This past weekend, a Toronto culture and news site posted about William Ewart Gladstone, revealing that in his early years he supported slavery. As a young politician he spoke against emancipation of enslaved people, mainly because his father was one of the largest slaveowners in the British Empire. When emancipation was finally enacted, he helped his father receive £106,769 (about £10.2m in today’s terms) as compensation for the loss of his enslaved labour. And Gladstone inherited that money when his father passed.
I am ashamed to admit I did not know this when I chose the name for my press. Gladstone Press – my publishing venture, that is – does not and never has supported racist ideology or any defence of systemic racism. So the name I chose is, at the very least, problematic.
Why did I pick Gladstone, of all people? Well, simply put: I didn’t. In keeping with the tradition of many publishing firms, I named my venture after the street where I live and work (Gladstone Avenue, and by extension, the surrounding neighbourhoods of Parkdale, Little Portugal, and West Queen West), which in turn was named to honour William Gladstone. So, it’s not a direct relationship, but there is a tie.
I knew my street was named after the Victorian British prime minister, and so before I settled on the name, I read up on his accomplishments – but did not look deeply into his earlier philosophies and biases (which were known to historians but until recently haven’t played a huge role in general discourse). What I’d learned of him back then did not mention his father’s plantations, nor his pro-slavery stance when he was first elected as a member of parliament. (These facts have now been highlighted in many biographies.) About twenty years after he fought to delay emancipation, he had a change of heart, declaring slavery as the ‘foulest crime’ in the history of the UK, and the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which ‘the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.’ For most of his later political career (he was prime minister on four separate occasions), he championed humanitarian causes and policies, and focused on democratization, social reformation, universal education, and (to a certain extent) decolonization.
There is no redemption for his father (the Demerara Slave Rebellion is one example). But for the son, did his later accomplishments make up for his earlier stance? That is the question. The University of Liverpool is renaming a library, and his descendent is stating that even Gladstone himself would approve of his own statue being removed from near his ancestral home (because he believed in respecting the will of the people).
What does this mean for the press? Had I known, I would have looked for a better business name, no questions asked. Now? I myself have to make a decision regarding the name of my press.
The most that I can say at this point is: I am now aware of his legacy, and am trying to figure out my own next steps.