The Jeans of Slave Traders

Some of you may remember a post I wrote a couple of years ago about my disillusionment with Richard Dawkins. A copy of that post is here. Yesterday I was reading one of our local papers and I came across this rather dodgy article here, which took me to the original, but equally dodgy article in the Daily Telegraph here.

I have not significantly changed my views of Dawkins in the intervening period, but articles and attacks such as this and the one that occurred on Radio 4 last week, where he forgot the full title of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ does incline me to soften my opinion of him. Some of those attackers are so fatuous in their methods that it must be extremely tiresome for him.

Essentially, what the article says, is that Professor  Dawkins bears responsibility for the sins of ancestors, some of whom were slave traders and owners. The writer, one Adam Lusher, even suggests that Dawkins must possess slave-owning genes. As Dawkins points out, in his rebuttal here, even if there were such a thing, after 7 generations, he would only have 1/128th of that slave-owning ancestor’s genes in him. Even the Bible only condemns descendants for the sins of their fathers to the 4th generation: “a nice example, incidentally, of biblical morality”.

I continue to stand by what I said in my original post, but I do believe that these silly assaults on Dawkins are beginning to backfire, in much the same way that his overly enthusiastic attacks on religion and its adherents backfired. I think that he has realised that a calmer approach might achieve better results.

On his own site, Prof Dawkins says that it is only because the direct patrilineal line links him to his ancestor that his connection was identified. He told Mr Lusher that it is very likely that most people inBritainare descended from slave owners and indeed from slaves themselves. I know that I am – from slave-owners that is.

I won’t bore you all with too many details, but one of my ancestors, was a fellow by the name of Bryan Blundell, who founded the Blue Coat School in Liverpool. Much of his fortune came from trading slaves in the 18th century. Another was a Scotsman by the name of James Crokatt. He went off to Charleston in South Carolina where he made a fortune in trading slaves and indigo. He returned to the UK in about 1750 and bought a huge home, becoming a pillar of society. His son was painted by Gainsborough.

For those of you who do not know, indigo is the blue dye used to colour denim jeans. Perhaps Lusher was correct in his assertion about our inheritance since I own several pairs myself.

Here is my 7th great uncle 1st on left.

26 thoughts on “The Jeans of Slave Traders”

  1. Of course Dawkins irks god-botherers but articles purporting to implicate him in the sins of his forefathers say more about the writers than him. I’m sure I’m equally (if at all) responsible for the protests of Lawrence Saunders against Mary which got him burned at the stake.

  2. A whole industry has developed on the basis that w areall guilty for the sins of the Fathers, why else would a British prime minister apologise to black people for this countries involvement in the slave trade. There is big money to be made in the race relations industry of today, trouble is, the river of riches only flows one way.

  3. Hi, OMG, I am afraid that society is going for the easy pickings. Why work if you can sue somebody else? It harks back to my previous post about Delayed Gratification, (though that was not the intent when I wrote this!) It is going to take a step change in the way we think about effort and reward in order for us to break out of this death spiral that we are in. I was stunned the other day when somebody close to me successfully sued a doctor’s practice having tripped over a low, perimeter chain designed to keep pedestrians off the lawn and on the path. She broke both her wrists, but it was clearly her fault, in my view.

    I know we are all atheists here (!), but religion does have some good points and those include making people think about taking responsibility for themselves and helping others in this world and gaining their reward in the next. OK, there is no next world, but doing the right thing does pay benefits all round. The Protestant Ethic is a good one, (though naturally I am loyal to the Catholic Ethic too 🙂 ) but it is being lost in favour of a culture of entitlement without contribution. Britain was at its greatest when it practised a single organised religion. There is no coincidence in that. Or so I believe.

  4. Sipu, “Britain was at its greatest when it practised a single organised religion”. When was that? Weren’t there also droves of RCs and Jews?

  5. Janus, dear chap, I have decided that on the whole it is best if I ignore your ‘gadfly’ comments. While there is a time and a place for them, I have never once seen you make a meaningful contribution to a debate. As much as I like you, and I really do, I generally find it to be a complete waste of time and effort trying to discuss things with you. When I see evidence that you are able to concentrate and maintain a dialogue for any sustained period, I may relent, but until then please excuse me if I do not respond to your comments on this post.

  6. I’m pretty sure that none of my ancestors were slave – traders, but one lot might have been related to one or two who were.

    The vast majority of my ancestors were far too poor to own slaves and, indeed, many could (with some justification) claim that they were ‘slaves’ to that most Christian of sentiments expressed in the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful’:

    The Rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his Gate
    God made them High and Lowly,
    And gave them their estate…

    However, they were, by and large, an extremely free-thinking mob, who questioned that particular religious doctrine and refused to accept that God, or anyone else for that matter, had the right to determine “their estate’.

    Christianity may have had much to offer Britain (and her ruling classes) – but little to offer those who wanted more personal freedom from those who felt they had a God-Given right to rule.

  7. Boa, I know that you have researched your family pretty well, so I am sure you have a good grip on where they all were during the 17th-19th centuries. I only discovered that aspect of my family fairly recently and was rather intrigued by it. I certainly feel no generational guilt, but then I am sure not many people here would expect that of me. Google Books pointed me to the original Blundell who was an orphan who became an expert boatman and sailor. It was he who built the foundations of the fortune. But it was nice to see that in the end his descendants put it to good works, though perhaps looking after the poor is to be frowned upon, given our debate on the other post!

    You know, I am not sure that hymn is as bad as you make it out to be. We really can’t all have equal status in life. Society would collapse without some sort of hierarchical structure. As you and I have often discussed and agreed, life is not fair. But one way of easing the situation for those lower down the ladder is to get them to believe that their status is justified and acceptable. If they believe that there is a degree of nobility in their position, they will not be as miserable as if they believe that they too should have a Downton Abbey, but are only denied such by an unjust society.

    Perception is reality. If I believe that my wife is being faithful to me, that the bank is protecting my money, or that the food I am eating really is beef as opposed to dog, then I am happy. But when I discover that my wife is having an affair or the bank has gone bust or the meat is pure Alsatian, I am going to get deeply upset. Just think of parents who tell their children how wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, talented, etc they are when in fact they are none of those things. If the children believe them they will be happy. The lies serve a good purpose.

    I honestly don’t know what alternative you would suggest. Some people are going to be better equipped to deal with this world than others. Do they not have a right to the fruits of their talents? What should happen to those fruits at death. What do you propose rich, self-made parents do with their money, houses and assets when they die. Should they revert to the state? If they pass them to their children, their children will have advantages that their poorer neighbours will not. Extend that for a few generations and you have separate classes and with that class envy. That envy can be ameliorated by shifting the justification for the inequality elsewhere. Religion serves as an excellent scapegoat. While we had religion, all sorts of injustices could be explained by its supernatural idiosyncrasies. Now we only have the lies of very mortal and very venal politicians. The trouble is, we know we are being lied to. With God, we did not. Or rather most did not.

  8. I’m a descendant of both slaves and slave owners. One can see strong West African features
    in previous generations of my father’s family. Not so much in my case as I can pass as a dark-haired Scandinavian.

    There’s no point in holding onto old grudges, especially those from before our time.
    How can one be expected to apologise for things that one never saw, much less did?
    There is no such thing as historic guilt, guilt is also not inheritable. One would hope
    that we’d take a somewhat more realistic view. It’s quite dreadful when one begins
    sounding like Muslim fanatics banging on about Andalusia.

  9. Interesting post, Sipu.

    I know very little about my ancestors, and wish my parents and grandparents had told me more, or maybe I wasn’t much interested at the time, and now it’s too late, so I think it interesting that both you and Boadicea have managed to trace your lineage.

    Religion has always, in my opinion, been an excellent scapegoat, I agree. The Catholic church, before the Reformation, and the split from Rome, did in fact do everything to support the the concept of Divine Right of Kings, and one’s place in society was fixed. Actually, in one way this was a rather satisfying concept, so what went wrong?

    Well, it was something to do with the rise of commerce and emerging classes, the forerunners of the middle classes, one could say, who wanted a say in how things were run. No accident that this gave rise to Protestantism which in effect, cut out the middle man, and supported the view that with hard work, education and involvement in trade, one could aspire to join those who had a say in how the realm was ruled, that is, the aristocracy.

    Some of the aristocracy have survived, by marrying money or inherited wealth, despite taxes, and in truth probably still own quite a slice of Britain. The rest are “middle class”, and the working class, who fought so hard for their rights, have either moved upwards or sunk to become part of the underclass: those who survive on benefits.

    Very simplistic, I know, but in any event, one cannot and should not feel obliged to shoulder any responsibility for how our ancestors conducted themselves: autre temps autres mœurs!

  10. Sipu, I think various religious sects have provided admirable social services to communities from time to time. E.g., I was a beneficiary of the Methodists’ zeal. However more often than not, religion seems to me to have been exploited by rulers whose political ambitions were beyond their reach – in the modern age Islam is a good example. And any stabilty observable in the Victorian era was due to the financial success of Empire – certainly not a spiritual victory of any kind.

  11. Janus, I would not disagree with you that religion is exploited by rulers. Constantine certainly used Christianity to great effect as have many rulers since then. I think, though, that the trick is ensure that the masses believe that it is God who is making the laws and dictating behaviour, not the man.

    At the Council of Nicea, Constantine was determined to codify a creed that would stand up to scrutiny. It had to be practical, logical, and mystical. His genius was to insist on only having one God, as opposed to numerous pagan gods. The Romans were for ever messing with their gods, worshiping and making sacrifices to their personal favourites. This caused disruption and disagreements and it was thus difficult to get a common set of rules. The lone Christian God made it much easier to manage. But, Christianity in its earliest form placed great emphasis on Christ himself and he had to be considered God, as did the Spirit which had appeared to the Apostles. So the Trinity was invented. Still one God, but it got round the objections of those who wanted more than one.

    Once the Nicean Creed was written down millions of Christian subjects had to recite it every Sunday, for hundreds of years. In doing so and in being forced to attend mass, they were brainwashed into believing that God made the rules and God chose the Pope, Emperor or King to implement them. As long as people believe that, I imagine things work reasonably well. People accept their lot; their status in life. But once they suspect that the human agent has broken with God, we get chaos, as happened during the Reformation. Luther charged the Pope with being a crook and of not doing God’s work. But he did not deny the existence of God and nor did Protestant monarchs such as King Henry. Henry just took over the role of Pope and life in England carried on as before, apart from a few interruptions from pesky Catholics. Essentially, though, the majority of people still believed in a God and they trusted the king and his bishops and the church in general, to tell them what to believe and how to behave.

    I disagree with you, however, about the role of the Church in the Victorian era. The British people were overwhelmingly practising Anglicans who attended church. Certainly that was true in the educated classes. Just think of all the great missionaries and missionary societies. People believed in God and served God, Queen and Country, in that order. Even if you did not believe, you did not seriously challenge the establishment. Just think of the obstacles Charles Darwin faced.

    Since WW2, fewer and fewer people believe in God. The monarch and her politicians, no longer claim to act on His behalf which makes them as venal as any other individual and thus totally untrustworthy. I think that is why we face the problems we do.

  12. Sipu, I would argue that most people never did ‘believe’ as they claimed. It was the feudal nature of society that forced them to sign up. It is (no doubt in your book ‘unfortunately’) true that freedom of behaviour has led to freedom of thought – which in turn allows people to question ‘authority’ – be it social, religious or political. I just don’t accept that your ordered society of the rich ruling the poor is an acceptable price to pay for putting bums on pews.

  13. Very briefly, as I have to go out.

    1) I am certain people did believe and certainly many still do.
    2) I agree absolutely that freedom of behaviour leads to freedom of thought and the questioning of authority.
    3) I cannot see an alternative to a ruling and therefore rich class, ruling the poor. Even communism had its rich.
    4) For a society to be stable it needs laws. Those laws have to be created by man. Not all men will agree that other men, who are like them, have the right to impose laws upon them. Men who believe in a God, seem to accept that He can impose laws and they will follow them.
    5) Every civilization seems to have had some form of religion or other. The more entrenched the religion is in the state, the more civilized is that state. It seems to me that you cannot have the civilization without the religion.
    6) We are in danger of seeing the decline of Western civilization and the rise of Islamic power.

    Bye for now.

  14. Sipu, ref. your 6): if you believe in god-bothering, why do you regard the trends in Islamic states as inferior – are they not ‘more civilized’? (your 5)

    Laters. 😉

  15. I am one hundred percent with Janus here.


    Your comment that my quoted verse in “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is not ‘as bad’ as I make it out to be is ridiculous – why else has that particular verse been dropped by all modern hymn books. In case you don’t know – it is because it is seen as offensive to modern thought which does not accept that the poor should be ruled by the rich. Having bundles of money does not qualify anyone to be a ruler. It’s ability, brains and attitude that count – and those attributes can be found just as readily amongst the poor as in the rich. And I would argue that those who have lived in the ‘real world’ probably have far more basic common sense than those who have never had to strive for anything.

    While I acknowledge that all societies are hierarchical – I would argue that it is not the place of the followers of Christ, the poor mendicant, to use their position to provide arguments for the rich to force the poor to accept their lot. I will accept a hierarchical society based on ability and attitude – but never on the possession or lack of possession of wealth.

    Janus is absolutely right and your assertion that Christian doctrines were accepted by the whole of Victorian society is wrong. Why do you think that people like Wesley and other such preachers set out to ‘convert’ the poor of England? It was quite simply that the established church was seen as having no relevance to the poor.

    I see that elsewhere you have said that you have written “a lot of nonsense on this site” – I hope you will agree that much of what you have written here falls into that category!

  16. Janus :

    Sipu, ref. your 6): if you believe in god-bothering, why do you regard the trends in Islamic states as inferior – are they not ‘more civilized’? (your 5)

    Laters. ;-)

    OK, there is actually a lot more to answering that question than a straight yes or no. Here is my take.

    Islam, unquestionably, was fundamental to the civilization of the Arab world. It produced great advances in mathematics, science, art and culture, generally. At its height, the Ottoman Empire, which was overwhelmingly Islamic was the largest and most powerful state in the world, and, one of the most long lasting. It suffered numerous setbacks when it confronted various Christian empires and was eventually vanquished. The thing to note, though, is that religion was central to the coordinated power of these empires/civilizations, both Christian and Islamic.

    The question of whether, Islamic civilization is/was superior to a Christian one, I should think depends not only on your point of view, but on the criteria used to measure superiority. Wealth, power, population, literacy??? I would argue that a self-sustaining, organically growing (i.e. not by conquest) population is the truest sign of a civilized society. I suspect that you and others might argue that an even more civilized society is one that does not grow, but is stable as well as being self-sustaining. The problem with that criterion is that it means the society ceases to be ‘naturally human’. It is the most basic law of nature and therefore mankind to increase and multiply. A stable population means that either people are having their desires curtailed or the society cannot support itself. You may only wish to have 2 children, but I may wish to have 10. If the society actually prohibits me from that I would argue that it was not civilized. If the people themselves do not want to breed, as in the case of much of Europe, Italy in particular, I would suggest that that civilization is in decay and likely to collapse. The way things are going in Europe, I wonder who would argue with me.

    You might also argue that a sign of a civilized society is one where the standard of living is x or the level of personal freedoms is y, but all those combine to give a level of happiness z. And happiness is a very subjective state of mind. There are plenty of affluent, well educated people who are miserable and there are plenty of labourers earning minimum wage who are as happy as they could ever be, irrespective of their wealth or status. I would rather earn £1,000 a month and live in a £100,000 house in Zimbabwe than £5,000 per month and live in a £500,000 house in London, for example. My point being that in a stable Islamic society, unfettered by foreign interference, the majority of people are every bit as happy as they are anywhere else in the world.

    I can certainly see that much of what we see as modern Islamic society is decidedly uncivilized. But I believe that is because Islam is fighting a war to gain hegemony in religious terms. Once it succeeds in that, civilization, as you and I would recognise it, will follow.

    One of the big problems we have right now is that with globalisation, religious and ethnic groups are mixing and that is leading to conflict. Multiculturalism does not and cannot work. It is a lie peddled to us by liberal atheists. Traditionally Christian countries such as Britain, have grown so weak in their religious conviction that they cannot fight the spread of Islam. Unless something is done, Islam will spread both evangelically and through force. While our great grand children might be happy little Muslims, our children and grand children are not going to enjoy the conversion process. And that is why we need to be concerned.

    Sorry, I have probably bored you to tears by this point. 😦

  17. Interesting take on what makes for a ‘civilised’ environment. But why would anyone want to stop Islam spreading if it is so civilised?

  18. Janus, you are exasperating. If you are going to reply, please read the comment.

    “While our great grand children might be happy little Muslims, our children and grand children are not going to enjoy the conversion process. And that is why we need to be concerned.”

    In other words if you or I were born into Muslim families I am sure we would be quite content with the status quo and would resist being forced to abandon our religion or even to convert to another. Likewise, I am sure the French are glad to be French though we may feel sorry for them. You get the idea?

    How would you define a civilized environment? I at least made a stab at it. Let’s hear what you have to say.

  19. It has been said that ‘knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

    Boadicea, your #16. Hmm. I got a nice compliment from you on the ‘Extinction’ post, so I should be grateful for that. But two jabs from you here tend to tip the balance the other way.

    I certainly accept that the verse was dropped for the reasons you say. But that is just my point. For some time now, the state while being nominally Christian is in practice secular. The modern Anglican Church does not have the authority it once had and society has changed. Now everybody thinks that they are equal, but as we have agreed in a hierarchical society we cannot be equal.

    You say hierarchy must be based on merit. Fair enough. But what constitutes merit? Sir (ex) Fred Goodwin, who made millions, broke a bank but not the law? Does he have merit?

    Think about the impracticality of a society based purely on merit. You would have to be testing people all the time to find out who was the best at performing any particular role at any given particular time under a given set of circumstances. Seniority and loyalty would count for nothing. Experience would be dismissed in favour of ability. I am sure we can all think of a dozen different scenarios. Pilots, teachers, doctors, politicians, etc, would all receive a call saying, ‘sorry mate, there is somebody more able than you. You will have to move aside, move on, take a pay cut, retire….” Mankind is not totally objective.

    Then we get on to the point of inheritance, which I think you failed to respond to elsewhere. Why should your children inherit your wealth? They did not earn it? Surely it should go to the state, or the most deserving, or the most able…..? I think even you would disagree with that, but once you start passing wealth to future generations you create a class system. Some will be born more wealthy than others, and those with wealth will be able to purchase a host of advantages. Where does merit get you then? Should the strong be able to take from the weak? Should the clever be allowed to take from the stupid?

    Class systems carry with them a social contract. ‘You cannot take what is not yours, even if you think that you deserve it more.’ The aristocrats of old inherited money, titles and privilege. What just or sustainable law can take that away from them? It can and did happen, but all it did was to move those assets into the hands of others. The communist leaders in the USSR were no less corrupt than the aristocrats of Czarist Russia. The same is true in Britain today. Do you think little Leo Blair has not got a silver spoon or two sticking out of his gob?

    The question of whether something is right and wrong is a bit like pornography. It is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Or, if you prefer, try and recall the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’, from the beginning! Again, you cannot define your neighbour, but you know him when you see him. What religion does is allow your conscience to determine what is right or wrong, and to act accordingly. The law won’t always be there to catch you, but you will know that you have sinned. Most young people today, have absolutely no moral compass whatsoever. They rely on the law to tell them whether a particular act is legal or not and if it is illegal, whether the penalties are sufficient to dissuade them from performing it. Religion just says, ‘God knows, so watch out.’

    Ooh, is this a dig? “And I would argue that those who have lived in the ‘real world’ probably have far more basic common sense than those who have never had to strive for anything.” Just in case it is, I should point out that I have done more ‘real world’ living than most. If it is not, ignore, except to say that many, if not the majority of the significantly good works that the world has known have come from people who were wealthy and educated and therefore probably privileged. Democracy, science, art, the abolition of slavery, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Red Cross, …..

    I realise that it may not be the most reliable source, but this site says “The religious census of 1851 showed that non-Anglicans had more chapels and active members that the Church of England. The census also revealed that 42% of the population attended no church at all.” The key point being, I suggest, that 58% of people did attend some form of church or other. While they were not all C of E, they were mostly Christian and even the evil Catholics shared strikingly similar views to the Anglicans. They all worshiped a Christian deity and were taught to respect society and its structures. Even if a significant minority did not attend church on a regular basis, it is a pound to a pinch of salt, that most believed in a Christian God. Those who went to school would have been raised with a Christian education. Those that had no education at all were hardly a threat to society. In any event the Church played a regular part of everybody’s life. Just think of marriage and death. Think of Sunday being a ‘day of rest’.

    It is late, I am tired and this is all a bit disjointed, though essentially sound. I should just add that while, I genuinely respect your scholarship, I am not sure that I would trust you to make a fruit salad.

  20. Sipu, my friend, I’m only exasperating when you leap from point to point in mid-logic. If civilised is so subjective, let’s move on.

  21. Sipu

    I am not sure that I would trust you to make a fruit salad.

    You’d be quite right not to! I don’t think I’ve ever made a fruit salad in my life, although I would know not to include a tomato… 🙂

    Your figures from the 1851 religious census say it all. It may be that over half the population attended Church – there were a lot of people who did not.

    Nothing will change my belief that ability should be the criteria for ‘right to rule’ rather than wealth. In a truly civilised country, access to a good education should not be limited to those who can afford to buy it. I won’t argue that every child can reach the same pinnacles of education – it is patently clear that they can’t and we are presently suffering from the misguided notion that every child is entitled to a ‘bit of paper’ !

    Most of your other arguments are not really relevant. Of course I believe in passing on what I own to whomsoever I please – and without the huge slice that the UK Government take – there is no inheritance tax here. Nor do I have a problem with a class system – if society is hierarchical a class-system of some sort is inevitable. I just don’t happen to believe that a class-system should be based entirely on money and blood.

  22. Boadicea, I can see that this debate has all but run its course. However, I do find your last sentence puzzling. Money buys power, influence, education. It frees individuals from the drudgery of work to explore new ideas, peddle their philosophies etc. Think the Murdochs for example. James Murdoch has shown very little merit of his own, and yet he has exerted huge influence via inherited control of his father’s British papers.

    Won’t you write a post in which you explain your philosophy for a society that is based on merit and which ensures that all children have equal access to education; which is what I believe you espouse? I think it is easy to damn the current system, but difficult to fully describe a working and fair alternative.

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