Books to help you learn more about the UK’s history of slavery

Anti-racist protesters pushed a statue of 17th-century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour at the weekend; these books will help you go deeper into our country's troubled past.

Sarah Shaffi and Stephen Carlick
Protestors with the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Image: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Image: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the past few weeks, following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in America, the UK has been confronting its own history of racism, responding with protests, online demonstrations of solidarity, outpourings of donations to Black charities and organisations, and, as we said in our post from last week about books to help understand race and dismantle racism, generally bringing "discussions about racism and the ways in which it manifests on individual and systemic levels to the forefront".

Those discussions must contend with an ugly truth: the UK's history of slavery. The first English slave trader, John Hawkings, left England in 1562 on the first of three slaving voyages. Between 1640 and 1807, it is estimated that Britain transported 3.1 million Africans to British colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America and to other countries. Yet until a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol at the weekend, Britain's role in slavery was little discussed.

Colston was an English merchant who became heavily involved in the slave trade through the Royal African Company, of which he became deputy governor in 1689. He used his wealth, gained through the enslavement of thousands of Africans, for charitable works, and it is for this that he was commemorated in a statue in Bristol. But for years, there have been calls for the statue to be removed due to Colston’s profiting from the slave trade. It was only this weekend, during a march against the killing of George Floyd, that the statue was finally removed by protestors, who threw it into Bristol Harbour.

For the past few weeks, the UK has been confronting its own history of racism

Yet, while its dumping shows an growing acknowledgement of our country's history, it's important to delve deeper and understand why defensive statements about 'not being as bad as the US' have never sufficed.

For those who want a quick overview before going into more detail, James Walvin's A Short History of Slavery sees the author exploring, through historical texts, what it was that made such a savage institution as slavery possible. Combining historical documents and his own narrative, Walvin concisely gives an an account of one of the most shameful chapters in British history.

Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History delves deep into the niches of the UK's history to reveal, among other things, the extent to which 19th-century Britain industry thrived on the back on American slavery. By situating slavery in a wider context, Olusoga outlines the long-reaching, systemic ways that anti-Blackness is woven into British history and, as a result, today.

It's important to understand why defensive statements have never sufficed

Afua Hirsch's Brit(ish) is not entirely about slavery, but the spectre of this part of British history informs many of the issues she examines in her book. "Reassessing British history is not about race, it's about integrity," Hirsch writes. "It's about the fact that the past is linked to the present in a smooth continuity, from slavery, colonialism and the pillaging of resources to immigration… it is our history as British people."

Finally, though it's not yet available, Michael Taylor's The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery will be released later this year, a book that takes the focus off of the self-congratulatory fact that the British Empire abolished slavery in 1807 and shines a light on the vehement resistance abolition faced, both before and after its passing, on the part of the British establishment. Taylor smashes the rose lenses through which the UK has long seen its history with slavery, and reveals the deep roots whose untangling is still unfinished today.

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