Wednesday 16 August 2017

What's In A Name?

We in Europe might wonder about the Charlottesville troubles. In the USA other places have similar problems. It may be a small town for us but in the USA it is a place with major sensitivities.

To quote Wikipedia:

Charlottesville is a city in Virginia. It’s home to the University of Virginia, with its core campus designed by Thomas Jefferson. On the outskirts, Jefferson’s mountain-top plantation, Monticello, includes a mansion and rebuilt slave quarters. Highland, President James Monroe’s home, retains many original furnishings. The city is a gateway to Shenandoah National Park, along a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Jefferson, one of the key men of the early history of the USA and James Monroe of the Monroe Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the drive west and the creation of a new major world power. Then there is the name.

The Charlotte was the Queen of King George III, a lady forgotten in our history or written off as a figure of little consequence. But she could be rated as one of the more interesting and able monarchs in British history. George's spells of severe illness put her into the position of being key to the politics of the time.

One feature of those politics was the rise and influence of the Anti-Slavery movement that in Britain culminated in the Act of 1833 for the Abolition of Slavery. It paralleled another Act of that year, the Factory Act that attempted to deal with the horrors of child labour in the industrial areas.

The Abolition of Slavery Act, however, resulted in compensation being paid to estate owners largely in the Caribbean for the loss of value entailed. This has long been held to be something that should not have happened, the idea of paying off slave owners understandably provoking opposition on moral grounds.

But there was more to this at the time than is understood and I only came across a possible explanation by accident, as ever, looking for something entirely different. Seeking information on wills and probate for certain people to work out how and why they could afford to stand for Parliament the figures I was looking at were odd.

The value of property of an estate had to be declared and where a slave owner had died, this meant the valuation of the slaves. But looking at the values given for slaves of various ages etc. they did not make sense, especially given that the owner had to house and feed them. All too often at very low level, but still added costs.

If the values were over stated, it attracted more tax; so why did the figures seem so high? One obvious reason after the 1808 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves is demand and supply. But there was another side to this. A clue was in the rise of the Lascelles family to become major estate owners.

They were bankers and many of their customer estate owners failed because of the ups and downs of the trade and years of bad harvests as well as too much consumer spending. So the Lascelles found it financially better to run the estates rather than having to sell them at a knock down price.

What was characteristic about the Caribbean estates was that they were often mortgaged to provide capital and also borrowed to cover running costs, a bad combination. One result was that The City and the bankers charged relatively high interest rates.

As the slaves were often bought with borrowed money then The City had a major role in the funding. In short the 1833 Act was less about helping out the estate owners than making sure The City did not suffer major losses or difficulties.

Without compensation there might have been a run on the banks. There was still a run a few years later, but that happened later and was just one of a series during a period of instability, when often the government simply made matters worse.

But what was striking about the slave valuations was that the annual cost of all this for the estate owners was actually rather higher per head than that of factory owners in England paying their workers.

So when the "free" workers, who could be hired and fired at will complained about being worse off than slaves this may not have been an exaggeration. It is one reason for the riots and political demonstrations of the period and the violence, fear, hunger and uncertainty.

In Ireland one answer for most of the rural population was to plant potatoes.