Book review: Blood Legacy, by Alex Renton

In exploring his family’s historic links to the slave trade, Alex Renton paints a sobering picture of a society built on systematic brutality, and poses important questions about how best to right the wrongs of the past. Review by Stuart Kelly

"It is impossible to read about the plantation managers, their various sexual abuses, tortures and sadistic vengeances without revulsion." PIC: Creative Commons

This is a real mixter-maxter of a book. In parts it is truly fascinating, in parts pedantic, in parts it is provocative and in parts it makes for unbearable reading. It is subtitled “Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery,” and the family is, of course, the author’s own. The story goes back seven generations, and is made possible by the family’s archive of papers, especially the meticulous financial reckonings and correspondence of and to Sir Adam Fergusson of Kilkerran, the third baronet, who lived from 1733 to 1813. The family owned land, and therefore slaves, in Tobago and Jamaica. The question Renton poses, with admirable frankness at the beginning is “how could I, a stereotype of a white liberal, ripe with post-imperial guilt, best exploit my privilege – and my access to these papers?” One answer is in the book but not of it. Profits from the book are going to “educational and youth welfare projects in the Caribbean and in the UK.” That is a noble gesture, and although there have been a great many books about Scotland’s complicity in and profit from slavery, there may well be readers who will encounter that ignominious story for the first time in these pages.

Sir Adam is almost an archetype of a Scottish Enlightenment figure. He knew Adam Smith, David Hume, Robert Burns and James Boswell; his sister was married to the jurist Lord Hailes; he was Rector of Glasgow University before he was 40; an MP; and had been offered the position of governor-general of India. But he is something of a vacuum at the same time. He was a bachelor, although whether he was a “confirmed bachelor” as obituary writers used to say euphemistically is unknown, nor indeed would it be expected to be known. He comes across as something of a cold fish to say the least. His youngest brother, James, is far more appealing. He was dispatched to Tobago, since even aristocratic families struggle to find a role for last of the litter. In his letters he seems more “enlightened” than his brother, writing “Negroes are not the brutes they are often represented.” A fine sentiment, but he owned and bought them nonetheless.

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And, of course, there are plenty of brutes elsewhere in the story. It is impossible to read about the plantation managers, their various sexual abuses, tortures and sadistic vengeances without revulsion. The various ailments that pass through the enslaved calls to mind the words of the poet Arthur Clough – “Though must not kill, but need not strive / Officiously to keep alive.” Since these human individuals were thought not to be human individuals, the prevalence of disease (including syphilis, yaws, flux, lockjaw and more) was seen as a regrettable but natural wastage.

Blood Legacy, by Alex Renton

The devil here is in the detail. Renton memorialises the slaves, giving them their names even though they were not their names. It is like the kind of monument you expect to see for the war dead. Nabokov once said a life was just a dash between two dates, but here we have “Chance, child, ‘always pining’”, “Ben, ‘Belly Ache’”, “Unnamed man, drowned ‘in the muck pitt.’” Worse: the value of life is shown in arithmetical horror. One of the estate accounts tells us that five children – let us name them, Billy, Johney, Colin, Jeanie and Flora – were estimated at a total of £63, when two mules were bought at £58. The chattels were also cattle. When pressure rises about the slave trade, Sir Adam is very keen on getting more slaves that can “breed”, providing the estate with new slaves without money passing hands, as if these individuals were a flock or a stable.

Some of the most interesting material here is about the nature of slave rebellion. Renton finds details about an almost mythical figure – “Three-Fingered Jack,” and escaped slave turned guerrilla warrior. It is unsurprising that a culture as psychotic as existed then would, amongst its elites, have nightmares. There is excellent work on the Morant Bay War, and Edward Eyre’s licensing of the ruling forces to exert mob rule. It might have been useful as context to discuss slightly more the uprising of Toussaint L’Ouverture on neighbouring St Domingue as it then was, particularly as it was an ideological revolution rather than a protest against conditions and injustices.

Renton does of course visit these places and speaks to people about their experience and knowledge. This is where the question of reparation comes in, and it is problematic. Most of the Caribbeans he speaks to talk about the past being the past and drawing a line; but certainly not all. When Renton raises the idea that “epigenetic” factors might account for the problems in Jamaica now, I was sceptical: I think the answer might be poverty. But the question about reparation is not about where do you start but when do you stop. Should China receive damages for the (Scottish-led) Opium Wars? Should I sue Scandinavia for the sack of Lindisfarne? Should the state of Israel make a claim against Egypt for the years of bondage before the Exodus? Forgiveness, in some ways, can only be interpersonal.

Blood Legacy, by Alex Renton, Canongate, £16.99

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