Whenever one engages a white British individual in dialogue about the Transatlantic slave trade, you are guaranteed to hear one or more of the standard, practiced responses that are surely by now an inbuilt part of the genetic make-up of the citizens of this United Kingdom. The first usually goes something like, ‘all European nations were engaged in the trade’. The second, ‘but it was Africans who were selling Africans to the Europeans’. And the third, almost invariably accompanied by a smug expression, ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade’.
Whilst none of these are factually incorrect statements, they lack a fundamental comprehension of the context surrounding them that displays a terrifyingly wilful ignorance of reality from those who speak them. It is the context of those statements that will be addressed here.
It is true that slavery has existed since before we have the historical records to document it. Whilst there has been debate over the extent of their role in various historical events, such as the construction of the pyramids, it is fairly irrefutable that civilisation marched forward, built upon the backs of the oppressed, for several millennia. That is not to say that all slaves were treated equally; the Romans provide a number of examples of slaves who were in positions of great power throughout society, whilst simultaneously dishing out harsh treatment such as routine rape and torture of their human property.
Fast-forwarding to the early years of the European slave industry, and it was the Portuguese and Spanish who kicked things off by setting up trading posts on the west coast of Africa, and sending captured individuals to their colonies in South America. Not to be outdone, the Dutch, French, Italians, and pretty much any nation with the capacity to build ships got in on the game. The British were, of course, as usual a little late to the whole colonial-imperialism party, but they soon caught up on the action. It is thought that John Hawkins was the first Englishman to undertake a slave-trading voyage; from 1564 to 1569 it is estimated that he transported around 1100 Africans across the Atlantic. This might sounds like an enormous number, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the five millions of individuals that Britain alone transported from Africa to the Americas, and an even smaller percentage when compared to the estimated twelve million total. Added to the 10-15% of those who died during passage and were unceremoniously dumped overboard, and the babies who were born into slavery, this is a truly staggering figure. There is no denying that most European countries played their part in adding individuals to this total, but Britain and Portugal alone are calculated to have been responsible for around 70% of this trade, with Britain transporting over eight hundred thousand slaves in a single 25-year period between 1751 and 1775. In fact, with impending abolition, in the twenty years prior to 1808, Britain sent more slaves across the Atlantic annually than any nation had done previously. This does not excuse the other European nations for their part in this barbaric system, but it certainly highlights the ridiculous nature of those who seek to downplay the role of the British in this heinous activity.
For those who look to the USA as a means of excusing the British role in the North Atlantic slave trade, their total number of transportations was ten times less than their former imperial masters.
On to the next point. And it will be brief.
Any person who enslaved another was complicit in the Transatlantic slave trade, be they white European, or Black African. However, most individuals, given the choice between more power and more wealth, or a musket shot in the back of the head, would choose the former over the latter. One is welcome to be an idealist about this, and say that those Africans who participated in the slave trade should have taken the musket shot instead (and I am sure some will have done), but I will not condemn a person for choosing life. Particularly when their place in the industry would simply have been filled by another person. The machine of slavery was driven by European supply-and-demand, financed by European wealth, and enforced by superiority and might of European weaponry. There is little that an individual African, or indeed an African nation, could have done at this point in their history to counter this. For proof, one must only look to other complex and developed civilisations, the Aztecs, the Inca, Mughal India, Imperial China, and see what happened to them when a European nation desired to impose its will.
So to our final point. The British Empire abolished the slave trade. And forgive the abandonment of professionalism for a paragraph or so.
Of all of the decontextualised tripe that is spouted about the British role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and its eventual end, this is one that causes my blood pressure to rise the most. Of course, for many, this is the direct result of their education; until relatively recently, anything and everything British-related was taught through a rose-tinted lens, and a whilstfull sadness, shrouded in a post-imperial malaise. The Empire did nothing but good. ‘We gave them the railways!’, or ‘but where would they have been without the British Empire?’ You get the point. The shiny, glossed-over horrors of multiple genocides, economic devastation, racism, brutality, and of course, slavery, are ignored in the delicious imagery of Britannia striding forward bringing peace and civilisation to the world. Our slave owners were surely gentlemen who lived their lives with a misty-eyed romanticism, on beautiful plantations, who fed, housed, and cared for their chattel property. Let us forget that slave-owners such as Thomas Thistlewood wrote gleefully in their diaries about the times that they punished their slaves by tying them down and, ‘shitting in their mouth’s’. Or taking a pregnant woman, fastening her belly-down upon a plank, lashing her until her bone showed through, and leaving her there in the Jamaican mid-day sun. Of course we want to ignore this; the British were too civilised for such behaviour. Except that they weren’t.
Which brings us around to our final quote; ‘ah, but the British Empire abolished the slave trade!’
Yes. There were two acts of parliament that brought about the end of the slave trade within the British Empire. In 1807, the trading of human beings was prohibited (though one was still permitted to continue owning slaves already in their possession), and in 1833, a second act was passed abolishing slavery altogether. Hurrah! Aren’t the Brits wonderful, and kind, and liberal, and all of those other lovely adjectives. Except for a couple of things.
Although it is right to say that there were various abolition movements, such as the Sugar Boycotts, prior to the 1807 act, they had relatively little affect upon the governments of the time. It wasn’t until the Act of Union in 1800, bringing 100 Irish MPs into the House of Commons to shift the balance in favour of abolition. Even then, it was no certainty. There was no moral will to see the practice of slavery come to an end. Instead, it was an economic argument that won the day. Ever since Adam Smith wrote his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, the cumbersome mercantilist policies of the British Empire had come under question, and a desire to replace them with a laissez-faire style of governance had arrived, with the philosophy that minimal central intervention of the markets would provide the greatest opportunity for the greatest number of people to acquire the greatest amount of wealth. However, unwilling to abandon its symbol of imperial prestige – the Empire – entirely, Britain mashed up various political philosophies and spluttered into the nineteenth century not really sure what to do about the rest of the world. Laissez-faire required markets into which to sell manufactured goods, but of course we did not want to open up our borders to competition – that would be a disaster! Yet, there simply wasn’t an overseas market within the Empire big Enough to drive demand for manufactured products. In short, it was considered that there was more profit to be made in manufacturing goods and selling to an emancipated empire, than using free labour to create raw materials.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
It did not go unnoticed by a new class of capitalists, that around the Empire were thousands upon thousands of individuals who currently had no purchasing power; they were not a potential market for goods, because they had no money with which to buy them. However, if this unwaged population could be transformed into consumers within the Empire, all of the questions of how to implement laissez-faire, whilst retaining the Empire, would be resolved. The economic argument was persuasive, and as history shows, it did win out in the end. However, the ancient mercantilist system did not go away without a fight.
We must remember that all of this was occurring at a time when democracy was not defined by every person having the right to vote. It was restricted to the wealthy, land-owning classes. Almost exclusively men. So for those, predominately women, who had arranged abolitionist movements such as the Sugar Boycotts, they could not simply vote their way to seeing their goals come to fruition. To compound the issue, consider who, within Britain, might have owned slaves. Of course, it was those who had the right to vote. Nobody in their right mind would vote away their source of income, wealth, and power on the basis of, what was considered to be, a moral ambiguity at worst.
Yet, the old money had a problem; a new and emerging breed of capitalists. They had the wealth and land-holding to satisfy the conditions necessary to be granted the right to vote. And they wanted change. Alongside their new Irish allies within the House of Commons, they created a tipping-point within parliament, where any vote on the subject of slavery truly was in the balance. So how could they win their argument; how could they see their economic fantasies come to life? Well, they would appeal not to the hearts or minds of the old money, but to their pockets.
A truly monumental program of compensation was proposed for British slave-owners in order to bribe them into accepting abolition. And, for the most part, it worked. 1807 Act, 1833 Act, hey presto. Done and dusted. The story is over. In a manner of speaking. Many slave owners simply could not accept what was coming to pass. They petitioned the government, demanding additional cash in order to set their property free. There are detailed records of correspondence between individuals and the department set up to deal with compensation claims in which elderly widows pleaded their case to be given more money, because they simply could not cope without their slaves in the Caribbean providing them a source of income. It was ultimately a futile effort, as compensation was dealt with in a uniform manner, but it demonstrates the mindset of those who could not let go of their power. The compensation package was so monumentally huge that it accounted for a staggering 40% of the British Treasury’s entire annual income – the largest expenditure ever undertaken by a British government. To put this into context, it took Britain 61 years to pay off its Second World War debts. Yet it took 182 years to pay off its slavery compensation bill. Britain had to be bribed to the value of a debt that would take nearly two centuries to pay off in order to unwind itself from the brutality of its slave system. But we have still not reached the end of our story.
Britain may have been the first major empire to leave behind its slave trade, however it continued to profit enormously from the existing global system.
The powerhouse of the British industrial economy, Manchester’s Cottonopolis, still required raw materials. From whom would it purchase its raw materials? Our partner across the sea, the USA. Britain consumed vast quantities of raw materials from slave-owning nations in order to power its new capitalist economic machine. And although it nominally condemned nations for not following in its abolitionist footsteps, no real pressure was exerted upon others to follow suit. Indeed, when civil war broke out within the USA, the majority of wealthy British individuals supported the slave-owning Confederacy of Southern States, and trade with it continued unabated. Hardly the actions of a newly morally-enlightened people.
So, Britain can hardly be applauded for its role in abolishing slavery. But there is one final point that simply must be addressed before concluding.
To praise Britain for abolishing slavery is to ignore one absolutely crucial point; slavery is an evil practice. Therefore, to offer congratulatory applause is suggesting that something extraordinarily magnanimous took place. However, that simply is not the case. It was not ‘kind’ to free the slaves; it should be considered a basic behaviour. Yet there is an adulation reserved for the 1833 Act that is simply not deserved; we should surely focus solely on the cruel and barbaric activity that went before, and look upon 1833 as a return to what should be normality.
Any other way of perceiving British actions in relation to this system would be like, for instance, if a police officer had kneeled on the neck of an individual for eight minutes and forty six seconds, followed by a crowd applauding him for finally doing the right thing by removing it, two minutes after the individual had already suffocated to death.