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How the slave trade funded Britain

A new book argues that people-trafficking was once “an essential part of British national life”. 

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Of course,” remarked the prime minister David Cameron in June 2014, “we should teach history with warts and all.” But, he went on, “we should be proud of what Britain has done to defend freedom and develop these institutions – parliamentary democracy, a free press, the rule of law – that are so essential for people all over the world. This is the country that helped fight fascism, topple communism and abolish slavery; we invented the steam engine, the light bulb, the internet; and we also gave so much of the world the way of life that they hold so dear.”

All countries need uplifting narratives about their past and, as Cameron indicated, the abolition of slavery in 1833 is indeed one of Britain’s positive episodes. Yet his throwaway, Cromwellian line about “warts and all” also reminds us that politicians prefer to treat the negative aspects as a few minor blemishes on a glossy portrait.

Michael Taylor has no patience with such sophistry. In this impressive debut book about “how and why Britain transformed itself from a slave-holding superpower into a supposedly ‘anti-slavery nation’” he takes on what he calls one of our country’s “defining moral and political battles”. Slavery wasn’t an abstract issue, in faraway places, it was “an essential part of British national life, as much as the Church of England, the monarchy or the liberties granted by the Glorious Revolution” of 1688. In challenging “the West India Interest”, abolitionists were confronting nothing less than “the establishment” itself.

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This book grew out of a PhD thesis based on pioneering and insightful research into parliamentary debates, archives across the UK and Jamaica, and dozens of pamphlets and periodicals from the time. But The Interest suffers from none of the turgid “documentitis” of the average dissertation. Taylor tells a compelling story, graced with anecdotes but driven by argument, that moves the reader to and fro between London and the Caribbean, and between aristocratic houses and anti-slavery rallies. And he writes not in scholarly detachment but with fierce moral passion about a gross and systematic act of “criminality”.

Taylor vividly evokes the slave revolts in Demarara in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831-32 that shook the Interest’s confidence that its system could endure indefinitely. He documents the impact of writings by former slaves, such as the autobiography of Mary Prince, which dented beneficiaries’ depiction of slaves as a contented peasantry. Taylor also reveals some of the atrocities perpetrated by slave-owners, such as the grotesque career of Thomas Thistlewood, son of a Lincolnshire farmer, who during his 37 years in Jamaica committed 3,852 sexual assaults on 138 black women. Being an educated man, he was pleased to record each assault in schoolboy Latin.

Yet the book’s primary focus is political because, as Taylor emphasises, the abolition of slavery turned to a large extent on events at Westminster. It is there that we must look when assessing David Cameron’s injunction to tell our history with pride, albeit “warts and all”.

First, it is surely correct to underline the impact of the abolitionists’ moral campaign, energised by nonconformists and evangelical Anglicans. Between 1787 and 1792, for instance, mass petitions against the slave trade were signed by 1.5 million people in Britain – almost one-sixth of the country’s population. In the 1830s abolitionist agitation against slavery itself was led by a new generation committed to “immediate, not gradual emancipation”. They organised nationwide lectures in the style of religious revivalist meetings, backed in many larger cities by women’s anti-slavery associations, which engaged in boycotts of West Indian sugar. In 1833 the women collected 187,000 signatures on sheets of vellum, which were brought to London on horseback and laboriously pasted and taped together into two great rolls – one for each house of parliament. Taylor relates how it took four MPs to carry the Commons’ roll into the chamber, prompting guffaws from some members, but in an era long before women’s suffrage, let alone social media, this vast national effort was a potent expression of public anger.

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Yet the success of the anti-slavery cause owed most to fortuitous shifts in the political and international context. The sudden death in 1806 of William Pitt the Younger opened the way for a cross-party coalition (the “Ministry of All the Talents”), which brought into office several influential Tory and Whig politicians – including the veteran radical Charles James Fox – who were committed to abolishing the slave trade. They pushed through the legislation of 1807 that prohibited the slave trade within the empire.

A similar political window opened in 1833. The rift among Tories over Catholic emancipation made possible a Whig ministry under Lord Grey, whose Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished many of the “rotten boroughs” in the pockets of the Interest. At the same time, it enfranchised a swathe of northern cities such as Manchester and Leeds that were centres of nonconformity and had not previously elected any MPs. In the ensuing election, the Tories were routed and it was the Reformed Parliament that voted in 1833 to abolish the slave trade.

Yet votes were not enough; bribery was also vital. To buy off the still-powerful West Indian lobby, some 45,000 British slave-owners received compensation to the tune of £20m – 40 per cent of the government’s annual expenditure. Taylor draws here on the immense project on “Legacies of British Slave-ownership”  – funded in 2009-12 by the Economic and Social Research Council. Its pioneer- ing work has now been embedded in a permanent centre at UCL in London, which is exploring where the money went: how far, for instance, it financed the railway boom. The compensation package was the largest in British history until the bank rescue of 2008 and was finally paid off from the national debt in 2015. Taylor estimates the £20m as worth roughly £340bn as a proportion of government spending today – a sum five times the current GDP of all Britain’s former slave colonies in the Caribbean.

Such was the wealth and credit of imperial Britain at the dawn of the Victorian age that the country could cover the cost of the “Slave Compensation Commission”. But, despite that name, this only reimbursed slave-owners for losing their “property”; it did not compensate the former slaves, some 700,000, for the systematic denial of their freedom. That idea was barely discussed by most abolitionists, who hated the “sin” of slavery but did not consider “negroes” to be their equals. Today, belatedly, the question of “reparatory justice” has become an electric issue – particularly in Caribbean countries, in older British universities and in cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow that, one can only say, prospered mightily from the slave trade. This debate is the theme of Taylor’s final, impassioned chapter.

He notes the statement in 2014 by Cameron’s Foreign Office condemning “the iniquities of the historic slave trade” but insisting that “these shameful practices belong to the past” and adding that, “Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 200 years ago.” These words were written while HM Treasury was still redeeming the loan it had raised in 1835 to pay reparations to former slave-owners.

It is unlikely that our present government, desperately struggling with Covid, devolution and the fallout from Brexit, will have any time for this issue, but slavery can no longer be written out of our national story as a minor wart. It is not proper to celebrate the great moral movement for abolition without acknowledging the profits this country had previously amassed from several centuries of people-trafficking – money that helped fund the commercial and industrial revolutions that made Britain “great”. Or to hail those Elizabethan buccaneers who launched Britannia as ruler of the waves – “heroes” such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake on The Good Ship Jesus in 1564 – without asking what was in their holds. The writing of British history must encompass slave-power, not just sea-power – as Taylor’s scorching book makes clear.

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The familiar narrative is that we “made” the empire and then let it go – willingly or not. In fact, as the intricacies of slavery demonstrate, the empire also made us. And it is still doing so, through immigrants from the Commonwealth and their British-born descendants. Between the census of 1991 – when “ethnicity” first became a category for self-identification – and that of 2011, the “white” ethnic group decreased from 94 per cent of the population of England and Wales to 86 per cent. Some projections suggest that the proportion could be 66 per cent by 2050 as a result of immigration, divergent fertility patterns and intermarriage between ethnic groups. Many British citizens of Commonwealth descent bring to the debate family memories and experiences of empire that differ markedly from the conventional narrative. They are probing that storyline, raising fresh questions and opening new perspectives.

In 2010 David Cameron and Michael Gove lauded Our Island Story – a children’s classic from the Edwardian age, with its sagas of England’s kings and queens. Cameron called it “my favourite book”. Gove told the Tory party conference that “all pupils will learn our island story”. Today, however, in this disunited kingdom, it cannot be doubted that there is more than one island in the UK, each telling several stories. Or that the empire is still making Britain – and changing who “we” are. 

David Reynolds’ latest book is “Island Stories: An Unconventional History of Britain” (HarperCollins)

The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the  Abolition of Slavery 
Michael Taylor
Bodley Head, 400pp, £20

This article appears in the 22 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden