Commemorating Helen Macfarlane (1818-60): Slavery, Abolitionism and the Roots of Scottish Marxism

David Black

Summary: A recent BBC television documentary, Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame, calls to mind the writings of the Scottish Chartist, Helen Macfarlane – born 200 years ago. — Editors

The Real Dark Enlightenment: Slavery

The Scots have long thought of themselves as an enlightened nation, schooled in a collective spirit of equality and freedom. But in recent decades, Scottish historians and Black activists have challenged such complacency. Recently (November 2018), the BBC has aired a lavishly-produced two-part television documentary, Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame, which has at last given their work the attention it deserves. Presented by actor, David Hayman, the documentary provides a salutary exposure of the systematic erasure of the dark aspects of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The slave trade wasn’t just the province of English merchants in Liverpool, Bristol and London. As Hayman points out:

“Scots were plantation and slave owners, merchants, ship owners and crews, surgeons, investors and book keepers. The profits from the slave trade fired Scotland’s industrial growth. And in every corner of our nation you will find civic buildings and private homes built from the profits of slavery: bricks drenched in blood.”

Adebusulo Debra Ramsay, a young Black activist who conducts walking tours of Glasgow’s historical landmarks, says:

“For me it started off as a personal journey for understanding the history of racism and where it comes from, so that I could understand what I’m experiencing… It’s important because this is how we change the narrative, and how we address the collective amnesia and forgetting is by giving the information to everyone.”

The triangular trade that spawned the wealth of the Scottish nation was a system involving the shipping from British ports of beads, alcohol, copper bars, and firearms which were exchanged for Africans rounded up for chattel slavery. The slaves were then shipped to North America and the Caribbean to be exchanged for the raw materials – such as sugar, rum, tobacco and cotton – which fueled British industry and commerce.

On Bunce Island, 20 miles from Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown, lies the ruin of a fort, once the province of the Royal African Company, which was leased from the local African king. Here, from 1728 to 1807, Scottish companies incarcerated Africans in preparation for the horrific journey across the Atlantic on the slave ships. According to maritime historian Eric Graham.

“There were no Europeans on the coast of Africa capturing Black people and enslaving them. That’s a myth. It was done by their own chiefs. They’re brought down the river systems to these forts, which sit there independent of anything else, and you go and collect your slaves through the surf.”[i]

Abolitionism

In 1807 the British Parliament finally abolished the Atlantic slave trade; and in 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (whilst paying out massive sums in compensation to the former slave-owners). Various forces contributed to these reforms. Abolitionism was in part driven by Christian reformers of the Quaker and Unitarian churches in alliance with campaigners such as the independent parliamentarian William Wilberforce and the Scottish statesman and British Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham. Adam Smith, the famous Scots political economist and moral philosopher, argued for the abolition of slave labour on the grounds that free wage-labour was more productive. Another crucial factor, highlighted in Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame by the Black Glasgow Green Party councillor Graham Campbell, was the successful armed slave rebellions in Jamaica led by Sam Sharpe, who was hanged by the British colonial authorities in 1832.

Abolitionism was also a key element of the burgeoning popular radical movements in Britain; from the founding of the pro-Jacobin London Corresponding Society in 1792 to the launch of the People’s Charter campaign in 1838.[ii] In the 1830s the Anti-Slavery campaigns coincided with the new struggles of the working classes against the workhouses, and for trade union rights and universal male suffrage.

In the latter case, once the slavery system of the British Empire had been destroyed, the radical abolitionists turned their attentions to international struggles against slavery in America, Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere. As regards America, the attitudes of working-class radicals towards chattel slavery in the cotton plantations was somewhat ambivalent. For example, Chartist leader and socialist educator Bronterre O’Brien, who regarded the American Revolution of 1776 as a pivotal event in world history which had given birth to modern democracy, was certainly opposed to American Slavery. Bronterre however, rooted the evil in the rule of private property and ‘class legislation’. To him, the conditions of wage-slaves in Lancashire cotton mills seemed just as bad, if not worse, than those of plantation slaves in America. According to Michael Turner:

“In fact, slavery was a divisive issue in Chartism. While some expressed sympathy for the abolitionist cause in America, and claimed that America’s toleration of slavery brought shame upon its people and institutions, others thought that time and energy would be better spent on combating ‘slavery’ at home. O’Brien was usually to be found in the latter camp. He condemned the leaders of the anti-slavery movement in Britain for ignoring the plight of the labouring poor, the wage-slaves who knew only toil and exploitation.”[iii]

The fact that American slavery was a ‘divisive issue’ in Chartism did not discourage some in the movement from confronting it. One of them was Helen Macfarlane (1818-60), whose early life and views on gender, race and class are the subject of this article.

Children of the Scottish Enlightenment

Helen Macfarlane’s family were direct descendants of the Clan Macfarlane lairds, whose domain had been the lands around Arrochar, on the west bank of Loch Lomond. In tracing the family lineage for a forthcoming biography of Helen Macfarlane, Louise Yeoman and I have identified two lines of descent. In the 18th century, one branch of the family were Jacobites, absentee landlords and owners of slave plantations in Jamaica, before being deservedly bankrupted by gambling debts. The other branch were landless gentry who went into industry, namely calico printing. The head of the latter family was Helen’s father, George Macfarlane (1760-1842).

George Macfarlane married into another family of urbanised gentry, the Stenhouses, who were wealthy Glasgow merchants and calico manufacturers. George was put in charge of a calico printing plant in Barrhead, which made a fortune making the famous ‘Turkey Red’ bandanas. The Macfarlane-Stenhouses themselves became a clan-like force in the Glasgow business community. A memoir by James Shaw contains a unique record of the workers at the Stenhouse calico plant at Barrhead on the west side of Levern Water, managed by George Macfarlane. The plant, powered by a water-wheel on the river bank, was looked over by the “big house of Stenhouse” which stood out like a “palace.”[iv]   The ‘big house’ was the place where Helen Macfarlane spent her early years.

Women of the community benefitted from the Barrhead Female Friendly Society, which provided financial benefits for sick or pregnant members. The society was instituted by its president, “Mrs. M’Farlane… Dovecothall” – Helen Macfarlane’s mother, née Helen Stenhouse. Helen Macfarlane may then have, so to speak, imbued the spirit of social responsibility and involvement from her mother’s milk. Young Helen was also doubtless influenced by the firm’s rebellious workers. According to Shaw, the Crossmill workers lived and breathed the radical politics of the day:

“A strange secular spirit crept over its members, who in politics were root and branch Radicals. The weekly newspaper was read by rotation on the Saturday evenings in the different houses to crowded audiences, and went far to supply the place of the weekly sermon…”

The political grievance that most energised the Crossmill workers – and workers in Scotland generally – was the archaic electoral system, which kept them voiceless, powerless and downtrodden. Shaw describes the Crossmill community as like a clan in terms of its self-sufficiency, community cohesion and solidarity; relatively untroubled by clergy, police or other organs of the state. By the time Helen Macfarlane translated the Communist Manifesto in 1850, the Crossmill community, of more than fifty years standing had been was overtaken by technological competition in the industry and (as Shaw puts it), “broken up as completely as the trapper breaks up a community of beavers in the Hudson Bay territories.”

But in 1831 the Macfarlanes set up a new calico plant at Lillyburn, in Milton of Campsie in the Vale of Leven. The Macfarlanes’ political sympathies were liberally ‘progressive’, but the business, like all other calico enterprises in the district, soon became embroiled in the class struggles of the 1830s. In 1834, the calico manufacturers of Campsie decided to bring into the workforce thousands of new workers, especially women and children. The highly-skilled and well-paid block-printers saw this as a move to undercut their wages and status. They responded by going on strike. The authorities reacted in turn by calling in troops to help the employers break the strike. As Lillyburn was placed under military protection we must conclude that the employers who were being protected from their own workforces included the firm of George Macfarlane & Co.

In 1838 the six-point People Charter – essentially a program for universal male suffrage – was drawn up in London. Mass meetings throughout the kingdom elected delegates to a ‘National Convention’ to sit in London in permanent session for the purpose of coordinating a petition campaign. The Convention sent lecturers/agitators to every corner of the kingdom. One of them was the young Londoner, George Julian Harney (1817-97), who ten years later, would become the editor and publisher of two London Chartist periodicals – the monthly Democratic Review and the weekly Red Republican – and would put Helen Macfarlane’s writing talents to work on both of them. Chartism in the Vale of Leven began on 4 November 1838 with the setting up of a Working Men’s Association, which immediately recruited 500 to 600 members, mostly calico printers, many of whom would have been employed by the Macfarlanes at Campsie. In January and February 1840 Harney toured Scotland. As a ‘physical force’ Chartist, Harney was denounced on arrival in the press by ‘moral force’ Chartists in Glasgow as a ‘man of violence’, and possibly even a government spy. However, according to a historian of Scottish Chartism, Alexander Wilson, Harney convinced his audiences that he was neither:

“Outside Glasgow, Harney enjoyed the confidence of the rank and file of the movement and found no difficulty in obtaining invitations to address meetings. In January and February [1840] he spoke at thirty-five meetings, obtaining votes of confidence wherever he went, from Campsie to Dumfries. At Paisley he was challenged as a spy but obtained a resolution of sympathy for the prejudiced reports in the press, and at nearby Barrhead it was hoped that England would send more ‘spies’ like Harney – ‘this straightforward, honest Reformer.’”[v]

Helen Macfarlane was of course familiar with the aforementioned Paisley, Campsie and Barrhead. She would certainly have been aware of Harney’s activities in Scotland, so this may well have been the time they first met. Also, there is evidence that by this time she already well and truly radicalised.

Anti-Slavery in Scotland

In our research for the forthcoming biography (which has unfortunately missed the bi-centenary of Helen’s birth in 1818), Louise Yeoman and I discovered a “Miss M’Farlane” in the membership list of the Glasgow Ladies’ Auxiliary Emancipation Society, appended to its tract of 1837, Three years’ female anti-slavery effort, in Britain and America.  This in itself would not be conclusive proof that ‘Miss M’Farlane’ was in fact the 19-year old Helen Macfarlane, the future Chartist journalist, associate of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and first translator of the Communist Manifesto, as serialised in Harney’s paper, the Red Republican in 1850. There is, however, solid corroborating evidence to suggest that they were one and the same person.

Politically, the Macfarlane-Stenhouse ‘clan’ were anti-slavery, pro-free trade, pro-reform of parliament, and hostile to the absolutist monarchies of Austria and Russia. Helen’s uncle, Nicol Stenhouse, was a member of the Cape of Good Hope Philanthropic Society which, in 1830, launched a campaign for “aiding deserving slaves and slave children, to purchase their freedom.” In December 1838, her uncle, John Stenhouse, subscribed the sum of five guineas to a testimonial fund for George Thompson, a British follower of the American anti-slavery campaigner, William Lloyd Garrison. The British ‘Garrisonians’ were more radical and uncompromising than the liberal British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The Garrisonians argued that the Anti-Corn Law League, the anti-slavery societies and the Chartists were all part of the same struggle against corruption, slavery and class legislation. In 1841 the Glasgow Emancipation Society met to honour the visit of John A. Collins, a leading American utopian socialist and comrade of Garrison. At this meeting a “Mr. M’Farlane,” who was obviously a Chartist, moved the following resolution:

“That, in accordance with sentiment contained in the address to Mr. Collins, now read, it is the opinion of this meeting that the people of this country are entitled to those rights for Suffrage for which they have been contending these last three years and that we pledge ourselves to use every moral and legal means to obtain our own liberty and liberty of all mankind.”

‘Mr. M’Farlane’ was almost certainly Helen’s brother, William Stenhouse Macfarlane. He is the only sibling of Helen’s who has a record of involvement with Chartism.

The Macfarlane-Stenhouse brood were children of the Scottish Enlightenment. The sons got the very best of educations, and subsequently excelled in their vocations. They also came to be very close and reliant on each other: attending the same schools and colleges, sharing each other’s businesses, homes, money and ideas about the world and their places in it. The ‘philosopher’ of the family was undoubtedly Helen’s cousin, Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse (1806-73), whose intellectual mentor was Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856). Hamilton’s philosophical writings mark the first real engagement of the Scottish Enlightenment with the new critical German philosophy of Immanuel Kant. William Stenhouse Macfarlane, and cousin, John Stenhouse Jnr, studied at Giessen University, Germany, under Justus von Liebig, the founder of modern organic chemistry.  Karl Marx, who first studied Liebig’s writings in 1851, learned from him how modern agricultural techniques were creating a ‘metabolic rift’ between humans and nature.

But all this should theoretically have been off-limits to Helen, who somehow became fluent in German and an avid reader of Hegel’s philosophy. Whatever education was available for girls in Scotland at this time, it was very rarely extended beyond the age of fourteen. Educational historian Lindy Moore, explains that girls were given access to “both domestic and professional tuition, in private and public institutions [including the Kirk] … Even when families could afford a governess, girls were partly taught by relatives.”[vi] The level of institutional education available to girls and young women in the 1820s and 30s cannot then account for how Helen Macfarlane gained her deep knowledge of history, classical literature, philosophy, politics, and the German language – all of which she shared with brothers and cousins. We might then speculate, if not assume, that she was indeed ‘partly taught by relatives’.

The Revolutionary Governess

In 1842 the Macfarlane mills went under, engulfed by the rising tide of technology-driven competition between Scottish millowners. The Macfarlanes were utterly ruined. Helen and her sisters and brothers had to sign away everything, including their mills and their fine house at 5 Royal Crescent, Glasgow. In Helen’s case, the prospect of a genteel marriage, perhaps to a rising young lawyer or the son of a good merchant, was gone. She had to take employment as a governess and moved to London. The year 1848 found her in Vienna when the Revolution against the Habsburg Monarchy broke out.

In June 1849, Harney launched a new monthly, the Democratic Review of British Politics, History and Literature; and in spring 1850, he resigned his editorship of Feargus O’Connor’s weekly paper, the Northern Star, which he thought had become too compromising with liberalism, to set up a new rival weekly, the Red Republican.

Following the post-1848 counter-revolutions, Macfarlane returned from Austria to Britain; first residing in Burnley, Lancashire, then in London (her residence is still standing in Great Titchfield Street, in the area now known as Fitzrovia). She began to write for Harney’s presses, and associated herself with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in exile, had taken up residence in London and Manchester respectively (though it is likely that Macfarlane had known them for some time; Marx is known to have visited Vienna during the 1848 Revolution). Macfarlane’s first contributions to Harney’s Democratic Review appeared under her own name in 1850 in the April, May and June 1850. Then, when she began to write for the Red Republican in June 1850, she adopted the male nom de plume, ‘Howard Morton’. Her translation of the Communist Manifesto – which Harney greeted as “the most revolutionary document ever given to the world” – was serialised in the Red Republican in four parts in November 1850.

Helen Macfarlane’s own writings are in part faction fighting (taking on those in the Chartist movement and trade unions who would compromise with the political representatives of bourgeois ‘humbug’, ‘cant’ and ‘twaddle’), part social criticism (laying bare the daily deprivations suffered by the ‘labouring classes’), and part philosophical reflection on the course of history, from Antiquity to modern times. She takes on the great literary figures of her day, such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Alphonse de Lamartine; and her writings are full of literary references (to Homer, Sophocles, Cervantes, Milton, and Heinrich Heine, etc., etc.). Macfarlane’s writings show not only a thorough grasp of what would later become known as Marxism, but also – uniquely for a British radical of the time – a familiarity with the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 –1831).

Democracy – ‘a Soul in want of a Body’

Helen Macfarlane’s views on slavery are given their most profound expression in a three-part critique of Thomas Carlyle, entitled ‘Democracy’ which was published in the Democratic Review in 1850. Carlyle was both a product and an opponent of the Scottish Enlightenment. Because he was a Germanophile as well as a racist and opponent of democracy, his writings later found favour with the Nazis. In fact, Joseph Goebbels studied Carlyle’s history of Frederick the Great with Hitler in the Berlin bunker, still hoping against hope for the same kind of miraculous turnaround that Frederick had managed to pull off in his war with Russia in 1759. Because of his posthumous contribution to fascist ideology, Carlyle is these days rarely read, but in 1850 he was very popular and influential. His book on the French Revolution, for example, was used as source material for Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Carlyle supported the New Poor Law of 1834 (passed by the Liberal government with the intention of driving the unemployed either into the workhouses or emigration), writing, “If paupers are made miserable, paupers will needs decline in multitude. It is a secret known to all rat catchers…”  Riding his favourite hobby-horse of anti-Irish and anti-Black bigotry, Carlyle poses the question:

“Between Black West Indians and our own White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work… and of inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce mammon-worship, and our benevolent philandering and idle godless nonsense of one kind or another!”

As an ‘alternative’, Carlyle calls for a ‘regiment’ of the unemployed to be set to work on the land. Any ‘responsible’ government would tell the ‘paupers,’ whether in Ireland, Britain or the West Indies,

“Refuse to strike into it; shirk the heavy labour, disobey the rules – I will admonish and endeavour to incite you; if in vain, I will flog you; if still in vain, I will at last shoot you – and make God’s Earth, and the forlorn-hope in God’s Battle, free of you. Understand it I advise you!”

On democracy, Carlyle writes:

“Of ancient Republics, and Demoi and Populi … the mass of the population were slaves and the voters intrinsically a kind of Kings, or men born to rule others… [they] were very far from Red Republicans in any political faith whatever!”

In response, Macfarlane argues (in true Hegelian fashion) that Democracy was a “soul in want of a body,” “still seeking an adequate mode of expression,” but “rapidly tending towards a realisation in the phenomenal world”; and if “the governors stand in direct opposition to the spirit of their age”, then “we have an epoch of disorganisation and revolution.”  Macfarlane points out that Carlyle accepts democracy as “the fact of the present age,” but denies its existence in past or present.  Macfarlane agrees on this but adds: “Not even in America? – asks a reader. I answer, decidedly not.” Macfarlane’s critique of the United States of America centers on the issues of race and gender:

“There are two facts existing in that country – to me they are very disgusting facts – which are opposed to the democratic idea, as any institution in the old world. American negro slavery, and American exclusion of white women from the exercises of all political, and many social rights – are things as much opposed to freedom and fraternity, as Russian serfdom, Austrian military despotism and English class legislation.”

In ‘The Red Flag in 1850’ Macfarlane expounds further on the limits of merely political reforms in reference to the actually existing republic of the United States:

“In America, women generally and coloured people are enslaved and used up by the free and enlightened citizens of that sham republic…  the same causes must ultimately produce the same effects… irresponsible power has been shifted from one class to another; in one country its possession depends on the accidents of birth and wealth; in another on those of colour and sex…”

In Macfarlane’s Hegelian-Marxist analysis, Democracy had assumed four historical forms: “the religion taught by the divine Galilean Republican” (Jesus Christ); the Mediaeval heretics and the Reformation; the “German philosophy from Emmanuel Kant to Hegel”; and the “democracy of our own times,” in which “faith has been transfigured into knowledge,” now “divested of the opaque element of empiricism.” Referring to her own experience of the 1848 Revolutions, Macfarlane writes:

“I am free to confess that, for me the most joyful of all spectacles possible in these times is the one which Mr. Carlyle laments; one which I enjoyed extremely at Vienna, in March 1848, i.e. ‘an universal tumbling of impostors…’ For it amounts to this, that men are determined to live no longer in lies… Ca ira! And how do men come to perceive that the old social forms are worn out and useless?  By the advent of a new Idea…”

In this, her debut essay for the Chartist press in April 1850, Macfarlane quotes Hegel’s History of Philosophy at length and makes the following observation on the question of slavery – ancient and modern:

“Society, as at present constituted, throughout the civilised world — in America as well as in Europe — does not express the Christian idea of equality and fraternity, but the totally opposite pagan principle of inequality and selfishness. In the antique world, the position of a man was determined by the accident of birth. As a citizen of Athens, or of Rome, he was free. But these Athenian and Roman citizens denied the same rights to men belonging to all other nations, whom they contemptuously styled barbarians. They enslaved these other men, or used them up as chattels — in a variety of ways, according to as it was found profitable or convenient; precisely as the ‘free and enlightened citizens of America’ do coloured men at the present day. This conduct was excusable enough in the nations of antiquity. The wisest among them could, in fact, act in no other way. For the true nature of man was not then understood… The ancient philosophers left many questions untouched which now occupy a great space in the territory of speculation.”

Two-hundred years after the births of Karl Marx and Helen Macfarlane the great space in the territory of speculation is still one of struggle and contestation.

David Black is the editor of ‘Red Republican: The Complete Annotated Works of Helen Macfarlane’ (Unkant Books, London: 2014).


[i] In the first century of the European slave trade – the 1400s – the Portuguese did in fact carry out raids for slaves along the coasts of West Africa. When this practice was found to be too dangerous (because the Africans fought back) to make it worthwhile, it was abandoned, and local kings were bribed or coerced to do it for them.

[ii]  James Walvin The Impact of Slavery on British Radical Politics: 1787-1838, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1977.

[iii]  Michael Turner, Chartism, Bronterre O’Brien and the ‘Luminous Political Example of America’, History, Vol. 97, No. 1, January 2012.

[iv] James Shaw, A Country Schoolmaster. Edited by Robert Wallace. (Edinburgh: 1899), pp. 146-52.

[v] Alexander Wilson, The Chartist Movement in Scotland (Manchester University Press: 1970). p 107.

[vi]  Lindy Moore, Young Ladies Institutions: the Development of Secondary Schools for Girls in Scotland, 1833-circa.1870, History of Education, 2003, Vol.32, No. 3.

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