Quoting Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ The Issue of Slavery and the Slave Trade


Over at Sarah Emsley’s blog tomorrow, I will be posting some thoughts on Mansfield Park and the issue of slavery by looking at Sir Thomas’s sentiments on the subject.  [This is now posted at Sarah’s blog: Jane Austen’s “dead silence” – or, How Guilty is Sir Thomas Bertram?]. Jane Austen gives us little to go on and there has been much conjecture as to Sir Thomas’s guilt as a slaver, as well as to Austen’s own sentiments about slavery and the slave trade.  As a starting place, we must begin with the text itself, and I compile here all the references to the slave trade, slavery, Antigua and the West Indies. Let me know if I have missed any – and please share your thoughts on what Austen may have been saying to her readers about slavery, a hotly-debated topic at the time of her writing Mansfield Park. Why does she introduce it into this novel?

[I include here a link to: “A Bibliography on Mansfield Park and the Issue of Slavery”: Bibliography – Mansfield Park and Slavery – Barnum ]



Mansfield Park and Slavery:  specific references to the Slave Trade, Slavery, Antigua.

[Note: citations are to Chapman]


1. …as his [Sir Thomas’s] own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India Estate. [Narrator, 24]

2. “Why, you know Sir Thomas’s means will be rather straitened, if the Antigua estate is to make such poor returns.” [Mrs. Norris to Lady Bertram who responds “Oh! that will soon be settled. Sir Thomas has been writing about it, I know.” 30.]


“Planting the sugar cane”


3.  Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs… probability of being nearly a twelvemonth absent. [Narrator, 32]

4. …the travellers’ safe arrival in Antigua after a favourable voyage. [Narrator, 34: with an account of Mrs. Norris’ hysteria.]


Map of Antigua (source: Gregson Davis article:
http://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/antigua/conference/papers/davis.html )

5. …unfavorable circumstances has suddenly arisen at a moment when he was beginning to turn all his thoughts towards England, and the very great uncertainly in which every thing was then involved… [Narrator, 38. Young Tom is sent home alone, Mrs. Norris’s hysterics again of “foreboding evil” and “dreadful sentiments.”]

6. Letters from Antigua… his business was so nearly concluded as to justify him in [returning home by November]… [Narrator, 107.]

 7. “…such an absence not only long, but including so many dangers.” [Edmund on his father in Antigua, to Mary Crawford, 108.]

 8.  Sir Thomas was to return in November, and his eldest son had duties to call him earlier home. [Narrator, 114.]

9.  “It would show a great want of feeling on my father’s account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger….” [Edmund to all on acting, 125.] – and Tom responds [one of Austen’s funnier moments]: “.. for the expectation of his return must be a very anxious period to my mother… it is a very anxious period for her.” [Tom, 126.] – “…each looked towards their mother… just falling into a gentle doze…” !

10. “…I have been slaving myself till I can hardly stand…” [Mrs. Norris to Fanny, 166.]


Mrs. Norris by H. M. Brock [Mollands]

 11. …he was grown thinner and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate… [Narrator giving us Fanny’s thoughts on first seeing Sir Thomas, 178.]

 12.  His business in Antigua had latterly been prosperously rapid, and he came directly from Liverpool… [Narrator recounting Sir Thomas’ travel, 1787.]

13. …the alarm of a French privateer… [Narrator continuing Sir Thomas’ telling of his travels – such a vessel would have been armed, 180.]


 [East Indiaman HMS Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray – Wikipedia]

14. “I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together…” [Fanny to Edmund, 197.]

15. “But I do talk to him more that is used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”  [Fanny to Edmund, 198.]

“I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.” [Edmund to Fanny]

“And I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like – I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” [Fanny, 198. Edmund you will notice proceeds to only talk of Mary Crawford…]


Slave ship diagram-1790-wikipedia

16. “…He [Edmund] knows that human nature needs more lessons that a weekly sermon can convey, and that if he does not live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.” [Sir Thomas to Henry Crawford and Edmund, 198.]

17. Sir Thomas …prolonged the conversation on dancing in general, and was so well engaged describing the balls of Antigua… [Narrator, 251.]


Sir Thomas talking with William and Fanny, by C. E. Brock [Mollands]

18. ‘Advice’ was his word, but it was the advice of absolute power… shewing her persuadableness. [Narrator on Sir Thomas thoughts on sending Fanny to bed, 280.]


“Am I to understand,” said Sir Thomas, “that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?” ~ Vol. III, Ch. I [C. E.  Brock – Mollands]

 19.  The Narrator’s words describing Fanny’s feelings about a marriage to Henry: revolt, painful alarm, terror, formidable threat, sudden attack, misery, wretched feelings, aching heart, distressing evil. [Narrator, 357ff.]

20.  But he [Sir Thomas] was master at Mansfield Park. [Narrator, 370.]

 21. Henry Crawford as an absentee landlord at Everingham, with an “agent of some underhand dealing.” [Narrator on Fanny’s thoughts about Henry going to his estate, 404.]


Quotes from other works:

Emma: this very telling dialogue between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton [Vol. II, Ch. 17, p. 300-01)


 Emma 1996– Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton
source: Austen Efforts blog

When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”

    “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

    “I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”


Persuasion: we have Captain Wentworth in the West Indies and Santa Domingo; Mrs. Croft in the East Indies and Bermuda and Bahama; Mrs. Smith has an Estate in the West Indies.


  “So wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do” ~ Vol. I, Ch. III – C. E. Brock [Mollands]


Sanditon: we have the wealthy Miss Lambe, a mulatto, briefly mentioned: “A Miss Lambe too! A young West Indian of large fortune…” – and whatever Jane Austen intended for her, we cannot know…

book cover - sanditon

Your thoughts?

c2014 Jane Austen in Vermont

10 thoughts on “Quoting Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ The Issue of Slavery and the Slave Trade

  1. Pingback: Jane Austen’s “dead silence,” or, How Guilty is Sir Thomas Bertram? | Sarah Emsley

  2. That certainly made me see the book in other perspective! I read it recently and found this subject only a scenery to the main history, I didn’t even recalled a clear reference to slave trade.


    • Yes, Heloisa, the references to the slave trade and its consequences are easy to miss – Jane Austen as always sly (but deft) with her references. So glad you read this and have now another reason to re-read Mansfield Park all over again.

      Thanks for stopping by…


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  4. I don’t think that anyone in JA’s time reading Mansfield Park would be confused about what business in Antigua means, any more than someone in 2017 would be confused by a wealthy businessman going to oversee his clothing factory in China.


  5. Fanny Price is not an abolitionist but maybe Jane Austin was.

    It is within Emma, I feel Jane Austin’s opinion of the Slave Trade is made, by the more clear sighted character Jane F.
    Jane F feels like the real voice of Jane A. They have comparable financial dependency, the necessity to conform to the straight jacket of genteel behaviour despite their hidden passions. The direct dialogue of Jane F is very clear, if a little misguided as to the harshness of the lives of Slaves.

    Where as in Mansfield Park, it appears to be only Fanny’s growing confidences and desire to talk to her Uncle that seams relevant here. Her general mode of talking is picturesque and of personal moral honesty rather than socioeconomic. I always felt disappointed in Mansfield Park generally and in specifically Fanny and Edwards, that the morality of Slavery is not raised.
    However I now think Mansfield Park has a more subtle approach. Rather than that introducing abolition into the dinning room, which would be unthinkably disrespectful to the man who had raised you. It is the crumbling of Sir Thomas’s family under his ‘Master’ rule synonymous with his Slave labour, that speaks volumes about use of effects of the misuse of power and control.

    Love to hear your opinion on my thoughts.


    • Hello Alison,

      I agree wholeheartedly with you, both about Emma and Mansfield Park. You are right that there is more direct reference to the slave trade in Emma with those brutal comparisons to the governess “trade in human flesh,” and Mrs. Elton’s stronge connections to Bristol. And in MP is it more subtle except for that one outbreak of Fanny’s about the slave trade to Sir Thomas. But everything else in MP points to a covert undercutting of slavery and a patent abhorrence of its abuses – again as you say – everything Sir Thomas stands for is an abuse of power. Austen had to bring it up in the only way she could, quietly with her pen – and all about the economy… Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts – it is much appreciated.


      • I agree.

        Nearly everyone but Fanny in Mansfield Park is deeply morally flawed in some way while continually presenting and viewing themselves as virtuous and correct. Sir Thomas has been a distant figure to Fanny for much of her life so we don’t get too many chances to see him being as openly awful as some of the rest of his family, but the fact that his wealth comes from the blood of slaves and how that correlates with his cold and strict aura of “master” of his house being part of the downfall of his own daughters, I believe the connection meant to be felt. Him being a cold, unfeeling “master” is his personal evil. One many that the wealthy chose to ignore or justify. Just like his son Edmund constantly ignores or justifies his own hypocrisy, his father does the same on an even more heinous scale. He demands moral behavior from his children, then happily profits from the misery of slaves.

        I think the fact that Fanny was the only one who called it what it was, the slave trade, rather than quietly referring to it as “his business in Antigua” is telling. Fanny tends to see things as they really are even though her scope is so limited. She knows Mary only uses her to stave off boredom. She knows Henry is a cad. She knows Edmund is wrong about Mary. She doesn’t have the power to call anyone out, but she almost always internally voices the reality of the situation to the reader, so she didn’t use the coy wording about what Sir Thomas does. It’s not a mysterious but possibly respectable “business”. She calls it by it’s name and in doing so there is no pretending that it’s not that ugly thing. It takes away any plausible deniability. Even if she doesn’t understand how evil it is herself as a character, she still acts as a mirror of truth for the reader.


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