chapter  2
26 Pages

The English and slavery

How much people knew

The first question about the contemporary understanding of slavery concerns knowledge rather than opinion. How much did people in England know about the trade and about conditions on the plantations? Since the slave trade was a predominantly English enterprise, it is appropriate to ask this question about England rather than Britain, and to reserve ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ for the newly unified nation or for ideas and ideals associated with that nation. Richard Bevis has suggested that Pope ‘may not have known of the existence of the Asiento (slavery) clause’ when he wrote Windsor-Forest, and Wylie Sypher considered the most likely cause for callousness towards slavery to have been ‘the ignorance of the British about the trade in Negroes and about Africa’.1 The suggestion of complete unfamiliarity with the Asiento is implausible. As the next chapter shows, the contract was part of the public debate after the summer of 1712, and Pope was working on the final version of Windsor-Forest in the autumn and winter of 1712-13. Sypher’s sense of a general vagueness, however, is more serious, and demands that some attempt be made to assess the extent of common knowledge, of what the typical informed Englishman might have known. Given that men were probably generally better informed than women, it is appropriate to think of this hypothetical, typical informed person as male. Some account of his knowledge can be constructed by looking at information in the public sphere, though it is important also to consider which parts of that information were well known. I work from what seems the reasonable assumption that writers, especially professional writers, knew their audience fairly well. If this is correct, the best indicator that an aspect of slavery was common knowledge rather than available fact is familiarity of tone, reference to it as something universally understood. This means that asides and brief remarks are often more significant than sustained accounts, such as those of Sloane and William Bosman, which are presented as information for a possibly ignorant public. In this chapter, I draw upon both kinds of source, though I give particular weight to the first kind.