This is an epic tale, but it is moreover an epic piece of research. If the narrative flavour is caught in the author’s zeal, its texture comes from Atkinson’s reckoning with the fact that the ancestor he has grown to love is someone he does not know at all. The book’s appearance during our hiatus could not be better: my guess is that many readers will now find themselves inspired to unlock their own time capsules and slip into another century.
The author had never set eyes on his five-times great-uncle, the Richard Atkinson who made the family rich, until he stumbled across an engraving by the satirist James Gillray, dating from the 1780s. It shows the 25-year-old Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, being birched on his bare bottom by a political rival. Among Pitt’s cronies waiting with their breeches down for the same punishment is one with a document poking out of his pocket. He was Richard Atkinson, and the document was his notorious rum contract.
What emerges is a three-dimensional portrait, not just of Richard Atkinson MP but his world — nefarious, buccaneering, amoral, but also containing a genuine love story. Atkinson was too clever and impatient to remain long in Westmorland and escaped to London, where we first see him working for Samuel Touchet, a merchant and MP for Shaftesbury. One of Touchet’s vessels, ironically named the Friendship, received letters of marque at the beginning of the Seven Years War, allowing it to attack enemy shipping. Touchet went one further and invaded Senegal, returning laden with booty. Don’t cheer this imperial blow against the French too enthusiastically: he was also involved in the triangular trade. Like others in this book, his fortunes went awry, and in 1763 he hanged himself from a bedpost. The 18th century wasn’t all elegance and refinement.
If Atkinson lacks a novelist’s capacity to bring his populous array of characters fully to life, his evidence-sifting tenacity is impressive and the way he combines thumbnail nuggets with grand narratives shows how history benefits from being written from the ground up. Are we so very far removed from those long-done deeds? The fragility of 18th-century banking systems and the sudden blighting onset of malady feel very familiar. More broadly, the question of what is known and not known, what can be omitted and what gets ignored, goes to the heart of our vexed relation with our imperial past.
His first impulse is to contact them, but he feels torn. ‘It was quite possible’, he writes, ‘that the very last person they would wish to hear from was me, the direct male descendant of a white slave owner.’ He decides not to, but admits that he’s still not sure this was the right choice. Then, towards the end of the book, he describes flying to Jamaica. The surprises continue until the very last page.
I know all about skeletons. My father was a Dutch “guest worker” in Nazi Germany. I’m troubled by that bit of family history; I fear that he might have worked all too willingly for Adolf Hitler. But I also know that personal agonies make great reading. Unfortunately, Atkinson tries too hard to be an objective historian, stifling that personal side. We don’t really need another book on the slave trade or the Revolutionary War, but a revealing and honest memoir of discovery would be welcome.