White Christians were happy to profit from the people trade until they saw slaves were indeed fellow humans, learns Trevor Burnard.
Last Sunday, to mark the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade, the Church of England hosted a Walk of Witness in London, where it repented its role in supporting the enslavement of Africans in the 18th century. Repentance is appropriate, but it says something about the current Church of England that it is more concerned about what it did wrong than in celebrating its truly remarkable achievement in transforming British opinion about slavery so that an institution that enhanced British prosperity became in a very short period an affront to British values. As James Walvin notes in his readable, accessible and sobering tale of three individuals caught up in 18th-century slavery, the 1780s saw a seismic shift in the way Britain viewed the world, meaning that "the nation that had throughout much of the 18th century perfected and profited from Atlantic slavery now turned against it with a vengeance, deciding that it offended their religious sensibilities".
Walvin sensibly does not attempt to explain why this seismic shift occurred. Instead, he examines a complex global system through the lives of three men, different in most ways except that each had a fierce intelligence. His approach allows some insight into why Britain would destroy a system in which it exercised world leadership. By the mid-18th century, Britons were the best slavers in the world. They shipped more slaves than any other nation and operated awesomely productive and profitable plantations, especially in the Caribbean. The only costs were to the Africans who became slaves, but few people worried about what happened to Africans because they were hardly thought of as people at all.
In retrospect, what amazes most about the sudden growth of abolitionism is how Africans came to be thought of as people with rights like those of Europeans. Even people with strong religious convictions did not feel that way mid-century, as Walvin shows in his first case study, which focuses on James Newton, slave-trader turned clergyman, most famous as the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace . Newton always needed spiritual succour but sublimated this need for many years while enjoying a variety of sins in the West African slave trade. He was later ashamed of his debasement in those years, but his concern over himself as a sinner without awareness of God's grace, so powerfully enunciated in his famous hymn, was not connected to guilt over how he treated slaves. Slaves, he assumed, were merely numbers, commodities little different from cattle, shipped for profit across the Atlantic. His conversion to evangelical Christianity in slaveholding St Kitts in 1753 was not accompanied by a conversion to antislavery. It took another 30 years before what he had done to Africans came to haunt him, and even then he was unwilling to acknowledge fully his role in the trade. As Walvin notes, Newton was a reluctant abolitionist despite gaining renown as a famous preacher who traded on his former sinfulness. Newton's career shows that there was no necessary reason why evangelicalism would lead to antislavery and to a concern with Africans as fellow humans.
But Britons could have had little doubt that slavery was sinful if they had bothered to learn about what happened to slaves in the Caribbean. Slavery entailed an alliance with the Devil. The money that was made in sugar came literally out of the skins of black people. Walvin makes this clear in his depiction of Thomas Thistlewood, an Englishman of modest origins who did well financially and socially as a master of slaves. Thistlewood had the same intellectual curiosity as Newton, though his ambitions were in science rather than theology. Like Newton, he was a man of the Enlightenment and, in his dealings with whites, a man of sensibility and feeling. But, also like Newton, he did not feel that his slaves were people whose feelings counted or who had concerns that he had to take into account. Unlike Newton, however, he was not squeamish about relating how he treated slaves. His diaries show him to be, as Walvin argues, a sadistic brute who knew violence was at the core of the slave system. His slaves lived "in miserable slavery", and it was Thistlewood who made those lives miserable. The chapters dealing with Thistlewood are the most telling in the book because it is here that Walvin makes clear how truly monstrous the system actually was at the level of master and slave. It is here, too, that his intention to look at individuals is most fully vindicated.
What is also clear from Thistlewood's detailed, relentless descriptions of how he degraded slaves was that slaves, even if African, were indeed human. When Britons realised what slavery actually entailed, they turned away from it, and from planters, in revulsion. For evangelical Christians, what was worst about slavery was how it corrupted everyone involved in it.
Few people demonstrated how slavery corrupted more clearly than Olaudah Equiano, who achieved fame through a remarkable autobiography that described not only his ill-treatment in the Atlantic slave trade but also how he freed himself. Equiano showed ordinary Britons what could be done if slavery was abolished. He demonstrated that an African could transform himself from a slave into a Christian gentleman. Walvin is perhaps oversympathetic to Equiano, whom recent research has shown may not have been who he proclaimed himself to be and whose character as presented in his autobiography was not always attractive. For Walvin, Equiano is an icon. Certainly, his autobiography has become canonical, the best example of a black voice in the 18th century. His real importance, however, was as a catalyst, to encourage British Christians to see that not only was slavery a sin but also that Africans were people like them. Without the testimony of men such as Equiano and the evangelicals gathered at Teston and Clapham, who were able to see that slavery was not an abstract notion but a sin committed by individuals against other individuals, the seismic shift that occurred against slavery in the 1780s would have been impossible. This book is an excellent introduction for the general reader of what slavery meant to ordinary men and women at the peak of its importance to Britain.
Trevor Burnard is professor of American studies, Sussex University.
The Trader, The Owner, The Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery
Author - James Walvin
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 297
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 0224061445