Orwell’s Scottish Ancestry and Slavery*

How much did Orwell know about his Scottish ancestry? His well-known prejudice against the Scots conceivably emanated from the distaste he felt for the way wealth was accrued by his forebears. These progenitors, who owned plantations in Jamaica from 1699, had a much greater involvement with the institution of slavery than previously understood. It is probable Orwell knew more than his biographers ever uncovered about how deeply implicated his Scottish ancestors were in this immoral trade in human beings.

George Orwell ‘disliked Scots’ (Bowker 2004 [2003]: xiv). This prejudice is usually explained as a consequence of Eric Blair’s experiences at school and as a policeman in Burma during the 1920s (Crick and Coppard 1984: 100). But it then waned from 1945, after he moved to Barnhill, on the Scottish island of Jura (Crick 1992 [1980]: 515).

Young Eric Blair’s letters to his mother from boarding school were quite cheerful (Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 6-19). However, in Such, Such Were the Joys, a posthumously published essay on childhood experiences at St Cyprian’s in Eastbourne, he wrote bitterly about the school’s ethos. Orwell claimed that:

The school was pervaded by a curious cult of Scotland, which brought out the fundamental contradiction in our standard of values. Flip [the headmistress] 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 (Orwell 1998 [1947-1948]: 377).

Orwell had nothing but criticism for the values inculcated by this educational institution but Cyril Connolly, his friend and literary editor who also attended St Cyprians, made no mention of such a ‘cult’ (Connolly 2008 [1938]). Orwell had been peculiarly focused on this prejudice for some time as ‘Scotchification’ was a theme, evident as early as 1936, in his fiction:

‘Gordon Comstock’ was a pretty bloody name, but then Gordon came of a pretty bloody family. The ‘Gordon’ part of it was Scotch, of course. The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last fifty years. ‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson (Orwell 1998 [1936]: 39).

Kay Ekevall, a woman friend from the mid-1930s, discovered how much he ‘hated Scotsmen’, witnessing Orwell cross the road rather than be introduced to the poet Edwin Muir, an Orcadian, whom he wrongheadedly believed to be a Scot:

… 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 and Coppard 1984: 100).

When Orwell served with the Indian Imperial Police (1922-1927), ‘Rangoon society’ was ‘essentially Scottish’ (Curle 1923: 47). He was later to confess, in a letter written to Anthony Powell in 1936, how he liked to irritate Scotsmen:

It is so rare now a days to find anyone hitting back at the Scotch cult. I am glad to see you make a point of calling them Scotchmen, not Scotsmen as they like to be called. I find this a good easy way of annoying them (Orwell 1998 [1903-1936]: 484).

Clyne Stewart is seated second from the left

Clyne Stewart is seated second from the left

Colonel Clyne Stewart (1888-1959), Superintendent of the Police Training School at Mandalay, was a Scot whom Orwell knew in Burma. One biographer described him as ‘a tall, rugged Scotsman’ and the epitome of the dedicated servant of the empire that Orwell came to dislike so much (Shelden 1991: 94). He certainly managed to annoy Stewart who, after reading Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934), warned he would ‘horse-whip’ Blair if he ever met him again (Crick and Coppard 1984: 64). This intense disregard for the Scots he met during the 1920s is evident when his alter ego in the novel, John Flory, says that:

… since his first week in Rangoon, when his burra sahib (an old Scotch gin-soaker and great breeder of racing ponies, afterwards warned off the turf for some dirty business of running the same horse under two different names) saw him take off his topi to pass a native funeral and said to him reprovingly: ‘Remember laddie, always remember, we are sahiblog and they are dirt!’ It sickened him, now, to have to listen to such trash (Orwell 1998 [1934]: 198).

Orwell’s time in Burma is well-documented as the source of his hatred of imperialism but not so oft discussed is his suggestion the Scots had a disproportionate role in the oppression of subject races for financial benefit:

‘The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English – or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen’ (Orwell 1998 [1934]: 38).

This prejudice revealed in his letters, essays, fiction and by the testimony of friends is not merely a result of these experiences in Burma or even his sense of mischief. There is evidence of a much more deep-seated loathing of his Blair ancestry as Orwell knew the Scots were deeply implicated in slave-owning, the most terrible of the British empire’s ‘monopolies’ (Hall 2014: 22). While researching Orwell’s father’s imperial career as a Sub-Deputy Opium Agent in India, two generations of ancestors, who were the origin of the Blair family’s involvement with the slave-trade and previously unmentioned by Orwell scholars, came to light.

BLAIR ANCESTRY

In the eighteenth century the Blairs had been a prosperous family with aristocratic connections … and had the income from several lucrative properties in Jamaica (Shelden 1991: 13).

The history of the Blair family in the nineteenth century is commonly told by Orwell’s biographers as one of decline (Taylor 2004: 14; Bowker 2004 [2003]: 3-4). Each of the descendants of Charles Blair (1743-1802), who married the daughter of the Fane Earl of Westmorland, was less distinguished than his ancestor:

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 (Taylor 2004: 14).

Orwell’s father, Richard W. Blair (1857-1939), was the youngest of ten children (Stansky and Abrahams 1972: 9-10). The family fortunes, built on Jamaican sugar, rum and slaves, had diminished beyond recovery. Orwell had written, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), a thinly disguised portrait of his own family:

The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ’old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself (Orwell 1998 [1936]: 39).

Eileen Blair, his wife, confirms this in a letter to a friend, commenting that Eric’s new book shares insights into a family on ‘the shivering verge of gentility’ which will not be popular with the Blairs (Davison 2013: 67).

Biographers (Stansky and Abrahams 1972; Crick 1992 [1980]; Shelden 1991; Meyers 2000; Bowker 2004 [2003] and Taylor 2004) all mention Charles Blair (1743-1802), whose wealth heralded 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, and in some cases incorrect dates (Crick 1992 [1980]: 46; Taylor 2004: 14). Only Meyers and Bowker mention Scotland:

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 (Bowker 2004 [2003]: 4).

No biographer mentions Blair ancestors prior to Orwell’s great-great-grandfather, Charles Blair, but indisputable evidence shows that the family fortune was built by Charles’s forebears, one who unexpectedly washed-up on Jamaican shores in 1699, two generations earlier (Lawrence-Archer 1875: 28-29; Fuertado 1896; Dobson 2011: 11; UCL 2020d; UCL 2020e; UCL 2020h). It should be noted that Stansky and Abrahams mention the Blair family may have been associated with the ‘abortive Scottish Darien scheme’ (Stansky and Abrahams 1972: 6). There are no supporting references or footnotes and Professor Stansky is uncertain where exactly the information was gleaned but it must have been from one of his interviews with Orwell’s family, friends or acquaintances (Stansky 2019: email correspondence). Someone must have known about an ancestor who pre-dated Charles Blair (1743-1802).

Biographers have understood the Blair family benefited financially from the trade in slaves and that this wealth garnered social status via an aristocratic lineage when Charles Blair married Lady Mary Fane. However, Orwell’s biographers have not recognised the deeper interconnections and marital alliances between the Blair, Fane, Ayscough and Michel families that emanated from the society of Jamaican planters in the eighteenth century (UCL 2020b; 2020c).

THE DARIEN SCHEME

Scotland was wildly over-represented among absentee slave-owners in Britain (Hall 2014: 22).

Orwell’s earliest confirmed Blair ancestor, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Colonel John Blair (1668-1728), was a survivor of the ‘Darien scheme’ that so disastrously failed in the late-1690s (Lawrence-Archer 1875: 28-29; Fuertado 1896; Dobson 2011: 11). The Scottish parliament had endeavoured to establish a Central American colony at the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) a foolishly optimistic plan, disproportionate to the size of the Scottish economyinvolving an attack on the Spanish at a time when England was at peace (Tombs 2014: 311). King William III ordered a boycott of the struggling colony which, as a result, soon foundered disastrously. 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 (ibid).

Many unmarried, disbanded army officers had flocked to the venture on reading the single-page folio sheet posted widely in coffee-houses and public squares:

Everyone who goes on the first expedition shall receive and possess fifty acres of plantable land, and 50 foot square of ground at least in the chief city or town, and an ordinary house built thereupon by the colony at the end of 3 years (Prebble 1970: 111-112).

After the early optimism and excitement of such an audacious adventure, Blair was lucky to survive, fleeing the failed colony and settling in Jamaica in 1699, where he made the family’s fortune as ‘a planter’ (Dobson 2011: 11).

"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

The English had captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and by 1662 there were approximately 400 slaves on the island. The cultivation of sugarcane 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, some 192,787 people had been sold into slavery (Jackson 2013).

‘The Honourable Colonel John Blair’ was described as ‘a surgeon’ and ‘one of the Scotch colonists of Darien’ (Lawrence-Archer 1875: 29). In 1701, this ‘survivor of Darien’, was elected as a member of the House of Assembly of Jamaica for St. Thomas in the East and was to ‘fill many other offices of trust’ in the years that followed (Jackson 2013b). He represented St Catherine, St George and Port Royal and was considered a ‘major slave-owner in Jamaica’ (Fuertado 1896). Blair was appointed to be the Speaker of the House of Assembly in 1715 (Cundall 1915: xvii). State papers show he was allied, or friends with other planters and politicians, including John Ayscough (British History Online 1703: Aug. 5-6) who served in the 1720s as President of the Council, Chief Justice and also Governor of Jamaica (Cundall 1915: xiv-xviii). The Ayscough clan were one of ‘the most noted families in Jamaica history’ (Cundall 1915: 124). Blair’s son, also named John (1712-1742), was married to Mary Ayscough (UCL 2020h).

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

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

On his death in 1728, the elder Blair owned 419 slaves of whom 221 were male and 198 female; 63 were children (UCL 2020d). The total value of his estate at probate: £22036.07 in Jamaican currency of which £10173.5 was the estimated value of the enslaved people (Fuertado 1896).  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 in 1728 (Dobson 2011: 11). Inscribed on the family tomb:

Here Lyes Interr’d the Body of ELIZABETH the late wife of JOHN BLAIR ESQ’R who departed this Life the 7th of Fber 1721, Aged TWENTY SEVEN YEARS. Likewise their Four Children JOHN, THOMAS, CHRISTIAN, and MARY. (HERE) also Lieth Interr’d ye Body of the Hon’ble JOHN BLAIR. 27th day of June 1728. Aged 60 Years (Scooter 2014).

The extent of his wealth can be understood by examining records pertaining to the East and West Prospect estates (UCL 2020b; UCL 2020c). His son, John Blair (1712-1742), by the time he was buried in the same cathedral, had amassed an even greater fortune and much more property (UCL 2020e). The ‘Jamaican Quit Rent books’ and probate records reveal that his son Charles (1743–1802), the first Blair mentioned in biographies of Orwell, 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 (UCL 2020c).

It is significant that Charles, who was born after his father’s death, probably returned to Dorset in England, rather than Scotland where his grandfather was born. Charles’s mother, Mary Ayscough (UCL 2020h), was connected to the Fane and Michel families, slave-owners who also had addresses in ‘Wessex’ (UCL 2020g). Her husband had died aged 26 and the young mother had an unborn infant to raise. There was certainly enough money to live more than comfortably back in England. Her son, Charles, was later to marry into the politically well-connected Fane family and reside at Down House, in Dorset (UCL 2020h).

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. One smaller property, Blairs Pen, was used for ‘livestock’ (UCL 2020f). It was about 200 acres and was more likely used for cattle than slaves (ibid). Records showed that other slave-owning familiesthe Sinclairs, Michels and Fanesmanaged the Blair family estates and finances while he was a minor and that for almost a century Orwell’s ancestors were absentee landlords (UCL 2020b; 2020c; 2020f).

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

Jamaicans commonly have Scottish surnames at a higher rate than any other country outside of Scotland (Scottish Parliament 2015). There are more ‘Campbells’ per acre in Jamaica than in Scotland and one notes that:

Colonel John Campbell from Inverary left the failed Darien experiment and came to Jamaica where he had a large family, which initiated the spread of the Campbell name all over the island. The frequency of other Scottish surnames is largely a consequence of the fact that during the period of slavery in the island, a large number of slave owners and overseers were from Scotland, particularly from the Lowlands (ibid, italics in the original).

The Blair family, like so many other Scots, prospered due to the incredible profitability of these Jamaican plantations that supplied rum, sugar, cattle and sheep. It is worth remembering that Orwell’s father was born during 1857, into declining circumstances, due to the loss of revenue that followed the abolition of slavery.

ORWELL and EMPIRE: THE LEGACIES OF SLAVERY

Bernard Crick, ‘Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell] (1905-1950), political writer and essayist’, ODNB [Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]. 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 2014: 28).

Digitisation has made invaluable historical and biographical information easily accessible via the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership website (UCL 2020a). 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’ (BBC 2013). Following the Acts of Parliament of 1807 and 1811 that abolished the slave trade and made it a felony, British colonies instituted registers of people who were deemed to be lawfully enslaved. Those in legal possession of enslaved people in the British colonies received compensation when slavery was officially abolished in 1834, as set out under the Abolition Act of 1833 (Hall 2014: 296). In 1833, the Blair family’s slaves were freed and compensation paid to trustees for the 218 enslaved people on the family’s East Prospect estate (UCL 2020b). Compensation could not have been paid without records and the long lists of these people, who often have the Blair surname, makes for challenging reading (Ancestry 2007).

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 1.44.17 pm

The authors of Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain 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’ (Hall 2014: 28). Slave-ownership permeated the British elites of the time (ibid: 294) and the authors note how rare it is in Britain for privileged families to acknowledge their ancestors’ challenging imperial pasts (ibid: 28). Reassuringly, on one level, Orwell’s legacy is quite different.

Bernard CrickOrwell 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. point 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 (ibid: 3)

Crick was wrong to suggest Charles Blair was ‘the founder of the family’s fortune’ but his analysis, that without the family’s profits from slavery and the riches imperialism bought to Britain, the Blairs would have remained in ‘obscurity’, is sound. Eric Blair, even though his family had declined in status to ‘shabby’ gentility, would not have attended Eton, even as a scholarship boy without the wealth and subsequent status accrued via the revenue from those plantations in Jamaica. One could reasonably argue that not only did Orwell receive a privileged education but that his Etonian connections were critical to his later publishing success. Orwell knew he was a product of empire but politically rejected participating in any ongoing imperial legacy. He understood the paradox that all individuals with a social conscience were confronted with if they wished to live ethically, decently and honestly. Gordon Comstock, in Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying explains 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 (Orwell 1998 [1936]: 235-236).

WHAT DID ORWELL KNOW?

It is interesting to consider that a possible reason for Orwell’s prejudice against his Scottish heritage, deeply embedded in his personality, was 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 Blair, Orwell’s wife, wrote a letter to her friend Norah Myles during November 1936 providing a potted version of Blair family history which confirmed they were cognisant of slave-owning ancestors:

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: 67).

This letter from Eileen confirms that Orwell must have known that his ancestors were ‘Lowland Scottish’. Charles Blair (1743-1802) was from Dorset. There is no evidence he lived anywhere other than Jamaica (possibly) or England. Colonel John Blair (1668-1728), however, was a ‘Lowland Scot’, possibly from Balthyock, Perthshire, and ‘the first of the family’ in Jamaica (Lawrence-Archer 1875: 28). For Eileen to know that the Blairs were ‘Lowland Scottish’ either Eric, or his father Richard, almost certainly must have told her about ancestors that pre-dated Charles Blair.

Eric Blair was his father’s only son. It seems completely reasonable to assume the family had a narrative that included their distant origins:

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 (Bowker 2004 [2003]: 4).

However, the Blair family bible, now in the possession of Henry Dakin (the son of Marjorie Dakin, Orwell’s eldest sister) has ‘a neatly-drawn family tree’ only dating back to Charles Blair according to a friend of Orwell’s (Fyvel 1983: 16). It would be useful to know what year the bible was published and from whom it originated.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Kay Ekevall believed Orwell’s changed attitude towards ‘Scotchmen’ was ‘his sister’s doing because she married the Scots farmer’ he was ‘in partnership’ with on the island of Jura (Crick and Coppard 1984: 100). It is evident that Orwell’s writing became much more sympathetic to the Scots after he moved to that Hebridean island. In Tribune, in early 1947, he wrote:

In this country I don’t think it is enough realized – I myself had no idea of it until a few years agothat Scotland has a case against England. On economic grounds it may not be a very strong case. In the past, certainly, we have plundered Scotland shamefully, but whether it is now true that England as a whole exploits Scotland as a whole, and that Scotland would be better off if fully autonomous, is another question. The point is that many Scottish people, often quite moderate in outlook, are beginning to think about autonomy and to feel that they are pushed into an inferior position. They have a good deal of reason. In some areas, at any rate, Scotland is almost an occupied country. You have an English or Anglicised upper-class, and a Scottish working-class which speaks with a markedly different accent, or even, part of the time, in a different language. This is a more dangerous kind of class division than any now existing in England. Given favourable circumstances it might develop in an ugly way, and the fact that there was a progressive Labour Government in London might not make much difference (Orwell 1998 [1947-1948]: 43-44).

Orwell was always willing to re-evaluate his thinking and attitudes. He believed that new ideas were possible and recognised that thinking ‘an advanced civilisation need not rest on slavery’ was a very new idea, indeed, and clearly not one that occurred to his Scottish ancestors who had made huge fortunes from the slave-trade (Orwell 1998 [1943-1944]: 104). It is worth noting that Orwell volunteered to voice a role in ‘The Abolition of Slavery’ by Venu Chitale for the BBC in August 1941:

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?  Do you see this fist of mine? Hard as stone with knocking down niggers. Do you hear, me you black nigger? Now then take this whip and flog that woman … that’ll drive your silly religion out of you …

Slave (man): Hen. Excuse me, mas’r, I can work night and day, but don’t ask me to flog a woman ….’t aint right, mas’r …

Slave-owner: Blair What, you black beast … telling me what’s right to do? You low animal! We’ll have the cows answering back next. I’ll show you what’s right. Here, Simon, hand me that cowhide whip … (Orwell 1998 [1940-1941]: 544).

The language was appropriately brutal, and one can only speculate about the conversation of the cast who performed the radio play. Did Orwell acknowledge the role the Blairs played in the slave-trade or other imperial economic pursuits to these peers? Orwell’s father was the first generation of Blairs not to profit financially from slavery since 1699 but he had worked for almost 40 years organising the growing and distribution of opium for the British empire (Meyers 2000: 5). It is interesting to ponder why Orwell, the literary scourge of imperialism, never wrote about his family’s plantations in Jamaica but then again, nor did he explore his own father’s controversial work as an opium agent (Moore 2018).

The novelist Anthony Powell believed Blair wrote under the name ‘Orwell’, partly because he preferred a separate identity as an author, partly because he disliked the idea of family origins in Scotland (Powell 1967: 62). There has been no scholarly analysis of the impact of Orwell’s Scottish progenitors on this attitude, but it appears to be a significant factor in the development of his prejudice. Eric Blair may have just been prejudiced against the Scots for the reasons usually cited by biographers and those who knew the writer. However, it does seem worth considering that the wealth Orwell’s Scottish ancestors generated, from an immoral trade in human beings, contributed to this prejudice, until later in his life when he became more sympathetic to the working class Scots who were themselves victims of the imperialism he despised (Bowker 2004 [2003]: 352; Orwell 1998 [1947-1948]: 43-44).

*This paper will be published in the next edition of George Orwell Studies, Volume 5  No. 1  (2020)Here is an earlier blog version.

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Featured Image: Courtesy of Scooter T

*This paper will be published in the next edition of George Orwell Studies, Volume 5  No. 1  (2020)Here is an earlier blog version.

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