William Beckford: First Prime Minister of the London Empire by Perry Gauci - review by Leslie Mitchell

Leslie Mitchell

Slaves to Fortune

William Beckford: First Prime Minister of the London Empire


Yale University Press 290pp £22.50

Eighteenth-century writers were agreed that William Beckford was quite a chap, even if they could not agree on what sort of chap he was. One asserted: ‘There was a singularity in the whole of this man’s life which would justify ample speculation. The different characters he affected to possess, to reconcile with each other, and sometimes even to blend in one motley mass, would furnish a most curious subject for the biographer.’ It is curious, but welcome, therefore, that Perry Gauci should have produced the first biography of this major figure in over two hundred years.

The reason no one has attempted this sooner is not hard to discover. The materials for a life of Beckford are scattered over many archives in this country and the Americas. Only someone of Gauci’s diligence and dedication could have tracked them down. It was work for a scholar, not for a politician with time on his hands or the gifted amateur who appears so regularly in publishers’ lists. The result is a book that is a valuable contribution to 18th-century studies, opening up new lines of future enquiry.

For many years, historians of the 18th century have profitably seen the Atlantic as a pond rather than an ocean. Traffic across its waters was heavy and ever-increasing. Thousands of British people came to the Americas as settlers or adventurers. Nonetheless, London, as recent studies have shown, was America’s true capital until 1776, full of colonists coming ‘home’ for a time in search of education and a polishing in civilised society. With every year that passed, more and more people in public life were somehow involved in the new and expanding empire.

No one personified this trend as well as William Beckford. Sugar production in the West Indies, together with the trade in slaves that made it possible, was the most lucrative enterprise in the British portfolio. If disease, natural disaster or piracy was avoided, great fortunes could be made. Beckford was the third generation of his family to be involved with Jamaica. His father, Peter Beckford, was, in the early 18th century, one of the largest landowners on that crucial island; the owner of over 1,500 slaves, he derived an income from sugar production that put him among the fifty richest men in England. Critics and satirists might have dubbed William ‘Alderman Sugarcane’ or ‘the king of negroe-land’, but family wealth on this scale guaranteed influence wherever he chose to wield it.

As Lord Mayor of London and as an MP, Beckford repeatedly asserted that policy made at Westminster had to take into account the interests of those involved in the imperial adventure. It was right that East Indian and West Indian lobbies should exist in the House of Commons. Many regarded these ‘nabobs’ and ‘pepperpots’ as sinister figures, skewing policy in unnatural directions for their own profit. Beckford, predictably, had no such qualms. The importance of the sugar trade was so ‘well-known’ that he ‘need not trouble’ parliament by stating the obvious. The Alderman made sure that every debate of substance was given an imperial dimension. For his advocacy, he was called ‘the first prime minister of the London empire’. Questions of war and peace, the regulation of trade, international diplomacy and the nature of taxation all came within his ambit, often in patient alliance with the Elder Pitt.

In the 1750s and 1760s, the theme that most closely linked British and colonial politics in Beckford’s mind was the question of the preservation of ‘liberty’ against the efforts of would-be tyrants. In Jamaica and the Americas more generally, colonial assemblies came to believe that royal governors were intent on riding roughshod over elected representatives in matters of taxation and trade regulation. At the same time in England, it seemed that either a corrupt oligarchy of aristocrats or a despotically inclined king – it mattered little which – was intent on subverting parliament and its liberties. Here was a transatlantic connection of enormous potential. Beckford became a power in the land as the self-appointed representative of the ‘people’, by which he meant ‘the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman … who bear all the heat of the day and who pay all taxes’. He discerned a plan of ‘ruling by a military force, both here and in America’.

At the heart of Beckford’s campaign, however, was a terrible incongruity which some critics were not slow to point out. How could Beckford the slave-owner be accepted as a plausible patron of John Wilkes and the London radicals? How, indeed, could he actually name one of his slaves ‘Wilkes’ and another ‘Liberty’? The answer, quite simply, was that, for him and for most men of his generation, there was no incongruity. Slaves were a species of property while London radicals were freemen. When Beckford died, in 1770, the anti-slavery campaign was in its infancy. The next generation of Jamaicans would have to answer in a different intellectual climate. Beckford himself never thought the abolitionist Granville Sharp and the reformers worthy of any consideration.

Perry Gauci has brought to life an 18th-century magnifico. Beckford rebuilt Fonthill (the house his father had bought, which had been destroyed in a fire in 1755), started his own newspaper, entertained his business and political connections on a scale that few could emulate, saw his family married into the aristocracy and talked plain English to George III. His wealth and energy forced the ruling elite to take notice of him. Not everyone welcomed Beckford the ‘Creole’, but no one could ignore him.

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