Saturday , May 25 2024

A Brief History of British Slavery

Should events that happened over 200 years ago be part of current politics?  What was the truth about the slave trade and slaving?

About 12m Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a period of 400 years (with most occurring in the 18th and 19th centuries).   The trade was known as the Triangular Trade because it involved the exchange of European goods for black slaves supplied by African Kingdoms who were then shipped to the New World to produce goods that were shipped back to Europe.

Most of the slaves went to Portuguese and West Indies Plantations and Spanish colonies:

Portuguese America   38.5%
British West Indies     18.4%
Spanish Empire          17.5%
French Americas        13.6%
United States              9.7%
Dutch West Indies      2.0%

The African West Coast kingdoms, especially that of Ouidah and the Oyo Empire grew powerful on slave sales.

West African Kingdoms

In 1807 the British abolished the Atlantic slave trade (for all countries). The Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, established in 1808, grew by 1850 to a force of some 25 vessels, which were tasked with combating slavery along the African coast.  Slavery was abolished by the British in 1826 and throughout the British Empire from 1833.

In 1807 slavery and onerous serfdom were rife throughout the world.  Even after the British were seizing slave ships between 1810 and 1860, over 3.5 million black slaves (30% of the all time total) were transported by non-British ships, with 850,000 in the 1820s.

30% of Afro-Caribbeans in the UK have ancestors who were part of the slave trade (See UK Black Population).  70% of Afro-Caribbean British were never victims of the Transatlantic Trade and most were probably not descendants of slaves.

There has been much talk of compensating the extremely distant relatives of slaves for slavery.  Serfdom was officially abolished in England in 1574 but prior to this, in the Middle Ages, most British people were serfs.  Serfdom was like slavery except that the owner had control of whole villages rather than individual slaves.  This means that there was a gap of over 200 years during which slavery was very rare in England but common in the British Empire.  This introduces an interesting moral dilemma: what is the cut off date for compensating the very distant relatives of slaves and serfs?  Furthermore, who should compensate these people?  Oxford and Cambridge Colleges were founded on their labour.

If it is decided that people who had ancestors who were slaves 200 years ago should be compensated then surely those who had relatives who were slaves 4 or 500 years ago should also be compensated.  This would mean that all British people should be given large sums of money except for those with aristocratic lineages.

If compensation were accepted who should do the compensating?  Ordinary British people worked in the most appalling conditions until the mid-late nineteenth century and benefited not at all from slavery.  Any national payout by the British would penalize the distant relatives of those who did not benefit.  The only justifiable compensation scheme would be to hunt down all the great, great, great, great, great great, great grandchildren of those who are positively identified as being slavers and ask them to pay.  And what of the suppliers of the slaves?  Surely, given that the West African kings benefited hugely their descendants should also be hunted down and asked to contribute a similar amount.

The Vikings, Normans and Romans were terrible slavers. France and Italy owe us a fortune.

My main beef is with conscription which is very similar to slavery. I lost four or five Great Uncles in the First World War and my Grandfather was never the same again. Where is my money?

If all this seems like a good idea to you then you probably need to see a psychiatrist.

It might be thought that there is a pot of gold somewhere in London that was filled from the profits of the slave trade. Well, if such a pot ever existed it was spent a long time ago and certainly would have been emptied by the First World War.  Of course, any economist knows that the wealth of nations is the result of the most recent generations and owes little to the doubloons acquired and spent centuries ago.

By modern standards, over 90% of all people before 1900 used racist language (and many after).  If we pursue the same mania for treating the past as if it were present as is currently being done with slavery we will need to axe history from history.  We would need to invent a new history that never strays into the evil worlds of more than 20 years ago.  History would be erased and replaced with a satisfying narrative. Postmodernism and post-structuralism would be enforced.   This is, of course, insane.  Are you insane?

This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog:

About John Sydenham

Dr John Sydenham has worked in International Pharmaceuticals and for one of the "big four" International Consultancies. He ran a successful company for 15 years and after selling the company devotes his time to travel, science, black labradors and freedom.

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