Today 23rd August marks the official the 3rd national anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade recognised by both UNESCO and the UK government.
With events happening in the famous Slave Ports of Liverpool and Bristol but not in the nation’s capital Lee Jasper looks at the significance of the day for the UK and London’s involvement with one of the greatest crime ever to be committed in human history.
Slavery remains a taboo
Whenever the subject of Britain’s role in the Slave trade is mentioned you can feel the atmosphere in a room change. White Britons have an almost reflexive gagging reflex when it comes to any discussion on slavery. People get very annoyed very quickly and although this period in British history is rarely discussed any mention of it produces huge emotion, anger, frustration and resentment. Britain suffers from an acute dose of historical amnesia on this issue that can still be detected in the routine denial of all accusation of contemporary or historical racism.
Slavery remains one of the taboo subjects in British history. It never fails to ignite a ferocious and passionate debate between those who think slavery is all “old history” with very little relevance to modern day Britain, they pour scorn on any demand for a formal apology or reparations and others who believe that slavery having defined the concept of modern day racism bequeathed a legacy to the world that is responsible for the deaths of billions.
They and I believe slavery constituted the greatest crime ever committed against humanity in the entirety of human history for which both a formal apology and reparations are due. Slavery was the legalised mass murder of millions of people and the forced and brutal enslavement of countless generations of others whose experience of plantation life was short, sadistic version of hell on earth. The scale and intensity of the violence was unbelievable. Buggery, rape, paedophilia, savage medieval torture, medical experimentation all were practiced on thousands of enslaved Africans on a daily basis for over 500 years.
Whole families and cultures destroyed
Families were sold off and slaves bred like animals with children being ripped from their mother’s breast to be sold at auction. Surely one of the most profound and heinous aspects of slavery was this unbearable torture that saw families torn asunder. Of course for individual slaves in order to mentally survive all of the stress, anxiety, physical and emotional violence inflicted upon them they had to become increasingly indifferent to all that they saw. They taught their children to avoid emotional attachment, to trust no one and that other slaves would betray them to the ‘”slave master” to save their own skin. What is quite literally amazing is that we as a people enduring such a prolonged and brutal period of history survived at all. However although we are still here, the 21st century descendants of those enslaved Africans we a free but not equal and the psychological trauma of slavery can be detected today in our state of mind, mores, cultures and behaviours.
We the historical descendants of slaves continue to suffer as a consequence of this period history. A period lest we forget that was followed after slavery by further exploitation and savagery during colonialisation and throughout modern times by neo colonialisation imprisoning us to an unbroken lineage suffering debilitating effects of both the historical legacy and the contemporary effects of racism today.
No people can survive such prolonged trauma unaffected
The psychological effects of such intense hatred and savagery lasted with various degrees of barbaric intensity from the 16th century right up to the present day. We still suffer the deep psychological trauma of that dreadful time, the largely unresolved extreme anxiety, fear and anger bred into our genes by generation after generation of African mothers and fathers who lived under the lash and in constant and extreme fear breeding children into this maelstrom of hellish racist violence.
Modern Britain was built on the profits made by the slave trade
The economic effects of slavery have left millions of the descendants of slaves with no history, no access to family resources or assets and living in continued poverty. The economic case for reparations is in my view compelling Britain secured her industrial and military dominance of the world as a consequence of the profits derived first from slavery and then colonialism. When slavery was abolished the slave owners were given £20,000 by way of compensation whilst the enslaved Africans received not a single penny. The fact that the profits generated by slavery were unprecedented and funded everything from the scientific discoveries, the industrial revolution and the establishment of Britain’s manufacturing base means that in the 20th century British domestic prosperity the building of the NHS the provision of universal education. Railroads and civic, economic and military infrastructure development were all given a huge cash boost with the profits generated from this bloody trade.
Reparations, a cheque that is very much overdue
The modern day descendant plantation societies and descendants deserve and are entitled too reparations. Britain owes them and their descendants the moral and legal justice that acknowledges and apologises and recompenses modern day descendants by the establishment of a multi billion pound memorial trust for those living in the UK and former colonies should be given reparations too.
The human cost was incalculable
The human cost was enormous. Africans died in their millions during capture and removal, as many as five per cent in prisons before transportation and more than 10 per cent during the voyage — the direct murder of two million people.
Conditions imposed on survivors were unimaginable. In US state of Virginia it was lawful ‘to kill and destroy such Negroes’ who ‘absent themselves from … service’. Branding and rape were commonplace.
Medieval torture and brutality was routine
Notorious and sadistic Jamaican planter Thomas Thistle-Wood in 1756 had a slave ‘well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth’ for eating sugar cane. From 1707 punishment for rebellion included ‘nailing them to the ground’ and ‘applying fire by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head’. When in 1736 Antigua found there was to be a rebellion, five ringleaders were broken on the wheel, 77 burned to death, six hung in cages to die of thirst. For ‘lesser’ crimes castration or chopping off half the foot were used. A manual noted: ‘Terror must operate to keep them in subjection.’
Barbarism’s consequences were clear. More than a million-and-a-half slaves were taken to the British Caribbean islands in the 18th century but by its end there were only 600,000. By 1820 more than 10 million Africans had been transported across the Atlantic and two million Europeans had moved. But the European population grew to 12 million while the black slave population shrank to six million.
If the murder of millions, the torture and enslavement of millions more, is not ‘a crime against humanity’ these words have no meaning. To justify murder and torture on an industrial scale, black people had to be declared inferior, or not human. As James Walvin noted, there was a ‘form of bondage which, from an early date, was highly racialised. By 1750, to be black in the Americas (and often in Europe) was to be enslaved.
“The 1774 History of Jamaica argued black slaves were a different species able to work ‘in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orangutan”.
Material produced to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 gave the impression that white British people liberated black people. Whilst we acknowledge the first recorded national movement in the UK was the Abolitionist cause and the millions of ordinary white families who boycotted slave grown sugar and forced Parliament to eventually act British history relegates this movement and the struggle of African themselves to a historical footnote.
Black resistance not white philanthropy broke slavery
In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it. The first recorded slave revolt was in 1570. There were at least 250 ship-board rebellions. Jamaican slave society faced a serious revolt every decade in addition to prolonged guerilla war. In 1760, 30,000 Jamaican slaves revolted. The culmination, recorded in CLR James’s magisterial The Black Jacobins, was the 1791 slave revolt in St Domingue. Slavery in British possessions, after abolition of the trade, was abolished following revolts in Barbados in 1816, Demarara in 1823, and in Jamaica 1831 in which 60,000 slaves participated. For this reason Unesco officially marks August 23, the anniversary of the St Dominque’s rebellion’s outbreak, as slavery’s official remembrance day.
William Wilberforce MP the much-celebrated abolitionist only joined the movement once it became clear just how popular the campaign was becoming. It was militant black resistance, ordinary British men and women and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.
After Slavery we were freed to live without rights and in abject poverty
Even when free, our fore parents were forced to continue to endure great acts of barbarity, political treachery, and denial of justice with no access to human rights. This continued dehumanisation of supposed “free people” rendered us little more than animals with no access to the law or human rights.
Today as we scan those African communities who suffered the barbarity of plantation slavery combined with long term immersion into a culture of poverty we see the transmission of behaviours and cultures that were once valued as survival techniques at a time of slavery that today have become profoundly self destructive. We still live in the long shadow of slavery and the difference between those who are the descendant of plantation slaves and those who endured colonialism but not slavery could not be clearer to those who have eyes to see.
History teaches us that any oppressed peoples that retain access to their own language, culture and historical and familial memory can endure great acts of repression for sustained periods of time and survive and prosper. Those who are denied such important histories cut off from their past, denied their language cultural and familial history, lineage, wealth and traditions will suffer profound psychological trauma.
London and the Slave Trade
Until the 1730s, London dominated the British trade in enslaved Africans. A major slaving centre, it is estimated that over a quarter of all Londoners were involved in the trade in some way and although the capital would later be eclipsed by Liverpool as a slave-trading port, its involvement in the trade was both longer and deeper than any other UK city. The capital, up until 1698, had enjoyed the commercial privileges bestowed on it by the charter of the Royal African Company, and the City and its officials had amassed huge profits through its revenues. Under this monopoly 100,000 Africans had been shipped to the colonies and 30,000 tons of sugar had been imported. No fewer than 15 Lord Mayors, 25 Sheriffs and 38 aldermen of the City of London were shareholders in the company between 1660 and 1690.
Following its decline as a slaving port, London assumed a more permanent and central role as the financial hub of the triangular trade. The City of London provided the money for many slaving voyages and other London institutions insured cargoes and traded plantation goods. Given the risky and long-term nature of a typical slave voyage, new forms of credit were introduced into the British banking system. The need for long-term credit, with bills payable after anything from one and a half to three years, led to the development of specialist banking houses such as that operated by Alexander and David Barclay, whose bank bears the family name to this day. Even more active in this field was Sir Francis Baring, who was reputed to have made his initial fortune as a 16-year-old slave dealer. Baring was to sit as a Member of Parliament for 18 years and died leaving a legacy valued at £1 million.
The Bank of England itself was also to figure largely in this enterprise. Sir Richard Neave, the bank’s director for 48 years, also sat as chairman of the Society of West India Merchants. Neave’s son-in-law, Beeston Long, would follow in his footsteps both as chairman of the Merchants and governor of the Bank of England. The enormously influential body of plantation owners and their representatives sat in the House of Commons and ensured their interests were protected. Given such an unprecedented concentration of political and economic power, it was inevitable that the plantation system would produce England’s first millionaire: William Beckford MP.
In the Caribbean, Jamaica overtook Barbados as the prize colony of the English and by the turn of the 18th century the European population there stood at 7,000 with that of slaves at 45,000. The richest planter of the island, Peter Beckford, was also the most powerful: at his death in 1735 he owned nine sugar plantations and was part owner of seven more. His son, William, returned to London, where he later became an MP as the most powerful businessman in the City of London, for which he would be twice selected as Lord Mayor. His brother Richard sat as an MP for Bristol and his second brother Julines an MP for Salisbury. His son Richard would serve as a Member of Parliament for Bridport, Arundel and Leominster
It is undeniable that slavery produced spectacular profits for the British and this transformed the port cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol. In the case of Liverpool, this city grew from humble beginnings as a small fishing village into a huge dock and the hub of a growing world capitalist system. Many famous institutions in London were built on the profits of the slave trade and these included banks (Barings and the Bank of England); insurance companies (Lloyd’s of London) and hospitals (Guys and St. Thomas’s). The founding collection of pictures at the National Gallery was donated by John Julius Angerstein, who had built up his art collection with money made from the slave trade and his activities as one of Lloyd’s underwriters insuring the slavers
In his seminal book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ Dr. Eric Williams has commented that the origin of black slavery lay with economic, not racial motives: ‘it had to do not with the colour of the labourer, but the cheapness of the labour.’ The economic legacy also points to the origins of Africa’s underdevelopment and the injustices of present day trade rules. The poor economic performance of Africa remains one of the biggest issues facing development and growth economists today. Economic historian, Bairoch has argued that ‘there is no doubt that a large number of the structural features of the process of economic underdevelopment gave historical roots going back to slavery and European colonisation’. It is difficult to see how the UK Government’s recent Commission for Africa could undertake a truly wide-ranging assessment of Africa’s contemporary issues and problems without first acknowledging the devastating impact of slavery, imperialism and colonialism.
The history of slavery is as much one of rebellion as of enforced servitude. For more than 300 years, slave rebellions and white fears about them were central factors of colonial life. The anti-slavery movement was the first genuine mass movement in Britain and London was the initial focus. The movement employed new methods of mass-communication in an attempt to reach potential supporters. The anti-slavers’ emblem and motto – a chained black man on one knee asking the onlooker: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ – became a common sight. This device designed and marketed by Josiah Wedgwood, appeared on tableware, jewellery, pamphlets and posters all over the country. Brooches and pendants proclaiming adherence to the abolitionist ideals proved essential in garnering support from sectors of society normally beyond the reach of political ideas.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, London had become the largest Black metropolis outside of the Americas. It was home to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people of African origin among its 800,000 residents. This community of servants, sailors, scribes, beggars and former slaves lent their voices to the clamour for abolition growing through the Black world at large. From the beginning of the anti-slavery agitation in Britain in the 1780s the testimonies of former enslaved and free Africans were crucial in exposing the harsh realities of the slave system and galvanising public opinion against it.
A host of Black activists such as Robert Mandeville, Thomas Cooper, my own namesake Jasper Goree and William Greene made their mark on Georgian and Regency London. 1787 saw the first major Black contribution to the campaign for abolition with the publication of Ottobah Cugoano’s ‘Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species’. For the first time British readers heard the authentic voice of slave witness.
Although Cugoano was the first published African critic of the slave trade, the most widely hailed Black activist was his friend, Olaudah Equiano whose book, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’ became a crucial text for the anti-slavery movement. Equiano is often referred to as Britain’s first black political leader and he collaborated with Granville Sharp on a number of black rights issues. This legacy of slavery has created cultures and communities of resistance everywhere, based on political ideas about autonomy and self-determination for people of African descent.
Ideological and Philosophical Legacy
There is a direct connection between the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the development of racist theories and the existence of contemporary racism. The philosophy of white supremacy and black inferiority has its roots in the legal, social, cultural, intellectual, political and religious ideologies were created to justify the enslavement, exploitation and oppression of millions of Africans. During and after slavery, racist practices decided who was human and who was not, who could be a citizen and who could not, and who could enjoy the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, different types of racisms exist, Islamophobia being the most current and aggressive form but all contemporary forms of racism draw on ideas that were developed during the era of slavery.
The principle products of the slave trade, principally sugar, tea, cotton and tobacco and the associated ancillary industries transformed the lives of Britons. For many, alongside the new opportunities which came with the burgeoning cities, the middle classes were able to enjoy personal luxuries that they had not mad or grown themselves. Previously this had been the privilege of the aristocracy. Even the landscape of the country changed as wealthy planters brought home their profits to create vast country estates and new stately homes.
Apologies and reparations for slavery
Slavery’s reality has been increasingly acknowledged outside Britain. The US Virginia General Assembly in 2007 expressed ‘profound regret’ for its role, stating slavery ‘ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals’. In 2001 the French National Assembly declared slavery a ‘crime against humanity’.
In 1999, Liverpool council became the first major British slaving city to formally apologise. The Church of England Synod followed suit. The British government’s refusal of such an apology is squalid.
Until recently, almost unbelievably, it refused even to recognise the slave trade as a crime against humanity on the grounds that it was legal at the time. It helped block a EU apology for slavery in 2001. London acknowledged its involvement in Slavery in 2007 when the then Mayor Ken Livingstone formally apologised.
Since Livingstone left office we have seen the total denigration of all things African by London’s current Mayor Boris Johnson. He has refused to acknowledge the 23rd August, has slashed all Black History month budgets and has withdrawn all funding for all African cultural celebrations.
Johnsons contempt for African culture and London’s African community borders represents the worst and most popular form of racism. A peculiar mixture of Eurocentric historical ignorance on the history of black people, a white benign paternalism alongside a degree of undoubted bumbling charm combined with political power and patronage provides cover for a man who presides of the most ethnically diverse city in the world.
His contempt although not aggressively expressed still results in the fact that the all-African cultural references and funding have been brutally cut. The real political narrative of Johnson administration in relation to Africans in London is deeply insidious form of racism characterised by a benign paternalism.
His administration funds and acknowledges all other major ethnic communities in London except the African and Caribbean communities. Boris and his team have no problem with this approach believing that “black history” was in fact the central battering ram of the multiculturalists’ project which they despise.
Their simplistic and uniformed view that such a focus is intrinsically opposed by most white Londoners who don’t see black communities as deserving recognition particularly where doing so forces them to confront their past responsibility for racism. White guilt for the racism of the past and present day has produced a virulent hostility to black culture and history.
Here is an example of this dismissive contempt. At a Young People’s Question Time on 17th September 2009, Munira Mirza, Mayoral Adviser on Arts and Culture said “Sometimes, it can get a bit boring, doing slavery every year”. There are no planned memorial events in London and given London’s history that is not only a disgrace but national scandal.
In relation to a formal apology two arguments against such an approach are usually brought forward — not only by the past government but also by the present PM David Cameron. First, an apology is unnecessary because this happened a long time ago. Slavery was the mass murder of millions of people. Germany apologised for the holocaust. Britain must for the slave trade. Second, that apologising is ‘national self-hate’. This is nonsense. Love of one’s country and its achievements is based on reality, not denying it.
Surely a Britain that contributed Shakespeare, Newton and Bevin to human civilisation need fear comparison with no one.
A British state that refuses to apologise for a crime on such a gigantic scale as the slave trade merely entrenches racism. The deep historical reality of slavery impacts today means that people of colour have never fully secured ourselves or been accepted into the fabric of this country. Britain national narrative ignores slavery, our contributions as slaves and free men and women are dismissed. British white guilt and perpetual shame drives the stubborn resistance to properly record and acknowledge this deep and ugly scar on the metaphorical face of the UK today.
Our starting place as a nation for a discussion on race and the development of the concept of truly inclusive citizenship and historical narrative that includes slavery at its core must begin with apology, acknowledgement and reparations. Our place in the world in future may well be influenced by the way comes to terms with this past the concept of Britain as a country where regardless of race or faith all are equal before the law can never be a reality whilst such a profound injustice remains unacknowledged. That London the nation’s capital should simply ignore the day is a national scandal but of course in the context of a society that increasingly refuses to recognise racism much less slavery no doubt such contempt will go largely unnoticed as did this historic day.
By Lee Jasper