There does come a time when the fashionable nostrums of the age start to stink. Just such a whiff is perceptible with this declaration that Ted Hughes had connections to slavery:
The British Library has added the poet Ted Hughes to a dossier on links to slavery and colonialism based on the actions of an ancestor more than 300 years before his birth.
Despite the poet having humble origins, curators from the Library’s Printed Heritage Collections team have identified Hughes as part of research to find evidence of “connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism” among the former owners of items.
The offending relative is Nicholas Ferrar, born in 1592, whose family was “deeply involved” with the London Virginia Company set up to establish colonies in North America, the research says.
There are certain problems with the identification. The identification of someone who set up Virginia with slavery that is. The first recorded instance of chattel slavery in Virginia comes from the 1640s – before that it was indenture and on the same terms for people of whatever colour. Indenture being akin to apprenticeship in both terms an conditions and, importantly, in that it ended. Oh, and our first bloke who actually owned, rather than employed on one of those restrictive indenture contracts, someone was himself black, from Angola.
But there’s a larger problem. Assume we use Sir Pterry’s 30 years as a grandfather. 300 years means 10 generations. At that distance we all have 1024 ancestors in that generation of 300 years previously. Well, OK, fewer in Norfolk or among Hapsburgs but still. Given the population of 5.5 million for England back then that’s a 0.02% chance of any specific individual being one of our ancestors. That is, we’re getting very close to Heinz Kiosk territory, we are all guilty. Which might be the point.
To those of us still rational on the point this is no connection at all of course.
And of course there’s more than a little oddity about who is claimed to be connected with slavery. Boris Johnson has a very strong claim to be closely connected for example. He is, almost certainly, descended from a slave. Great great granny was one. You know, rather later than, or perhaps about the same time as, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
So who is to pay him compensation for the distress, unfairness and limitations of life choices?
There’s a lovely little coda to this:
The British Library has apologised to the widow of Ted Hughes after placing the poet on slavery dossier for the actions of an ancestor active 300 years before his birth.
Well, yes, and so they should. As above, the claim is that the ancestor was involved in the Virginia Company. Tsk. And yet:
He was tenuously tarred over his distant colonialist ancestor Nicholas Ferrar who died in 1637, centuries before Hughes was born, The Telegraph revealed.
Well, distant and all that, that’s why the apology. But there should be one for another reason too. Ferrar died before there was slavery in Virginia. That only started in the 1640s…..