Anti-slavery MP Edmund Burke put on ‘transatlantic slave trade register’

Edmund Burke - Heritage Images/Hulton Archive
Edmund Burke – Heritage Images/Hulton Archive

Edmund Burke, the anti-slavery “father of conservatism”, has been swept into a Parliamentary probe of figures with links to the slave trade.

The 18th-century philosopher and politician has been honoured with statues and portraits in the Palace of Westminster, but these have been reviewed by a committee of serving MPs assessing the building’s artworks for colonial connections.

Burke had ties to the slave trade, according to this committee of MPs, which has added depictions of the conservative thinker to a dossier of artworks linked to the “forced labour of enslaved men, women and children in the British colonies and beyond”.

A Whig MP who opposed the practice of slavery and the excesses of the British Empire in India, Burke has been swept into the review because his younger brother made money from Carribean plantations, according to Parliamentary documents.

The philosophical founder of conservatism has been named among those who “supported slavery, had financial or family interests in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery”, as part of the probe launched to make Parliament’s art collection “more representative of diversity”.

Burke opposed the practice of slavery and the excesses of the British Empire in India - Smith Collection/Gado/ Archive Photos
Burke opposed the practice of slavery and the excesses of the British Empire in India – Smith Collection/Gado/ Archive Photos

The review was launched following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and has been led by the 11-strong Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, a cross-party group chaired by Dean Russell, a Tory MP.

The project, backed by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has recorded hundreds of statues and portraits decorating the Parliamentary estate which depict figures associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

The list of slavery-related artworks now includes a life-size statue of Burke which stands in St Stephen’s Hall inside the Palace of Westminster, and a portrait of the MP which is currently displayed in the Member’s dining room.

The life-size statue of Burke in the Palace of Westminster - lm_photography / Alamy Stock Photo
The life-size statue of Burke in the Palace of Westminster – lm_photography / Alamy Stock Photo

According to Advisory Commitee documents, the group’s source for Burke’s connections to the transatlantic trade is a 2013 report by Historic England which examines the links between slavery and British country houses.

This report briefly mentions that Burke’s younger brother Richard was a “successful merchant and Caribbean land speculator“, but the philosopher himself – who lived from 1729 to 1797 and served as MP for nearly 30 years – had no such dealings.

‘It’s definitely nonsense’

Burke was enthusiastic about the Abolitionist movement, before supporting a programme of gradual abolition of the trade, and historians have said suggestions that the thinker was pro-slavery are unfounded.

Prof Richard Bourke, a Burke expert and professor of political thought at King’s College Cambridge, told The Telegraph: “It’s definitely nonsense that Burke was a supporter of the slave trade. He was a critic of slavery from his first recorded views. He found it abhorrent.

“Being an abolitionist is a little more complicated. He supported immediate abolition in the late 1780s, but then retracted during the French Revolution. The moment, he thought, was not right.

“In general terms Burke opposed slavery but not its forthright abolition. Before abolition, he proposed alleviating the barbarities of the trade itself.

“Given these complexities, there are commentators out there who conclude that because he had a scheme for reforming the trade he was a supporter of it. Ideology knows no bounds.”

Prof Richard Bourke says Burke opposed slavery 'but not its forthright abolition' - deadlyphoto.com / Alamy Stock Photo
Prof Richard Bourke says Burke opposed slavery ‘but not its forthright abolition’ – deadlyphoto.com / Alamy Stock Photo

Burke also campaigned to impeach the colonial governor of Bengal – Warren Hastings – for injustice under his rule, a scandal which made the MP famous.

Posterity has remembered him for his 1790 pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, which has been seen as an articulation of pragmatic conservative thought, in opposition to radical and potentially violent social changes.

His brother Richard also served as an MP, with responsibility for policy in the West Indies, and his portraits have also been cited in the Parliamentary committee documents.

Other figures swept into the review of Parliamentary artworks range from Charles I to four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone.

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