In my last blog for the museum, I wrote about the play that museum supporter Patrick Carroll wrote. His play was inspired by the grave of Evaristo Muchovela in Wendron. As I listened to the play and wrote the blog, several questions were circling in my mind.
- Why did Thomas Johns have a slave when overseas slave-ownership was outlawed in Britain from 1834?
- Why were there different attitudes towards Evaristo between Thomas Johns and his sister, Mary?
- Evaristo was from Mozambique – why was Mozambique a place to take slaves from when the seaboard route was so treacherous?
The more straightforward answers connect the first and last questions, but in they are all connected. It is fascinating to me that the stories of Thomas Johns and Evaristo Muchovela are linked to global trends and global markets. BREXIT has dominated so much of the British political landscape in recent years, and we tend to think of these as modern issues in modern times. In truth, they are far from it. Thomas Johns was in Brazil because he was a Cornish miner seeking work (a migrant worker). Evaristo Muchovela’s enslavement was linked to the global demands for goods, where slave labour meant that production costs were kept low. Those trades may have diminished, but globalisation hasn’t.
In looking back, perhaps it helps us to look forward. In exploring the questions in this blog, I come back to an important statement that I made in the introductory blog. I am not seeking to impose an expert view, but in asking questions to try and explore issues and uncover stories. In staying curious, we can be open. In being open, we can learn.
Even though Thomas Johns was Cornish, he was in Brazil, outside of the British Empire. Britain outlawed the ownership of slaves in the British Colonies in 1834 (as explored in the previous blog about the Sugar Nips), but it was not until another law was passed in 1843 that made the purchase of slaves illegal anywhere abroad. Thomas John could have legally purchased Evaristo at the time he did.
As to the different attitudes to Evaristo, the play portrays Thomas Johns treating Evaristo Muchovela much more kindly than his sister. Mary’s attitudes were based on Evaristo’s skin colour – and therefore that Evaristo was inferior, unsophisticated, and quite animalistic (see previous blog). These are huge issues of racism, to which historians and academics have devoted lifetimes of work, and it is quite a task to try and distil it into a few hundred words. I risk oversimplifying, but in the context of trying to explore and examine questions, I think it is important to open out the exploration, even if it only leads to more questions. The attitudes are inextricably linked to Empire as well as religion.
Taking religion first, in Victorian times there were some 10,000 British Christian missionaries living abroad, quite separate from the control and command elements of Empire. These were the people that wanted to save the souls of the non-Christians, believing that all humans were capable of salvation. In a way, the conversion of the Cornish to Methodism was part of a similar movement. John Wesley found success with the Cornish where the Church of England failed (not the subject of this blog; refer to Bernard Deacon’s series of blogs if you want to know more), much to the chagrin of the Church of England. In another project, I have extensively researched Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow appointed to his parish in 1834. Hawker became obsessed with saving the souls of sailors wrecked on his shores and seemed equally obsessed about not having the Methodists in Bude claim them first.
Popular support for the abolitionist movement was instrumental in securing the 1807 Slave Trade Act. A key text and reference in public speeches was a book known as the first slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano published in 1789. A great portion of the book is dedicated to Equiano’s conversion to Christianity and his baptism into the Church of England. The emphasis on his religious conversion was believed to have helped the abolitionist cause immensely.
The issues around Empire are more complex, shifting and evolving across the Victorian Era. The Industrial Revolution has been linked to many social history changes in Britain, but it also gave rise to changes in attitudes. Industrialisation fuelled the notions of progress, which became a core value of Victorian Britain. Progress came from education and civilisation but was also perceived in tourism. The Napoleonic war had halted the Grand Tours of Europe. Industrial expansion brought about more towns, metallised roads, canals, railways, and sanitation. When tourism opened up again, according to Evans, those travelling abroad, the wealthy, felt that heading into Europe was like ‘stepping back in time.’ Britain, they believed, was a country of progress and could lead the world.
Interestingly, mid-Victorian attitudes suggest that the British were more colour-blind than class-blind. This might explain the difference between the attitudes towards Evaristo between Thomas Johns and Mary Johns in Patrick Carroll’s play. Perhaps Thomas’s elevated position as a man of wealth returning to Cornwall influenced him, whereas his sister was of working class. When you find yourself at the bottom of the social ladder, where might you direct your point of difference to?
Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, Victorian attitudes shifted again. According to Evans, progress when coupled with Darwinism saw attitudes becoming more toxic. The equality of race that had driven the abolitionist movement a century before was now replaced by notions of national and racial superiority. After a series of military disasters in the mid-1800s, Britain was central in the scramble to dominate in Africa. This, coupled with the misplaced belief of superiority, became the moral justification for the expansion of the Empire. Evans reports a shift in the narrative of school textbooks, in the scouting movement, and also in social theories (of racial supremacy, upheld even more so in Germany into the early Twentieth century) that are still prevalent in the attitudes of race that pervade today.
If you wish to reflect more on the Victorian attitudes to race, Evans’s lecture recorded in 2011 is worth watching. The transcript is also available.
This blog has been updated since it was originally published to reflect corrections made by Dr Richard Anderson, University of Aberdeen. We are hugely grateful to him for taking the time to write to us so that we can improve our knowledge and share it with our visitors.
Volunteer Researcher and Citizen Curator (2020)