Britain’s Slavery Legacy

When giving lectures at universities around the UK last summer, one of my priorities when at a conference near Liverpool was to make it to the International Slavery Museum there to learn about this country’s involvement in slavery, to include its role in the transatlantic slave trade.  Indeed, most every culture in the world has a historical tie to one form of slavery or another and one need not search very far when on holiday this summer at any travel destination to educate oneself about this topic.  For instance, Rome’s Coliseum was built by 20,000 Jewish slaves brought to the city by the emperors Vespasian and Titus and in Granada, Christian slaves built the Alhambra.  And you needn’t leave the UK since much of the original city of London was built by British slaves who were later slaughtered by the Romans circa 50CE.

For more than 200 years Britain was the heart of a most lucrative transatlantic human trade which enslaved millions of Africans.   In the 245 years between John Hawkins first voyage and the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, merchants in Britain despatched about 10,000 voyages to Africa for slaves, with merchants in other parts of the British Empire perhaps fitting out a further 1,150 voyages.  Even with the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by Parliament in 1807, slavery was not abolished in the British colonies until the Slavery Abolition Act (1833).  At this point in time, according to the Slave Compensation Commission, the government body established to evaluate the claims of the slave owners, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain.  Between 1562 and 1807, British ships carried up to three million people into slavery in the Americas.  Most bizarrely when slavery was abolished, it was not the slaves who were compensated but the approximately 3,000 British slave owners who received £20m (£1.6bn today) in compensation.

Still, many in the UK today are oblivious to the history of slavery which not only made this country extremely wealthy, it is the paradoxical basis of its affluence at a time when money divided one class from the next as much as the freedom self-determination ascertained who embodied “core British values” and those who simply could not. Terms like “West India merchants” and “West India planter” were common euphemisms for slave trader and slave owner respectively.  Indeed, the relatively recent history of Great Britain is marred by a slavery past that is either not acknowledged or is overlooked in favour of framing a national heritage in terms of the enormous wealth that was leveraged off the backs of slaves.  So what was a cruel trade in human life and the promotion of slavery, thus buttressing a nation’s wealth, has historically been cast within the language of “trade.”

Take the East India Company which manifested Britain’s trading and political control in India and East Asia from 1600 through 1874.  The East India Company served as a springboard to colonial rule in south Asia and became the site of competition between European countries for trade, power and profit leading to the conquest of new territories. The colonisation of the Caribbean and parts of North and South America as well as the development of the transatlantic slave trade was an indication of British wealth along with the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all establishing strong footholds in these areas.

For instance, in 1662 the British established its headquarters on the Gold Coast (today Ghana) a few miles east of Elmina, giving competition to the Dutch who were already in the region. And just one hundred miles south from the mouth of the Senegal River is the island of Gorée where the French had built a fort and extended its colonial presence to the north bank of the Gambia River.  Across the river: a British fort. This area became for many years to follow a conflict zone between the competing colonising powers of France and Great Britain.  So when you look at a map of how African nations are geographically, it is often a sign of where one colonial power had influence over the local people and/or other colonising nations.

And in tandem with slavery labeled as “trade,” the East India Company was directly involved in the East African slave trade and also brought slaves from the west coast of Africa to work on its settlements in South and East Africa, India, and Asia. As well, the father of the future British Prime Minister William Gladstone, Sir John Gladstone, was directly involved in the “importation” of slaves from India, renamed “indentured servants,” to work in his sugar plantations in the West Indies.  Indentured servants in the Caribbean through the mid-19th century not only worked in the landowner’s field for a defined term of bondage (usually four to seven years), but as many as half a million Europeans were taken by force to the Caribbean to work off their bondage, ultimately being paid their “freedom dues.”  In many respects this system functioned as a precursor to the current system which defines an individual’s economic autonomy based upon having been in debt to someone at some point in time. 

While these workers were not paid wages as they were considered to be working to pay off their “debt” to Gladstone (for the “favour” of being tossed into a ship and brought to the Caribbean), the reality is that these people were slaves in everything but name.  More cynically Gladstone and other slave exerted pressure during the drafting of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that permitted slavery inside India and enslavement of Indians for colonial markets operated by the East India Company excluding “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena.” These exceptions were eliminated in 1843.

Colonisation was merely a precursor to contemporary capitalism as nations overtook territories in order to expand their wealth utilising the local labour to mine the oil, petroleum, copper, chromium, platinum and gold.  Slavery and indentured servitude were effectively the world’s first industry and served as the model to later forms of capitalism.  Like mega-wealthy corporations around the world, slavery was actually run by a few hundred families, many of which are the great aristocratic families of Britain with a hidden past in the slave trade (ie. to include the ancestors of Graham Green, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir George Gilbert Scott, David Cameron, and George Orwell).  And because of the exploitation of slaves and resources by the British, slavery has paved the economic heritage of the British economy and the British pound’s stability since 1880.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: