Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: the Antigua Connection

Gregson Davis

References to Antigua in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park are as frequent as they are conspicuous. An important character in the novel, Sir Thomas Bertram, who is the wealthy owner of the eponymous English country estate, Mansfield Park, is also the absentee proprietor of a sugar plantation in Antigua. A pivotal episode in the novel is Bertram's abrupt departure from Mansfield Park — the central backdrop of the plot — to the Leeward Island colony. Accompanied by his spendthrift first son and heir, Tom, Bertram undertakes the hazardous journey in order to restore financial stability to his West Indian investments. Tom is sent back home prematurely, while Bertram himself remains on the island for two years in order to complete his business arrangements before returning to his English country estate. The father's prolonged absence in the Caribbean provides the catalyst for much of the erotic intrigue, interpersonal turmoil and social disorder that ensues at Mansfield Park.

In this paper I shall briefly discuss the historical, biographical and socio-economic contexts that illuminate the somewhat cryptic references to Antigua in the novel. My working hypothesis is that the repeated mention of Sir Thomas Bertram's sojourn in Antigua alludes not only to the declining profits from his West Indian sugar plantation (a situation that he sets out to rectify), but also, in more oblique fashion, to the profound ethical issues raised in the heated debates in Britain in the early 19th century surrounding the enslavement and emancipation of African peoples. My principal focus will be on the close connections between certain members of the Austen family and the Antiguan sugar plantocracy, as well as on the salient parallels between the fictional account Austen constructs of Bertram's fortunes and the actual historical circumstances of the typical Antiguan sugar baron at the time of composition of the novel (1811 to 1813). The documentary material I shall be drawing on in the course of my presentation is culled from the researches of several leading Austen scholars, especially Southam (2000; 1995) and Fleishman (1967). My own modest contribution to the question of the significance of the "Antigua connection" in Mansfield Park is to buttress the case for a more detailed reexamination and synthesis of those historical circumstances and biographical experiences of the author that pertain to the cultural milieu of the Antiguan planter class in the first two decades of the 19th century. This brief presentation offers a preliminary approximation to what I hope will be a larger study of Austen's views on the topical issue of slavery and emancipation in the British West Indian colonies.

How generic are the references to Antigua in the novel? Prior to formulating an answer to this question I had assumed (along with the majority of Austen critics) that the naming of Antigua was, in essence, inconsequential. My subsequent extra-literary explorations soon revealed that Antigua was by no means arbitrarily chosen by Jane Austen to represent the British West Indies in general; rather, her knowledge of the social and economic realities prevailing in Caribbean plantation societies was based on her own family's strong ties with at least one important Antiguan plantocrat. In short, if we wish to fill in the blanks in the author's fictional account of Bertram's Antiguan adventure, we are in a position to make plausible inferences about his activities based on these concrete biographical connections.

Before delineating the chief Austen family links with Antigua, a brief synopsis of the internal and external chronology of the novel will serve to anchor the discussion. The vexed question of the internal, or dramatic, date of the novel's action has been persuasively settled, in my view, by the solid philological work of Southam (2000). The single most decisive clue is furnished by the reference to Crabbe's Tales in Verse, a book that the novel's heroine, Fanny Price, is portrayed as having read. Since Crabbe's Tales was published in September, 1812, we have a secure peg (terminus ante quem) on which to hang a time-frame for the action as a whole. Following Southam's virtually certain reconstruction, we may infer that the novel's action unfolds in the three years between the autumn of 1810 and the summer of 1813. Within this larger temporal frame we may confidently assign Bertram's Caribbean itinerary to the period from October, 1810 to October, 1812, with his son's premature return falling in September of 1811.1 This internal calendar overlaps with the novel's actual time of composition discussed above (Mansfield Park was published in 1814).

In the Austens' circle of family and intimate friends there would have been ample opportunity for the writer to become familiar with the social ambitions, life-style, political leanings and business activities of Antiguan plantation-owners. The most salient connection of the Austens with Antigua is to be found in their close friendship with the prominent plantocrat, James Langford Nibbs. who was the scion of a line of English sugar magnates that stretched over several generations of colonists. The earliest extant map of Antigua,2 which locates all the sugar estates on the island by naming their proprietors, shows the Nibbs' land-holdings to be extensive and multiple. According to the late 19th century chronicler, Vere Langford Oliver, who painstakingly documented the lineages of all the major Antiguan plantocrats in a massive three volume compilation,3 the founder of the Nibbs dynasty, a James Nibbs, was granted lands for cultivation in Antigua as early as 1671. The initial English colonization of the island took place in 1632 and there is evidence that already by the late 17th century as much as 70% of the arable land was occupied by sugar plantations (Harris 1965, 88). The James Langford Nibbs who was a friend of Jane Austen's parents represented the third generation of Nibbs colonial gentry on the island. Oliver's annotation to his Nibbs family pedigree carries the caption, apropos of James Langford, that he was educated in the mother country, having matriculated from St. John's College, Oxford, at the age of 19. Jane's father, the Rev. George Austen, had been a teacher of James Langford at Oxford. An index of the strength of the personal, no less than professional, relationship between George Austen and James Langford Nibbs is the fact that the latter became a godfather to the eldest of Jane Austen's brothers (Rev. James Austen [1765-1819]). To cap it all, George Austen was eventually appointed by Nibbs as a principal trustee of his Antigua estate.4 If George Austen shared at least some aspects of his close association with James Langford Nibbs with his talented and perceptive daughter, she would certainly have acquired valuable material about the changing fortunes of the latter's sugar estate holdings on the island.

Map of Antigua with the Nibbs estate locations circled

There is an intriguing parallel between the historical Nibbs and the fictional Bertram of Mansfield Park: they both reared spendthrift elder sons. In the case of Bertram, Austen makes frequent mention of his son Tom's profligate ways and especially his predilection for gaming. Though it is not explicitly stated in the novel, it is a reasonable presumption that some of Sir Thomas' cash flow problems may have stemmed from the irresponsible life-style of his son. A motive for his taking Tom with him to Antigua was to remove him from the temptation to indulge his passion for gambling; however, Tom's premature return from Antigua, which goes unexplained in the novel, may be related to the discovery that life in the colony afforded ample opportunities for continued indulgence of his spendthrift habits.

An equally significant linkage between the Austen family and affairs in the West Indies relates to the naval career of Jane's bother, Francis, whom she admired and with whom she maintained a long-lasting correspondence. We are fortunate to have a communication he wrote recording his reactions to an encounter with a Portuguese slaver that he had intercepted in Caribbean waters.5 Enforcement of the Act abolishing the slave trade, which had been passed by the British Parliament in 1807, had been weak and largely ineffectual. One of the responsibilities of Commander Francis Austen was to engage in policing activities in the Americas, but he was authorized to intercept only English vessels. He reported on his deep revulsion not merely at the inhumane and heinous treatment of the African slave cargo on the Middle Passage, but also at the entire slave system, which he observed at first hand in other parts of the world as well. Commenting on the "harshness and despotism" of landholders and their managers in the West Indian context he writes that "slavery however it may be modified is still slavery."6 It is clear from this documentation that Francis Austen was, to his credit, truly appalled by the institution of slavery as such and, in this respect, as Southam points out (loc.cit.), he was considerably ahead of his time. In view of the attested close relationship Austen had with her sailor brothers, the elder Francis and the younger Charles, it is highly probable that she shared the former's unequivocal antipathy to the system. Incidentally, Francis served for many years under Lord Horatio Nelson whose views on slavery were notoriously opposed to those of progressive thinkers of his day, represented by the Evangelicals and the Abolitionists.

The fictional absentee landowner, Bertram, spends two years in Antigua on an urgent business mission, the details of which are left unspecified by the narrator. For readers familiar with Caribbean history it is by no means difficult to relate Bertram's personal financial crisis to the economic fortunes of the leading Antiguan planter families in the early decades of the 19th century. The standard economic histories list such salient causes of the gradual slump in sugar prices in the British West Indies as: the prolonged hostilities between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, the conflicts with America which entailed drastic restriction of estate supplies, and unsuccessful competition with the foreign sugar-producing colonies that continued to trade in slaves.7

When we read in the pages of Mansfield Park of the "poor returns" from Bertram's Antiguan property, and that "a large part of his income was unsettled," the door is open to speculation on the readers' part as to the root causes of his declining profits and, just as importantly, to the presumed solution effected by the absentee owner. Was Bertram's island plantation suffering from labor shortages caused by Britain's abolition of the trade? Was part of his private agenda for ameliorating the situation in Antigua a plan to secure an adequate supply of labor (a malign reading), or rather, as more benign critics would have it, a sincere effort to consolidate his restricted supply by a more humane treatment of his slaves?8 Whether or not we are inclined to see Bertram's imagined solution in a positive or negative light, it seems reasonable to infer from the infamous "dead silence" that greets the heroine Fanny Price's inquiries about the slave trade in the novel that the issue was disquietingly "too close to home" for her adopted father. The exchange between Fanny and Edmund is quite unambiguous on the subject:9

"Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?"
"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."
"And I longed to do it - but there was such a dead silence!"

Postcolonial critics of the novel are surely on the right track when they assert that Bertram's enigmatic "dead silence" cannot be divorced from the embarassing issue of the trade's role in the maintenance of his income.10 As Sheridan has amply documented in the particular case of Antigua in the mid-eighteenth century, the income issue was historically related to economies of scale on Antiguan sugar plantations, where increased profitability was, to a very significant extent, a function of expanded acreage and the size of the labor force (Sheridan 1961, 343). If the Nibbs estate was the presumptive model for the fictive Bertram property, we can entertain a plausible guess as to the scope of the latter's shrinkage in revenue. Sheridan's authoritative study of the Antiguan colonial gentry in the earlier, more prosperous years (anterior to the internal date of the novel as reconstructed by Southam) indicates that a holding comparable to Nibbs' would have yielded a substantial annual income of several thousand pounds a year (Sheridan 1961, 355). Since the maintenance of his English county estate was dependent on the stability of his income flowing from Antigua, Bertram would naturally have balked at discussing in detail the consequences of the banned traffic in humans with Fanny and Edmund.

Given Jane Austen's marked predilection for social criticism in her novels, it is appropriate to raise the question whether we are meant to be aware of the typical contemporary life-style of the leading planter families on the island. There is no lack of vivid portrayals from the genre of travel literature of the social life endemic to the great-houses of the colonial gentry in the West Indies at the apex of its prosperity. Sumptuous living appears to have been more or less the order of the day among the owners, their managers and their merchant associates, even including those of the class who were most deeply in debt. According to the picture evoked by Ragatz, for instance, it was not unusual for some planters in the colonies to borrow heavily as a means of supporting a luxurious and immoderate life-style (Ragatz 1928, 3-10). A reader of Mansfield Park who is familiar with such a regional reputation for "conspicuous consumption" (and Austen's contemporary readers would certainly have been aware of the stereotype of the ostentatious West Indian plantocrat) might readily conjure up a frugal Mr. Bertram saddled with the task of reining in the costly extravagance of a local manager (or "attorney," as the estate supervisors of absentee landlords were often called). Absenteeism, as we learn from various historical sources, was reputedly one of the actual causes of lower returns to owners of West Indian plantations, since it often led to inefficiency and, occasionally, outright abuse.11 The successful proprietor of two financially interdependent, but geographically separated, great-houses, such as the imaginary Bertram, risked the potential deterioration of his resources by virtue of an imposed absenteeism (he obviously could not supervise his English and Antiguan estates simultaneously at first hand). When Bertram eventually returns to Mansfield Park he finds he has to restore order and decorum in the wake of the rampant self-indulgence and contagious immorality that have broken out in his absence.

Are we to suppose that there had been a symmetrical lapse into social disorder in Bertram's Antiguan great-house? Might such a putative anarchy, so seductive to a person of his son Tom's irresponsible character, have influenced Bertram's decision to send the latter home, while he himself remained to repair the damage to his fortunes? Such invited speculation is, in my view, entirely in keeping with Austen's narrative technique of oblique social satire. By her indirection and reticence on the actual circumstances that Bertram confronted on his visit to Antigua, the reader is provoked into conjecture about the reasons for her character's dramatically transformed attitude towards the stalwart Fanny Price after his eventual return to his English great-house.

The novelist does not display similar reticence about a social institution shared by both the British and West Indian colonial gentry: entertainment in the form of the lavish upper-class ball. The motif of the ball is frequent in Austen's novels and is, of course, the occasion for subtle characterization and refined observation of manners (Grigsby 1986). As far as the historical colonial scene was concerned, the Governor's ball was regarded as the paramount social function of the year. In the peculiar context of Antigua, however, the prospect of a grand ball may have carried associations with a past horror that shook the plantocrats' carefree world to its very foundations. A contemporary descendant of the Nibbs family, such as the above-mentioned James Langford, would undoubtedly have heard the story of the traumatic event known to historians as "The Antigua Conspiracy" that occurred in 1736.12 In that year a group of disgruntled slaves on the island hatched a gunpowder plot to blow up the hall in which all the leading planters of the island were to have gathered for a Great Ball. Discovery of the aborted plot had been followed by the gruesome and swift public torture and execution of the slaves accused of complicity. It is probable that the memory of an event so traumatic in the life of the Antiguan gentry was kept alive from generation to generation. In addition to this memorable scare on Antigua, the more recent (and successful) violent overthrow of the French plantocracy of the island of St. Domingue in the late 18th century (the Haitian Revolution) must have revived anxiety among all members of the planter class in the Caribbean, regardless of nationality. Though a slave revolt such as the Antigua Conspiracy was an extreme example of a topsy-turvy world from the perspective of the slave-masters, it would surely have lingered on in story as a warning to the ruling planter class against complacency. Did the distant memory of the averted massacre of slave-owners at the Great Ball play a shadowy role in Austen's (and Bertram's) conception of the potential perils and insecurities of a lax colonial life-style? Be that as it may, Austen's novel features a small private ball that Bertram puts on for Fanny Price and her brother William in an atmosphere of restored order and physical security in the great-house of Mansfield Park.

The action of Mansfield Park, as we have noted above, takes place in the period after the passage of the act that abolished the "abominable traffic" and during a time of widespread agitation for a bill enacting full emancipation (an event that did not occur within the lifetime of Jane Austen). It is significant in this regard that Sir Thomas Bertram is portrayed in the novel as an active member of Parliament. As an absentee proprietor with a lucrative estate in Antigua he may be assumed to have been an advocate of the "West India interest," which had a powerful lobby in Parliament. This period in British history was marked by intense and monumental debates among parliamentary legislators and the educated citizenry over the morality of slavery. Without rehearsing the arguments employed on both sides of the conflict, it is logical to assume that, from the point of view of his patent self-interest, the fictional Bertram would have supported the planters' cause at a time when the very basis of their livelihood was being severely undermined.

If Bertram's presumptive ideological affiliation may be correctly parsed as conservative, what inferences can we make, by way of a conclusion, about Jane Austen's own opinions on the morality of the slave system? Her feelings on the heated topic are by no means obscure or subject to speculation: there is firm documentary evidence from her correspondence that she was strongly attracted to abolitionist literature. In a famous and often cited letter to her mother, Cassandra, she confides her "love" for the writings of William Clarkson, the prominent abolitionist. Also listed among her favorite authors was the progessive William Cowper, whose poem, "The Negro's Complaint" acquired immense contemporary popularity.13 When we combine this extra-literary, biographical testimony regarding Austen's sympathies with the enlightened attitude of her brother Francis discussed above, we are obliged to conclude that she was discreetly in favor of the cause of the emancipation movement.

Mansfield Park may therefore be interpreted as having an ethical subtext conveying a progressive viewpoint on the humanitarian issue of slavery. Pace the late Edward Said,14 who brilliantly inspired a whole school of postcolonial critics to question the imperialistic mindset of the fictive Bertram, Austen appears to have subtended, in the plot of Mansfield Park, a subtle moral critique of the British landed gentry in terms of their presumed allegiance to the institution of slavery. Such a conclusion is congruent with her ongoing denigration — expressed with exquisite irony and incomparable elegance of style — of the landed gentry's obsession with financial status and the concomitant social climbing endemic to the marriage market. Towards the end of the novel it becomes transparently clear, even to Bertram himself, that tranqullity of mind15 is not ultimately attainable by mercenary pursuits.


1 Southam (2000) 181. For an alternative internal dating that ascribes Bertram's visit to Antigua to the years 1805-1807, see Fleishman (1967) 91. An acceptance of the earlier time-frame would require us to ascribe an anachronism — Fanny Price's reading of Crabbe's Tales — to the usually punctilious Austen, who famously prided herself on her "precision" in such matters.

2 Emma Bowen: A New and Accurate Map of the Island of Antigua or Antego (1750), reproduced in Davis & Davis (1973). On the illustration acompanying this article I have circled the Nibbs estate locations.

3 Oliver (1894-99). This precious work, which is in the nature of an annalistic compendium, rather than a narrative history proper, is a copious, though somewhat indiscriminate, resource for events on the island as well as for transcribed legal records.

4 The fullest documentation from original sources is to be found in Oliver who cites the text of the legal indenture recording the trusteeship (Oliver, vol. 1, 292). Cp. also Tomalin (1997), appendix ii, 285. It is noteworthy that the particular estate in question, as we learn from the citation from the legal instrument ("indenture") in Oliver's chronicle, was 294 acres in extent. According to Sheridan (1961) the total extent of the Nibbs landholdings in Antigua amounted to 740 acres (see his useful table in appendix 1, 355-7).

5 Cited in Southam (2000) 189.

6 Cited in Southam (2000), 189-90.

7 The list of contributory factors is lengthy. For the Leeward Island situation in particular, see especially the magisterial account in Goveia (1965) 1-49. In regard to the West Indies as a whole, consult the judicious selection of primary sources in Augier & Gordon (1962) 58-67.

8 For the benign reading see Fleishman (1867) 38; a cautious, balanced approach is adopted by Sutherland in her excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel (Sutherland 1996).

9 The text of Mansfield Park is cited in the edition of Sutherland (1996), 165-6.

10 Cp. Southam (1995); Lew (1994); Said (1993) 93-7.

11 Absenteeism, however, was not uniformly disadvantageous to the distant owner. On this complex matter see the well-researched conclusions of Sheridan (1961) 354.

12 For a comprehensive account and analysis of the plot, consult the authoritative volume of Gaspar (1985) 3-42. A brief summary narrative is to be found in Davis & Davis (1973) 63-71.

13 The text of the Cowper poem is conveniently cited in Augier & Gordon (1960) 149.

14 See Said (1993). An excerpt from this important work ("Jane Austen and Empire") is reprinted in the Norton critical edition of the novel (Johnson 1998, 490-493).

15 On the leitmotif of "tranquillity" as it pertains to characterization in the novel, see Tanner (1986).

References Cited

Augier, F. R; Gordon, S. C.; Hall, D. G. & Reckford, M. 1960. The Making of the West Indies. London: Longman Caribbean.

Augier, F. R. & Gordon, Shirley C. 1962. Sources of West Indian History. London: Longman Caribbean.

Davis, Gregson & Davis, Margo. 1973. Antigua Black: Portrait of an Island People. San Francisco: Scrimshaw Press.

Grey, J. David. Ed. 1986. The Jane Austen Companion. New York: Macmillan.

Fleishman, Avrom. 1967. A Reading of Mansfield Park: an Essay in Critical Synthesis. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Gaspar, D. Barry. 1985. Bondmen and Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goveia, Elsa. 1965. Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Grigsby, Joan. 1986. "Dancing, Balls and Assemblies" in The Jane Austen Companion. Ed. J. David Grey. New York: Macmillan, 118-119.

Harris, David R. 1965. Plants, Animals and Man in the Outer Leeward Islands, West Indies. University of California Publications in Geography, vol. 18. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johnson, Claudia. Ed. 1998. Jane Austen; Mansfield Park. New York & London: Norton.

Oliver, Vere Langford. 1894-99. The History of the Island of Antigua from the First Settlement in 1635 to the Present Time. 3 vols. London.

Lew, Joseph. 1994. "'That Abominable Traffic': Mansfield Park and the Dynamics of Slavery" in History, Gender, and Eighteenth-Century Literature. Ed. Beth Tobin. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Said, Edward. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.

Southam, Brian. 1995. "The Silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the Chronology of Mansfield Park" in The Times Literary Supplement, 17 February 1995, 13-14.

____________. 2000. Jane Austen and the Navy. London: Hambledon and London.

Parry, J.H & Sherlock, P.M. 1971. A Short History of the West Indies. 3rd Ed. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Ragatz, L.J. 1928. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763-1833. New York & London: The Century Co.

Sheridan, Richard B. 1961. "The Rise of a Colonial Gentry: A Case Study of Antigua, 1730 - 1775" in The Economic History Review, 2nd Series, 13.3, 342-57.

________________. 1974. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623 - 1775. Kingston, Jamaica: Caribbean Universities Press.

Sutherland, Kathryn. Ed. 1996. Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Tanner, Tony. 1986. Jane Austen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tomalin, Claire. Ed. 1997. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf.

© Gregson Davis, 2004.

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