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Blood Legacy

Alex Renton

Canongate 2021

Review by Tomiwa Owolade

After the Black Lives Matter protests and debates last summer, Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade has reached an unprecedented level of publicity. The key question is this: how can Britain reckon with this pernicious legacy? In light of this, Alex Renton’s new book, Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery, is timely.

Blood Legacy is split into two parts. The first section is about the slave plantations that Renton’s ancestors owned on the island of Tobago. The second section is longer and concerns both slavery and post-emancipation nineteenth-century colonialism in Jamaica. Renton’s maternal grandfather, James Fergusson, was a distinguished journalist and historian. He was also the 8th Baronet of Kilkerran. Renton uses the ample files James Fergusson curated to trace the activities of their ancestors.

On the topic of slavery, James Fergusson was torn. ‘My grandfather’, Renton writes, ‘while clearly affected by the details in the letters he had read, considered Adam Fergusson, who for nearly fifty years ran the family’s plantations in Tobago and Jamaica from Britain, an ideal figure from a supremely civilised time’. 

Renton describes Adam Fergusson, the 3rd Baronet of Kilkerran, as ‘the ideal of a late eighteenth-century gentleman: educated, well-travelled, brilliantly connected and comfortably wealthy’. He was acquainted with David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Boswell. But he also owned humans.

One distinctive element of this book is Renton’s attempt to confront these tensions: the intimacy of family relations with the alienating horror of enslaving other humans; the recognition that figures of the Enlightenment could play significant roles in a moral abomination.

Both sections of Blood Legacy are bookended by chapters in which Renton surveys contemporary Tobago and Jamaica. He references Gerard Hutchinson and Frederick Hickling, two academics who conceived the term ‘roast breadfruit psychosis’ to explain why many Caribbean men who migrated to Britain after the Second World War suffered from schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

The roast breadfruit syndrome paper, simply put, describes what happens when someone identifies with a culture whose inhabitants reject them: black people ‘trying to be’, Renton writes, ‘like the roast breadfruit, white inside their black skin’. There are parallels with some of the ideas of Frantz Fanon, and also with W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness – feeling both an insider but also alienated. 

Near the end of the book, Renton raises the subject of reparations. ‘Every Jamaican and Tobagan I’ve spoken to’, he writes, ‘backs reparations, though for many that is just a detail in a much bigger process of acknowledgement and reconciliation’. 

He adds that, ‘if the reparations issue can work as a lever to open the doors for a frank debate with Europe, then that is a good thing’. The overwhelming sense here is of reparations as a symbol for atonement – without which constructive efforts to heal racial wounds would be futile. He speaks to the Jamaican academic, Verene Shepherd, who views reparations ‘as a decisive move towards ending racism’. This is a bold statement, and I would have loved to read more about what reparations would specifically look like in practice: which countries will receive them; which specific communities and or individuals within these countries will receive them; and whether it would be a lump sum or a gradual payment. 

Symbols are, of course, important. But one of the problems with a lot of contemporary discourse on race is the absence of a granular focus on the material issues affecting black people. Nevertheless, Blood Legacy is a fascinating and very informative book on an important part of Britain’s past and its complex legacy.