I often use Wikipedia, but a search for its entry on “history” reminds me how dangerous that lazy habit can be. History is “the study of the past as it is described in written documents”. Really? Even a check of the sources referenced in the piece do not support that argument. History is the study of the past, certainly. However, it’s evidence is found not just in written documents, but buried in landscapes, engraved in buildings, in the brushstrokes on canvases, in the verses of rhymes, the taped reminiscences of ordinary folk and so on.
To quote E.H. Carr, “Study the historian before you study the facts…by and large the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation”. The history books I have assembled on my book shelves inevitably say a lot about me, although rather an incomplete portrait, as many books are absent, discarded after being read.
The amber brackenish fells, bleating Herdwick sheep, dancing daffodils and rushing waterfalls inspired the Lakeland poets, and me. My first book on the Wordsworths was bought in Grasmere to pass a rainy day when the there was a low mist. My fascination for the intersecting lives of the Wordsworths, Hutchinsons, Coleridges, Southeys and De Quinceys has resulted in a small collection of books on the romantic poets and their families. My latest acquisition, Kathleen Jones’ “A Passionate Sisterhood” entertained me over Christmas in Ambleside. A good read.
A later fascination with the radical movements of late eighteenth century England, and the north-west in particular, added new tomes to the bookshelves. Anti-slavery was then at the centre of radical agitation. Those prominent in the fight for parliamentary reform, like Mancunian merchant Thomas Walker, were also prominent in the campaign against the slave trade, organising petitions and sugar boycotts. Walker and Thomas Clarkson were both outspoken in their initial support for the French Revolution and, as the situation in France turned bloody in 1793, both were tainted with the label of “Jacobin” which signified traitor. Facing condemnation at home as supporters of the revolution they were surely tormented by the brutal deaths of fellow radical thinkers like the Saint Domingue Deputy of Colour, Vincent Oge, and Brissot the Girondin whom Clarkson had met in Paris during the heady early days of the revolution.
Financial ruin and threats of violence hung over both men and their families. In 1792 Walker had defended his home and warehouse from being pulled down by King and Country mobs. Rumours of his treacherous activities circulated the following year. Clarkson made a covert visit to Manchester in November 1793 to support him. Both men, their health poor, considered emigrating to America, like fellow agitators Thomas Cooper and Joseph Priestley, but stayed. Walker was tried the following year for conspiracy to commit treason, the trial was abandoned and he escaped the very real threat of the hangman’s noose, but he was financially ruined and his commercial reputation was in tatters.
To my surprise I found that Thomas and Catherine Clarkson were lying low in the Lake District sipping tea with William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge in 1799, during an eight year break from anti-slavery agitation. They had moved to Pooley Bridge at Ullswater in 1796.
Clarkson lived to see the end of the slave trade and slavery in the British colonies but had to defend his own historical legacy when William Wilberforce’s sons wrote a biography which deliberately set out to belittle Clarkson’s role in the anti-slavery movement. To quote Marx,
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past”
and, I would argue, they cannot influence how that history is retold to future generations.