A quick history of slavery in Britain: It’s not all abolitionists

If you’re playing free-association games with British history, slavery isn’t the word most likely to pop into your mind, but–sorry, folks–it’s an important part, if a contradictory one, and we don’t get to skip over it. 

Okay, you’re right, a lot of histories do exactly that, but we won’t. Break open a case of self-congratulation if you would.

The slave trade

England’s official involvement in the slave trade began in 1663, when it got royal approval. (Scotland was its own country at this point. We’ll start calling the place Britain in a minute.) The royal in question was Charles II. You know the one: long, curly hair (or wig; what do I know?); mustache; looks a bit like Bob Dylan in his older, creepier phase. He gave the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa a monopoly on transporting slaves from the west coast of Africa to be sold in England’s American colonies. 

Irrelevant photo: Osteospermum

Did he know what he was sanctioning? He’d have been hard put not to. The monopoly was for “the buying and selling, bartering and exchanging of, for, and with any negro slaves, goods, wares and merchandizes whatsoever to be vended or found’ in western Africa.”

That does kind of spell it out.

Over something like 150 years, England was responsible for transporting millions of people into slavery. How many millions? By one estimate, 3.1 million, although only 2.7 million arrived. The rest died in what’s called the middle passage–the trip from Africa to the Americas.  

If you want to translate that to money–and since the slave trade was all about money, we should–between 1630 and 1807 Britain’s slave traders made a profit of about £12 million. In today’s money, that would be–

Okay, grab a calculator and sit down with a nice cup of tea. For the sake of convenience, we’ll use the 1807 pound. A hundred of them would be worth £10,218.33 in 2022. So £12 million of them? To use advanced mathematical terms, that’s a shitload of money. 

Aren’t you glad you had that calculator? Enjoy your tea.

By another estimate, between 1761 and 1807 traders based in British ports sold 1,428,000 captive African people and pocketed £60 million from the transactions, which might translate to £8 billion in 2022 pounds. Yes, it’s a different total. On the other hand, it’s measuring a different aspect of the business. Either way, it’s still a shitload of money.

The colonies and the plantations

England–or Britain once Scotland was folded in–didn’t limit itself to trading in slaves. It established colonies in America and the Caribbean, and their economies depended on slave labor to produce sugar, cotton, coffee, rum, and the miracle drug of the time, tobacco. As a random indicator of how important they were, in 1750, sugar made up a fifth of all Europe’s imports. 

So slavery was a lucrative business, although historians argue about exactly how lucrative. Some will tell you it fueled the industrial revolution. Others will tell you its impact is overestimated. They got to the dress-up box first and and monopolized the historian outfits, so no one’s going to take my opinion seriously, but that won’t stop me: I toss my inconsiderable weight onto the side that says it was a major factor.

What’s certain is that money made from slavery flowed into British industry, that British ports grew rich on the trade, and that banks and insurance companies did business with slave traders and plantation owners and prospered.

But Britain itself didn’t have slavery, did it?

Yes it did. Also no it didn’t.

Once England–or a bit later, Britain–got involved in the slave trade and in the industrial-strength slave system that made American and Caribbean plantations so profitable, it was more or less inevitable that slaveholders would bring their servants when they returned home, and since they’d been slaves at the start of the voyage, they were still slaves once they landed. And again more or less inevitably, the slaveholders would give some of those slaves to relatives as gifts, and sell others. 

There was a difference, though. Slavery didn’t weave its way into the British economy the way it did in the colonies–it was more the embroidery than the cloth itself. Still, that some number of people did hold slaves can be traced through the newspaper ads they placed when their slaves escaped.

That situation held until 1772, when one slave called James Sommersett escaped, was captured, and was put on a ship bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold, but before the ship could sail his case was taken up by an abolitionist and brought to court, which ruled that no English law allowed for one human being to enslave another.

The court freed Sommersett and declared that from there onwards, “as soon as any slave sets foot upon English territory, he becomes free.” 

It was a powerful precedent–and it didn’t apply to the soil of the British colonies. 

So if we draw a nice thick line around Britain itself, we can, in all semi-honesty, do what a fair number of histories do and bounce past the slavery itself to focus on Britain’s Abolitionists. Break out the trumpets. Celebrate.

And they’re worth celebrating. They’re not all entirely pure–who is?–but they kept up what must’ve felt like a hopeless fight for many years. On the other hand, they’re not the whole story and shouldn’t be used to sweeten the taste of Britain’s involvement with slavery.

Some of the tendency to avoid talking about slavery comes from a belief that history is a patriotic exercise that should make people feel good. Slavery, though? Come on, it was such a downer. But history isn’t an energy drink, designed to send you out into the world high on caffeine, carbonation, and patriotism. At its best, it’s an effort to look square in the eye of what was. If we can do that, we’ll also learn a startling amount about what is.

So: Slavery had been abolished only on home turf, and it continued to be an important part not only of the empire but of Britain’s home turf–something we can see not just by looking at the numbers I dragged in earlier but also, oddly enough, by looking at the act that finally abolished it in Britain’s colonies.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 . . . 

. . . extended the ban on slavery to Britain’s colonies, freeing some 800,000 people of African descent–and it ordered payment to their former owners for the loss that caused them. 

Once the country committed to that, though, it had to figure out how much each former slaveholder had lost. So the government set up a commission, which evaluated each claim and, coincidentally, created a detailed picture of who owned how many slaves and what work the slaves did. If you trawl through the records, as historians have been doing lately, you’ll find the ancestors of William Gladstone, David Cameron, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and endless other well-known figures. They’re a reminder of how deeply slavery was woven into not just the country’s economy but into its culture and politics. Many of Britain’s richest families trace their fortunes back  to the slave trade, although not all of them are anxious to do any tracing just now. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable thing to know, let alone acknowledge publicly. But if you find one of those blue plaques that mark historic places and it tells you Sir William Ragbottom was a West India merchant or planter, you’re looking at a fancy phrase for someone who made his money from slavery.

But slavery went deeper than that, because it wasn’t just the great families who were involved. One of the surprises hidden in the archives is the number of small-scale slaveholders the commission recorded–middle class people who didn’t own plantations but owned a few slaves and rented out their labor. These included vicars, manufacturers, and lots of widows, many of whom would’ve inherited slaves from their husbands, along with the clocks and the candlestick holders. I can’t help thinking some financial advisor was running around the country saying, “What could be a safer way to invest your money?”

It wasn’t only safe, it was respectable.

Geographically, slaveholders ranged from Cornwall to the Orkneys, so the association wasn’t limited to the port cities.

By the time the commission was done, it had catalogued every owner who claimed compensation, and every slave, and the government paid out £20 million to the slaveholders for their loss. That was 40% of the government’s 1834 budget and in 2015 would’ve amounted to something like £16 or £17 billion.

Why don’t I give you a more up-to-date equivalent? Because I don’t trust myself around numbers–somebody always ends up getting hurt. We’re all better off if I just snatch someone else’s calculations, okay?

The slaves weren’t compensated. They also weren’t exactly freed. They were shifted into a transitional form of slavery that used a different name but left them far from free. And for that tale, I’ll refer you to an earlier post.

37 thoughts on “A quick history of slavery in Britain: It’s not all abolitionists

  1. The bit about the hair made me smile. Reminds me of when a student said, “Miss, you know how your favourite French king is Louis XIV? Is that why you have your hair like that? Y’know, like him?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my study of the period leading up to the(American) Civil War I have come across much more than I ever knew before about slavery. Horrendous in all aspects. Thanks for your shedding light on some of what lead up to our situation.

    The currenc kerfluffle here over “compensation” involves the descendants of the enslaved, not their owners. (Though that kind of compensation was one of the proposals floated to bring an end to slavery and not lead to civil war.)

    Of course some places have outlawed even the mention that this practice ever existed, lest someone’s feelings be hurt. (Somewhere Justice Roger B Taney is snickering up his sleeve)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hadn’t heard about the proposal to compensate slaveholders in the US. It really is amazing how, once people accept a horrendous reality, their minds can just go on spinning within it. Own humans? Sure. End that? Well, of course, compensate the owners.

      Excuse me while I go in the other room and throw things at the wall.


      • Word Press still won’t allow me to just “like” your reply

        Between you and me, I think some of the opposition to the current talk of compensation (for the decenndants of slaves who, in succeeding generations were “red lined” in housing and other such indignities) is coming from people who are mad that their slave-owning ancestors weren’t compensated for the property they lost after The Civil War ended. Mitch McConnell (minority leader in the Senate – you guess for which party) has proudly stated that his family were slave owners. (And look at what a fine guy he has turned out to be!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • You could be right, but I’ve always assumed that the anger was over losing the Civil War and then–many years later–having their sense of innate superiority contested. And of course, setting aside whatever feelings they have, when a society has any sort of underlying historic division, an ambitious politician can always make a career by exploiting it. Witness the former Yugoslavia.


    • I wonder if all countries sculpt the history they teach in schools into a manageably patriotic narrative. US schools certainly do, and my impression is that British ones do as well. It leaves us totally unprepared for reality.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Compensation for loss or detriment forms part of state responsibility in public international law, and in law in general, so, nomatter what we think of the nature of the element ‘lost’ with the U.K.’s abolition of slavery, compensation was appropriate. The amount might be something else, but the principle is sound.
    Should a U.K. government have the good sense to renationalise the railways but without waiting for the end of a contract, then compensation would be payable, as was the case when the coal mines were nationalised. And before anyone points out that slavery cannot be compared with rail transport, the element compensated is the loss of cheap labour, not its nature, and recognition of the need to continue supply of an important element in the economy.
    We certainly covered the subject when at school – back in the dark ages – as part of the history of the period.
    The ‘freed’ slaves could not be said to have had an improvement in their lives, becoming indentured labour – as foul in effect as slavery, but who in power, in that period as in this, gave a flying fart for the welfare of workers?


    • In that period or in this indeed.

      Laws are written by those in power to protect the status quo and at times they need to be broken or changed for anything new to happen. If the law holds for compensating slaveholders, then that I’d put it into that category. You’ll notice that the slaves, whose lives and labor and time were stolen, were not compensated since those weren’t considered property.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Would you expect them to have been? Any more than you would not expect factory workers to have been compensated for a reduced life span and incapacitating illnesses from working conditions. Employers of labour and plantation owners had the whip hand and, as you point out, laws reinforce the status quo, then as now. Just the staus quo changes.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Religions–either all or almost all of them–seem to be infinitely flexible and able to justify what is. Not that every strand does that–the Quakers stand out in that period for their relentless opposition–but it’s stunning how many churches managed to accommodate themselves to the horror around them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I seem to remember hearing that 100 years or so before the grant of monopoly to the Royal Africa Company, the explorer/adventurer John Hawkins more or less started the “triangular” trade. Since it muscled in on Spanish activities in the Caribbean and brought home riches, Elizabeth I wasn’t averse to benefiting from it, without actually institutionalising it. And FWIW, for a time in the 17th century, those in Britain caught on the wrong side of the civil wars and rebellions might find themselves sent to the Caribbean as slaves (Barbados particularly).

    I discovered not so long ago that one ancestor was the child of a slaveowner in Jamaica and a woman of mixed race, indeed he may himself have been the child of a similar relationship. Can’t say any great riches came our way as a result (any of that compensatory money went to another line of his descendants). Clearly though, I descend from both villains and victims.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe you’re right about the origins of the slave trade. I picked it up at the point where it became official–it made for a clear starting point. In a perfect world, I’d probably have done more with both the Portuguese and Spanish involvement as well.

      Interesting family history. To an American, trained in the assumption that white fathers didn’t publicly acknowledge their mixed-race children, and that society made no place for them, I was initially surprised to learn that didn’t hold true here. It’s so easy to assume that the culture you grew up in is universal. Britain had and has its lunacy around skin color, but it is, at least, different that the lunacy I grew up with, and in at least some ways less vicious.


  5. We certainly were not taught about slavery in UK history at my boarding school, but I’m in no way surprised to find out how it was swept under the carpet while placing a convenient focus on the abolitionists. My early childhood was spent in India where I learned the history of the British in India, from the Indian perspective. When I worked for the company financing the film ‘Gandhi’, my boss had me repeat what I’d learned to the captains of various British pension funds in answer to their anger at depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh by General Dyer and his troops. I was only a young thing, so I’m grateful for his confidence in me, as much as his determination that the scene be included in the film.

    Sorry for the tangent…

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. He was very confident, and had the knowledge that he’d made a significant amount of money from investing in a friend’s successful film. ‘Watership Down’ was the film, and one wall of his office contained framed original drawings.

        I’m amazed I had the confidence to do it myself – I put it down to the courage of youth and being swept up in the excitement and enthusiasm for the film. They were heady days.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Drugs, denials, and British politics | Notes from the U.K.

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