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William Beckford

William Beckford: First Prime Minister of the London Empire

Perry Gauci
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    William Beckford
    Book Description:

    This first-ever biography of William Beckford provides a unique look at eighteenth-century British history from the perspective of the colonies. Even in his own time, Beckford was seen as a metaphor for the dramatic changes occurring during this era. He was born in 1709 into a family of wealthy sugar planters living in Jamaica, when the colonies were still peripheral to Britain. By the time he died in 1770, the colonies loomed large and were considered the source of Britain's growing global power.

    Beckford grew his fortune in Jamaica, but he spent most of his adult life in London, where he was elected Lord Mayor twice. He was one of the few politicians to have experienced imperial growing pains on both sides of the Atlantic, and his life offers a riveting look at how the expanding empire challenged existing political, social, and cultural norms.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19516-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    This book attempts to unscramble one of the most remarkable British lives of the eighteenth century, that of William Beckford. As the epigraph suggests, contemporaries were fascinated by the contrasts his career offered. Born into the riches of the Jamaican plantocracy, he rose to prominence in the mother country as a crusading lord mayor of London, even defying King George III in an audience long remembered by London radicals. Famous in his own time as a fiery speaker, he defended both the historic liberties of Englishmen and the colonists’ right to enslave. A staunch critic of the affectation and corruption...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Torrid Zone
    (pp. 10-29)

    In common with many of the more celebrated architects of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire, Colonel Peter Beckford met an untimely death. Although his life personified many imperial challenges and achievements, no artist thought to commemorate his dramatic passing in the manner of a Wolfe, Cook, or Nelson. Yet his last moments on the Kings Parade in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on 3 April 1710 just as surely reflected the troubled origins of Britain’s global eminence.

    As ever with such dramatic events, accounts of his death vary significantly in their detail, although the circumstances are very clear. Beckford was one of the leaders...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Transatlantic Man
    (pp. 30-50)

    Even after six weeks of journeying across the Atlantic, travelers such as Leslie could still find Jamaica a great disappointment. Leslie’s oft-quoted censure of slavery was somewhat ahead of its time, but even by this stage his criticisms of Jamaican society were general themes of contemporary travel literature relating to the Caribbean. When William Beckford returned to Jamaica in late 1736, he doubtless shared some of Leslie’s misgivings, particularly in the wake of his extensive education in Europe. Leslie’s mournful lament had indeed heralded Britain as “the seat of arts, the nurse of learning, the scene of liberty, and friend...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Fitting In
    (pp. 51-76)

    When William Beckford arrived back in Britain for the first time in some five years, he could have had few illusions about the challenges of building an effective transatlantic interest. For all the recent success of the West India lobby in Parliament, and for all his personal advancement in Jamaican society, he knew that he would face many obstacles as he endeavored to fit into metropolitan society. He arrived at a key juncture, when other West Indian settlers also found opportunity to make an impact in the mother country. While the success of the plantation system would provide the greater...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Empire and Patriotism
    (pp. 77-106)

    Beckford’s words of reassurance to a humble Bristol voter highlight how profoundly he had been influenced by his early experiences of British politics. His embrace of the language of independency placed him firmly in the ranks of opposition, and his respect for the virtue of the middling classes echoed a brand of patriotism that aimed to rid the country of the corruption of government contractors, libertines, and Francophiles. Given the metropolitan currency of Beckford’s views, it was predictable that he would rise to a new stage of prominence in British society, capped by his political alliance with William Pitt beginning...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Friend of Liberty
    (pp. 107-136)

    Beckford’s words are perhaps the most often quoted of any he uttered in his life and encapsulate for historians the importance of the 1760s for establishing his lasting reputation as a radical spokesman, as one of the first and most strident movers for parliamentary reform. In more recent studies, historians have been quick to identify him as a torchbearer for the views of the “people,” a vision that encompassed a broad and ambiguous social canvas and excluded only the aristocracy and the poor. Few scholars, however, have sought to investigate how his conception of society was influenced by his Creole...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Cultural Chameleon
    (pp. 137-163)

    The contrasts between Beckford’s public and private personae were often highlighted by his contemporaries, either to vilify or to vindicate. Critics liked to align his private vices alongside his claims to civic spirit, while supporters championed his learning, generosity, and taste as proof of his public virtue. The efforts made by commentators to disentangle the public from private individual highlighted the degree of press interest in the “great” Beckford and also reflected his social and political advancement on many fronts. Politics so thoroughly coursed through Beckford’s veins that any consideration of the more private man inevitably encompasses the political sphere....

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Apotheosis
    (pp. 164-194)

    The last two years of Beckford’s life saw his British and imperial interests intertwined as never before. Although the identity of those responsible for naming the slaves Wilkes and Liberty remains obscure, their deliberate juxtaposition symbolizes the continued interplay of colonial and metropolitan life in the Alderman’s final months. As his critics had endeavored to do in their name-calling during the 1768 election, Beckford’s pretensions to be the spokesman for fundamental liberties could be severely challenged, and ensuing battles would test his Anglo-Jamaican sensibilities to their utmost. The intense divisions revealed by the Middlesex election and the Boston Massacre forced...

  12. Coda: Reputations
    (pp. 195-206)

    It was inevitable that the first attempts to define Beckford’s legacy should have ended in a contest. Amid the outpouring of grief at the death of the City champion, the corporation’s decision to erect a monument at the Guildhall promised to give that process its most public form. A committee of sixteen was duly appointed to oversee the project, and their ranks included close Beckford associates, such as Arthur Beardmore, the Alderman’s solicitor. This committee advertised for artists to submit designs and received no fewer than seventeen entries over the summer. Only two were chosen for the next round, those...

  13. Appendix 1 : The Alderman’s Immediate Family
    (pp. 208-208)
  14. Appendix 2 : The London Beckfords
    (pp. 209-210)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 211-274)
  16. Bibliography of Manuscript Sources
    (pp. 275-280)
  17. Index
    (pp. 281-290)