Gladstone and slavery – the liberal lie?

By 1892, William Ewart Gladstone was the Grand Old Man of Liberal politics, about to embark on his fourth term of office as Prime Minister at the age of 82. His three previous premierships had followed four spells as Chancellor of the Exchequer and a period as President of the Board of Trade. He was leader of the Liberal Party for 24 years, between 1865 and 1875 and again between 1880 and 1894.

He stood for reform and progress, championing Irish Home Rule, Parliamentary reform, free trade and a fair deal for labour. But was this great liberal Parliamentary career and his resulting place in history founded on the distinctly illiberal wealth generated by his family’s slave-owning West Indian interests? Was Gladstone able to pursue politics because of a personal freedom paid for by the bondage of others?

Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone (1764 – 1851) was based in Liverpool, where he co-ordinated extensive commercial interests including large estates in Jamaica and British Guyana. These estates were worked by slaves and by the 1820s, John Gladstone was one of the world’s largest slave owners. His central role in this lucrative trade was emphasised by his time as Chairman of the West India Association.

But it is hard to escape the conclusion that these great privileges, connections and advantages were made available to Gladstone directly as a result of his father’s slave-owning fortune.

Indeed, Gladstone’s earliest Parliamentary speeches were on the subject of slavery. He gave his maiden speech to the House of Commons on 3 June 1833, using it to defend the interests of the West Indian slave-owning plantation owners. Although he did not support the continuation of slavery, he was not vocal in demanding its abolition. Instead, he fought for a ‘fair deal’ for West Indian planters whose economic prosperity relied on slavery.

The argument came closer to home when Gladstone was forced to defend his father against accusations of mistreatment of his slaves. But William’s role went further than arguing his father’s case. Hand written records highlight William’s central role in calculating his father’s ‘human capital’ and working out the compensation that was due to the family.

For, in the end, slavery was abolished but with slave owners emerging well compensated under this statutory manumission. John Gladstone received £93,526 from the British Government for his 2,039 slaves and both father and son were active in securing compensation for others. His biggest claims came for his ‘possessions’ in British Guyana, claims that represented 1,309 slaves for which he received £69,111.

It is difficult to ascribe our modern-day revulsion with slavery on to our early nineteenth century ancestors. But slavery was hardly universally accepted at this point. A loud and increasingly successful movement had developed in the 1780s, and, in 1807, the Slave Trade Act made the slave trade illegal. This was followed in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act, which paved the way for abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

All of these facts do not negate Gladstone’s later political achievements. But they do highlight the complex moral and political currents of Victorian economic and political life.

2 Replies to “Gladstone and slavery – the liberal lie?”

  1. I do think this is a morally complex issue.
    It is hard to blame a person for the source of his family’s wealth if that was established before his birth or in his childhood. What seems to be clear is that although Gladstone as an adult was no passionate abolitionist, he did support abolition in Parliament, while there were others who fought hard against it. His concern to ensure that slave owners were compensated by the government seems very distasteful now, but that is to project 21st century sensibilities onto the world of the early/mid 19th century.
    When I look at Gladstone, I see a man who actively supported the abolition of slavery, but didn’t want his own family and others ruined by the process. He went on to use the position that his wealth gave him to achieve some of the most important social and political reforms in this country’s history, and in the context of 19th century politics (when MPs were unpaid) none of that might have been achieved if his family had been ruined.
    I’m not justifying the compensation itself in the bigger picture. All I’m saying is that this country, and everyone living in it for several generations, would have been a much nastier place to live and work, and much less democratic, if Gladstone had been forced out of politics by the need to earn a living.

  2. It is very sad to realise that such a famous man as Gladstone was so involved in slavery and that his father and he in succession was so extremely wealthy as a result of slave ownership and compensation payments after slavery was abolished.

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