Global Encounters and the Archives: Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole

Featured Items

Anonymous, Slavery (1738)
Anonymous, The Horrid Torture of Impalment [sic] Alive as a Punishment on Runaway Slaves (1808)

These two prints, produced seventy years apart, reflect, on the one hand, the longstanding metaphorical use of “slavery” to describe various perceived indignities suffered by white Europeans and, on the other, the institution’s brutal reality for enslaved Africans and their descendants. In Slavery, the “slaves” are the British merchants who, not feeling themselves to be sufficiently protected by the Crown, suffer under Spain’s powerful marine presence. The Horrid Torture of Impalment [sic] Alive as a Punishment on Runaway Slaves, by contrast, endeavors to depict plantation slavery’s brutal “disciplinary” regimes; highly graphic in content and created amid the heights of abolitionism, it spectacularizes—even fetishizes—black suffering to incite anti-slavery sentiments among whites.

Anonymous, A Short View of the Dispute between the Merchants of London, Bristol, and Leverpool, and the Advocates of a New Joint-Stock Company (1750)

This pamphlet cautions against a proposed larger and stronger joint-stock company, which would monopolize the trade in enslaved persons, advocating instead for both the maintenance of the current Royal African Company (RAC) and the ability of independent merchants to carry on trade. In addition to reflecting the far-from-unified British response to the transatlantic slave trade’s operations, the document sheds light on the murky laws that govern it. For example, inland African traders often worked with coastal Africans to sell enslaved persons directly to independent merchants, thereby circumventing the RAC. In response, RAC officials sought to confiscate the proceeds from those sales once the vessels returned to shore. If the coastal African could not “make good the damage to the inland trader,” the author explains, “he [was] liable to be sold as a slave.”

What else is in this collection?

The Lewis Walpole Library's collection of pamphlets is an indispensable resource for any scholar interested in the political culture of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries or curious about the collection of Walpole himself.  Over the course of his life, Horace Walpole collected a broad range of printed pamphlets that form an extensive collection of 120 volumes now at the Lewis Walpole Library today.  Robert Nugent’s Considerations upon the Reduction of the Land-Tax, Robert, Lord Clive’s speech to Parliament and the anonymous pamphlet, A Short View of the Dispute between the Merchants of London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and the Advocates of a New Joint-Stock Company: Concerning the Regulation of African Trade are three items highlighted in this exhibit, but they—and the volumes in which each is bound—form only a small sample of the tracts and pamphlets available for consultation.  This collection includes political and historical tracts in prose and verse dating from 1640 to 1760, many of which are rare and annotated. 

James Gillray, A Sale of English Beauties in the East Indies (May 16, 1786)

This print depicts a mock-auction of “English Beauties”at an East Indian port. English women’s desire for foreign luxuries, combined with their physical presence in India (however minimal compared to the number of English men working for the East India Company), was seen to threaten the “purity” of their race. The most prominently featured English woman in the print is the object of “Western” and “Eastern” men simultaneously. The Indian consumer depresses the top of her globular, exposed breast with his middle finger. Given Britain’s imperial aspirations, one might read this gesture as signifying a desire to mark the “globe”; that his finger creates a dark shadow on an otherwise snow-white breast suggests racial competition and, perhaps, contamination. The reality of enslaved African women and men being sold in markets prompts the “humorous” metaphor for Gillray’s print, further implied by the presence of a caricatured African boy attending the Englishman.

George Keppel, "Letter to Mr. William Adair on Slaves in Havana" (December 28, 1763)
Anonymous, "Map of Havana" (1762)

In 1762 the British briefly captured Havana from the Spanish, who had occupied Cuba since Columbus invaded the island in 1492. The anonymous author of this manuscript describes the British battle for Havana and produces a detailed map. However, he omits mention of the enslaved and free black people, “hired” and purchased from other British colonies in the West Indies, who assisted the British soldiers by hauling materials, building structures, and engaging in reconnaissance missions and guerrilla-style attacks. The naval squadron controlled by George Keppel, Earl of Albemarle and eventual governor of British Havana, appears in the map’s upper right. Paired with this document is a letter that Keppel sent to his friend William Adair the following year, explaining his decision to limit the “importation of blacks” into Havana during his governorship. He was concerned that too large an enslaved population would (1) be dangerous, given the weakened, sickly British military presence there; (2) tempt the Spanish to invade the colony (and, potentially, capture enslaved persons for their own plantations); and (3) limit the number of enslaved persons whom planters on other British West Indies islands could purchase.

What else is in this collection? 

The nine volumes of the Keppel Papers form the largest collection of materials on the British occupation of Cuba outside the National Archives in London.  They offer unique insight into Britain’s brief—and often violent—control of Cuba in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Historians of Cuba frequently see this as a vital moment in shaping the future directions of Cuba and so this collection is invaluable not only to British colonial history, but to the history of Cuba herself.  This collection also provides material on the British Empire outside of Cuba and on Keppel’s private life.  George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle (1724-1772), wore many hats during his service to the Crown in the mid-eighteenth century.  He served as MP for Chichester, Governor of Jersey, commander-in-chief of the invasion of Havana during the Seven Years’ War and governor of Cuba in the mid-1760s.  The volumes in this collection are rich with correspondence from various period’s in Keppel’s life.  Some of the papers deal explicitly with political economy, largely during Keppel’s short and controversial governorship in Havana, during which time he deported the city’s bishop, imposed illegal taxes on merchants trading in the island, placed an embargo on the exportation of flour and greatly restricted the general importation of slaves into Havana.  Aside from the papers from this short stint in his political career, much of the correspondence in the rest of the collection addresses Keppel’s family estates in Ireland and Holland, each of which were plagued by lawsuits, though these letters also contain wills, marriage agreements, rent negotiations and other accounts.  This collection balances not only political and private correspondence, but also local and imperial views of Britain’s political economy through the lens of a man who, like many others, held positions and lands both in England and throughout her Empire.

Abraham James, Martial Law in Jamaica (November 28, 1801 or 1803)

At the very least, Martial Law in Jamaica, created during the Haitian Revolution’s final years and published long after its conclusion, mocks local militias’ notorious lack of proper training. However, it also evokes anxieties over black enslaved and free soldiers’ loyalty to British colonists—in particular, the possibility that black people in Jamaica (both soldiers and non-soldiers) might revolt like their Haitian counterparts.