Reflections on ‘Nelson’s Dark Side’

I have been interested in Admiral Lord Nelson for about as long as I can remember. I knew him first as the heroic victor of the Battle of Trafalgar. Famously, Nelson gave his life to help win that battle, against the rival combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain. Badly wounded at the height of the fighting, Nelson died aboard his flagship HMS Victory shortly after the last shot was fired. His signal to the British fleet at the start of the battle is as vivid in my memory as any of the lines from Shakespeare that I had to learn at school: ‘England expects every man will do his duty’.

Part of J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of the Battle of Trafalgar

But in later years I have come to know a different Nelson. My research and teaching have focused on the history of the British empire, and my particular focus has been on the British sugar colonies in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century. I learned that Nelson’s first long sea-voyage as an adolescent boy was to the sugar colonies of the West Indies, that he served in the region as a young Naval officer during the War of American Independence, and that he met his wife while stationed in the eastern Caribbean during the 1780s.

The transatlantic slave trade and the wider institution of slavery drove the plantation economies of the British Caribbean. But beginning in the 1780s, a nationwide British campaign, spearheaded by William Wilberforce, helped bring an end first to slave trading between Africa and the Caribbean (in 1807) and then to slavery itself (during the 1830s). The debate over the future of slavery divided Britons. Wilberforce personified one type of British patriotism—arguing for an end to slave-trading on the basis that it was a blot on the reputation of a proud and Christian nation. Slaveholders offered their own patriotic arguments—maintaining that the trade was so instrumental to the imperial economy that Britain could ill-afford to stop it.

Nelson had befriended several slaveholding colonists during his time in the Caribbean. Privately, he came to sympathise with their political outlook. It is clear that, by the time of his death at Trafalgar, he despised Wilberforce and stood in staunch opposition to the British abolitionist campaign.

Horatio Nelson as a young man, in 1781, around that time he was posted in Jamaica

My article in BBC History Magazine, published this month, explores that part of Nelson’s story. It does so in part to try to show that Nelson was a complicated individual. Since his death, he has been elevated to the status of an almost god-like imperial, patriotic hero. But though uniquely gifted in command of a fleet, he was in other ways as fallible and flawed as any human being—shaped by his own experiences, friendships and prejudices.

By looking at those things, the article offers a new slant on the Nelson story. But it also does much more than just that. It shows how Nelson, the navy, and Trafalgar were all linked to the bigger British political struggle over the future of slavery—a struggle that Nelson’s actions at Trafalgar helped to resolve, albeit in unintended ways.

The article is one product of extensive new research in the History department at the University of Southampton about the Royal Navy and the British Atlantic Empire of the eighteenth century. This has resulted in book that I co-edited with Dr John McAleer, The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic World.

‘Nelson’s Dark Side’ is a distillation of my chapter in the book, ‘The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

For the BBC History Magazine article, click here.

On White Fury

The title of the book was decided late on. ‘Slavery and Revolution’ was my working title throughout the writing process. But with the manuscript completed, the press wanted a change, and we eventually agreed on White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution. The book, as the title makes clear, is about a slaveholder. But it also about more than that—it seeks to examine British slavery and the late eighteenth-century revolutions that undermined it. Still, it is Simon Taylor, the richest colonial slaveholder of his generation and a prolific letter-writer, who remains the main point of focus. In fact, a big part of what I wanted to achieve was to explain how a man like Taylor was able to perpetuate the world of Caribbean slavery, and how he came to defend it—right down to the last weak scratchings of his pen. Here, I reflect on why White Fury is an appropriate title for a history book about this man, and I add a few thoughts about why I think understanding Taylor’s white fury matters to us in the present.

‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’, abolitionist slogan and emblem, c.1788.

By the year 1807, Simon Taylor’s anger was running hot. This old white slaveholder was, by then, approaching seventy, and the abolitionist campaign, which he had vehemently opposed since it first began two decades earlier, was on the brink of a major success. After many years of debate, the imperial parliament in London was poised to put an end to the transatlantic slave trade. It pitched Taylor into a state of incandescent fury.

‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ was the slogan of the abolition movement, always accompanied by the image of a kneeling African, begging for help—a message that grabbed imaginations and changed perceptions. And, for a man like Taylor, whose wealth was based on buying, selling, and exploiting enslaved Africans, it was nothing less than a disaster. From his home in the British colony of Jamaica, he had long raged against abolitionists. To him the figurehead of the anti-slave-trade campaign, William Wilberforce, was a ‘hell-begotten imp’, spreading ‘infernal nonsense’. Taylor continually expressed outrage that such a man had misguidedly taken up the interests of ‘negroes’ against those of white colonial slaveholders. Taylor had never been able to understand Wilberforce.

Taylor’s view of empire was built around the principles of white supremacy and white solidarity. To men like him, the only people who could be considered ‘natural born subjects’ of the British Empire, and therefore deserving of its care and protection, were whites; and he considered black people merely as items of property. He struggled to understand how any truly patriotic Briton could see things differently. How could the British public and parliament fail to see that colonial slaveholders were the most precious and useful inhabitants of the empire? How could they prioritise the welfare of black slaves over the interests of their fellow white Britons?

Taylor was born in Jamaica in 1740, into a family of slaveholders and into an empire that seemed to belong to such people. The eldest son of a Kingston merchant, he was packed off to school at Eton before returning to Jamaica in 1760, taking over the family firm, and branching out into the sugar business. He was investing in the most lucrative and dynamic part of the eighteenth-century British imperial economy. Sugar planters were notoriously wealthy, Caribbean sugar was Britain’s most valuable overseas import, and the enslaved Africans whose labour made all of this possible were treated as a disposable resource. Taylor bought and developed three huge plantations—which, like all British sugar estates, were worked by hundreds of enslaved workers, imported to the Caribbean colonies from West Africa via the transatlantic slave trade. He was poised to become one of the richest British sugar planters of his age. He had the world at his feet.

And Taylor prospered, and his influence grew. He was middle-aged by the time that the abolition movement emerged. At first, he saw it as a naïve and sentimental outpouring of emotion that would soon wither, once sensible men of business exposed its absurdity. But by the time he entered his sixties, abolitionism (coupled with revolutionary uprisings by enslaved people throughout the Caribbean) had forced him to accept that the world of plantation slavery that he had worked all his life to sustain was more vulnerable than at any time he could remember. ‘I am glad I am an old man’, he grumbled in a letter to an old friend, as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, and confessed he was ‘really sick both in mind & body at scenes I foresee’.

A few years after, on receiving the long-anticipated news that parliament had reached its momentous decision to put an end the slave trade, his reaction was predictable. He felt ‘really crazy’—‘lost in astonishment and amazement at the phrensy which has seized the British nation’. Of course, parliament had only abolished the trade in slaves across the Atlantic. (By the time concrete plans were laid to end slavery itself, Taylor had been dead for two decades.) But the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was, nonetheless, a major political setback for Taylor that dealt a significant blow the wider system of slavery. It might be tempting, then, to view Taylor’s rage as the behaviour of a man failing to come to terms with inevitable, irreversible defeat. Perhaps, we should try to take comfort in the knowledge that Taylor and the world of slavery that he built with such self-confident conviction and defended with such venom are now safely in the past. That, however, would be unjustifiably complacent.

When we look at it carefully, we see that Taylor was angry not because he believed that defeat was certain but because he believed that it could, and should, be averted. And privileged, vocal, outraged men like him can be influential even when major decisions go against them. In the political wrangles over the dismantling of the British slave system, slaveholders won large concessions and retained significant privileges. What is more, the kind of angry reaction to change vocalised by a man like Taylor is not simply a thing of the past. Instead, Taylor’s fear and outrage are often chillingly recognisable. Again and again between his times and ours—through unfinished struggles over emancipation, decolonization, and civil rights—those who have grown up as beneficiaries of white privilege have responded to pressure for equality, increased diversity, and even the most basic of reforms, as though those were types of oppression. Institutionalised racism rooted in colonialism and slavery proves stubborn in the face of challenges, partly because when old white privileges are confronted, indignant white fury—of the sort that Taylor so luridly expressed—is rarely far behind.

Christer Petley

White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution is published by Oxford University Press (£20, ISBN 9780198791638) click here to buy


A few weeks ago I met with Elaine Mitchener at the University of Southampton to workshop ideas for our Sweet Tooth collaboration. I was tired. We talked about our project – about how we are going to try to put together a piece of performance around the historical topic of Caribbean slavery and Britain’s historical involvement with it – and we practiced breathing and speaking. I do those things all the time – breathing and speaking – but it is only since I’ve been working with Elaine that I have thought seriously about how to do them properly. And doing them properly takes time and thought (it really does!). And it makes a difference. Trust me. By the time we had done some exercises, I was feeling more energised.

Then we read out some names. We just read out people’s names, from a list – me reading from the top, Elaine from the bottom. We read out names. And the effect of that woke me up with a jolt. I was surprised. This was such a simple but powerful and moving way of using sound to produce an effect … to evoke thoughts and feelings about our subject.

These were the names of enslaved men, women and children from a register of slaves on a Jamaican plantation, made by a white British-colonial slaveholder in 1813. I transcribed them back in 2013. I didn’t know why at the time. Not really. I had been working on the letters and life of Simon Taylor, the powerful and wealthy Jamaican planter for some time. My main project was to find out about him and his world. But what about the 2,000 and more enslaved people who Taylor ‘owned’ when he died in 1813? What was my work doing about them?  Working from the probate inventory of all Taylor’s property at the time of his death, I began transcribing these two-hundred-year-old names and any other information listed about the people in the list: occupation, state of health, gender, age, … the cash value ascribed to them by the man who made the list. I kept going until I had written out the names of every single person listed in that inventory. It took several days, and I did not quite know what I would do with the material.

These lists were themselves part of the technology that kept people enslaved. They kept a record of people and reduced them to a name (most likely not of their own choosing) and brief comments about their use as workers and value to slaveholders – information that helped regiment workers and facilitate their transfer from one owner to another. There are a lot of things that a historian can do with this kind of evidence about enslaved people. And even though this is bald and problematic data, it has started to give me at least some insight into the lives led by people forced to live and work on Taylor’s Jamaican properties, which I’m writing up as part of a book project that I plan to finish next year.

In the hands of someone like Elaine though, names and lists can be used in other ways. Representing this material not in a book but through performance can take our understanding of slavery – and our thinking and relationship with this aspect of our shared and knotted history – into different dimensions.

‘Buck, Man, Field, Able, £40; Buller, Boy, Hog Boy, Healthy, £70; Fanny, Girl, £100; Fatima, Woman, Field, Able, £90’. To read out all of the people on the list like this, steadily, evenly, without stopping would take five hours. To even just start to do that, for one thing, confronts us with the brute facts of people reduced to names on a list with other information that was useful to someone but not to the people themselves. It gestures at the scale of this system, and of the workaday characteristics (just names on a list) of an atrocity that wrecked and ended lives, that continues to haunt and shape us. The experience of reading or hearing this list though resonates beyond that … it has a suggestive pathos and power that I cannot yet really begin to describe, and which perhaps simply goes beyond what words can say.

I don’t yet know whether the work Elaine and I did on that day will form part of the Sweet Tooth piece that we we will start to shape at the end of the month, or whether they might be used in different ways. But I was grateful to be working in unexpected ways, outside my typical zone of comfort … and to have copied out the list.

Work in progress Sweet Tooth will be shared at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton at 7pm on Wednesday 29th June: Click Here

Our work will also be showcased at the Snape Proms, Suffolk at 6pm on Thursday 11th August: Click Here

Snape Proms

Sweet tooth is supported by Arts Council England, Aldeburgh Music, University of Southampton, St George’s Bloomsbury, Centre 151, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Bluecoat Liverpool

Sweet Tooth Tickets

Sweet toothTickets are now available for Sweet Tooth at Turner Sims, Southampton, 7pm on 29 June 2016. This is our first showcasing of work in progress. Come and join us!

How do we make sense of slavery? How can we represent its legacies? How do we breathe life into the human stories of enslavement, forced movement, suffering and renewal from the dry facts left behind in historical documents?

Historians try to do those things—usually in books or lectures. But how can the work of bearing witness to slavery be embodied by other practitioners? Using documents from eighteenth-century Jamaica, drawing in the work of a historian with that of an experimental ensemble of musicians specialising in sound and movement, Sweet Tooth is an innovative and cross-disciplinary initiative that explores the part-hidden histories of Britain’s relationship with the Caribbean and with slavery.

This will be a first public sharing of our work in progress, as we research and develop new ways of confronting and feeling a past that continues to groan and shift, restlessly in our present.

The event is free but a ticket is required. Click here to book.

Sweet tooth is supported by Arts Council England, Aldeburgh Music, University of Southampton, St George’s Bloomsbury, Centre 151, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Bluecoat Liverpool

Sweet tooth


Hamilton is ‘the musical of the Obama era’, according to Adam Gopnik in a recent article in The New YorkerIt is a story about one of America’s Founding Fathers, brought to the stage via the medium of hip-hop, along with many other modern musical styles—from R&B and soul through to boogie-woogie and Britpop. And it is clear that the show’s prodigiously talented creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is keen to be associated with Obama, and vice versa. Continue reading