Orwell’s Scottish Ancestry & Slavery*

“He hated Scotsmen!”    Kay Ekevall

He wrote under the name ‘Orwell’, partly because he preferred separate identity as an author, partly because he disliked he idea of family origins in Scotland.                                                                                                                                                        Anthony Powell

Slave Owner: Blair Come here! You ! Adam ! You’d better jump a bit faster than that when I call you. Didn’t I pay twelve hundred dollars for you? You belong to me … me … do you understand?  Orwell voicing a role in ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ by Venu Chitale, BBC, 11th August, 1941  (CW, Vol. 12)

“The idea that an advanced civilisation need not rest on slavery is a relatively new idea, for instance: it is a good deal younger than the Christian religion.”                                                                                                                                                        George Orwell

George Orwell was famously prone to disliking the Scots. This is usually explained as a consequence of Eric Blair’s experiences at school and as an Indian Imperial Police Officer in Burma. This long-held attitude changed after 1945, when he lived at Barnhill, on the Scottish island of Jura (Crick 1992, p.515).

In Such Such Were the Joys, the posthumously published essay on his childhood experiences at the boarding school, St Cyprian’s, Orwell explains his perceptions:

“The school was pervaded by a curious cult of Scotland, which brought out the fundamental contradiction in our standard of values. Flip claimed Scottish ancestry, and she favoured the Scottish boys, encouraging them to wear kilts in their ancestral tartan instead of the school uniform, and even christened her youngest child by a Gaelic name. Ostensibly we were supposed to admire the Scots because they were “grim” and “dour” (“stern” was perhaps the key word), and irresistible on the field of battle…The real reason for the cult of Scotland was that only very rich people could spend their summers there. And the pretended belief in Scottish superiority was a cover for the bad conscience of the occupying English, who had pushed the Highland peasantry off their farms to make way for the deer forests, and then compensated them by turning them into servants. Flip’s face always beamed with innocent snobbishness when she spoke of Scotland. Occasionally she even attempted a trace of Scottish accent. Scotland was a private paradise which a few initiates could talk about and make outsiders feel small.” (CW, Vol.19)

There are numerous examples of the impact of Orwell’s experience in Burma that reveal his attitudes towards the Scots. One of his girlfriends from the mid-1930s, Kay Ekevall, relates that:

…he just had this blind prejudice because of what he called the whisky-swilling planters in Burma that he met. So he lumped all Scotsmen together.  (Crick & Coppard, p.100)

Colonel Clyne Stewart (1888-1959), Superintendent of the Police Training School at Mandalay, was another Scot who Orwell knew in Burma. One biographer describes him as “a tall, rugged Scotsman” and the epitome of the dedicated servant of the empire that Orwell came to so dislike (Shelden 1991). 

Clyne Stewart is seated second from the left

Clyne Stewart is seated second from the left

While researching Richard W Blair’s career as a Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, previously unknown progenitors have come to light that explain, possibly, why Eric Blair displayed more than a passing prejudice against his Scottish ancestry.

Orwell’s Ancestry

 His great-great grandfather had been a slave-owner in Jamaica. Robert Colls

In the eighteenth century the Blairs had been a prosperous family with aristocratic connections…and had the income from several lucrative properties in Jamaica. Michael Shelden

Eric was keenly aware of his Blair ancestry – the procession of ghostly fore-bears, their names inscribed in the Blair family Bible inherited from his father, an oil painting of Lady Mary Blair and a set of leather-bound volumes once owned by his great-uncle, Captain Horatio Blair, to which he became sentimentally attached.  Gordon Bowker

The Blairs were pattern examples of the Victorian upper-middle class: professionally – and sentimentally – attached to the Empire, their money mostly gone, but sustained by the thought of a fine and more prosperous past. The memory of this heritage strayed into Orwell’s own inner landscapes.  DJ Taylor

The history of the Blair family in the nineteenth century is commonly told by Orwell’s biographers as one of decline. Each of the descendants of Charles Blair (1743–1801), who married the daughter of the Fane Earl of Westmorland, was less distinguished than his ancestor. Richard W Blair, Orwell’s father, was the youngest of ten children. The family fortunes, built on the now decaying Jamaican sugar, rum and slave trades, had diminished beyond recovery.

Biographers (Stansky & Abrahams, Crick, Shelden, Meyers, Bowker and Taylor) all mention Charles Blair (1743-1802), whose wealth was from plantations in Jamaica, as Orwell’s earliest known ancestor. However, there is a lack of certainty about the family’s Scottish origins in all the biographies. For example, Bowker (2003) says:

Charles Blair, Eric’s great-grandfather, was born in 1743, probably of Scottish ancestry. By way of Jamaican sugar plantations and the slave trade he became sufficiently prosperous to be an acceptable husband for Lady Mary Fane, youngest daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland, to whom he was married in 1765. The Fanes were enthusiastic field sportsmen. Their ranks include Masters of Hounds and army cavalry officers as well as a Commander of the British Army in Burma.

No biographer mentions Blair ancestors prior to this great-great-grandfather, Charles Blair but research suggests that the family fortune was built by Charles’ forebears, John and John, who unexpectedly washed-up on Jamaican shores.

Colonel John Blair (1668-1728)

John Blair (1712-1742)

Charles Blair (1743-1802)

Charles Blair (1776-1854)

Thomas Richard Arthur Blair (1802-1867)

Richard Walmesley Blair (1857-1939)

Eric Blair (1903-1950) aka George Orwell

Dobson, David, Scots in Jamaica 1655-1855, 2011

Dobson, David, Scots in Jamaica 1655-1855, 2011

Eric Blair was his father’s only son. It seems completely reasonable to assume the family had a narrative that included distant origins. I have been unable to locate what happened to the Blair family bible which we know included genealogical information but it is unlikely to have listed the earliest known Blair ancestors, stretching back to 1668.

It is interesting to consider potential causes for Orwell’s prejudice against his Scottish heritage, deeply embedded in his personality, being related to his dislike of the family’s profits made from slavery. But how much did he know about the source of Charles Blair’s wealth or his earlier ancestry? Eileen, Orwell’s wife, wrote a letter to Norah Myles, a friend she made at Oxford, on 3rd or 10th of Nov. 1936 which gives a potted version of the Blair family history confirming the family narrative included their slave-owning ancestry:

“We are staying with the Blairs & I like it. Nothing has surprised me more, particularly since I saw the house which is very small & furnished almost entirely with paintings of ancestors. The Blairs are by origin Lowland Scottish & dull but one of them made a lot of money in slaves & his son Thomas who was inconceivably like a sheep married the daughter of the Duke of Westmorland (of whose existence I never heard) & went so grand that he spent all the money & couldn’t make more because slaves had gone out. So his son went into the army & came out of that into the church & married a girl of 15 who loathed him & had ten children of whom Eric’s father, now 80, is the only survivor & they are all quite penniless but still on the shivering verge of gentility as Eric calls it in his new book which I cannot think will be popular with the family.”  (Davison 2013)

The English captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655.  In 1662 there were about 400 slaves on the island.  The cultivation of sugar cane led directly to the number of slaves growing massively to 9,504 by 1673.  The landowners acquired more slaves to do the work on the estates and by 1734 there were 86,546 slaves on the island. This increased over the next 40 years until, by 1775, there was 192,787 people who had been sold into slavery. SOURCE

The Blair family was well-positioned, originally through misfortune, to benefit financially from this trade in human beings. This wealth brought social status through marriage into an aristocratic lineage.

The Darien Scheme

Scotland was wildly over-represented among absentee slave-owners in Britain. (Hall et al 2014)

Orwell’s likely earliest known Blair ancestor, Colonel John Blair (1668-1728)was a survivor of the disastrously failed Darien scheme in the late 1690s. The Scottish parliament endeavoured to found a Central American colony at the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) – a foolishly optimistic plan, disproportionate to the size of the Scottish economy – involving an attack on the Spanish at a time when England was at peace. King William III ordered a boycott of the struggling colony which, as a result, soon foundered.

Seven months after arriving in 1698, four hundred Scottish settlers were dead. The collapse of the colony in 1699 brought Scotland, already suffering from harvest failures, to the verge of financial collapse (Tombs, 2014). John Blair was lucky to survive. He settled in Saint Catherine, Jamaica in 1699, where he made his fortune (Dobson, 2011).

"A New Map of the Isthmus of Darien in America, The Bay of Panama, The Gulph of Vallona or St. Michael, with its Islands and Countries Adjacent". In A letter giving a description of the Isthmus of Darian, Edinburgh: 1699. Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11999575

“A New Map of the Isthmus of Darien in America, The Bay of Panama, The Gulph of Vallona or St. Michael, with its Islands and Countries Adjacent”. In A letter giving a description of the Isthmus of Darian, Edinburgh: 1699. Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11999575

John Blair was interred, along with his young second wife Elizabeth Blair (1694-1721) and other members of his family at Saint Jago de la Vega Cathedral in Spanish Town. The details of landholdings can be inferred from sources as the East and West Prospect estates, although it is hard to know how exactly how much his son purchased after his father’s death. It is very well-documented that this son, John Blair (1712-1742), by the time he was buried in the same location, had amassed great wealth. The “Jamaican Quit Rent books” and probate revealed that his son Charles would inherit vast tracts of land and hundreds of slaves:

“…150 acres of land in St Catherine, 930 acres in St Thomas-in-the-East, 500 acres in St Ann, 300 acres in Clarendon and 1020 acres in St Thomas-in-the-Vale, total 2900 acres…Slave-ownership at probate: 392 of whom 211 were listed as male and 181 as female. 0 were listed as boys, girls or children. Total value of estate at probate: £20342.91 Jamaican currency of which £12269 currency was the value of enslaved people.”  SOURCE

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 1.44.17 pm

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Digitisation has made invaluable historical and biographical information easily accessible via the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website. When launched, it was reported in the media that the searchable database revealed Orwell’s ancestors were “one of 3,000 slave-owning families paid a total of £20m (£1.8bn in today’s prices) in compensation when slavery was abolished”. In 1833, the slaves were freed and compensation was paid to “trustees of Charles Blair”, for the 218 enslaved people on the family’s East Prospect estate.

Charles Blair (1743-1802)  does not seem to have been genealogically linked to John Blair, his grandfather, who fled Darien, by researchers previously. One can see at the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership page for his father that no direct link to George Orwell is mentioned. When I asked – Orwell’s son, living biographers and scholars of repute – about their knowledge of Blair ancestors prior to Charles, there was nothing anyone could cite. However, it should be noted that Stansky and Abrahams (1972) mention the Blair family may have been “associated with abortive Scottish Darien scheme” (p.6). There are no supporting references or footnotes so I asked Peter Stansky if it was possibly information gleaned from interviews with family, friends and acquaintances but unfortunately, he cannot be certain.

There are a few inconsistencies in the evidence from David Dobson’s book and at the Legacies… site that need to be noted. John Blair’s will is listed as ‘proved’ in 1741 but Charles is born in 1743. The Legacies site states that this same John is Charles’ father though and lists 1742 as his year of death. Dobson lists a John Blair, who does not have a child named Charles. The 1728 probate record though, 15 years before Charles’ birth, clearly links this John to John b. 1668. One key is the actual location of the plantations and graves. Examination of the actual records, rather than book/website transcriptions, will likely reveal more information contextually. The probate records listed by Dobson are particularly important.

The ‘parish’ was a Jamaican administrative unit in use from 1655. Blair plantations were extensive and located in many parishes including: Saint Thomas-in-the-Vale, Clarendon, Saint-Thomas-in-the-East, Saint Ann, and St Catherine Parishes. One smaller property, called Blairs Pen, was used for “livestock”. It was about 200 acres and was more likely for cattle than slaves. 

It is worth noting that there are many Jamaicans currently residing in these areas who have common Scottish surnames, including that of ‘Blair’. 

Parishes in Jamaica 1723-1769 when Charles Blair (b 1743) inherited slaves and plantations

Parishes in Jamaica 1723-1769 when Charles Blair (b 1743) inherited slaves and plantations

Orwell & Empire

“Bernard Crick, ‘Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell] (1905–1950), political writer and essayist’, ODNB. This entry is unusual in its explicit recognition of slave-ownership, describing Charles Blair, Orwell’s great-great grandfather and the founder of the family’s fortune and of its transformed social position, as ‘a plantation and slave owner in Jamaica’.” (Hall et al 2014)

Hall et al, the authors of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (2014) frame the discussion of this period in British and world history perceptively positing slavery was understandably considered “regrettable” and best “expunged”, as far as possible, from “public memory”. Not only do they recognise that is it rare in Britain for privileged families to acknowledge their ancestors’ imperial past but even when they do, it is wildly paradoxical.

Reassuringly, Orwell’s legacy is quite different.

Bernard Crick – Orwell biographer, political theorist and democratic socialist – wrote the entry for George Orwell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Crick pulled no punches clearly explaining that Orwell’s father was an opium agent and great-great-grandfather, a slave-owner. Hall et al points out that the activities:

“…of those descendants of slave-owners in the twentieth and indeed twenty-first centuries who continued to shape Britain were themselves in part legacies of slave-ownership. For example, embedded in George Orwell’s description of his family as ‘lower-upper middle class’ – that is, ‘upper-middle class without money’ – is the continuing imprint of slave-ownership: while the money derived from slavery had gone by the time of Orwell’s father, the social and cultural capital acquired through slave-wealth remained, propelling the family from obscurity in Scotland and sustaining its members within the ranks of a British imperial administrative class.” (Hall et al 2014)

Without the Blair family’s profits that the riches imperialism bought to Britain, Eric Blair does not attend Eton, even as a scholarship boy. One could argue successfully that Orwell’s Eton connections were critical to his publishing success too. One could also argue that Orwell rejected wealth and privilege due to his family history and personal experiences in Burma, as an Indian Imperial Police Officer, that led to him resigning in 1927:

“I was not going back to be a part of that evil despotism.” The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937

It is all quite paradoxical and appropriately representative of the complexities for any individual trying to live ethically, decently and honestly. Gordon Comstock, in Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying understands this paradox:

“The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself. After all, what do you achieve by refusing to make money? You’re trying to behave as though one could stand right outside our economic system. But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing. 

Records showed that another slave-owner, Archibald Sinclair, managed Charles Blair’s estates while he was a minor. For almost a century the Blairs were mostly? absentee landlords, enjoying the profits from rum and sugar, cattle and sheep which had commenced in 1699 with John Blair and ended 135 years later when slavery was abolished. It is worth noting that Orwell’s father was born in 1857, into declining circumstances, due to the loss of revenue this entailed.

Orwell may have just been prejudiced against his Scottish ancestors for the reasons usually cited by biographers and those who knew the writer. Put simply though, George Orwell’s father was the first Blair for 135 years to not directly profit from slavery and he worked organising the growing and distribution of opium for the British empire for nearly 40 years.

It does seem worth considering that Orwell’s firsthand knowledge, gained in Burma, of “the dirty work of empire” and the wealth his own family, garnered from the immoral trade in human beings, led him to reject his Scottish forebears, at least temporarily.

References

BBC (2013) ‘George Orwell family among 3,000 slave-owners who received compensation’, 27 February [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-21586755 [Accessed 16 June, 2019].

Bowker, Gordon (2003) Inside George Orwell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Colls, Robert (2013) George Orwell: English Rebel, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Coppard, Audrey and Crick, Bernard (1984) Orwell Remembered, London: Ariel Books/BBC

Crick, Bernard (1992 [1980]) George Orwell: A Life, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, second edition

Davison, Peter (2013) George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Liveright

Dobson, David, Scots in Jamaica, 1655-1855, Baltimore: Clearfield, 2011

Hall, Catherine, Draper, Nicholas, McClelland, Keith, Donington, Katie, Lang, Rachel, (2014) Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, Kindle edition

Meyers, Jeffrey (2000) Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Orwell, George (1997 [19356) Keep the Aspidistra Flying The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 4, London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (1997 [1937]) The Road to Wigan Pier, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 5, London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (1998) A Kind of Compulsion (1903-1936), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 10, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (1998) A Patriot After All (1940-1941), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 12, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (1998) It Is What I Think: 1947–1948, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 19, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg

Orwell, George (1998) Our Job is to Make Life Worth Living (1949-1950), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 20, Davison, Peter (ed.) London: Secker & Warburg

Powell, Anthony (1967) ‘George Orwell: A Memoir’, in Atlantic Monthly CCXX, October, pp. 62-68.

Powell, Anthony (1983) To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell, Penguin Books Ltd

Shelden, Michael (1991) Orwell: The Authorised Biography, London: Heinemann

Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William (1972) The Unknown Orwell, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Sutherland, John (2016) Orwell’s Nose, London: Reaktion Books

Taylor, D. J. (2004) Orwell – The Life, London: Vintage

The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (2019) Legacies of British Slave-ownership [online] University College London. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ Accessed 16 June, 2019.

Tombs, Robert (2014) The English and Their History: The First Thirteen Centuries, Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition

Wadhams, Stephen (1983) Unpublished Recordings from CBC Radio (courtesy of the Orwell Society)

Thanks are due to Ann Kronbergs and Michael Shelden for their assistance with a draft version of this post.

* I am in the process of preparing an academic paper on this topic which will have much more detail and referencing.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Scooter T

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