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■  The Drax Hall estate in central Barbados

Shaftesbury and the Harris family of Salisbury. He was born probably in 1693. His father Thomas Drax had inherited Barbadian plantations, along with properties in Yorkshire and Hertfordshire, from his uncle. Before 23 December 1719, Henry Drax married his first cousin Elizabeth, the daughter and heir of a baronet. They had three sons and five daughters, and they chose to live at Charborough in Dorset, the seat of Elizabeth’s grandfather General Thomas Erle (1650-1720), who was a Member of Parliament. Drax himself was MP for the nearby borough of Wareham (1718-22) and then represented Lyme Regis (1727-34), a port from which slaving ships had sailed. He was returned for Wareham again in 1734 and held that seat until 1748, and again from 1751 until his death. Drax collected music and long maintained an interest in it, lending scores on occasion to his friends (a letter of 1739 from him to James Harris requests the return of a Handel work). The year before his appointment as secretary to Frederick, Prince of Wales, Drax wrote to Harris in expectation of seeing him ‘in town this winter [;] Hendel’s Messiah will I dare say occasion me that satisfaction’.

Handel used his savings and profits from investments in the South Sea Company to fund his own seasons of operas and oratorios. In 1732, a season before the ruinous competition with the Opera of the Nobility began, he cashed in his stocks and placed the money with the Bank of England. In the five seasons from then until 1737 he spent all but £50 of the original £2,300 deposit. The expenses for each opera season during those years were between £9,000 and £11,000, and ticket sales, subscriptions and support from the royal family never fully covered them.

Sixty years on we need a different indicator to gauge the slave economy involvement of opera subscribers. By comparing the records of compensation provided to British plantation and slave owners when slavery in British colonies was abolished in the 1830s, now available as the online database Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, with the list of opera subscribers during 1789-94 as given by Milhous, Dideriksen and Hume in the second volume of their Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-Century London, we can ascertain the facts. Given the 40-year difference and the likelihood of purchases and sales of property during that time, and the weakness of matching by name only, we can be less certain that all the correct matches have been made. Of the 438 families who subscribed to the opera in the early 1790s, 113 (26 per cent) appear to have still been owners of Caribbean estates in the 1830s.

Opera, December 2015


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