Britain’s lousy record on slavery

Edward Colston's plinth

JVL Introduction

Historian Dr Michael Taylor has spent a decade reaching two political campaigns on the 1820s and 1830s: the first to abolish colonial slavery, the second to defend it.

In an article for the Guardian he shows that most of the “giants” of British political life were at that time ardently pro-slavery: George Canning, John Peel, the Duke of Wellington, even William Gladstone.

As Taylor puts it: “The West India interest was not simply supported by ‘the establishment’; it was the establishment.”

This article was originally published by the Guardan on Sat 20 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

Britain's role in slavery was not to end it, but to thwart abolition at every turn

Contrary to our view of history, pro-slavery thinking in the 1820s and 30s was the norm, from politicians to monarchs

Boris Johnson has proclaimed that to remove offensive statues – whether of Bristolian slave traders or his own heroes – would be “to edit or censor our past” and “to lie about our history”. But when it comes to slavery and abolition, we have been doing that for centuries.

Over the last 10 years, initially as a PhD student then as a lecturer and scholar, I have been researching two political campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s: the first to abolish colonial slavery, the second to defend it. You may think that these campaigns are well-trodden paths on Britain’s national journey, but they are not.

For one thing, these campaigns should not be confused with the abolition of the slave trade. Although William Wilberforce ascended to the British pantheon when parliament abolished the trade in 1807, this did nothing to remedy the plight of the more than 700,000 Africans who remained in bondage in the colonies. At the time, Wilberforce himself declared that “before [slaves] could be fit to receive freedom, it would be madness to attempt to give it to them”.

It was not until 1823, 16 years later, that the British campaign to emancipate colonial slaves in fact began. Even then, it took another 10 years – and a great deal of pain, luck, and several momentous slave rebellions – to force emancipation through parliament. The intervening decade should teach us several important lessons about the truth of British history.

Certainly, the idea that Britain was “first” to abolish slavery is laughable nonsense. Revolutionary France abolished slavery in 1794 and Haiti declared it illegal in 1804. Vast swathes of Spanish America beat Britain to the punch, too. Even in the United States, where slavery would plunge the Union into crisis in the 1860s, abolitionism had swept the northern states long before the British campaign for emancipation had even been conceived.

Moreover, as much as we may wish to celebrate the humanitarian aspects of British history, we need to face the uncomfortable truth that until Britons started congratulating themselves for abolishing slavery, it was thought perfectly acceptable to promote the same. Slaveholders such as Edward Colston have become figureheads for today’s anti-racism activists, but he and men like him were merely cogs in a much wider machine of oppression, injustice and brutality which defined Britain’s relationship with Africa and the Caribbean.

Nor did British slaveholders wilt in the face of emancipationist pressure. Directed by the fearsome “West India interest” – which counted dozens of MPs, peers, and commercial grandees among its members – pro-slavery mobs attacked voters who had the temerity to support abolitionist candidates; in the West Indies, they tarred and feathered missionaries who dared preach freedom. And at the rhetorical level, the British pro-slavery campaign of the 1820s and 1830s used parliament, press, and the pulpit to promulgate theories of the utmost repugnance.

In public lectures, in bestselling books, and in the Times and Spectator, the interest and its allies insisted that the Bible condones slavery (because it does), that enslavement to cultured British planters was “civilising” the African, that protecting slave-grown sugar with tariffs was essential to national prosperity, and that nothing should be done for enslaved Africans before domestic poverty was considered first. The last of these arguments was the direct ancestor of present-day opposition to foreign aid and international development.

We cannot dismiss the men who made these arguments as kooks on the lunatic fringe. Besides the wealthy planters and merchants whose livelihoods depended on slavery, not to mention their friends in the conservative press, the defence of British colonial slavery involved most of the “great men” of the day. Their statues now decorate the parliamentary estate.

As foreign secretary and then as prime minister, George Canning was a titan of European diplomacy. Yet he sought desperately to prevent British campaigners from pressing the issue of emancipation. He used racist epithets to disparage plans for manumission. And in 1824, he urged parliament to refrain from freeing colonial slaves by comparing “the African” to Frankenstein’s monster.

Robert Peel was a transformative home secretary who re-founded the Conservative party in his own image before sacrificing his career to the repeal of the Corn Laws. Yet he was a pillar of parliamentary resistance to slave emancipation. In one speech he stated that “moral improvement … alone” could prepare Africans for freedom. In another, he drew parliament’s attention to the great problem of amalgamating “two distinct and separate races” in a free society.

William Gladstone later became the paragon of the liberal political tradition, but in the 1820s he believed that slavery was not “necessarily sinful”. First elected to parliament for Newark, Gladstone ran as an explicitly pro-slavery candidate.

And what of the Duke of Wellington? He was the hero of Waterloo and, as prime minister, he suborned his own principles to pass Catholic emancipation. Yet he was the most ardently pro-slavery politician of the 19th century and historians know that he stood “four-square” behind the West India interest.

King William IV was no better. He had sailed to the colonies as a younger man and believed the slaves to exist in a state of “humble happiness”; he deemed it “impolitic and unjust to abolish the slave trade”, an enterprise which employed “immense capital” and was “highly beneficial to this country”. He thought freedom “would reduce [the slaves] from a state of comparative ease & Comfort to one of misery & Starvation, & would ruin the Proprietors”.

The West India interest was not simply supported by “the establishment”; it was the establishment. For too long, Britain has quarantined the atrocities of slavery at the distance of several thousand miles and several hundred years. It cannot do so any longer.

• Dr Michael Taylor is a historian. His book The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery will be published in November

Comments (5)

  • RC says:

    Anti-Slavery International estimates that considerably more than 13,000 cases of slavery took place in 2018; considerably more because the 13,000 figure must be a great under-estimate in view of the illegality of the practice in itself and the allegedly ‘illegal’ status of the – usually trafficked or otherwise kidnapped – victims, understandably therefore fearful of the menace of the police and immigration authorities, and, further, the small scale of individual operations.
    It is therefore arguable that there are more slaves in the UK this year than there have ever been before, even under the Romans. Their conditions are made worse by the widespread hatred of immigrants carefully whipped up by Labour and Tory parties alike (not forgetting the LibDems’ help – as well as Labour’s -with the 2014 Immigration Act ).
    Is it not high time that the LP showed some principle in exposing this scandalous situation and engaged in widespread agitation by our membership, among the customers (often unwitting) of the slaveholders, in such apparently innocuous retail outlets as nailers. The victims must be given immunity from prosecution, even when their owners’ trade is illegal – in, for example, the cultivation of cannabis; they work under duress. Even those most hostile to immigrant labour – such as, for example, Gordon Brown with his BNP-style slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’ – must be persuaded, perhaps by pointing out that the conditions of enslaved labour depress those of free labour; and the harsher the immigration controls, the worse will be the conditions of the ‘illegal’ migrants, an unavoidable product of gross inequalities on a world scale – and driven also by imperialist wars against Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and probably Iran….and who knows where else.
    The UK should offer assured citizenship to all those held in slavery within the UK and guaranteed protection against the depredations of the Home Office, together with abolition of the hostile (Sajid Javid’s ‘compliant’) environment.
    Otherwise LP support for Black Lives Matter will be transparent hypocrisy and unworthy of any trust.

  • Anti-fascist says:

    What’s the “Guardian”? How does one subscribe?

  • RC says:

    “Britain’s role” is an obfuscatory phrase. In his Weekly Worker article of March 2007, Michael McNair points out that agitation against slavery was a class issue at least until the 1860s, when the Lancashire textile workers supported the boycott (oops, excuse me for the naughty word!) of US slave-produced cotton, which was their livelihood…. “St” William Wilberforce, by contrast, introduced the first Combination Act against trades unions….

    Earlier on,
    At the beginning of the workers’ movement
    At this last point – the press gangs – Hochschild has approached closer to the truth, though he insists that “press victims were not only from the working class” (p223). The press gangs were by no means the only way in which British capital sought to use forced labour. Convicts were ‘transported’ to the colonies. Some of the early cotton mills, for example, were supplied by the children of the poor, bound to compulsory ‘apprenticeships’ by Poor Law authorities; justices of the peace had power to fix maximum wages, which they routinely exercised; it was an offence for an agricultural labourers to leave their employer before their contractual term was up.

    The other side of the coin, however, was that by 1600, the British economy was dominated by wage-labour, in agriculture as well as in the limited but growing industries. In the 18th century there was a massive growth of towns; and among the artisans differentiation between the proto-capitalist masters and the proto-proletarian perpetual journeymen. Anti-slavery united both wings; but it was the towns, and especially the artisan classes, which provided the campaign with its mass base.
    Anti-slavery began before the launch of the formal campaign in 1787. Anti-slavery campaigning was already around on a smaller scale in the 1760s in the run-up to the 1772 decision in Somersett v Stewart that chattel slavery proper did not exist as a matter of English law.24 Earlier traces are harder to find, since the political elite was more firmly in control of ‘public opinion’ before the 1760s. But the traces are there. One aspect is the evidence of resistance, cutting across the categories of ‘enslaved’ and ‘free’, collected in Linebaugh and Rediker’s The many-headed hydra (2000).

    Another trace of a very different sort is the evidence of law-cases well before Somersett v Stewart, which focus on the question whether chattel slavery can exist as part of English law, and provide contradictory answers: Gelly v Cleve in 1693, Chamberlaine v Harvey in 1696, Smith v Browne in 1702-5, Smith v Gould in 1706; the need of the slave-owners to obtain an opinion of the attorney general and solicitor general in 1729 which baldly asserted that slavery was lawful, and the decision in Black’s /Cartor’s Case in 1732 that an alleged slave could obtain habeas corpus; lord chancellor Hardwicke’s assertion that slavery was a part of English law in Pearne v Lisle (1749) and lord chancellor Northington’s flat denial that it was in Shanley v Harvey (1762).25
    Legal conflicts of this sort are not produced where there is a real social or political consensus over a question – as Hochschild, and many authors, suppose there was before the 1780s. It seems more likely that the ‘consensus’ for slavery before the 1760s is like the ‘consensus’ for ‘market reform’ today: a product of corrupt control of politics and the media which leaves a large part of society grumbling but without a loud political voice.

    The other side of this coin is that anti-slavery in Britain commonly rose to high points after slave strikes and revolts in the colonies. This was true in the 1730s, 1760s, 1780s, 1800s and 1830s.
    In short, the objective material basis for anti-slavery was growing through the 18th century with the increase both of slavery in the colonies and of the propertyless working class at home. This trend was able to become more than a submerged grumble because of crises in the class elite’s system of control. In the first place, the two-party system broke up in the late 1750s-60s into a confused mess of factions. In the second, the military defeat in the American Revolution at least temporarily suppressed British empire triumphalism.

    Anti-slavery, though the formal campaign was led by christians, was at the end of the day about solidarity of the workers – in their simple capacity as humans – across the legal borders of freedom and unfreedom, the geographical borders of the countries, and the boundaries of race. It remained a fundamental element of the politics of the emerging workers’ movement as late as the 1860s, when British trade unionists’ actions in solidarity with the northern, anti-slavery, side in the American civil war were to provide the basis for the creation of the First International.

    The movement’s fundamental lessons for us today are simple: the international unity of the class movement, and its role as the standard-bearer of all humanity. The government’s commemoration projects serve to bury this history and these lessons in providing a heritage-industry back-up to multiculturalism and the promotion of ‘faith groups’. Indeed, they may also serve – as Aaronovitch shows – to promote what Gott calls “sanctimonious interventionism”. But the way to oppose these projects is precisely to retrieve and renew the lessons of the early history of the workers’ movement.

  • Mark Francis says:

    One of the worst aspects of abolition was that the ex slaves received no compensation. This was part of the promised package by Lincoln but was reneged upon by his successor, Johnson. It is not much of a deal if you are set free to be homeless & to starve. The only option was to go back to the same situation on the same, if not worse terms- which is why those inequalities are continually revisited.

  • Having twice read Adam Hochschild’s book “Bury the Chains”, I find Taylor a bit misleading when he says that that the anti-slavery campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s “should not be confused with the abolition of the slave trade”. In reality they were part and parcel of the same movement.

    The campaign to end slavery really started with the Quakers in the colonies (notably Pennsylvania) and the UK, but these had first to eliminate the practice among their own members – with the ultimate sanction of expulsion. In 1783, they started promoting abolition among the wider British public, but encountered a problem; they were a small group, typically seen as oddballs in plain cloth and speaking in ‘thee and thou’, and couldn’t gain traction. They did however make contact with Anglicans who eventually provided the necessary leadership – with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce emerging as the main figures.

    The mass campaign started in earnest in 1787, involved the landmark Zong (insurance) case, massive publicity, 300K people engaging in a sugar boycott, and all sorts of reversals, before it finally bore fruit in 1807. The resistance was even more massive, but those promoting the abolition of the slave trade saw this as the first step in ending the institution of slavery itself. In practice it was the Quakers who provided Clarkson with his campaigning backbone as he travelled around the country on horseback.

    I think Hochschild would dispute Taylor’s statement that the abolition of the slave trade “did nothing to remedy the plight” of the Africans who remained in bondage in the colonies. Simply cutting off the flow of new slaves meant that slave owners needed to reduce dreadfully high rates of mortality among their existing slave populations.

    When, after the Napoleonic Wars, campaigners took aim at the institution of slavery itself, they again encountered massive resistance from all sorts of establishment figures, and the final outcome was soured by HMG compensating the slave owners rather than the former slave themselves – and the oppressive conditions under which these continued living. However, this does not detract from the heroism of many who, for decades, worked tirelessly to eliminate the horrendous institution. The cases of Granville Sharp, and the women’s leader Elizabeth Heyrick are particularly instructive. I wish those of us who work to end our country’s complicity with the oppression of the Palestinians could do as well.

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