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  • Wuthering Heights and the Liverpool Slave Trade
  • Maja-Lisa Von Sneidern

[T]hey were simply trying to master the racial disorder from which they had formed themselves.

— Michel Foucault

  “The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him, they crush those beneath them — You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style.”

— Heathcliff

London, 1 October 1771: James Sommersett, a black slave, “absented himself from the service” of his master “and absolutely refused to return.” Abolitionist Granville Sharp hired counsel, secured a writ of Habeas Corpus and pursued the case to trial. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield of the King’s Bench was asked to decide if a black slave who accompanied his master to England could be forcibly returned to the colonies for resale. The judge ruled reluctantly, encouraging both parties to reach an out of court settlement. Mansfield repeatedly asserted that the decision was narrow, but his language was unequivocal: “The state of slavery is of such a nature,... is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.” 1 Technically, the Mansfield decision abolished neither slavery in Britain nor involuntary transportation of slaves to the colonies, as newspaper accounts and correspondence by such notables as Hannah More testify. 2 But it did reverse the Yorke-Talbot opinion of 1729, define the crisis of slavery with new clarity, hearten its opponents, and alarm those with an investment in human capital. 3 Edward Long, the most famous advocate of the planter’s interest, wrote in Candid Reflections: “How far the late judicial sentence may be consistent with the spirit of English law, I will not take upon me to determine; sure I am, that it cannot be made compatible with the spirit of English commerce.” 4

The English city with the most spirited commerce in slaves was Liverpool. At mid-century Liverpool ranked third behind London and Bristol, but by the inter-bellum period (1763–1776) she had [End Page 171] eclipsed her competitors and was the premier slaving port in Britain. The New Exchange/Town Hall was ornamented with “busts of blackamoors and elephants, emblematical of the African trade.” 5 By 1764 Liverpool boasted more than twice the number of vessels engaged in the triangular trade than Bristol, and by 1804 Liverpool merchants were responsible for more than eithty-four percent of the British transatlantic slave trade. At the close of the eighteenth century, Britain accounted for nearly fifty-five percent of the traffic world wide, and the percentage grew until the month of its abolition. 6 It is little wonder that in 1804 Liverpool merchants, in response to a bill seeking abolition, petitioned Parliament to observe that “under the protection of the Legislature [the petitioners] embarked a considerable part of their property in that Trade, [and] will be very materially injured if the said Bill should pass into a Law,” nor is it surprising that none of the several versions and revisions of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, increasingly popularized and polemic in the eighteenth century, ever appeared on a Liverpool stage. 7

According to C. P. Sanger’s chronology of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw’s walk to Liverpool occurred at the “beginning of harvest” in 1771, the eve of the Sommersett case and the Mansfield decision. 8 In lieu of a whip for Cathy and a fiddle for Hindley, objects emblematic of the cruelty and indolence nurtured by institutionalized slavery, Earnshaw substitutes Heathcliff, “‘dark almost as if it came from the devil.’” 9 Earnshaw found “it... in the streets of Liverpool where he picked it up and inquired for its owner — Not a soul knew to whom it belonged” (WH, 45). Heathcliff’s racial otherness cannot be a matter of dispute; Brontë makes that explicit. From the first and frequently thereafter he is termed a “gypsy” (WH, 6, 45, 48, 61); Mr. Linton recognizes him as “‘that strange acquisition my late neighbor made in his journey to Liverpool — a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway’” (WH, 62); Nelly encourages Heathcliff to “frame high notions of [his] birth” — his father might have been the “Emperor...

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