The Furor Over the Cambridge Slave Trade Inquiry Proves Why It is Needed

Photograph Source: McAnt – CC BY-SA 3.0

The outrage expressed by various establishment figures and institutions at the decision by Cambridge University to hold a two-year inquiry into its historic links to the slave trade demonstrates the continuing sensitivity and relevance of the topic.

Critics of the inquiry claim that such focus on slavery is simply bowing to a trend, the suggestion being that there is little to be regretted and to apologise for. The Times has a leader with the flippant title “Slave to Fashion”, quoting with approval the conservative historian Elie Kedourie as saying that a common fault of the great powers is “imaginary guilt”.

A clutch of letters in the same newspaper make similar claims about the inquiry, one writer wondering if the issue is being raised “at a time when western mistreatment of the ‘colonised’ is news”. Others believe that much can be excused because racist opinions were common in the past, citing Charles Darwin as an example.

The very volume and venom of the abuse of Cambridge over its inquiry is proof, if such were needed, that the British role in the slave trade remains a highly contentious topic which stirs deep feelings. Of course, it is splendidly, if absurdly, self-contradictory for commentators who accuse Cambridge of unnecessarily raising a dead issue to then write thousands of furious words arguing why Britain’s role in the slave trade has no significance in the modern world. An explanation for the near-hysterical reaction is probably that the critics view Britain’s past role in the world as benign and respond with hostility to anybody they see as besmirching it. A fallback position for them is to say that, bad though slavery may have been, it all happened a long time ago so why rake up dead embers of the past?

This defensive gambit depends rather on those who it aims to convince to be ill-informed about the horrors of slavery and unable to understand why it has left a living legacy with profound influence on the contemporary world.

One way of evoking the terrible evils of slavery is to remember that its crimes were repeated very recently by Isis when they enslaved, raped and murdered thousands of members of the Yazidi community whom they had captured in Iraq in 2014.

Conditions endured on the slave plantations of the Caribbean and the American South were very similar to those suffered by the Yazidis. It is an insult, explained but not excused by ignorance, to pretend that Cambridge’s concern about who benefited from their sufferings is a whim of fashion, as irrelevant as the policies of the Roman emperors or Henry VIII.

One of the best-informed and most shocking contemporary accounts of the true nature of slavery in the 18th century is by James Ramsay, a Scottish surgeon formerly in the Royal Navy who became a clergyman in St Kitts and Nevis where he treated slaves on the sugar plantations. I first heard about him and started to read his writings some 12 years ago when a relative told me that Ramsay was my direct ancestor seven generations back. He had spent 19 years in St Kitts before returning to England where he wrote in detail about the appalling conditions of the slaves in a book, which he published in 1784 with the deceptively mild title An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies. It was widely read, the Dictionary of National Biography calling Ramsay “the single most important influence in the abolition of the slave trade”.

He is convincing because he was an expert eyewitness for many years to the merciless savagery with which the slaves on the sugar plantations were mistreated. He wrote how “a half-starved negro, may, for breaking a single cane, which probably he himself has planted, be hacked to pieces with a cutlass”. He speaks of his anguish at being able to do so little to help the half-starved overworked men, women and children dressed in rags who were forced to work in the cane fields. He describes how a cart whip wielded by an experienced slave driver “cuts out flakes of skin and flesh with every stroke”.

The book gives an account of the relentless routine of overwork and punishment on the plantations, where slaves were worked until they died or were disabled. Ramsay writes that “the discipline of the plantation is exact as that of a regiment; at four o’clock in the morning the plantation bell rings to call the slaves into the fields”.

The slaves, who were bought for £60 each, would then work for 16 hours or more to cut the cane, bring it to the mill and boil it until it turned into sugar. Every so often, the machinery in the mill “grinds off a hand, or an arm, of those drowsy worn down creatures”.

The punishment inflicted on slaves on the British-owned plantations in the Caribbean were all too similar to the way in which Isis murdered or mutilated their Yazidi slaves.

One surgeon was asked by a judge to amputate the limb of a slave but refused to do so according to Ramsay, answering “that he was not obliged to be the instrument of another man’s cruelty. His Honour then had it performed by a cooper’s adze, and the wretch was then left to bleed to death, without attention or dressing.”

Isis notoriously raped and sold as sex slaves Yazidi women and this again was a feature of plantation life on St Kitts. Ramsay says that slave women were “sacrificed to the lust of white men; in some instances, their own fathers”, while their mistresses earned pin-money by hiring out as prostitutes the slave girls who tended them.

It is worth appreciating, when watching a romanticised view of slavery in a film like Gone with the Wind, that a real life Scarlett O’Hara on a slave plantation might be supplementing her income by hiring out her female slave for sex.

Ramsay was born in 1733 in Fraserburgh near Aberdeen and had trained as a doctor before joining the Royal Navy as a surgeon. He first saw slavery up close in 1759 when the man-of-war he was on boarded a slave ship called The Swift sailing from Africa to Barbados. Boarding the vessel, he was appalled to find 100 sick slaves lying in a mixture of blood, vomit and excreta.

On his return to Britain, Ramsay trained as an Anglican clergyman and three years later took over two livings in St Kitts. The plantation owners welcomed his skills as a doctor but were enraged to discover that he opposed slavery and allowed slaves into his church. Strongly supported by friends in the navy, he remained in St Kitts until 1781 when he returned to Britain where he became the vicar of a small church in Teston, outside Maidstone in Kent, where he wrote his book.

Contrary to the claims by the present-day critics of the Cambridge inquiry that racist views on slaves were all pervasive in the past, Ramsay wrote that in terms of intellect slaves “show no signs of inferiority to Europeans”. There is plenty of guilt for the inquiry to explore, none of it imaginary.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.


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