“Slaves Do Not Become Kings, Sir”

From Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I am re-reading under rather special circumstances:“Out of my dear love for you, Stephen, I have traced the smoke of burning cities and battlefields and prised dripping, bloody guts out of dying men to discover your future. You are indeed destined to be a king! I must say that I am not in the least surprized! I believe I know which kingdom is to yours.”

Stephen waited.

“But do you not see?” cried the gentleman, impatiently. “It must be England! I cannot tell you how delighted I was when I learnt this important news!”

“But I think that you must be mistaken, sir. I cannot rule England. Not with this…” He spread out his hands in front of him. Black skin, he thought. Aloud he continued, “Only you, sir, with your partiality for me, could think such a thing possible. Slaves do not become kings, sir.”

“Slave, Stephen? Whatever do you mean?”

“I was born into slavery, sir. As are many of my race. My mother was a slave on an estate in Jamaica that Sir Walter’s grandfather owned. When his debts grew too great Sir William went to Jamaica to sell the estate – and one of the possessions which he brought back with him was my mother. Or rather he intended to bring her back to be a servant in his house, but during the voyage she gave birth to me and died.”

“Ha!” exclaimed the gentleman in triump. “Then it is exactly as I have said! You and your estimable mother were enslaved by the wicked English and brought low by their machinations!”

“Well, yes, sir. That is true in a sense. But I am not a slave now. No one who stands on British soil can be a slave. The air of England is the air of liberty. It is a great boast of Englishmen that this is so.” And yet, he thought, they own slaves in other countries.

“Nevertheless we should punish them!” cried the gentleman. “We can easily kill Lady Pole’s husband, and then I will descend into Hell and find his grandfather, and then…”

“But it was not Sir William and Sir Walter who did the enslaving,” protested Stephen. “Sir Walter has always been been very much opposed to the slave trade. And Sir William was kind to me. He had me christened and educated.”

“Christened? What? Even your name is an imposition of your enemies? Signifying slavery? Then I strongly advise you to cast it off and chuse another when you ascend the throne of England!”

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