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.
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.”
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.