'The Legacy: A Memoir', by Jean Barr (published by Book Guild)
For many years, Jean Barr looked with pleasure at the 17th-century wooden Venetian chest passed on to her by her mother. She had loved it from childhood, partly because of a secret compartment in its lid. What she did not realise was that this seemingly innocuous object, which had belonged to her great-great-uncle, represented a link in a very long chain that would place her family at the heart of Britain's most shameful history.
That great-great-uncle was Alexander Robertson, a proselytising Protestant who spoke in a thick Scottish burr. As Barr writes in this far-reaching memoir: 'My curiosity about the life of an obscure Scottish minister turned into something entirely different – a pursuit that might be described, crudely, as following the money
is Barr's account of tracing the background of Alexander Robertson, who for many years lived in San Remo and Venice. There, as a controversial but popular preacher, he was invited to meet Queen Victoria; his circle included European royalty and the likes of Cecil Rhodes, William Gladstone and Neville Chamberlain. He also became a devotee of Mussolini, and among his many books was a hagiography of Il Duce
, boasting a signed photograph, evidence that the fascist dictator had endorsed it.
That Robertson was a friend of Ezra Pound, and was pilloried in Frederick Rolfe's novel The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole
, would be reason enough to explore his past. What Barr uncovered, however, was not so much a family tree as a thicket of high-powered and wealthy connections, whose roots were deeply planted in the Atlantic slave trade and the ruthless merchants of the East India Company. The Legacy
of the title speaks to Barr's inheritance, but also to the enduring impact on British society of those who profited from slavery and imperial exploitation.
Alexander Robertson's career is the simplest part of this story. Brought up in the Old Town of Edinburgh, he had to struggle to gain an education and train as a teacher and minister. Working initially for the United Presbyterian Church, he moved to Italy with his wife because of her poor health. It was in San Remo that she died, shortly after, and where Robertson met his second wife, the widow Julia Braddon. Through her, he became aligned with the Foster and Foster Barham families, whose plantations in the Caribbean and mercantile dealings in India had made them rich.
Before learning of this branch of the family, the first glimpse Barr had of her far-distant ancestors was the discovery that she was a descendant of Robert Cecil, spy-master to James VI and I, and to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, 'the man whom James I referred to as my husband
Who wouldn't want to discover they were linked to such notable players in the annals of British history? And yet, as Barr delves into her lineage, what emerges is profoundly thought-provoking, not to say disturbing.
The intricacies of her genealogy can certainly be taxing: 'Thus Robert Hibbert appears in my tree as husband of sister-in-law of sister-in-law of brother-in-law of maternal grandfather [John Foster of Bedford] of wife [Julia Dawson] of great granduncle [Alexander Robertson]'.
The author recognises this, and reassures the reader: 'Convoluted connections such as these are not easy to grasp. The important point is the interconnection between, and consequent lobbying power acquired by, wealthy slave-owning families as an anti-abolitionist political bloc'.
What she discovered was the extent to which plantation owners were further enriched after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834, when they were royally compensated for their loss of income. So royally, indeed, that it was only in 2015 that British taxpayers finally paid off this debt.
is not a typical memoir. Although Barr, who was a passionate socialist feminist, outlines her past – raised in Glasgow by staunch Labour-supporting parents, and a career in academia – this account is not of her own life but of her quest to unearth her roots, and explore what they mean today. Taking readers through her visits to various archives, gradually she pieces together a fiendishly intricate web of connections.
If this sounds dull, it is anything but. At every stage Barr's curiosity illuminates her discoveries. Whether she is explaining the education system in Victorian Scotland, or the beliefs of non-conforming Protestant sects, she turns a family history into a vivid, sometimes harrowing portrait of British slave merchants and the heartless greed of the empire.
Plantation owners and overseers are brought to life in a series of vignettes of high society life. A pretty teenager, who keeps a journal, makes no mention of where her family's wealth comes from, nor that her father is frequently absent at his notoriously brutal Jamaican plantation. While she agonises over her romantic hopes, she says nothing of the six slaves she owns, nor the compensation – £112 16 shillings – she receives after their emancipation.
There are far worse episodes than this, as Barr describes the abject horror of slavery. What distinguishes this memoir, however, is the author's political insight. She is not content to discover and disclose what her ancestors did, illuminating though that is. Instead, she broadens the story into a vigorous disquisition about the continuing legacy of slavery and the British Empire, whose reverberations continue into our own times. When the trade came to an end and slavers were compensated, she writes: 'the House of Lords contained 37 members who were slave-owners, and of the 650 MPs at this time, 80 of them made claims under the scheme. Such penetration of the British establishment secured the interests of slave-owners well beyond the end of slavery, right up until the present day'.
This eye-wateringly costly state bail-out allowed former slave-owners to entrench their financial position. Large tracts of land were brought – many in Scotland – in what was, in Barr's words, a form of money laundering. Swiftly, the origins of their riches was forgotten, and they were once again respectable. To this end, noting that her slave-owning relatives are recorded simply as 'farmers' or 'merchants', she quotes journalist Alex Renton, author of Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family's Story of Slavery
: 'the ignorance and cover up of racism today are as notable as slavery itself'.
Nor is Barr content to leave things there. Turning belatedly to her father's kin – tenant farmers in the north of Scotland – she concludes the book with a salvo against what has been termed the new 'enclosures'. In other words, the buying up of land and property since Margaret Thatcher's right to buy scheme, which has furthered the interests of the monied.
All this is a mere taster of an extraordinarily rich and detailed book. With admirable rigour and focus, Barr has drawn a truly memorable portrait of the ruthless self-interest of the landed class. Their rapacious, criminal behaviour shaped Britain as we know it, and Scotland as much as the rest. Although this past is centuries old, it invests them with power and influence even today. This, despite the despicable source of their fortunes, for which they are still to atone.
Rosemary Goring is a columnist with
The Herald. Her latest book is
'Homecoming: The Scottish Years of Mary, Queen of Scots'