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.