The myth of Britain’s ‘clean break’ with slavery

The Abolition Act of 1833 was not a benevolent gesture on behalf of the government but a hardwon victory led by black campaigners. Through a series of loopholes, Britain continued to profit from the industry long afterwards. In this an extract from her book Brit(ish), Afua Hirsch explores the truth about our history with the slave trade. 

Afua Hirsch
James Baldwin

Imagine the scene. It is Westminster – the ancient village at the heart of what is now central London. I’ve often wandered, sometimes hob- bled, these streets in the uncomfortable pencil skirts and impractical heels that are the non-negotiable female uniform of my trade, in breaks snatched from the aggressive appetite of a rolling newsroom. West- minster is now a sterile mix of government buildings, but in the eighteenth century it was home to a notoriously poor neighbourhood, so deprived it’s where the word ‘slum’ was invented.

As is often the case, this impoverished underworld was also the birthplace of one of the great social movements of British history. In the 1770s, a talented black man – born a slave, mid-Atlantic, on a ship – whose friends included the artist Thomas Gainsborough, the writer Samuel Johnson, and the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, set up a gro- cery store on King Charles Street. Ignatius Sancho’s impressive address book didn’t shield him from the worst that fellow Londoners had to offer. They frequently vented ‘their prejudices against his ebon complexion, his African features, and his corpulent person’. But his talents did enrich his ability to defend himself. In one incident, a pair of passers-by, identifiable by their attire as ‘a young Fashionable and his friend’, said loudly, and rudely, as they encountered Sancho, ‘Smoke Othello!’ In response, a friend recalled, Sancho blocked the young Fashionables’ path and ‘exclaimed with a thundering voice, and a countenance which awed the delinquent, “Aye, Sir, such Othellos you meet with but once in a century,” clapping his hand upon his goodly round paunch. “Such Iagos as you, we meet in every dirty passage. Proceed, Sir!” ’

Sancho’s grocery opened with a push of a wicket door, and a little tinkling bell – a scene still familiar in so many independent and quirky retailers today. A customer walking in would have found a black couple – Sancho and his wife Anne, who came from the Caribbean – sitting in the corner, with some of their six children, Sancho writing or stocktaking perhaps, while Anne would chop sugar. As a grocer, Sancho relied on products from the West Indies like sugar and rum, which has led some to discount his role as an abolitionist. But here was the first African writer whose prose was published in English, and who used his influential letters to assert a black British identity in writing. Like so many people with dual identities – Sancho was after all born to an enslaved African mother – Sancho commanded his mixed heritage expertly, to strategically position himself in an argument. When, in his letters, he needed to criticise African complicity in the slave trade, Sancho was not ‘an African’ but British, or ‘a resident’ of Britain. But when he wanted to insert himself in the thorny question of the American war of independence, he was anything but. Then he became an outside observer, deploying the signature ‘Africanus’, to distance himself from a British identity and sidestep accusations of partisanship. Confronted with a racist Londoner in an alley, he was ‘an Othello’ – the embodiment in the white imagination of a black man. To have mixed African, Caribbean and British heritage in eighteenth- century Britain was to be in a precarious predicament – but that didn’t mean it was without its opportunities, for a man sufficiently intellec- tually skilled to use it to his advantage. 

Just as puzzling is the fact that we celebrate Britain’s role in aboli- tion but forget Britain’s role in creating the slave trade in the first place. In 2010 the then prime minister, David Cameron, promoted, for example, as his favourite children’s book, Our Island Story – a 1905 children’s history book. His affection for the book was echoed by the then shadow education minister Tristram Hunt as his favourite history book of all time. The book, written by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, was a staple for many of today’s British adults, described by a review in the Guardian as ‘feminist and progressive’ and reprinted in 2005 so that it could be distributed for free in all UK primary schools. It’s a classic example of our national amnesia. The first 460 pages mention nothing of slavery, until it finally appears in a chapter about the reign of William IV: ‘another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV was the freeing of slaves’. There is then a brief discussion of what slavery was. ‘In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor, black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it. But as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted . . .’

G. M. Trevelyan, a hugely influential historian whose book English Social History – written in a deliberately patriotic tone during the Second World War and then widely taught in schools – took a similar approach. He wastes little time on four centuries of slave trading – ‘a horrible traffic’30 – to which his volume devotes only one line. There is plenty, however, on abolition. ‘The movement for the abolition of negro slavery aroused passionate popular enthusiasm sometimes excessive in its sentiment for the dusky brother,’ British schoolchildren were taught. ‘The sentiment of humanity was now a great political force in politics,’ Trevelyan continues. ‘In 1833 it abolished slavery in the Empire at a cost of £20 million cheerfully paid by the British taxpayer.’

If abolition was a benevolent gift to passive Africans handed down graciously by posh white men, the companion myth is that black people forced into slavery just put up with it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There were frequent and often kamikaze-like slave rebellions, more than two hundred of them at sea, over the four centur- ies of slave trading. Similar resistance manifested in countless acts of suicide by Africans who preferred death to enslavement, and in the establishment of whole runaway communities in islands like Jamaica. The first ever black republic – Haiti – was born out of a revolt led by former slaves, sometimes referred to as ‘the Black Jacobins’ for their pursuit of freedom and justice. The famous French abolitionist Abbé Henri Grégoire regarded the Haitian republic, not the United States of America, as the true custodian of liberty. 

Listen to an extract from Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

These developments did not go unnoticed in Britain. By the end of the eighteenth century, the tide was beginning to turn against the plantocracy, although the pro-slavery pamphleteers wasted no time in employing apocalyptic scenes from Haiti and Paris as a cautionary tale to anyone feeling tempted to rock the boat and free the slaves. The true reasons for Britain’s decision to abolish the transatlantic trade are complex, and scepticism towards the traditional narrative – that it was a result of humanitarian concerns – is nothing new. As the great Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James put it, ‘those who see in abolition the gradually awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few min- utes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which had slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of pro- duction in the West Indian colonies’.

Another Caribbean historian, Eric Williams, who went on to become first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, called the idea that abolition was achieved by an appeal to humanitarian principles ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time’. More recent research by academics like David Ryden, for example, has renewed credibility in this ‘decline thesis’, showing that rapidly declining sugar prices from 1799 due to overproduction in the West Indies, as well as foreign competition and speculation, directly influenced Parliament’s stance on the slave trade, tipping the scales in favour of abolition.

The intersection of economic, socio-political factors and abolition is one of the most complex and protracted debates in modern historiog- raphy. What is not contested is that, when Britain did abolish the slave trade, the value of the 800,000 or so slaves still owned by Brits in the Caribbean was valued at £47 million. Of this sum, the £20 million so ‘cheerfully’ stumped up by the British taxpayer, after decades of black agitation, was not paid to compensate slaves for their abuse, loss of fam- ily, income, dignity, heritage, identity or life, but instead to compensate the slave owners for the loss of their chattels. The remaining £27 million – a colossal sum at the time – was paid for by none other than the slaves themselves, who had to work for another four years for free after abolition, in order to raise the funds. The deprivation character- ising their lives at the end of slavery, which left them illiterate, unskilled, psychologically traumatised and irreparably cut off from their African homelands, survives on an intergenerational basis to this day. 

There was no clean break from slavery, no moment where those who had been slaves suddenly began to be prosperous owners of land or assets, highly literate and in a position to reverse the unhappy odds stacked against their ancestors at the moment of kidnap. The decline of slavery happened gradually, in fits and starts, at times going backwards. Britain’s act of abolition in 1807 curtailed the supply of new African blood to slave owners in the Caribbean, worsening conditions for many of the slaves already there. Planters began to pay overseers a bonus for each female slave they impregnated, an obvious pecuniary incentive for rape, to increase numbers through births. When slavery itself was abolished almost thirty years later, slaves were converted into ‘appren- tices’. The scheme, administered by former slave owners, is unlikely to have felt much different from the regime that preceded it. And in many cases the traffic in people from Africa continued regardless, more rebranded than significantly reformed. Britain still felt it needed to import African labour to its Caribbean colonies. Naval officers, deployed post-abolition on the Gulf of Guinea coast to intercept slave vessels, offered two choices to the Africans they liberated: they could settle in Sierra Leone, the West African nation established by Britain for freed blacks, or they could earn more as free labourers in the West Indies under an employment contract. The latter arrangement was optimis- tically called ‘free emigration’.

In fact, for those profiting from the trade in Africans, the greatest returns from slavery came after Britain’s abolition. By 1840, there were more slaves crossing the Atlantic than there had been before, and British investors and businesses were among those profiting. Conditions for slaves were becoming ever more hideous. Illicit trading was only one part of the picture – the Acts of Parliament which actually abolished the slave trade were littered with loopholes, and banks, insurance companies, shipbuilders, merchants and their accountants wasted no time working out how to exploit them. British traders set up partnerships with traders in Cuba – where slaves con- tinued to arrive until 1870 – and Brazil, where the transatlantic trade was only abolished in 1888. There was nothing to stop Brits investing in the actual ownership of slaves in these nations, and in slave-worked mines and plantations, and they did, in significant numbers.

Perfectly legal actions saw Britain feeding the trade in ways that ren- dered it directly culpable for its continuation. Illegal slave traders, so effective at evading the poorly resourced British naval controls that were meant to intercept slaving along the West African coast, were using over- whelmingly British-produced goods to procure their slaves. About 80 per cent of the items still being exchanged for women, men and children on the African coast in the nineteenth century were manufactured in Britain, fuelling Britain’s economic boom throughout the Victorian era. Cotton, which overtook sugar as the most important slave-produced commodity, linked the industry of Manchester with the slave planta- tions of Mississippi in one continuous economic loop.

Britain’s appetite for sugar continued to grow. In the 1840s, the import duties on free-grown and slave-grown cotton and sugar were equalised, despite campaigns pointing out that this would increase the trade in slaves. Much of the imported slave-grown sugar was refined and then exported, providing more jobs and earning even more money for Britain. Companies like Tate & Lyle – the quintessentially British firm now also known as patrons of the arts, as well as for the sweet white stuff – were built on the proceeds of slavery. Decades after congratulating itself for abolishing its own direct role in the slave trade, Britain was still profiting richly from the unpaid labour of kidnapped Africans. It just let others do the dirtiest part of the work.


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