James Stephen

In a tale that proves that history is often stranger than fiction, I bring you an abbreviated version of the tale of James Stephen’s romantic woes in eighteenth century England; it makes the romantic entanglements of my main character look tame by comparison.

James Stephen became a lawyer in the British colony of St. Kitts. However, upon arrival in the West Indies on the island of Barbados, he witnessed a trial of slaves generally believed to be innocent, who were found guilty and burned to death. Horrified,  Stephen became an abolitionist, sending correspondence and evidence back to William Wilberforce, the only MP fighting to abolish slavery in Britain.

 In 1800, Stephen married Wilberforce’s sister. He helped draft the 1807 bill to abolish the slave trade. He became an MP. His great-granddaughter was author Virginia Woolf.

From Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild: “The autobiography in which Stephen tells this tale was felt so embarrassing by his descendants that it was not published for more than a century after his death.” 

James Stephen’s father was sent to debtors’ prison. After his father’s release, James, who had been living in the prison with his family, returned to school, where he made friends with Tom and fell in love with Tom’s sister Nancy. However, Nancy’s family did not approve of James’s family (due to the debtors’ prison stint) and James and Nancy had to resort to clandestine letters, smuggled to and fro by Tom, fights with parents, and general adolescent drama. James then left London to study law.

He soon ran out of money and returned, falling in love with Nancy all over again. They were engaged. Nancy found him a place to live, in the same house where her friend Maria–the woman her brother Tom was courting–lived. Tom was away in the Royal Navy. James befriended Maria. Maria had another suitor. James threatened him to a duel. As James later wrote, “Maddened with admiration of her person, I always forgot in her presence the resolutions with which I met her and…bent on the destruction of her virtue.”

Maria soon fell pregnant. James moved her to another house, still maintaining his engagement to Nancy. Of course, Nancy figured out what was going on and threatened suicide. James talked her out of it, still swearing to marry her, while also promising to marry Maria.

Sticky, no? It gets worse.

Tom returns. He then gets rip-roaring drunk and requests a post far away from England.

James was able to continue his education after an uncle, a doctor in the West Indies who restored weak slaves to health in order to be sold, died and left him a legacy. James then decided to go to the Caribbean, where lawyers could make a lot of money, in order to support the women. He decided to marry whichever woman could not find another husband. In the meantime, he became infatuated with a Scottish woman.

Maria found another man and married him, so James married Nancy and they adopted Maria’s and James’s baby. In 1783, at the age of twenty-five, James Stephen landed on Barbados.

Sometimes, you just can’t make it up.

James Stephen (1758-1832)
Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.