1783 (Or '84): British MP, Art Collector and Slave-owning Abolitionist Is Born

Ralph Bernal coped with his moral dilemma by supporting other countries’ anti-slavery movements while opposing abolition efforts in Britain.

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François Briot, dish, Pewter with cast reliefs, France, ca. 1585, bought by London's Victoria and Albert Museum from the Bernal collection in 1855.
François Briot, dish, Pewter with cast reliefs, France, ca. 1585, bought by London's Victoria and Albert Museum from the Bernal collection in 1855.Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

October 2, 1783 (or 1784) is the birthdate of Ralph Bernal, a longtime member of the British Parliament who preceded his political career with a theatrical one and followed it with one as a collector of antique ceramics, plates and miniatures, and as president of the British Archaeological Society.

Although he was baptized at age 7 and raised in the Anglican Church, Ralph Bernal was the scion of a distinguished Sephardi family with its origins in Seville. His father was Jacob Israel Bernal, a born merchant with holdings in Jamaica. Jacob Israel’s father, also named Jacob Israel and also a merchant, had left London’s Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, Bevis Marks, in a huff after its membership humiliated him when he married a woman of German-Jewish background. According to James Picciotto, author of the 1875 “Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History,” the congregation’s clergy and lay leadership boycotted the ceremony, the groom was not called to the Torah on the eve of his wedding and “no offerings or ‘misheberach’ were to be made for his health.”

If the senior Jacob Israel Bernal demonstrated his pique by leaving the synagogue, his namesake went one large step further and left the faith. Before doing so, however, he wrote a letter to the leadership of Bevis Marks, Picciotto records, comparing its members to the Portuguese Inquisition “in the art of torturing the sensibility of religious men.”

Despite his apparent abandonment of the Jewish faith, Jacob Israel Bernal married a Jewish woman, Leah da Silva, of Spanish-Portuguese descent, and they had their son Ralph circumcised at the age of eight days, following Jewish tradition. It was only as an adult, in 1805, that Ralph was baptized.

Bernal was educated at the Rev. John Hewlett’s School, and then at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he attained the rank of 11th wrangler, meaning he graduated with 11th-best academic record. He was trained as a lawyer, but decided to forgo a career as one, so that, he later explained, “there should be no temptations, no baits, to lure him from an honest course.”

Instead, Bernal set out on a career as a politician, benefiting from his youthful experience as a Shakespearean actor. From 1818 to 1852, he served as a Whig MP for three different constituencies – Lincoln, Rochester and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis. He was noted for the large amount of his personal fortune he spent on pursuing election over his career — 66,000 pounds sterling, at the time an extraordinary sum.

According to various biographies, Bernal was in the difficult position of being morally troubled by the institution of slavery, on one hand, and of being a slave owner, on the other, having inherited his father’s three sugar plantations in Jamaica. He dealt with this dilemma by supporting the abolition of slavery in other countries, while opposing efforts to eliminate Britain’s role in the slave trade. He even published a pamphlet outlining the rationale for his position, in which he argued, according to the History of Parliament Online, that abolition in Jamaica needed to be preceded by “long-term educational and religious improvement of the slaves prior to any attempted emancipation.”

Although he did not identify as Jewish, Bernal supported legislation that would remove from Britain’s Jews their legal “disabilities,” restrictions that prevented their full participation in society.

After retiring from Parliament, in 1852, Bernal became president of the British Archaeological Society, based on his being a prominent collector of plates, glass and ceramics. His collection, more than 4,000 pieces, was sold at auction after his death for over 70,000 pounds.

Bernal’s first wife, Anne Elizabeth White, was the mother of Ralph Bernal Osborne, who took the name Osborne when he married the daughter of a baronet of that name, and of Charles Bernal, who became a clergyman in the Church of England. Ralph Osborne also became a longtime MP, in his case from the Liberal Party. After Anne’s death in a fire, in 1823, Bernal married a second time, and apparently fathered another child.

Bernal died on August 26, 1854, after a brief illness.

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