The thing about writing the collective biography of 420 people, is that sometimes the people come back at you out of history and re-write you.
The advocate James Grahame (1790-1842) is one of those who inspires me more than most. An idealistic young scholar with literary aspirations, while at Cambridge University he fell in love. Matilda Robley was the daughter of a Cumbrian slave owner from St John’s-in-the-vale, owner of hundreds of acres of plantation in Jamaica, and thousands of slaves. He abandoned his literary aspirations, trained as an advocate, argued himself out of his abolitionist principles, and in 1813 married her. Her old teacher wrote,
She is by far one of the most charming women I have ever known. Young, beautiful, amiable and accomplished; with a fine fortune. She is going to be married to a Mr Grahame, a young Scotch barrister. I have the greatest reluctance to part with this precious treasure, and can only hope that Mr Grahame is worthy of so much happiness.
Grahame was so moved by the privilege of gaining her that it brought on a religious conversion, which lasted the rest of his life. His faith was described as that of ‘the early Puritans and the Scotch Covenanters; but… sober, elevated, expansive, and free from narrowness and bigotry’. Tragically, Matilda died in 1818, and Grahame was left with his religion, his children, and the wealth. In 1827 he wrote,
My children are proprietors of a ninth share of a West India estate and I have a life-rent in it. Were my children of age, I coud not make one of the negroes free, and could do nothing but appropriate or forego the share of produe the estate yielded. Often I have wished it were in my power to make the slaves free, and thought this barren wish a sufficient tribute to duty. My conscience was quite laid asleep. Like many others, I did not do what I could, because I could not do what I wished. For years past, something more than a fifth part of my income has been derived from the labour of slaves. God forgive me for having so long tainted my store! … Never more shall the price of blood enter my pocket, or help to sustain the lives or augment the enjoyment of those dear children. They sympathize with me cordially. Till we can legally divest ourselves of every share, every shilling of the produce of it is to be devoted to the use of some part of the unhappy race from whose suffering it is derived.
When his children were of age, they gave their shares up.
James Grahame loved deep and loved well, and that love shaped his life and the world around him. That’s the kind of man who comes out of history and rewrites me.
Joseph Quincey, ‘Memoir of James Grahame’ in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, series 3 vol.9 (Boston: Little and Brown 1846)