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Slavery, Family and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic: The World of the Lascelles, 1648-1834

Author(s):Smith, S.D.
Reviewer(s):Burnard, Trevor

Published by EH.NET (August 2007)

S.D. Smith, Slavery, Family and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic: The World of the Lascelles, 1648-1834. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xv + 380 pp. ?55/$99 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-86338-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Trevor Burnard, Department of American Studies, University of Sussex.

How did “people from a family no-one knows” amass a great fortune? Simon Smith, in this splendid examination of the Atlantic world context of interconnected family members of a mercantile and then landed dynasty that made its money (and occasionally lost it) in the burgeoning economies of the West Indies, especially Barbados, provides an engrossing answer to this question. He examines the rise to great wealth of the Lascelles family, a Yorkshire family who made money in various ways in Barbados and who established themselves as a leading aristocratic family in Yorkshire, prominent for their building of Harewood House, one of the truly great homes of northern England.

The Lascelles, of course, are not, nowadays, an unknown family, having married into the British Royal Family in the early twentieth century. Their current prominence was the impetus behind this investigation. Harewood House entered into collaboration with the University of York, where Smith taught until this year, in order to bring out of the shadows the role that slavery and the plantations had played in the Lascelles’ acquisition of great wealth. The Lascelles were one of the first, and most prominent, examples of what was a new and, to many, disturbing phenomenon in eighteenth century Britain: nouveau riche men of uncertain pedigree who deployed wealth made in Britain’s growing empire into establishing themselves as landed gentlemen. Like Russians today or Americans in the late nineteenth century, colossally wealthy West Indians (Smith outlines carefully just how rich the first two generations of Lascelles were, with wealth of nearly ?900,000 at mid-century and over ?1.3 million at 1800) joined East Indian nabobs in fundamentally disturbing settled English social structures by the sheer extent of their fortunes.

Smith tells us a great deal about the Lascelles family and their fortunes. His work is based on enormous research and the employment of extremely sophisticated methodologies designed to extract meaning out of resistant sources. Smith recreates the social and economic world of a group of super merchants in the eighteenth century British Empire. (Some, like the Lascelles, very successful; others, like Gedney Clarke, to whom he devotes an especially fine chapter, failures due to overreaching and an unfortunate combination of circumstances in Atlantic trade.) These were men who both shaped and also profited from the growth of plantation commerce in the center of British American slave economies. Because slavery is so central to wealth creation in the West Indies in this period, Smith devotes an interesting, if not entirely well integrated, chapter on the enslaved population, where he complicates and extends our understanding of slave demography.

His work adds substantially to debates on gentry capitalism and on how respectable and well-connected gentlemen used their commercial networks to flourish in the poorly regulated but expanding colonial economy. They helped to make that colonial economy achieve the sort of integration that David Hancock has outlined in his work on London merchants in the Atlantic trade. It is important to note, however, that Smith is less convinced than Hancock that integration had truly occurred in the Atlantic World of commerce during the eighteenth century. Smith’s work contributes to a developing literature on Atlantic trade and on eighteenth-century business networks. Indeed, network analysis is crucial to his work. He illustrates, echoing work done by scholars looking at networks created by Scots in the Caribbean, that doing business through a complex network of business associates connected by kinship and other ties was the only effective way of reducing risk and assuring business success in a remarkably underinstitutionalized Atlantic world economy. But networks hampered merchants as much as they helped. They limited outsider involvement and accentuated the importance of manipulating access to political patronage. In the long run, as he shows, the successes of the Lascelles were unsustainable in a new world of tighter regulation and more coercive imperial policies. Here, Smith says important and suggestive things about institutional business deficiencies in Atlantic commerce that should be taken up by scholars exploring nineteenth century West Indian decline.

His study is the best study of a merchant-planter family since Richard Pares’ investigations, including one on the Lascelles family, over a half century ago. He engages actively with the influential arguments Pares made concerning what we might call the “Adam Smith” problem. That problem concerned the extent to which the wealth of the sugar colonies derived from investment from England or was instead self-generated in the colonies. Adam Smith argued for the former; Pares for the latter. Simon Smith’s analysis of the credit-debt networks of Henry Lascelles lends support to his namesake’s position, suggesting that most of the money for plantation expansion came from Britain. Nevertheless, his careful research (he is brilliantly insightful into the little studied topic of colonial credit and debt) modifies significantly Adam Smith’s contentions. He shows that mid-eighteenth century English merchants were confident enough in the future prosperity of West Indian property that they were willing to extend considerable amounts of long-term credit to planters. This credit extension fuelled not only plantation development in the older, established colonies but also remarkable growth in the regions of the British West Indies acquired after the Seven Years’ War. Smith’s figures cast light upon how this boom development occurred, thus opening up possibilities for future research in plantation development in the Ceded Islands. The amount of money flowing into the Caribbean was truly astounding but created what Smith calls a “labyrinth of debt” that drew creditors such as the Lascelles into much more direct involvement in the plantation economy as planters than they had wanted. The Lascelles, significantly, grew their fortune through trade and especially through government contracts gained through their connections on both sides of the water. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, however, foreclosures on over-extended planters had made them reluctant slave owners with a large portfolio of West Indian property that they would have preferred not to have. Their aim was to transform their West Indian interests into English property. They were able to do this reasonably successfully but the property they were forced to acquire meant that they remained tied to the West Indies. Smith’s study is a useful reminder that the customary image that we have of the imperial center dictating to the colonial periphery is a misleading characterization of imperial trade networks. The colonies and the metropolis were separate places but were integrally and complexly related. The degree of integration can be seen in the Lascelles family itself ? neither West Indian nor English but a mixture of both. The degree of integration between metropolis (even a provincial metropolis such as Yorkshire) and colonies makes one wonder whether Smith is right to discount Pares’ argument about pump-priming. If we think of the Lascelles family as more West Indian than British or, better, as transatlantic brokers, then the geographical source of capital is murky. If the credit that the Lascelles family gave to planters came from England but derived from plantation profits, who can say where exactly it originated?

Any doubts about the importance to England and to the empire of entrepreneurial merchant-planters, such as Henry Lascelles and Gedney Clarke, will be dispelled after reading this dauntingly well-research book. At times, Smith makes us work quite hard, not drawing out as clearly as he might the implications of the empirical research that he has done. It is a book that warrants close reading because of the many insights hidden away in tables and footnotes. But any work we put in will be well rewarded. No other book since Pares’ work has illuminated so clearly the reality of gentry capitalism in the eighteenth century Atlantic world. To place anyone with Pares, a scholar of awesome erudition, is to praise effusively. Smith’s work is a work of major scholarship by a man immersed in the sources and attuned to current historiographical controversies. It should have a transformative effect on developing scholarship in an especially dynamic field.

Trevor Burnard is Professor of American History at the University of Sussex and will be Professor of the History of the Americas at the University of Warwick in September 2007. His most recent book is Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-American World (Chapel Hill, 2004).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century