with saying “bad things happened”? It is because ordinary people can see through the smokescreen that you are putting up here. There are things that, from a human point of view, are bad in themselves and no ‘moral authority’ can gainsay. In fact, submission to a moral authority is a form of slavery, as at least one philosopher has argued. A serious problem for your view is that, according to my sources, many English common law offences are based on self-evident views of moral wrongs. Murder, torture, rape, child abduction, the very kinds of things that went on in British colonial slavery. It doesn’t matter what the legislators try to pull, these will always be wrong (according to the common belief). This is, from political theory, how kings can be dethroned (otherwise they would have been above the law). The Monarchomachs even justified tyrannicide in this way, but many political theorists like John Locke argued that the rights of rulers were not absolute, there were some universal moral truths, and in any case the divine rights of kings was a fraud. It was entirely possible for an English judge to make a legal ruling on slavery in England on the basis of malum in se (even though they tried very hard not to do this).

            Your imagined ‘moral authorities’ which you have never had the nerve to name are merely your projections back into the past. You are judging by your own standards who these authorifairies are, without presenting any evidence that a majority or minority of people also regarded them as such. You write in one moment that moral standards are contested, yet contradict that in another asserting that a single standard ‘prevails’ at any particular time which is utterly ridiculous. The problem of setting such moral distance in time and space is that (logically) you may eventually have to give up making moral judgments about the local present, or come up with some workable system of boundaries. But if there is a core biology-based ethics that transcends time and space, which appears to be a very widespread view in human culture, then we can say that historical chattel slavery violated those values, in itself and also in murder, torture, rape, child abduction and so on, and there is ample evidence that people at the time (including common law experts) would see things in this way, whatever laws the corrupt, hypocritical, planter- and landlord-dominated legislature or pro-slavery monarch made.

          24. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            No, you still don’t get it. Shame… I hate to see you blundering about like this. Maybe I should stop tormenting you.

            ‘There are things that, from a human point of view, are bad in themselves…’

            There’s no such thing as a ‘human’ point of view; it’s a fiction that masks a will to power. There’s your point of view and there’s my point of view, and all the myriad points of view that comprise the multiverse we collectively inhabit. The idea that your axiological preference – that there are things that a bad in themselves – is the ‘human’ point of view (and, by implication, that those who do not share your preference are ‘inhuman’) is, in my view, monstrous.

            ‘A serious problem for your view is that, according to my sources, many English common law offences are based on self-evident views of moral wrongs.’

            Then your sources are incorrect. The common law is the law declared by judges, derived from custom (the prevailing view of right and wrong) and precedent (the previous declarations of law by judges) rather than from self-evidence. It was dubbed ‘common’, not because it in some way expressed the authority of the commonality against that of the elite in society, but because it meant to apply universally across the whole of the realm, thus imposing the authority of the judges’ declarations over the commonality with the force of law.

            Incidentally, you do know what ‘malum in se’ actually refers to in law, don’t you? It refers to conduct that is judged ‘sinful’ (and therefore inherently wrong, whatever we feel about it) rather than merely prohibited (i.e. customarily wrong). It’s got bugger-all to do with ‘self-evidence’. Sheesh!

            And by the way: I’ve just surveyed my posts, and nowhere do I speak of ‘moral authorities’, except once, when I responded to your non sequitur request for a definition of the term. I’ve been speaking rather of ‘moral institutions’, the author of which is social praxis. The latter (‘moral institutions’) seems to have been transmuted into the former (‘moral authorities’) by your hysteria. Like I’ve said: you’ve set up a straw man and subsequently challenged me to name. Okay, her name is ‘Aunt Sally’.

          25. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, William Blackstone in volume 2 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1770) (p18) wrote, in regard to wives and servants having some exceptions in civil offences committed under compulsion from husbands and masters, in a section on public wrongs:
            “But (besides that in our law, which is a stranger to slavery, no impunity is given to servants, who are as much free agents as their masters) even with regard to wives, this rule admits of an exception in crimes that are mala in se, and prohibited by the law of nature, as murder and the like: not only because these are of a deeper dye, but also, since in a state of nature no one is in subjection to another, it would be unreasonable to screen an offender from the punishment due to natural crimes, by the refinements and subordinations of civil society.”
            Wikipedia calls the work:
            “The Commentaries were long regarded as the leading work on the development of English law and played a role in the development of the American legal system.”
            So, nothing to do with sin in this context, but natural crimes, as I have previously said.

            I find your objection to the term ‘moral authorities’ puzzling, since institutions without moral authority would hardly make your case for ‘prevailing’ etc. Feel free to mention what moral institutions you turn to whenever you feel the urge to differentiate between right and wrong.

            Your formulations do not appear to allow for the possibility of widespread immoral practices in society, which I find puzzling, considering the amount of published opinion (often from social conservatives as you self-identify) dedicated such concerns. Furthermore, slavery often happened yonder awa’, off-shore, like it does today, so the kinds of interactions we see in the UK are limited (like Granville Sharp’s legal battles). Dissent can be from a position of moral opposition to wrongs, not to a clash of moral rights. You seem to fail to take into account the possibility that enslavers were just immoral (or amoral) actors unconcerned with following moral codes. There is ongoing debate about the founders of the USA calling slavery a “necessary evil”, that is, necessary for their prosperity, but still a choice, and an evil one.

            Perhaps the test would simply to find if non-human animals displayed moral behaviour. If they do, then all that stuff about history is not really relevant to the argument of a biology-based core ethics that transcends time, space and species. I remember that scene from a recent David Attenborough series where the buffalo charges the lions about to attack the wild dog cubs, saving them but getting mauled to death for its intervention. Apparently Charles Darwin argued for a naturalist approach to morality, evolving in animals starting with empathy. I’ll need to read The Descent of Man, then.

          26. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Okay, let’s try and get you out of the mire you’ve gotten yourself into. Let me assume the mantle of Socrates.

            You take issue with my claim that, back in the day, the prevalent morality in society permitted human trafficking in the form of the Atlantic slave trade. Fair enough?

            There are two possibilities. You could say:

            a) that the prevalent morality of the day didn’t in fact permit that practice, in which case we might wonder in what sense it was the ‘prevalent’ morality, given that the practice was in fact allowed to exist as widespreadly throughout society as the database compiled by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London suggests it was in relation to the UK, or

            b) that you dispute the whole idea that there was in fact such a thing as a prevalent morality back in the day, in which case we might wonder just from what it was that the dissenting moral voices of the abolitionists were dissenting.

            Which is it to be?

          27. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            Where on earth did I self-identify as a ‘social conservative’? Is this another Aunt Sally?

            The quote from Blackstone that you re-quote confirms the distinction between conduct that’s to be judged ‘sinful’ or against the law of nature, as instituted by God (or by chance, if you’re an atheist like me) (‘malum in se’), and conduct that’s merely prohibited by the rules and conventions of society (‘malum prohibitum’). Read it again, and you’ll see.

            ‘I find your objection to the term ‘moral authorities’ puzzling…’

            But I don’t object to the term ‘moral authorities’. What I’ve objected are the claims you’ve made about my use of the term, which are false.

            ‘Your formulations do not appear to allow for the possibility of widespread immoral practices in society…’

            Why? Human trafficking is, by the standards of our time, a widespread immoral practice in our society; so is child abuse, badger-baiting, and littering. Conditioned as I am by our current social praxis, I’m as righteously against these practices as the next body. As I said above, ‘One must (and, indeed, can only) judge things from one’s own perspective. From my perspective, human trafficking is wrong… full stop.’

          28. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, that would be taken from your:
            “In relation to human trafficking, I’m fairly conservative in my attitude, insofar as it’s consonant with the morality that prevails in my society rather than with any of the dissident moralities on the margins of that society.”
            My reading of that was that you identified yourself with social conservatism (to a fair degree), rather than making a specific exception for human trafficking, although it could be the latter.

            As for the rest of your increasingly evasive and bizarre responses, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England specifically mentions the law of nature and natural crimes (mala in se), not sin in the quote previously given (elsewhere in the volume he draws the distinction between ecclesiastical courts which punish spiritual sins and common law courts which punish temporal crimes; Volume 2, p216, I think).

            A final thought: you say you are as conditioned by our current social praxis as the next body. So why do we have such different views of ethics?

          29. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

            ‘…you say you are as conditioned by our current social praxis as the next body. So why do we have such different views of ethics?’

            A number of reasons:

            Firstly, we’re leading different lives; therefore, the social interactions that determine our respective prejudices (i.e. our praxis) will be identical. The bottom line is that you are you and I am me, and there would be something seriously amiss if we were both in agreement, like identical units in some totalitarian utopia.

            Secondly, I’ve spent the whole of my adult life trying to continuously ‘overcome’ or ‘go beyond’ my existing prejudices rather than confirm them as ‘true’. Mine is an heroic virtue ethics of excellence and growth (‘ethics without the moralic acid’, as Nietzsche characterised it) rather than the grubby bourgeois contract ethics of rights and duties (the ‘ethics of trade’, as Marx called it) that has emerged from capitalism and attained hegemonic status in modern society. It’s evident from your posts that you don’t share this project, that unlike me you’re happy to rest content in your ‘righteousness’ (the consolation that your soul’s in accord with the natural and absolute moral order of the universe – with ‘morality’, that is) rather than blaze your own trail beyond the chains of your current illusions.

            Thirdly, I’ve had the benefit of seven preparatory years of formal philosophical education (an ‘apprenticeship’, if you like, which I served in both Britain and North Rhine-Westphalia many, many years ago), during which I developed an expertise in critical thinking skills that you, as a DIYer, evidently lack. This is not a criticism; not sharing my project, there’s no reason why you should have acquired them; you have your ‘righteousness’ instead.

            These are probably the main reasons why we’re constituted so differently. I don’t know enough about you to venture more; I’m only privy to what you’ve revealed of yourself in our virtual conversation here.

            It’s been a fascinating excursion.

          30. Arboreal Agenda says:

            “I’ve spent the whole of my adult life trying to continuously ‘overcome’ or ‘go beyond’ my existing prejudices rather than confirm them as ‘true’”

            I think you need to try harder then.

            ‘It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion.’ Samuel Johnson, one of these island’s greatest moralists, 23 Sep 1777.

            And on a lighter note, Johnson described Adam Smith ‘as dull a dog as he had ever met with’.

  8. Rob Gibson says:

    Malcolm Kerr hits the mark. Brodick Castle is iconic, its gardens also the fruits of slave money . However, the gardens and lands received in lieu of death duties from the Montrose family are a prime asset. I have always had my doubts about the NTS remit and practices. Jobs for the gentry and skivvies for the locals. May I suggest that primary legislation in the Scottish Parliament is needed to relieve them of their burden. Historic Environment Scotland could sell some of the ‘family silver’ and preserve the castle. But, aren’t there so many of these grand palaces of the aristos? A real debate and consultation would precede such a move. Meantime lets demand they keep the gardens in fine trim. Keep the gardens and hills available for locals and visitors alike to be healthy spaces for recreation and reflection. The proper interpretation of the sources of the old wealth MUST show the profits gained for human lives ruined and lost. Scotland has to confront slavery but also the Clearances and this is a spur to do so. Thank you Malcolm for this incisive prompt.

    1. Neill Simpson says:

      Excellent article, Malcolm. Rob is right to raise the question about whether the silverware should be sold on. All the money made by exploitation has been removed from the economy for all these years. It might as well have been buried and left for future treasure hunters. To be useful for long-term benefit and for the reduction of inequality, I think the silverware should be sold, and the money should be used mainly for education.
      Two questions occur to me:
      * should the silver be sold as artefacts to be preserved (indefinitely) or used for other purposes, such as medicinal ones?
      * should there be any restriction on who could buy it?
      The first question arises if the metal has more value in its present state than it would have when processed in some way. What is the source of the added value, if any?
      The second question arises because the source of money to purchase the silver may be ethically doubtful.
      I was enjoying the debate prompted by your article… for a while.

  9. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    @Arboreal Agenda

    Precisely! One must always be trying harder.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Sometimes, in one’s trying harder, one needs to ‘go back’ in order to ‘go beyond’. Here’s a response to slavery that doesn’t enthral us to the grubby bourgeois morality of ‘rights’ and ‘duties’ that currently rules the roost.

      In his treatment of slavery in Book 1 of the Politics, Aristotle lays down a condition that would have to be met for slavery to be virtuous.
      The condition is this: the difference in potential between the master and the slave would have to be as great as that which exists between human beings and cattle. Natural slaves would have to be, in effect, bodies without character – ‘Haitian zombies’ if you will – with no capacity for excellence or growth through the cultivation of character towards its flourishing as an authentically human being.

      The absence of this condition effectively makes ‘vicious’ all actually existing slavery and certainly the slavery that existed in the ancient Greek world.
      Aristotle recognised that, as a social institution, slavery is conventional rather than natural, and that its justification (the process of reasoning that would make it ‘just’) depends on logical conditions that can’t be met. Thus, slavery is to be eschewed, not because it breaches some moral contract or because it hurts our feelings, but because its practice is unbecoming of a virtuous man, sound reasoning being a specifically human virtue.

      The practice of slavery impedes or denies the excellence or growth of one’s character as a distinctively human being, and anyone who has a care for their own character and its flourishing should avoid it like the plague. This is an argument to which Sepúlveda appealed in his critique of the morality that prevailed in 16th-century Spain and Portugal in relation to the conquistadores’ enslavement of the Amerindians; it’s also an argument to which Hegel returned in his critique of 19th-century [European] consciousness.

      As a philosopher, Aristotle carefully and dispassionately considered the logical implications of different arguments about slavery, liberating himself from their prejudice by discovering and making explicit the flaws in each of those arguments. In so doing, he eased the grip that the contemporary moral hegemony had on his own thinking, enabling him to grow beyond it. That is what distinguishes him as a great philosopher, a pioneer of the human spirit.

      In the context of the classical world, the absence of slavery was inconceivable, so tightly was it woven into the praxis and, thus, both being the same thing, into the morality of that world. Aristotle’s critique, however, leaves no doubt that slavery is fundamentally vicious.

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