We live by the moral standards of our times, not those of any others. It is to be hoped that we gradually improve and refine our moral and social values; that is the process of civilisation, and historically civilisations have reached a zenith of cultural and moral sophistication before corruption and decline set in. The Roman Empire is one example, and sometimes I worry that I see the early signs of decay in the present age of greed and extremism. Are we in the west past our best, our best-before date?
Sorry! Gloomy thoughts, the typical “in my day” perspective of a fifty-something, and what’s more a fifty-something who spends all his time writing about the past. But it’s part of the same perspective that says it seems crazy to apologise, as politicians often do these days, for the sins of your distant predecessors. Invasion, genocide, neglect – regret them, offer reparations, but don’t make meaningless apologies for acts for which you weren’t responsible and which you could not have prevented.
The Amritsar Massacre, 13th April 1919
The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 is a case in point. A British brigadier-general, afraid of insurrection, ordered his troops to fire continuously into a crowd of 20,000 men, women and children until their ammunition as exhausted. Afterwards, 2500 had been killed or injured. Ever since, there have been calls for a national British apology. The brigadier-general was at once removed from duty and Winston Churchill described the event as “monstrous” as early as 1920; in 2005 the then foreign secretary jack Straw called it “a terrible occasion … for which I feel ashamed and full of sorrow;” and in February this year David Cameron spoke in similar terms of the "deeply shameful" episode. The Queen, visiting Amritsar in 1997, said: “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
I know there’s’ a philosophical and legal argument for saying that politicians are not individuals but representatives of their constituency or nation and all its decisions, because the past has an impact on the present. But you can’t choose your past any more than you can choose your family. You can choose your friends, and shape your future. That’s where your responsibility lies.
Wedgwood jasperware anti-slavery medallion, designed and produced by prominent abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood
This train of thought is prompted by Hinton Castle, a pillar of Bristol’s elite society who – I discovered very recently – owned 243 slaves on two estates in Trinidad. Bad man. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, the British government set aside a vast sum, £20 million, to compensate slave owners for their loss. Hinton, a first cousin of my 3x great grandfather, received £11,293 6s for the slaves on his Palmiste and Cascade plantations, a vast sum in 1834 when the payments were agreed and a modest annual income even in today’s terms.
Even then the slaves were not freed. They were reclassified as apprentices and required to serve out their apprenticeship indentures for anything up to a further six years. In Trinidad, where Hinton had his properties, a group of former slaves drowned out the voice of the governor (who was addressing them about the changes in their status) with chants of “No six years.” This began a protest movement on the island which succeeded in winning full emancipation for all Trinidadian slaves without apprenticeship, ahead of slaves in other colonies.
But Hinton was a prominent Bristol citizen, a major local employer at the Castle brandy distillery, elected twice (1809 and 1832) as sheriff and once (1812) as mayor of the city. In 1820 he was president of the Anchor Society, a Bristol charitable institution founded in 1769 and still operating today. The Society cares for the poor and elderly in the city, and its main fundraising activity has always been the annual President’s Collection. Hinton’s father Robert Castle and uncle Michael had both held the office and raised generous amounts; but under Hinton’s tenure the collection reached a new record level – £374. Good man.
The Anchor Society’s annual dinner in 1909 – guest speaker Winston Churchill – when the President’s Collection raised £1216
Moral values have changed over the years, and Hinton’s ownership of slaves would of course not be tolerated today. But his charitable work, at a time when David Cameron's government is actively and enthusiastically withdrawing from social responsibility, is as important now as it has ever been. And for that I make no apology.
In the mid-1830s when so many of the Bristol great and good were presumably receiving their slavery pay-offs, it is disappointing to see that the Presidents’ Collections of the Anchor Society did not rise significantly. But in 1838 president Henry Palmer rounded up a worthy £757, a sum almost double the previous year’s effort and not surpassed for another thirty years.