The ‘we’ of slavery

When British people use the word ‘we’ in the context of our nation, we don’t just mean those who are part of it now but also those who were part of it in the past. So ‘we’ stood up to Hitler, even though only a few of the people who lived through the war are still alive. ‘We’ also beat the Kaiser, led the fight against Napoleon and saw off the Spanish Armada, even though those that did so are long dead. It’s not just about being on the winning side, though. When discussing the Battle of Hastings, most English people will say ‘we’ were the people at the top of the hill who lost, not the people at the bottom of the hill who won and went on to shape the history of these islands.

And ‘we’ conquered the largest empire the world has ever seen. When pushed, some of us might admit that ‘we’ did some pretty horrible things in the course of doing so. But when it comes to the slave trade, you hear the historic ‘we’ less often. The slave trade? Nowt to do with me. My ancestors were all peasants and artisans, mate. That stuff was all done by the rich.

The fact that Britain was involved in the transatlantic slave trade comes as news to some people, although a lot more seem to know that ‘we’ abolished it. Hollywood must take some of the blame for this. The American entertainment industry achieved Abraham Lincoln’s original aim; it restricted slavery to the southern United States. In fairness, some of this is due to the importance of the civil war in America’s nation building story. It is perhaps inevitable that most of the films depicting slavery feature the cotton plantations of the antebellum period rather than the sugar, rice and tobacco farms of British colonial America. This enables us to put even more distance between ourselves and slavery. Not only was it the rich, it was colonial elites and Americans at that. Like I said, nowt to do with me.

A couple of years ago, a Labour activist made some rather silly comments about Jewish involvement in the slave trade. The row which followed is still rumbling on but the most interesting thing to come out of it was the articles debunking the hackneyed old story that it was the Jews wot done the slave trade. Academics from University College London (UCL), who have gone into this in some depth, wrote to the Guardian:

In the research we have conducted over the past 10 years into British colonial slave-ownership, there is no evidence whatsoever of a disproportionate Jewish presence among owners and mortgagees of enslaved people.

There were certainly Jewish merchants engaged in the business, but the owners and creditors spanned the spectrum of religious and cultural affiliation.

The assertion that a disproportionate number of Jews owned slaves in the southern United States goes back to some mangling of statistics in a book published in 1991. It may be true, as The Secret Relationship asserted, that a greater proportion of Jews owned slaves than the rest of the southern population. However, as history professor Winthrop D Jordan, writing in the Atlantic pointed out, white protestants owned a far greater number of slaves between them than Jewish people did. It is the reason for this that is really interesting.

Typically, most well off Jewish people in America were merchants, as they were in Europe. Merchants tended to live in towns. As Jordan explains:

The relatively high proportion of Jewish slaveholding was a function of the concentration of Jews in cities and towns, not of their descent or religion. It is also the case that urban slaveholders of whatever background owned fewer slaves on average than rural slaveholders, including those on large plantations.

The southern region of North America the Caribbean were slave-based economies. Most people in business owned slaves. If you were a wealthy farmer or landowner in Europe, you worked your land with tenanted or feudal labour. In the Americas you worked your land with slaves. If you were a merchant in Europe, you had servants working in your home and warehouse. If you were a merchant in the Americas, your home and warehouse were staffed with slaves. A wealthier European artisan would have labourers helping in his workshop. In the Americas he would have slaves. Jewish people owned slaves not because they were running the slave trade but simply because whatever business you undertook in the deep south, you did it with the help of slaves. In short, slavery was normal.

So normal, in fact, that even the Quakers were involved. These were people who would die rather than do military service when captured by the press-gang, yet they seem to have had no qualms about owning and trading in human beings. Although the Quakers became one of the first religious groups to oppose slavery, many owned slaves in the early colonial period.

The Quakers back home were also happily investing in the slave trade but here, too, they weren’t much different from anyone else. If you had any spare money in the 17th and 18th century, you invested it in the commercial activities of the time, much of which involved slavery. Even if your business was not directly involved in slavery, any international trade would almost certainly involve doing business with people who were.

It may strike us as odd that, just as European countries were throwing off feudalism, and freeing their serfs, they were also embarking on the mass enslavement of human beings. The English rebelled against their king and cut his head off, yet even the Roundheads who had opposed royal tyranny saw no irony in owning slaves. It was as though all the declarations and treatises about rights and liberty carried the caveat ‘except for Africans’. Across Europe, scholars were laying the foundations for what would become the Enlightenment, yet the creation of new slave-based economies across the Atlantic seems to have been met with a collective shrug.

Economic historians still argue about the extent to which Britain’s economy was dependent on the profits of slavery in the 18th century but there was certainly a lot of slavery derived money flowing back to the mother country from the colonies. Thanks to the UCL research, we now know that slave ownership was a more widespread than previously thought. It was not only the rich that invested in slavery, the wealthier middle-classes were involved too.

From what I know of my ancestors on both sides, most of them do seem to have been artisans. Yet if my family had done work for t’ folks at big ‘ouse they would probably have been paid with money that had, at least in part, come from the profits of the slave trade. One or two of my forebears became reasonably well off. If they had any spare cash they would probably have invested it. In the 18th century that usually meant colonial trade. So, while I don’t have any evidence that my ancestors were directly involved in the slave trade, it’s also difficult for me to claim that they didn’t profit from it at all, because slave-based money was running through the entire economy.

Every so often there is a campaign to remove the name of a benefactor from a university or public building because of a connection with the slave trade. It would be surprising, though, if universities were not tainted with slave money, given that most of the rich families who endowed them would have gained at least some of their wealth from colonial trade. Most people with any wealth were involved in the slave trade to some degree and the universities were no different. Singling out cities, like Bristol and Liverpool, or philanthropists, or politicians’ ancestors diverts our attention from the systemic nature of slavery. Everybody was at it.

David Olusoga says we need to learn more about the history of slavery. He’s right and it needs to go beyond slave ships and antebellum cotton plantations, which are the first and last chapters of a long and complex story. And, as he says, it needs to be set in a British context:

The Virginia in which Kinte is enslaved is a British colony. Which, of course, raises the obvious question: where is the British Roots?

Why can’t we – one of the most diverse nations on earth – produce a comparable series? Are there not enough epic, inter-weaving family sagas from the three centuries of Britain’s slave empire?

Of course there are. The records are in the archives, the names of those who grew rich on the backs of the slaves are methodically listed in the database of University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project.

The financialisation of slavery and the development of slave-based securities (see previous post for longer discussion of this) enabled British people to continue to invest in slaves long after slavery itself had been banned in the British Empire. Thanks to the efforts of British banks like Barings, people throughout Europe, even in countries which had no direct involvement in the American slave trade, could continue to profit from it right up until its abolition in 1865. Even as they congratulated themselves for abolishing slavery and the transatlantic trade, the British were still channelling huge amounts of capital to America’s slave-owning states.

For the truth is that, for the British, investing in slavery was quite normal in the 17th and 18th centuries and continued by other means well into the 19th. Isolating the responsibility for slavery the planters of the deep south, or the Jews, or Bristol and Liverpool simply gets the rest of us off the hook. For, when it comes to the transatlantic slave trade, ‘we’ were in it up to our necks.

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22 Responses to The ‘we’ of slavery

  1. jeffrey davies says:

    see maximus under the guise of charity remploy salvation army mind heart cancer they all take a sick slave under this governments orders and a bonus they get paid these so called charities oh dear modern slavery hasnt gone away its here under the banner of the tory party jeff3

    • Keith says:

      Subsidising private firms to exploit people is a form of slavery when coupled with the sanctions regime. certain politicians get the backhanders to allow it. Deplorable, and I condemn it.

    • Harry Britten says:

      Being a slave means you are property. That means your master can beat you, kill you and rape you at will. He can force you to work yourself to death, he can mutilate you, he can remove your children from you and sell them. He can force you to worship his religion. He can make you literally eat his shit. He can force you to have more children that he will sell.

  2. John says:

    Jackie Walker simply said that as a part-Jewess she was aware that some of her ancestors would have been involved in the sugar and slave trade. That is all she said but the zionists decided to use her and her statement to launch an attack against the Labour Party and Momentum as the zionists are fearful of a Corbyn-led Labour Government being elected, in case the cause of Palestinian freedom receives a boost – presumably (as the zionists perceive it) at their expense.
    Far more worryingly, it seems slavery has still not yet been abolished globally.
    Children in West Africa are harvesting cacao beans under conditions of slavery.
    Many Arabian countries continue schemes which are tantamount to slavery.
    Most recently, reports have been made of an ISIS-affiliated organisation now openly organising slave auctions in Libya, preying upon black African refugees and asylum-seekers.

  3. “It may strike us as odd that, just as European countries were throwing off feudalism, and freeing their serfs, they were also embarking on the mass enslavement of human beings”.

    Not so odd. The effect of the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th century in Europe was to make plant and machinery the dominant forms of capital. Extracting value from labour was then best achieved by “freeing” labour from the land. In colonies based on the continued exploitation of raw materials, slaves remained the dominant form of capital. In other words, the “industrialised” nature of the slave economy of the southern USA was the corollary of the advance of industry in Europe, most obviously in respect of cotton.

  4. Dipper says:

    yep … so what’s your point?

  5. Caradog says:

    “For the truth is that, for the British, investing in slavery was quite normal
    in the 17th and 18th centuries ”

    Nope. Not even close.

    I followed the link to your earlier post – the one that says that Britain had
    “46,000 slave owners in 1833”. Then I did a bit of research and discovered
    that the population of England and Wales in 1821 is estimated at 12
    million. That would make slave owners a whopping 0.38% of the
    population. Except of course that’s wrong. Britain at that time included
    Scotland and Ireland as well. Ireland’s population at that time is estimated
    at somewhat more than 4 million. So now those slave owners make up a whole
    0.29% of the population. But wait! I forgot Scotland! Another 2.3 million!
    Giving us 0.25%. That’s a staggeringly small percentage. See if you can
    find a similarly tiny minority for comparison. I tried DUP voters as a
    percentage of the UK electorate – but there are far too many of them
    (0.4%). What that number actually shows is that slave owning was a minority
    activity even among the very small minority that were rich and privileged (the
    “one percent”).

    Your comparisons with the two world wars are particularly idiotic. Most
    of the UK population during those wars were directly part of events, if not
    actually fighting (millions of young men in that category alone), then in work
    supporting the war effort. That means that most of us are descended
    from people that fought (and won) those wars. Just as most of us are
    not descended from slave owners – there are simply far, far, far too
    few of them for that to be possible.

    • Dipper says:

      I think Rick’s point is that slavery was such an integral part of the commercial system certainly in the first half of the 19th century, and that many people benefited indirectly even if only a few were actual slave owner. In fact Rick wrote a big piece on it here:, and as a former derivatives analyst the use of securitised bonds to finance slavery is a revelation.
      In terms of financing the slave trade an interesting question is to what extent Quakers financed slavery. Quakers were prominent in the establishment of a number of banks e.g. Barclays and held strong moral views, but there is some evidence that they funded slavery – see here although they did turn against it.

  6. I’m really uncomfortable with:
    1) Using contemporary morality and ethics to judge people who lived long ago in a world of different morality and ethics.
    2) Encouraging people to feel guilt or remorse over actions made by their ancestors long before people currently alive were born.

    • Keith says:

      Dr Johnson observed that the loudest “yelps for liberty” in America were from “the drivers of Negroes”; he also drank a toast to any rumour of a slave uprising in the Caribbean. Observing that the slavers deserved to have heir throats cut as they took the name of Christian but accepted the enslavement of Gods children for their gain.

      He was contemporary to the time of european slavery. So no need to question his qualifications for judgement. If he could draw such conclusions so could others. And in fact numerous people did.

      As for gilt for your ancestors actions if it stops germans electing a new Hitler that is surely a good thing. If more french people were guilty about colonialism they would be less discrimination against brown citizens from north africa in france.

  7. daddyhardup says:

    It would be interesting – and revealing, and depressing – to draw up a gazetteer of places in Britain that profited from the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. My guess is that it would have a great many entries, some unexpected. My part of the English Midlands is as far as you can get from the sea in the UK. But the Birmingham metal trades were deeply involved, The City Museum and Art Gallery presented an exhibition about the freed slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in 2007 which included a display of types of Birmingham metal goods that were sold in Africa to buy people – I remember seeing muskets and iron cooking pots – as well as chains and leg-irons that were used to shackle the enslaved Africans themselves. Birmingham also made the brass manillas and copper rods that were used as currency in the slave trade. The North Warwickshire town of Atherstone apparently made large numbers of hats for enslaved Africans. Then there are the country houses and estates built back home in Britain by ‘planters’ who had made their fortune in the Caribbean, like the Greatheeds at Guys Cliffe near Warwick. Economic involvement in, and profit from, slavery extended far beyond the small minority of British people who actually owned slaves or invested in slave ships.

  8. John says:

    There was a TV programme within the last year or so which looked at aspects of British involvement in the slave trade prior to its abolition.
    What was surprising to me was just how many widows held investments in a few slaves.
    The facts and programme are available at
    Information on the original research project on which the programme is based can be seen at
    It all opens up a new – now largely forgotten – chapter in real British history.
    Should we – as modern-day Brits – be ashamed of this aspect of our past history?
    Ask David Cameron that question.
    It was his ancestor who benefited substantially from compensation paid to former slave owners.
    Ordinary Brits of the day – from whom most of us may be descended – did not benefit directly.
    They did nothing obviously wrong so why should we apologise for something done by others?

    • Caradog says:

      “Should we – as modern-day Brits – be ashamed of this aspect of our past history?”

      There’s a wonderful self-contradiction at the heart of that question.

      If “we” should be ashamed of that aspect of “our” history, then “we” should also be immensely proud of “our” unique and staggeringly principled decision, not simply to stop trading in slaves “ourselves” but to forcibly impose that ban on the rest of the world – through the Royal Navy’s de facto control of the seas – a costly act of self-less principle, unprecedented in human history and one that is deliberately air-brushed from modern accounts. On the other hand, if it is inappropriate for “us” to claim the credit for the decisions and actions of people now long dead, well then, none of it – good or bad – is
      anything to do with any of “us”.

      • John says:

        The principal reason it remains an issue is because while the vast majority of us or our ancestors played no part or benefited from the slave trade, there is a small minority of individuals, cities and companies that did benefit substantially.
        The exact reasoning behind the decision to end slavery is not completely clear so it is difficult to potentially credit anyone except the handful of religiously motivated individuals involved.
        The fact is that many slaves who were “freed” were not freed immediately but had to serve out a period of time as a continuing slave before gaining their freedom.
        Their “masters” were paid substantial amounts of compensation at public expense for “freeing” the slaves, while the slaves received no compensation whatsoever.
        I mentioned David Cameron earlier on. An ancestor of received compensation equalling millions of pounds in today’s money, thus setting him and his descendants up for a long time to come.
        This explains why life chances for individuals like Cameron continue to exceed those of others.
        The unfairness and inhumanity of slavery does still continue to resonate to this day.
        We should all note:-
        ‘Through a charitable bequest received in 1710, aimed at establishing Codrington College, the SPG [Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts] became a significant slave owner in Barbados in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With the aim of supplying funding for the college, the Society was the beneficiary of the unpaid and forced labour of thousands of slaves on the Codrington Plantations, many of whom died in captivity from dysentery, typhoid and overwork.
        Although many educational institutions of the period such All Souls College, Oxford and Harvard University benefitted from charitable bequests made by slave owners and slave traders,[12] the ownership of the Codrington Plantations was an ongoing source of controversy for the SPG and the Church of England. In 1783, Bishop Beilby Porteus, an early proponent of Abolitionism, used the occasion of the SPG’s annual anniversary sermon to highlight the conditions at the Codrington Plantations and called for the SPG to end its connection with slave trade. The SPG only finally relinquished its slave holdings in Barbados many decades later after the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
        At the February 2006 meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England, commemorating in part the church’s role in helping to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, delegates voted unanimously to apologise to the descendants of slaves for the church’s involvement in the slave trade. Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark confirmed in a speech before the vote, that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts had owned the Codrington Plantations.[13].
        One of these religious organisations which owned slaves used to brand their slaves for life with the initials of the owner in case their slaves were “lost” or recovered after running away.
        So – yes – it is all religious “brands” that have something to answer – Jews, Christians and Muslims [plus non-religious too] when it comes to the practice of slavery.
        So much for the “Good Old Days”, eh?

        • Keith says:

          I see your point, I think, but I disagree. In reality we all benefit from the results of colonialism and imperialism. The net result of which is more capital and more demand and so faster economic growth, and higher productivity. I feel no guilt about this as I and my family had no direct gain involving moral culpability. But we all gained from such things just as we gain from other accidents of history. We are all lucky. So a degree of humility is called for. To ascribe our wealth and safety to our special virtues rather than our luck is a form of vanity. It is good to remind ourselves but for the grace of god we all go to hell. It may encourage us to be more sympathetic to other people and their problems.

  9. EugenR says:

    The lefty fairy tales are not only about false claim of excessive Jewish involvement in slavery, but about keeping quiet about the Arabs rolle in the slaves trade, even if it was more significant than of any national group all together. Not only the arab merchants were those who captured the black Africans, riding their settlements, and bringing them to British ports in West Africa, but whole East Africa became Muslim, just to avoid the Arab raids taking them slaves. The Lefties, who traditionally twist the history according to their ideological needs, after all​ historcal prove is fundamental for their faith, prove once again how little respect they have to intellectual honesty.

    • Keith says:

      If it is wrong for Arabs / muslims to practice slavery, it is wrong for europeans/ blond christians too. One group is no better than the other. You sound mad. Have you considered Lithium? Then you may perceive that your own argument lacks “intellectual honesty.” as you put it. Unintended irony I assume?

      • EugenR says:

        You want to say if the slave merchant is Arab, Muslim and above all coloured, it is all right. Only the blond / Europeans, who were obviously not better, are to be judged. This i call intellectual honesty.

  10. Dipper says:

    an opportunity to recommend “The Scramble For Africa” by Thomas Pakenham. It deals with the last quarter of the 19th century so does not cover the period when slavery was legal, but is nevertheless fascinating for anyone interested in British history.

  11. Keith says:

    It is not surprising people prefer to downplay the role of exploitation in the development of their nations and economy. It is embarrassing after all. Off course self interest makes all sorts of inconsistency perfectly acceptable. The UK was still benefiting from exploitation and practising barbarism in the empire until it was all swept away by events. The new rulers then frequently carried on with equally morally inconsistent policies based on self interest. Only a minority of high minded people tend to put morality before expediency.

  12. MJW says:

    Discussion of slavery is complex and fraught with problems, one tendency is to frame it as something evil white people did to poor helpless black people, a deliberately facile narrative which avoids uncomfortable overtones of moral relativism and is sensitive to entrenched​ tropes of grievance and entitlement. The unvarnished reality seems too brutal even for those who dedicate great effort in keeping the subject in popular circulation. Slavery has a long history, the mechanisms of Transatlantic slavery long pre-dated the actual involvement of European merchant​s, even if European involvement took existing barbaric local practices and industrialised them.

    Just as many British people may have ancestors who owned or invested in slaves, and there are those whose ancestors were actually slaves themselves, it’s entirely probable there are people in modern Britain whose ancestors sold those slaves into the trade. Given that modern African politics retains tribal elements in some places it is also entirely plausible that some current African politicians are the descendents of tribal leaders who sold slaves.

    • John says:

      On your final point, it is very much the case that coastal African tribes used to raid inland tribal areas to seize people to then sell on to the European slave traders, who would then trans-ship the captured slaves to the Caribbean and Americas.
      Ultimately, no one really possesses the high ground on this issue.
      All ethnic groups and all religious groups – even sexes – share a similar responsibility.

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