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William Gladstone’s family should stop self-flagellating

Gladstone came to view slavery as a symbol of all that was wrong with the system of Old Corruption. Credit: Getty

August 21, 2023 - 4:15pm

It must feel surreal to live in the shadow of a famous ancestor: to be met with curious eyebrows whenever you make your introductions, and to be badgered about whether you are a descendant of the great so-and-so.

There was a time when this was a badge of honour. In Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, John Durbeyfield enters a drunken reverie when Parson Tringham informs him that he belongs to the “ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles” who came to England with William the Conqueror. Tom Paine heralded an important shift in enlightened attitudes when he mocked those distant descendants of noble houses who “console themselves” by boasting of their noble pedigree “in alms-houses, workhouses, and prisons”.

The pendulum has definitively swung in Paine’s direction. Where once we exalted those with an illustrious lineage, now we tend to prefer the self-made man. The famous surname is no longer a source of pride but embarrassment. Sometimes it has to be apologised for.

Such is the case of the Gladstone family. Rather than taking pride in the fact that they descend from one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers, the family’s modern representatives — still sitting at Hawarden in Flintshire, the ancestral home of the baronetcy into which William Ewart Gladstone married — prefer to go back a generation, to his father Sir John. This week they will travel to the Caribbean to offer an apology for his ownership of slave plantations, to which the family largely owes its fortune.

The Gladstone name has come to be tainted. William, the son, is made to pay for the sins of the father — either on the grounds of youthful views which he later recanted, or on the more tangential grounds that he owed his political career to his father’s blood-soaked wealth.

Although the Gladstone family reserves its most scathing language for Sir John Gladstone — “a vile man”, according to his great-great-great-grandson Charlie — Prime Minister Gladstone has come under sustained attack. Seeking to offset this newly negative coverage, in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden announced a new scholarship “available exclusively for people who are United Kingdom Minority Ethnic / Global Majority Heritage”. In 2020 the University of Liverpool removed his name from a building. Both the Gladstone family and the Library announced that they would not oppose the removal of William Gladstone’s statues.

What did William Gladstone really think about slavery? It is true that in his first years as an MP, still under the wing of his father, he opposed abolition. Yet Gladstone changed a great deal over the course of an extraordinarily long political career. He may, as a priggish fogey, have taken a stance on slavery that we today find abhorrent, but later in life he regretted the “folly” of his youth, and called slavery the “foulest crime in the entire history of mankind”.

Indeed, as his political inclinations became more democratic — as he morphed from the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” into “the People’s William” — he came to view slavery as a symbol of all that was wrong with the system of Old Corruption that vaulted him into parliament (his first seat was gifted to him by the Duke of Newcastle, impressed by his speeches at the Oxford Union). Slavery, after all, had been an elite project, mainly enriching families like his own: that the masses had generally opposed it was yet more proof that they deserved to be fully incorporated into national politics.

If the scions of the House of Gladstone are kept awake at night by Sir John Gladstone, it is understandable that they should wish to apologise for his sins. But they should not allow the memory of their far greater and more famous ancestor to be lost amidst their cries of self-flagellation.


Samuel Rubinstein is a History student at Trinity College, Cambridge.
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Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

This week they will travel to the Caribbean to offer an apology for his ownership of slave plantations, to which the family largely owes its fortune.

At which point, a government representative will step up and say:
“That’s very thoughtful and indeed magnanimous of you to offer an apology. But really, there is no need. As residents of the New World, all currently living descendants of slaves are enjoying a far higher standard of living, and are better governed, than those left behind in Africa. So please accept our heartfelt thanks. Moreover, Mr/s. Gladstone, we don’t know how many of us here – of whatever colour – were enslaved, or indeed slave owners and transporters. So who is owed the apology? Slavery is an almost universal feature of primitive economies, and more thanks are due to you as the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, that superb step-change in human societies that made slavery ultimately redundant and uneconomical. Moreover, we note that while your illustrious ancestor was active in politics, the British were operating the British West Africa Squadron and enacting legislation to eradicate slavery. The first nation ever to do so!
So, along with our thanks, Mr/s. Gladstone, please accept a word of advice. Going along with fashionable narratives and social forces is an exhilarating process, but don’t let it go too far. You will have plenty of people cheering your public display of inherited guilt, but many others who will lament the enstupidation and beclowning of a once-great family…”

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Would it were so. Unfortunately, the government will simply be looking for a means of turning the apology into something like cash.

Holden Rowan
Holden Rowan
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

It wasn’t the Industrial Revolution that made slavery and the slave trade redundant it was the promise of a massive pay out to compensate the owners of slave traders: A payout that the British tax payer only recently (2015) finished paying off the interest on the loan.

Jimmy Snooks
Jimmy Snooks
10 months ago
Reply to  Holden Rowan

I disagree. Without the Industrial Revolution having given rise to vast wealth as well as to a better educated middle class, the wherewithal to pay out the compensation to slave-owners would not have existed in the first place. Neither would the appetite for the abolition of slavery even existed without it being driven by a substantial middle class who were benefitting from unprecedented rises in their standard of living and their ability to acquire material wealth.

Britain paid off the slave-owners because it knew that, owing to the Industrial Revolution, it had the wealth-creating machine that could, eventually, do so. And if it had to borrow the money, it was – as a capitalist state – hardly unused to the incurring of debt in order to achieve its medium or long-term aims. The fact that Britain chose to do so is a cause for celebration of a) its good and ethical judgement, and b) its success in building up its economic strength to the point where it could take on the costs of embarking upon on such an enlightened and unprecedented act as the abolition of slavery. It always amazes me that some people use the fact that Britain ‘bought off’ the slave owners, as some kind of denigration of Britain’s success in abolishing slavery. I rather take the opposite view, that it redounds to the greatness of this nation.

Had the First World War not come along to bankrupt the nation, the slave-owner’s compensation debt would probably have been paid off a century earlier.

Jimmy Snooks
Jimmy Snooks
10 months ago
Reply to  Holden Rowan

I disagree. Without the Industrial Revolution having given rise to vast wealth as well as to a better educated middle class, the wherewithal to pay out the compensation to slave-owners would not have existed in the first place. Neither would the appetite for the abolition of slavery even existed without it being driven by a substantial middle class who were benefitting from unprecedented rises in their standard of living and their ability to acquire material wealth.

Britain paid off the slave-owners because it knew that, owing to the Industrial Revolution, it had the wealth-creating machine that could, eventually, do so. And if it had to borrow the money, it was – as a capitalist state – hardly unused to the incurring of debt in order to achieve its medium or long-term aims. The fact that Britain chose to do so is a cause for celebration of a) its good and ethical judgement, and b) its success in building up its economic strength to the point where it could take on the costs of embarking upon on such an enlightened and unprecedented act as the abolition of slavery. It always amazes me that some people use the fact that Britain ‘bought off’ the slave owners, as some kind of denigration of Britain’s success in abolishing slavery. I rather take the opposite view, that it redounds to the greatness of this nation.

Had the First World War not come along to bankrupt the nation, the slave-owner’s compensation debt would probably have been paid off a century earlier.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I feel like your being overdefensive here and a bit of common sense should prevail. It would actually make sense to just accept the apology, on behalf of your ancestors understanding that being kidnapped and taken into slavery probably wasn’t an enjoyable experience and isn’t offset by your country having a slightly higher GDP than Gambia.
Also while there is some blurring of lines I think we can be fairly confident that most black Caribbean’s are descendant from slaves.
Finally, slavery being a universal feature of a primitive economy is sort of irrelevant as Britain wasn’t a primitive economy and given that slavery was not allowed in the UK while it was allowed in the Caribbean tells that those in power who sanctioned it knew it was wrong.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

They were captured and traded by black Africans . The alternative to being sold as slaves was likely to be killed , possibly as a human sacrifice in the funeral of an African big man . As the black woman who used to be queen of Harvard might say ‘depends on the context ‘ .

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Kevin Dee

They were captured and traded by black Africans . The alternative to being sold as slaves was likely to be killed , possibly as a human sacrifice in the funeral of an African big man . As the black woman who used to be queen of Harvard might say ‘depends on the context ‘ .

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

That was superb . Why the carping ?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Would it were so. Unfortunately, the government will simply be looking for a means of turning the apology into something like cash.

Holden Rowan
Holden Rowan
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

It wasn’t the Industrial Revolution that made slavery and the slave trade redundant it was the promise of a massive pay out to compensate the owners of slave traders: A payout that the British tax payer only recently (2015) finished paying off the interest on the loan.

Kevin Dee
Kevin Dee
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I feel like your being overdefensive here and a bit of common sense should prevail. It would actually make sense to just accept the apology, on behalf of your ancestors understanding that being kidnapped and taken into slavery probably wasn’t an enjoyable experience and isn’t offset by your country having a slightly higher GDP than Gambia.
Also while there is some blurring of lines I think we can be fairly confident that most black Caribbean’s are descendant from slaves.
Finally, slavery being a universal feature of a primitive economy is sort of irrelevant as Britain wasn’t a primitive economy and given that slavery was not allowed in the UK while it was allowed in the Caribbean tells that those in power who sanctioned it knew it was wrong.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

That was superb . Why the carping ?

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

This week they will travel to the Caribbean to offer an apology for his ownership of slave plantations, to which the family largely owes its fortune.

At which point, a government representative will step up and say:
“That’s very thoughtful and indeed magnanimous of you to offer an apology. But really, there is no need. As residents of the New World, all currently living descendants of slaves are enjoying a far higher standard of living, and are better governed, than those left behind in Africa. So please accept our heartfelt thanks. Moreover, Mr/s. Gladstone, we don’t know how many of us here – of whatever colour – were enslaved, or indeed slave owners and transporters. So who is owed the apology? Slavery is an almost universal feature of primitive economies, and more thanks are due to you as the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, that superb step-change in human societies that made slavery ultimately redundant and uneconomical. Moreover, we note that while your illustrious ancestor was active in politics, the British were operating the British West Africa Squadron and enacting legislation to eradicate slavery. The first nation ever to do so!
So, along with our thanks, Mr/s. Gladstone, please accept a word of advice. Going along with fashionable narratives and social forces is an exhilarating process, but don’t let it go too far. You will have plenty of people cheering your public display of inherited guilt, but many others who will lament the enstupidation and beclowning of a once-great family…”

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

“Exclusively for people who are United Kingdom Minority Ethnic / Global Majority Heritage”
It’s all so tiresome.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
10 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

At least give them credit for the buzzwords.

Last edited 10 months ago by Derek Smith
Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Buzzwords that get replaced next week anyway, making sure ordinary people can;t keep up !

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

Buzzwords that get replaced next week anyway, making sure ordinary people can;t keep up !

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

It is….And who exactly is in this “Global Majority” ?! And are all these member of the so-called UK Ethnic Minority / Global Majority equally unsuccessful, in order to need extra support? Many UK Chinese or Asians are more successful than the ‘white’ majority !

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
10 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

At least give them credit for the buzzwords.

Last edited 10 months ago by Derek Smith
Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

It is….And who exactly is in this “Global Majority” ?! And are all these member of the so-called UK Ethnic Minority / Global Majority equally unsuccessful, in order to need extra support? Many UK Chinese or Asians are more successful than the ‘white’ majority !

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

“Exclusively for people who are United Kingdom Minority Ethnic / Global Majority Heritage”
It’s all so tiresome.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

I suppose if the family was really disturbed by their ancestor, they would renounce their wealth and donate it all to a suitably woke charity.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And here we find the conspicuous limit to all the public self-flagellation. We feel bad and all, but not enough to give up our inheritance. This is why common folk have hated aristocrats since time immemorial and why oligarchies always get destroyed by either foreign invasions, charismatic autocrats, economic collapse, violent revolution, or some amalgamation of two or more of these factors.

Waffles
Waffles
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But you miss the whole point of wokeness: the wealthy 1% virtue signal and nothing changes. They keep their money (maybe minus a token donation like the Guardian (the beneficiary of slavery (oh the delicious irony))).

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

And here we find the conspicuous limit to all the public self-flagellation. We feel bad and all, but not enough to give up our inheritance. This is why common folk have hated aristocrats since time immemorial and why oligarchies always get destroyed by either foreign invasions, charismatic autocrats, economic collapse, violent revolution, or some amalgamation of two or more of these factors.

Waffles
Waffles
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But you miss the whole point of wokeness: the wealthy 1% virtue signal and nothing changes. They keep their money (maybe minus a token donation like the Guardian (the beneficiary of slavery (oh the delicious irony))).

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

I suppose if the family was really disturbed by their ancestor, they would renounce their wealth and donate it all to a suitably woke charity.

Peter B
Peter B
10 months ago

Children are not responsible for the actions of their parents. It’s nonsense.
Nor can Gladstone be held responsible for the behaviour of his father. He made the best of the situation he found himself in. That’s all you can do.
If Gladstone’s descendants are stupid enough to believe they need to apologise, they almost deserve to be paying “reparations”. Though it’s impossible at this late stage to know precisely who to. But there won’t be any shortage of claimants.

Peter B
Peter B
10 months ago

Children are not responsible for the actions of their parents. It’s nonsense.
Nor can Gladstone be held responsible for the behaviour of his father. He made the best of the situation he found himself in. That’s all you can do.
If Gladstone’s descendants are stupid enough to believe they need to apologise, they almost deserve to be paying “reparations”. Though it’s impossible at this late stage to know precisely who to. But there won’t be any shortage of claimants.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
10 months ago

When are we going to apologise to the 40,000 or so children, some as young as 7, who slave away in mines in the DRC to get cobalt for the electric vehicles that politicians demand that we have?

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Cobalt miners are just working-class – and class is just passe now !

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Cobalt miners are just working-class – and class is just passe now !

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
10 months ago

When are we going to apologise to the 40,000 or so children, some as young as 7, who slave away in mines in the DRC to get cobalt for the electric vehicles that politicians demand that we have?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

This article is welcome for clarifying that the ‘apology’ of the Gladstone descendants relates primarily to William’s father, Sir John. I wonder how many people will simply see the headline in the media (as i did) and think it only relates to the Illustrious PM?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

W E Gladstone sought out ladies of easy virtue in the streets of London.to save them from their fallen state. What a white saviour! What disrespect of honest sex workers. What a monster. Appalling man to have succumbed to the prejudices of his era and wanted to impose his morality on them. Something we have abandoned in this enlightened age. It is certainly past time he was cancelled.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

W E Gladstone sought out ladies of easy virtue in the streets of London.to save them from their fallen state. What a white saviour! What disrespect of honest sex workers. What a monster. Appalling man to have succumbed to the prejudices of his era and wanted to impose his morality on them. Something we have abandoned in this enlightened age. It is certainly past time he was cancelled.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago

This article is welcome for clarifying that the ‘apology’ of the Gladstone descendants relates primarily to William’s father, Sir John. I wonder how many people will simply see the headline in the media (as i did) and think it only relates to the Illustrious PM?

Robert Tombs
Robert Tombs
10 months ago

As the Gladstones received a huge ransom payment from the British taxpayer for the release of their slaves, they should surely be making a very large reimbursement to the Treasury.

Robert Tombs
Robert Tombs
10 months ago

As the Gladstones received a huge ransom payment from the British taxpayer for the release of their slaves, they should surely be making a very large reimbursement to the Treasury.

Waffles
Waffles
10 months ago

So the Gladstones have a racist scholarship that excludes white people (even if they are the descendents of those who fought to oppose slavery) but is available to non-whites (even if they are descended from the African slave traders who captured fellow Africans and sold them into slavery)?

Oh and is also available to those who descended from Arab slave traders (who were much much worse than white slave traders (but we are not allowed to mention the Arab slave trade because we only criticise the white West)?

Waffles
Waffles
10 months ago

So the Gladstones have a racist scholarship that excludes white people (even if they are the descendents of those who fought to oppose slavery) but is available to non-whites (even if they are descended from the African slave traders who captured fellow Africans and sold them into slavery)?

Oh and is also available to those who descended from Arab slave traders (who were much much worse than white slave traders (but we are not allowed to mention the Arab slave trade because we only criticise the white West)?

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

Never complain, never explain.
The late queen’s motto – which should be adopted by all the landed gentry and all British institutions – was, ironically, attributed to Gladstone’s great rival Disraeli, as quoted in Morley’s Life of William Ewart Gladstone

Matt M
Matt M
10 months ago

Never complain, never explain.
The late queen’s motto – which should be adopted by all the landed gentry and all British institutions – was, ironically, attributed to Gladstone’s great rival Disraeli, as quoted in Morley’s Life of William Ewart Gladstone

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago

The Vikings have never apologised for sacking Lindisfarne in 793 – or offered reparations !!
I hope the modern day inhabitants of northern Europe feel really guilty for something someone else did !!
I demand a (vacuous) apology !!

Last edited 10 months ago by Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
10 months ago

The Vikings have never apologised for sacking Lindisfarne in 793 – or offered reparations !!
I hope the modern day inhabitants of northern Europe feel really guilty for something someone else did !!
I demand a (vacuous) apology !!

Last edited 10 months ago by Graeme Kemp
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

They oughta apologize for his sending Chinese Gordon off to die in the Sudan, and worse, for refusing to relieve him when it was obvious he was cut off in Khartoum. Truly a black mark on the Gladstone escutcheon.

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

Thank you for highlighting this massive historic betrayal.

Peter B
Peter B
10 months ago

I think you’ll find on closer reading that Gordon was the architect of his own fate.

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

Thank you for highlighting this massive historic betrayal.

Peter B
Peter B
10 months ago

I think you’ll find on closer reading that Gordon was the architect of his own fate.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

They oughta apologize for his sending Chinese Gordon off to die in the Sudan, and worse, for refusing to relieve him when it was obvious he was cut off in Khartoum. Truly a black mark on the Gladstone escutcheon.

Henry Brookman
Henry Brookman
10 months ago

As the British taxpayer met the bill to free the slaves in 1833, shouldn’t they pay the money back to the Treasury?

Henry Brookman
Henry Brookman
10 months ago

As the British taxpayer met the bill to free the slaves in 1833, shouldn’t they pay the money back to the Treasury?

0 0
0 0
10 months ago

Slavery in the Plantations
What got the Industrial Revolution going was the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
What crippled many West Indian Plantations was the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
 The Repeal of the Corn Laws  did not just apply to ‘corn’, it applied to all hitherto protected agricultural produce including  sugar cane from the West Indies. Without the support of a producer price many of the plantations went bankrupt. Freeing  slaves was a contributing factor but with no alternative work, many freed slaves continued to work on the plantations for a generation at least.
GOM
To his admirers, Gladstone was known as the GOM, standing for  Grand Old Man. To Disraeli GOM stood for God’s Only Mistake.
Home Rule
Noted for his support for Home Rule for Ireland, Gladstone championed Parnell. All fell apart amongst his Liberal low church supporters when Parnell was cited in a divorce for having fathered several children with the wife of a fellow MP.

0 0
0 0
10 months ago

Slavery in the Plantations
What got the Industrial Revolution going was the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
What crippled many West Indian Plantations was the Repeal of the Corn Laws.
 The Repeal of the Corn Laws  did not just apply to ‘corn’, it applied to all hitherto protected agricultural produce including  sugar cane from the West Indies. Without the support of a producer price many of the plantations went bankrupt. Freeing  slaves was a contributing factor but with no alternative work, many freed slaves continued to work on the plantations for a generation at least.
GOM
To his admirers, Gladstone was known as the GOM, standing for  Grand Old Man. To Disraeli GOM stood for God’s Only Mistake.
Home Rule
Noted for his support for Home Rule for Ireland, Gladstone championed Parnell. All fell apart amongst his Liberal low church supporters when Parnell was cited in a divorce for having fathered several children with the wife of a fellow MP.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
10 months ago

Ex-slaves were given an entire country – Liberia – as reparations.
What more do they want?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Who gave it to them? You may be confusing “deportation” with “giving”

Peter Samson
Peter Samson
10 months ago

To be clear, the Gladstone family profited not only from slavery itself but also from the abolition of slavery. Sir John Gladstone received more than ÂŁ100,000 in compensation from the British government for the loss of 2,500 slaves.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
10 months ago

I feel sorry for all those poor benighted peoples whose ancestors lacked the gumption and wickedness to commit acts worthy of being apologized for by their descendants. How empty their lives must be, to lack the fulfillment that only comes when you futilely attempt to atone for the crimes of your forefathers! That’s the true meaning of life, to quest unendingly for the absolution which can never truly come, and to have that meaning be absent, by virtue of their ancestors having lived, by contemporary standards, blameless lives, why, that must render them pitiably devoid of any role in the human comedy.
Luckily, I rarely interact with them; after all, they’re not really our sort of people.

Sophy T
Sophy T
10 months ago

Which Caribbean country, I wonder?
Mia Motley PM of Barbados is a staunch supporter of Black Lives Matter and is enthusiastically planning on pursuing reparations from former plantation owners.
Whether she will succeed who knows. I mean I don’t know if she can force descendants of plantation owners to give her money but if the the families still own property there maybe she can seize it.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
10 months ago

‘…as his political inclinations became more democratic — as he morphed from the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” into “the People’s William”…’ and the rising hope of the ‘working girl’ community…will his descendants be making any gesture of recognition for these equally deserving persons of disadvantage too?