On White Fury

October sees the publication of Christer Petley’s major new study of slavery and abolition. His book tells the story of the struggle over slavery in the British empire — as told through the rich, expressive, and frequently shocking letters of one of the wealthiest British slaveholders ever to have lived. Here, Christer reflects on the choice of the title: White Fury.

The title of the book was decided late on. ‘Slavery and Revolution’ was my working title throughout the writing process. But with the manuscript completed, the press wanted a change, and we eventually agreed on White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution. The book, as the title makes clear, is about a slaveholder: Simon Taylor. It is also about more than that — it seeks to examine British slavery and the late eighteenth-century revolutions that helped bring it down.

Here, I reflect on why White Fury is an appropriate title for a history book about Taylor, and I add a few thoughts about why I think understanding his white fury matters to us in the present.

‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’, abolitionist slogan and emblem, c.1788.

By the year 1807, Simon Taylor’s anger was running hot. This old white slaveholder was, by then, approaching seventy, and the abolitionist campaign, which he had vehemently opposed since it first began two decades earlier, was on the brink of a major success. After many years of debate, the imperial parliament in London was poised to put an end to the transatlantic slave trade. It pitched Taylor into a state of incandescent fury.

From his home in the British colony of Jamaica, he had long raged against abolitionists. To him the figurehead of the anti-slave-trade campaign, William Wilberforce, was a ‘hell-begotten imp’, spreading ‘infernal nonsense’. Taylor continually expressed outrage that such a man had misguidedly taken up the interests of ‘negroes’ against those of white colonial slaveholders. Taylor had never been able to understand Wilberforce.

‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ was the slogan of the abolition movement, always accompanied by the image of a kneeling African, begging for help — a message that grabbed imaginations and changed perceptions. But for a man like Taylor, whose wealth was based on buying, selling, and exploiting enslaved Africans, it stoked fear, frustration, and fury.

Taylor’s view of empire was built around the principles of white supremacy and white solidarity. To men like him, the only people who could be considered ‘natural born subjects’ of the British Empire, and therefore deserving of its care and protection, were whites; and he considered black people merely as items of property. He struggled to understand how any truly patriotic Briton could see things differently.

Taylor’s anger is interesting partly because it reveals an untold aspect of the story of British abolition. He was, of course, on the losing side, but wealthy, influential, vocal, and angry slaveholders like him did a lot to shape the debate over slavery. And they won some important concessions.

But Taylor is important for more reasons than those. The kind of angry reaction to change vocalised by a man like Taylor is not simply a thing of the past. Instead, Taylor’s fear and outrage are often chillingly recognisable. Again and again, between his times and ours, those who have grown up as beneficiaries of white privilege have responded to pressure for equality, increased diversity, and even the most basic of reforms as though those were types of oppression. Institutionalised racism rooted in colonialism and slavery can prove stubborn in the face of challenges. In large part that is because when old white privileges are confronted, indignant white fury — of the sort that Taylor so luridly expressed — is rarely far behind.

Christer Petley

Christer Petley is Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Southampton. White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution is published by Oxford University Press on 11 October 2018 (£20, ISBN 9780198791638). Christer will be talking about the book in conversation with Dr Richard Benjamin (Liverpool Museums) and Dr Jessica Moody (University of Bristol) at an event hosted by the Department of History at the University of Southampton on 30 October 18.00-19.30, Avenue campus, Lecture Theatre C. Book your place: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/history/news/seminars/2018/10/30-white-fury.page

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