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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“Every Savage MUST Dance (on a Slave Ship)” —Thanks for Enlightening Us, Mr. Darcy

In Austen-L two weeks ago, Linda Thomas (coordinator of JASNA Ashland Oregon where I enjoyed giving a presentation to Linda’s small group of sharp elves a few weeks ago) posted the following about Jane Austen’s supposed admiration (in an 1813 letter to her sister) for Captain Pasley’s (then) famous book endorsing the English colonial system:

Linda: "…I read The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker (2007), whom I heard speak here in Ashland with Naomi Wallace for her play The Liquid Plain. After reading that the enslaved Africans aboard the slave ships were forced on deck to dance for an hour a day, as a form of exercise to keep them healthy, I have to wonder if JA knew about this from her sailor brothers, and if Mr. Darcy's "Every savage can dance" was an evocation of this practice. "

My eye was immediately caught, because earlier this year, I posted something highly resonant with Linda’s suggestion…

......and in my earlier post, which I had entitled "Every Hottentot can dance", I presented two very suggestive passages in P&P where the word "slave" appears:

Chapter 24: "Elizabeth, to whom Jane very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all others. To Caroline's assertion of her brother's being partial to Miss Darcy she paid no credit. That he was really fond of Jane, she doubted no more than she had ever done; and much as she had always been disposed to like him, she could not think without anger, hardly without contempt, on that easiness of temper, that want of proper resolution, which now MADE HIM THE SLAVE of his designing friends, and led him to SACRIFICE of his own happiness to the caprice of their inclination. Had his own happiness, however, been the only sacrifice, he might have been allowed to sport with it in whatever manner he thought best, but her sister's was involved in it, as she thought he must be sensible himself.

Chapter 29: "No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE A SLAVE to your education." Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case. "Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected." "Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had ALL THE MASTERS THAT WERE NECESSARY. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might."  "  END QUOTE

So, Linda’s brilliant catch seems to me to be fully in keeping with my earlier suggestion, and adds to the subtle portrayal by Jane Austen of the not-so-pleasing side of Darcy's personality. His bon mot to Sir William Lucas is actually quite witty, in a very dry way---but if my and Linda’s speculations are correct, that would make it a very amoral wit, as well.  

And…there are those who wonder what "trade" Bingley's family made its fortune in, and whether that is how Darcy and Bingley gravitated together. And...if Jane Austen did have this in mind, that is consistent with my view of her that she did not in any way approve of colonial slavery or the Royal Navy's supporting role in same. The portrait of the banal evil of Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, as Rozema depicted in her 1999 adaptation, and as I have blogged on numerous occasions, is of course the most dramatic evidence of how JA felt about slavery.

Linda’s suggestion supports the implication that Darcy must callously supports English colonialism and the inhuman mass slavery that was its foundation, or else he would not joke about one of its barbarous practices so cavalierly.

By the way, here is the discussion in Rediker’s book that Linda was recalling:

“How did relations between captain and crew change once the enslaved came aboard?...the sailors carried out [the captain’s] orders to bring the enslaved onboard, to stow them below decks, to feed them, compel them to exercise (“dance”),…slowly transform them into commodities for the international labor market….the arrangement of decks on a slave ship—the hold, the lower deck, the main deck; how male slaves were chained together; how the enslaved were stowed below decks; how they were fed, guarded, and forced to ‘dance’ for exercise ..Sailors told Clarkson that the slave trade was not a ‘nursery’ for sailors, as its advocated insisted, but rather a cemetery….every single fact…can be found in the interviews Clarkson conducted with sailors…Physicians and slave traders alike believed that exercise would help to maintain the health of the enslaved. Therefore each afternoon the Africans would be required to dance (and also to sing, on many ships). This could take many forms, from something more or less freely chosen, accompanied by African instruments (more common among the women), to the dreary, forced clanking of chains (more common among the men)….”  END QUOTE

Rediker relies a great deal on Clarkson’s writing about slavery (which JA was very familiar with)- I wondered whether the famous abolitionist Clarkson’s books might have been Rediker’s primary source for the “dancing” on slave ships—if so, that would have been very strong evidence of JA’s familiarity with same.

Well, it turned out it was not just Clarkson who wrote about this “dancing”, it was also several other authors of anti-slavery writing at that time, many of which harked back to the published minutes from the 1788 session of Parliament, in which a bill to regulate slave ship practices was debated, and which I reproduce in full at the end of this post.

The most awful and relevant part of those Parliamentary minutes is the following sentence:


The treble horror of whipping heavily shackled captives and calling it “dancing” is far beyond the pale of “normal” barbarity—it’s as bad as it ever gets.

So…if Darcy is actually joking about this practice-and I believe he is-it either suggests a callous endorsement of this practice by Darcy, OR….there is another possible alternative, which just occurred to me—what if the unspecified “trade” in which Sir William Lucas has made his fortune is in fact the “slave trade”? If so, this “joke”, unfunny as it is, could be Darcy discreetly alerting Sir William that Darcy knows this sordid fact about how his genial host got rich, and so he is not fooled by Sir William’s excessive show of courtesy and good manners.

In either event, if Darcy has indeed covertly alluded to this practice on slave ships, it puts the immediately succeeding dialog among Sir William, Darcy and Elizabeth, as to whether Lizzy will “dance” with Darcy, in a whole different light, at least in the minds of Darcy and Sir William, as
Lizzy seems totally oblivious to this slavery subtext.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


“The last business of importance which engaged the attention of parliament, was a bill brought into the house by Sir William Dolben, member for the University of Oxford, a man of the highest integrity and respectability, to regulate the transportation of slaves from the coast of Africa to the West Indies. At the beginning of the year, a multitude of petitions had been presented from the different towns, cities, and counties of the kingdom, imploring in earnest and affecting terms the abolition of that superlatively nefarious and detestable traffic. A motion on the subject of these petitions was expected to be made by Mr. Wilberforce, member for Yorkshire; but in consequence of the long-protracted and unfortunate indisposition of that gentleman, Mr. Pitt on the _th of May moved a resolution, importing that the house would early in the next session proceed to take into consideration the state of the slave trade. The bill of Sir William Dolben, which was intended merely to establish a certain reasonable proportion between the number of slaves and the tonnage of the ships, was violently and obstinately opposed by petitions from the merchants of London and Liverpool concerned in the African trade. Counsel being therefore engaged, and witnesses examined, it appeared in evidence at the bar of the house, that five feet six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth, was the average space allotted to each slave. The lower deck of the vessel was entirely covered with bodies. The space between the floor of that deck and the roof above, in height about five feet eight inches, was divided by a platform, also covered with human bodies. The slaves were chained two and two by their hands and feet, and by means of ring-bolts fastened to the deck. In that sultry climate, their allowance was a pint of water each, per diem; and they were usually fed twice a day with yams and horse-beans.
They had nor, as was emphatically stated, when stowed together, so much room as a man in his coffin, either in length or breadth. They drew their breath with laborious and anxious efforts, and many died of mere suffocation. The customary mortality of the voyage exceeded seventeen times the usual estimate of human life. A slave ship, when sull fraught with this cargo of wretchedness and abomination, exhibited at once the extremes of human depravity and human misery.
Mr. Pitt, who on various occasions has dropped the statesman to assume the nobler character of the philanthropist, declared with indignant eloquence, that "if, as had been asserted by the members for Liverpool, the trade could not be carried on in any other manner, he would retract what he had said on a former day, and, waving every farther discussion, give his instant vote for the annihilation of a traffic thus shocking to humanity. He trusted that the house, being now in possession of such evidence as was never before exhibited, would endeavour to extricate themselves from the guilt and remorse which every man ought to feel for having so long over-looked such cruelly and oppression." The bill was carried up June 18th to the House of Lords, where it was fated to encounter the determined opposition of Lord Thurlow. His lordship said, that the bill was full of inconsistency and nonsense. The French had lately offered premiums to encourage the African trade, and the natural presumption was, that we ought to do the same. This measure appeared to him very like a breach of parliamentary faith. As to himself, he scrupled not to say, "that if the fit of philanthropy which had slept so many years had been suffered to sleep one summer longer, it would have appeared to him more wise than to take up the subject in this disjointed manner." The Duke of Chandos ventured to predict a general insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies in consequence of the agitation of the present question. And Lord Sydney, who had once ranked amongst the friends of liberty, expressed in warm terms his admiration of the system of the slave laws established in Jamaica, and saw no room for any improvement. The bill was defended by the Duke of Richmond and Marquis Townshend in a manner which did honor to their understanding and feelings: and it finally passed by a considerable majority.
The king put an end to the session July 11, 1788, by a speech from the throne, in which he complimented the two houses on their attention and liberality.”

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