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How the Sharps helped to blunt slave trade

Incensed by the treatment meted out to a slave, a doctor’s brother is the hero of a new book by Hester Grant, writes Peter Gruner

20 August, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

Johan Zoffany’s The Sharp Family: Granville is sitting centre with a two-horn instrument

IN 1765 a young black abandoned slave is admitted to Barts hospital with serious injuries after being brutally pistol whipped by his master.

So writes former Islington resident, historian Hester Grant, in The Good Sharps. This fascinating book, inspired by a painting she viewed at the Royal Academy of Arts, celebrates a remarkable family and reveals the story behind one of the earliest campaigns against slavery.

After the beating, former slave Jonathan Strong, from Barbados, aged about 16 or 17, is in acute pain and almost blind, and staggers to a doctor’s surgery in Mincing Lane in the City.

Fortunately for Jonathan, the practice, run by Dr William Sharp, was one of the very few that was free for the poor. This was, of course, almost 200 years before the foundation of the NHS.

Outside the surgery, where he had been queuing up, Jonathan, near to collapse, meets Dr Sharp’s younger brother Granville, a trainee civil servant, who will turn out to be the hero of the book. Granville instantly takes pity on distraught Jonathan and helps him into the surgery where Dr Sharp treats his injuries as best he can.

The lad is then admitted to nearby Barts hospital. But his condition is so bad he remains in a hospital bed for four-and-a-half months. Dr Sharp was said to have gone on to become a surgeon to King George III.

For young Granville, meeting Jonathan and becoming friends with him, is a life-changing experience.

Granville is so appalled by what he hears from the lad about conditions for slaves that he decides to give up all plans of working for the government and dedicates the rest of his life to fighting the slave trade. This was a time when people often saw slavery as merely a necessity linked to the introduction of sugar, coffee, tea and chocolate.

Hester Grant

It was also a subject you avoided in polite company. But not Granville, who declared to all who would listen: “A toleration of slavery is, in effect, a toleration of inhumanity.”

He battled tirelessly as one of Britain’s first ever great campaigners for the abolition of the trade. There would be many court cases and stories of cruelty that would shock him but if one stood out as particularly horrifying it was the Zong massacre off the Cape Coast of West Africa in 1781.

One-hundred-and-thirty-two men, women and children were each systematically grabbed by crew members and thrown off the ship into the sea where they drowned. Why? To save the dwindling onboard drinking water.

Incensed by the story, Granville set himself the task of seeking justice for the murdered slaves.

In court he draws a link between the perpetrators of the massacre and the collective guilt of the entire country.

Hester writes that the Zong “reverberates through the history of the anti-slavery movement, powerful both as a description of the ‘indescribable’ and as an ‘authentic specimen’ of the horrors of the trade.”

She believes that most 18th-century Londoners may have considered slavery to be unsavoury. “But few felt the injustice keenly enough, or were sufficiently resolute to do anything about it. Granville was one of those rare individuals who is able to break free from the inertia of the status quo, and effect great change.”

The great social campaigner William Wilberforce MP, leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, paid tribute to Granville for all his early work. Wilberforce wrote to Granville: “When I call to mind that I am addressing the gentleman who led the way in this glorious struggle wherein we are engaged, I think I feel towards you somewhat of the respectful reverence of a son: whilst I am sure, I am conscious of all the affection of a brother.”

Granville died in 1813 before the Anti Slavery Law was eventually passed in 1833. Wilberforce died just three days after the law was passed.

Although the book deals significantly with the slave trade it also tells the story of the Sharp family. They were by then four brothers, Granville being the youngest, and three sisters who would achieve exalted positions at the heart of British society. In 1781, the celebrated artist Johan Zoffany featured the family on a musical barge moored on the Thames at Fulham. Granville, in green, is seated centre of the painting with a two-horn instrument.

Speaking this week, Hester said: “I first came across the Sharp family at the Zoffany (1779-81) exhibition at the Royal Academy in March 2012. I went to the exhibition almost on a whim having seen a poster on the up escalator in a Tube station. Zoffany’s group portrait of the family, which shows the seven Sharp siblings playing musical instruments on a barge on the Thames, enthralled me.

“I have always been fascinated by large families, and the Sharps caught my imagination. I began to research their story that evening when I got home.”

Zoffany’s The Sharp Family portrait is currently on loan to the National Gallery.

  • The Good Sharps: The Brothers and Sisters Who Remade their World. By Hester Grant, Chatto & Windus, £25

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