Human rights have progressed a long way since the Colonel’s time, though most would agree that there is still far to go. How far forward did the freeing of slaves bring us, and why was the advance so slow? A look at some of the letters may throw a little light.

History, to someone who went to school in early nineteenth century Britain, was about Europe, the Greeks and the Romans, with a smattering of the Middle East, China, India and South America. All known civilisations not only had slavery; their economies depended on it. In the eighteenth century, sugar, cotton and tobacco had advanced from luxury status to be regarded as necessities, and all these and more were dependent on slave labour. Slavery was not only the norm; for many it seemed that life would be intolerable without it, and for some, it was the basis of their fortunes. But a growing number wanted it abolished. Opposition to emancipation was concentrated in the West India Interest, a powerful lobby of planters, aristocrats and politicians.

The end of slavery in British territory came in three big steps, assisted by reformers of outstanding courage and determination. First, the Somerset case of 1772, when the Lord Chief Justice ruled that slavery was inconsistent with English law. Second, the abolition of the West African slave trade in 1807, when the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was established to intercept foreign slave ships. English recalled an adventure of his friend Captain Ramsey in the Squadron in letter 22, and Admiral Collier had been its Commodore from 1826 to 1830. The last step was the Emancipation Act, and English arrived in the West Indies in time to see it come into force on 1 August 1834. On that day, he was in St Lucia: ‘They have apprehended riots but I hope all will terminate well’ (letter 15). Eight days later: ‘The Negroes won’t work & there is for the present a bit of a row – no soldiers will be required’ (letter 16).

Slaves, including children born to slaves, had not just been the property of their owners; they were not persons but chattels, they had no rights, so, for instance, they could not testify in a court of law. It was only in 1805 that the murder of a slave had become a capital offence in Barbados; before that the punishment was a fine of £15. There had been slave revolts, notably in Barbados in 1816 and in Jamaica in 1831, both brutally suppressed. Now, suddenly, they were free, though designated apprentices for six years. The apprenticeship scheme required them to work 45 hours a week without pay, and to receive pay for any further time. English found the scheme working in Demerara in December 1834 (letter 23), but apprenticeship was soon abandoned in Antigua, and in Barbados after four years (letter 106). Also in letter 23, he recorded ‘six or eight couples’ at a church service, probably hearing their marriage banns. In letter 24 he is again optimistic that the legislation would work, partly due to his confidence that the introduction of steam engines would effect a reduction in the labour force: ‘If well governed all will go on well for our generation. What may happen as they gain power is another question.’

The planters were compensated with cash grants from the British Government and the repeal of the 4½% sugar duty in force since the seventeenth century.

As a soldier, English had to toe the government line, but his convictions were clear, witness his friendship with Bishop Coleridge. In letter 108 he made some predictions: ‘War with America [over Canada and slavery] seems most likely, then we shall free their slaves and at last the Black population of the Colonies will free themselves of the white population. We may not live to see this but so it will be – example St Domingo [Haiti]. We shall have a struggle for it but we could not stand the climate under such circumstances if the Blacks were united throughout – I allude to the thing on grand scale. An American war will force us to strengthen our WI colonies which could now be walked into…’ It would have surprised him to learn how long the British Empire was to last.