The British Library has added the poet Ted Hughes to a dossier on links to slavery and colonialism based on the actions of an ancestor more than 300 years before his birth.
Despite the poet having humble origins, curators from the Library’s Printed Heritage Collections team have identified Hughes as part of research to find evidence of “connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism” among the former owners of items.
The offending relative is Nicholas Ferrar, born in 1592, whose family was "deeply involved" with the London Virginia Company set up to establish colonies in North America, the research says.
But his descendant Hughes was not born until 1930, in the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd. His family later moved to Mexborough, a town in South Yorkshire where his father ran a tobacco shop. Hughes ended up at Cambridge on a scholarship.
The British Library has also identified Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell in their research – all through far-removed relatives – as part of a bid to become an “actively anti-racist organisation” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The tenuous tarring of Hughes has drawn scorn from experts.
“It’s ridiculous to tar Hughes with a slave trade connection. And it’s not a helpful way to think about writers,” the poet’s biographer Sir Jonathan Bate told The Telegraph.
“Why on earth would you judge the quality of an artist’s work on the basis of distant ancestors?"
Sir Jonathan added that Ferrar was best known as a “priest and a scholar” who funded the religious community Little Gidding made famous by Hughes’ idol TS Eliot.
Hughes, who died in 1998, became famous as a poet examining the brutality of the natural world, and for his marriage to American writer Sylvia Plath.
Dashing romantic poet Lord Byron has been entered on the list thanks to his great grandfather being a merchant who owned an estate in Grenada, and his uncle by marriage who owned a plantation in St Kitts.
Lord Byron has also had his name added to the list because of his great grandfather and an uncle
Credit: Culture Club/Getty
Emily Paterson-Morgan of the Byron Society said: “It is vital to read authors by the standards and values of their time.”
She added that while some research is valuable, it can lead to the “forced politicisation of literature” and “mapping out of more tenuous connections can be reductive”.
Connections logged following the British Library research also include the family of anti-imperialist writer Orwell (Eric Blair). Orwell was born in India to a sub-deputy opium agent in the Bengal government. His great grandfather had been a wealthy slave owner in Jamaica but The Orwell Society has said the money was long gone before the author was born.
Irish aesthete Wilde, born long after abolition, has been logged for his uncle’s interests in the slave trade. The research notes that there is no evidence the author inherited any of the wealth generated.
The publication of the list on the British Library’s website is accompanied with an explanation of the research.
It reads: "Some items now at the British Library, previously owned by particular named figures cited on these pages, are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.
"Curators in the Printed Heritage Collections team have undertaken some research to identify these, as part of ongoing work to interpret and document the provenance and history of the printed collections under our care."
The researchers also reference the National Trust’s work on The Jungle Book creator Rudyard Kipling, noting: “The British Empire was a central theme and context of Kipling’s literary output.”
The research points out that Samuel Taylor Coleridge “expressed anti-slavery views personally and in his poetry. But he is also recorded for his link to his nephew who lived in Barbados and worked closely with those running slaved-worked estates.
The British Library has been contacted for comment.