The Rentons and the Fergussons: or, what makes a family?

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My cousin Alex Renton’s book Blood Legacy, tries an original approach to get the British to talk about the slave trade. Not through fiction or history, not through the voices of the slaves or even of their masters. Rather, he asks, what does it mean to be the descendant of a family who owned slaves?

In 1833, the British government paid £20 million to the former owners of slaves. Among the winners named in Alex’s book are John Gladstone, enriched to the tune of more than £100,000, a wealth which crowned the rise of that trader from modest beginnings (one of sixteen children to a humble Leith merchant), and enabled him to subsidise his son’s career – Eton, Oxford, Parliament. Another Scottish family, the Smiths of Jordanhill invested their £70,000 on yachts. Taxpayers were still paying off the interest on our debt to the slavers as recently as 2015.

Some 950 slaves altogether were owned by Alex’s ancestors: Emoinda, Rachel, Monimia, Sophia, Peggy, and many others besides. He conveys the cost of their acquisition: a slave child cost less than a horse, a mule or a cow.

Alex has found in the family archive the papers of two Fergussons in particular. Sir Adam Fergusson (pictured), the older brother, and James the younger brother. Each had been expensively-educated, both were advocates (or, as we might say in England, barristers). As a lawyer myself, in winced in recognition of their careers.

James was liberal-minded and naïve. He told another brother, James, that “kindness and mercy” were the ways to get the most “usage” from slaves; “a good heart is as necessary as a good head to constitute a good Planter”. An inventory of his possessions however included a “Negroe iron chain” and “Negroe iron collars”.

Sir Adam welcomed his youngest brother’s generosity of spirit, and commended him on another of his investments: a silver branding iron with which Sir Adam and James’ initials could both be burned together into a new acquisition’s skin.

James Fergusson caught an infection and died in Tobago in 1777, after a mere four year’s career as a slaver. Sir Adam, by contrast, lasted another 30 years.

My favourite sections of the book begin in 1781, when a slave August Thomson (“Caesar”), the plantation doctor, travelled to London to confront Sir Adam after an overseer Andrew Murdoch had lashed Caesar, placed him in the stocks, and stolen his possession: 3 dozen plates, a dozen wine glasses, his silver shoe buckles and his doctor’s instruments. Caesar is named in a 1780 newspaper report as a member of the gang of runaway slaves led by Three-Fingered Jack. Assuming the record is true, he must have decided soon afterwards that a petition to his owner was a wiser course than continued insurrection. Caesar was plainly an intelligent and persuasive person, to have thrived as a doctor, to have paid for his route to London, and to have convinced any number of people that he had legitimate business in England.

Sir Adam first promised Caesar his protection, and then wrote to Murdoch, permitting him to do what he liked to the new-returned slave. Alex offers two possible accounts of his fate: there was a black Caesar living in Deptford in 1786, and a Caesar “alias John Thomas” in the Kingston workhouse in 1789. I like to think of Caesar as settled permanently in London, perhaps regretting his lost silver buckle, but building a new life here.

Alex puts a case for reparations, arguing that the former slave colonies remain underdeveloped as a result of the trade and that the descendants of the slaves continue to feel the psychological legacy of their ancestors’ humiliation.

He makes concrete the link between the past and the present by seeking of his own family, naming us as members of a wider group, “people who are heirs or descendants of those who profited from slavery”. We can make reparations, by telling the story of the trade’s violence, by acknowledging and by properly apologising for what our ancestors did.

Reading Alex’s book is not, of course, the first time I have had to think about slavery. In my own books about the Congo and my biography of CLR James, the trade was a large part of the story – first for the horror of what it was like to live in a country which was exporting slaves, and then, via the Black Jacobins, for James’ narrative of the Haitian slave revolt. (It is no exaggeration to say that when Alex began telling the story of August Thomson, I thought I felt an echo of James’ master-work).

But I have never seen it argued before that my life is changed because I, as a Renton, profited from slaves. There’s no point lying – that feeling was strange to me, unwelcome, and my immediate reaction was one of doubt. Is his account fair to his own family?

The shortest and most superficial answer is that they weren’t slavers. For although Alex is my first cousin, the story he is telling is of his maternal family’s involvement in the trade. Ever slaver named in his book is a Fergusson.

Well, every slaver except one. The one paternal ancestor he has traced (and who is my ancestor as well as Alex’s) is James Graham (1789-1860), a white-whiskered Victorian who was a merchant in Liverpool. Graham appears in various works that I have written for my family. Alex has dug up the names of the two house-servants owned by Graham (Nancy and Sarah) and the compensation he received from the state: £45. He also notes that James Graham was listed on his baptism as “non-white”. It turns out that the one slaver from whom I am definitely descended was the mixed-race child of Elizabeth (“a free mulatto”) and a plantation owner William Delaroche.

What does it mean to name the Rentons as profiteers from slavery, when the one undisputed slaver we count in our direct ancestors was himself descended from slaves?

And if I felt troubled by Alex’s narrative, I know there are others around in my family whose overwhelming reaction has been one of the most convinced hostility: how dare he name the Renton as slavers?

I have said that this reaction was superficial and fleeting. And now I want to explain why. For when I think of my paternal ancestors in eighteenth century Edinburgh, I know them as clergymen, teachers, and others of the middle middle-class. The Rentons were never gentry like the Fergussons (nor still less the “aristocrats” you read about in excited reviews of Alex’s book), but nor were they mere workers.

They shared in the great Scottish boom of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Money from slavery made it into their collection boxes, paid the fees of their pupils. If the Rentons did not share the Fergusson wealth, they benefitted from it at second-hand. They belong to a much wider story – the story of Edinburgh, of Bristol, of Liverpool and of London – and of the dripping of tainted wealth into many hands.

Alex cites the great Caribbean historian and politician Eric Williams, whose book Capitalism and Slavery insists that without the fortunes made through the slave trade there could have been no industrial revolution in Britain.

What would Edinburgh have been without the wealth of slavery? Poorer, shabbier, less grand. Homes might have been built but not the street upon street of townhouses with their high ceilings and their well-dressed occupiers promenading outside.

As well as the Renton ancestor who was both slaver and slave-descendant, there are other ancestors too. Churchgoers, they spoke out against the trade. And yet, reading Alex’s book, I think I see these good ancestors anew – pious and principled and ridden with guilt.

Alex ends his book by writing: “The story of transatlantic slavery is not over: we have it in us to change its consequences.”

I agree with him.

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