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The Issue of Slavery in Historical Novel Writing

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Please welcome author Annette Nauraine (she/her) to WU today! Annette reached out to us recently after learning more about slavery in the 1700-1800s in Great Britain. It made her wonder about the responsibility that a historical author has to depict those times authentically. From her bio:

Annette’s latest book is Kissing the Kavalier.  She is a wife, recovering opera singer, mom of two, Doodle mom. She loves classical music, gardening and gardens, writing, reading, history, opera and dogs. When she has a spare minute, she enjoys period movies and TV series like Versailles and Crown. She spends her time trying to keep ahead of everything life has to offer and enjoying love and laughter.

Learn more about Annette on her website, and follow her on Facebook at annettenauraineauthor.

The Issue of Slavery in Historical Novel Writing

A New Yorker article (Home Truth, by Sam Knight, New Yorker, August 23, 2021) detailed how many of the great English country estates were created by the use of slaves in the West Indian colonies. I was horrified that I never knew this.

As an American, I’m well aware of the history of slavery in the US, but it never occurred to me that all estates for movies and TV shows based on Jane Austen novels, Bridgerton, Brideshead Revisited and stories set in the Georgian and Regency periods, were built and supported by slavery.

In 1807, parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, effective throughout the British empire, but it wasn’t until 1833 that slavery was abolished in British colonies through the Slavery Abolition Act and West Indian slaves obtained their freedom.

About 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807. When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain, according to the Slave Compensation Commission, the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners.

Slavery wasn’t on the doorstep of the British because it was kept at a great distance in the West Indies, where slaves were used to harvest staple crops such as indigo, rice, coffee, but most importantly, sugar which was used to make rum. Slave owners were euphemistically called, “West India Merchants,” which disguised their ownership of slaves.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 freed 800,000 Africans who were the legal property of Britain’s slave owners. Contained in the act was a provision of £20m of taxpayer funds to bail out the owners for the loss of their “property.” That sum was 40% of the total government expenditures for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn. The slaves received nothing, and worse, were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation, forcing the slaves to buy their own freedom.

Except for books written by few writers of color, these facts, or even characters of color, rarely appear in historical novels. Romances, in particular, involve relationships meant to meet reader expectations. Admittedly, the ugly facts of slavery do little to enhance the fantasy of a plain Jane being plucked from ignominy and rising to the status of a Lady.

However, if writers want to accurately depict history, characters, and a social milieu, it is incumbent upon us to mix in a bit of realism. Using the struggle against slavery in English could add great depth to characters, provide a whole new line of stories, and draw in new and diverse readers. Including the presence of slaves and acknowledging the income source of hundreds of British families, can also bring a wider awareness of history that many would prefer to sweep under the proverbial Persian rug.

Is it appropriate for white writers to write about slavery or should it remain the province of POC? Slavery is history; real, hard, painful, and dreadful. Weaving in characters of color takes guts, research and awareness, and sensitivity readers. We might get slapped down for getting it wrong or lose readers who don’t like that slice of history included in their books. Entertainment, not education, is what draws many readers to books, no matter a book’s setting. But leaving slavery, or enslaved persons out of our narratives is like wiping out the fact of slavery and the individuals who suffered under its injustice. We can’t ignore the fact that the blood of thousands of slaves built many of the great, beautiful English estates and, probably, the estates of many other countries who engaged in slavery.

People of color and their history have been made invisible for too long. As writers, no matter our race, we can choose to illuminate that with the mightiest tool we have: words of truth.

All respectful comments are welcome!

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