A dark stain under a shining deed

February 2, 2007

Britain led the way in abolishing slavery 200 years ago, but also profited vastly from the slave trade. James Walvin challenges historians to delve into this puzzling conundrum

Last October, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, published a report, commissioned by its president, that analysed the university's role in the slave trade and slavery. It was no real surprise to learn that the university had benefited directly and indirectly from slaving. After all, Rhode Island had been a major centre of North American slave-trading. The report listed a string of prominent university members who had been involved in slaving, even though the university itself did not own slaves. This was only the latest of a number of US institutions (notably banks) known to have been investors in the slave system. But how could it have been otherwise in an American society so closely enmeshed in black slavery?

There may be a temptation to imagine that this is a uniquely American problem, that the complex ramifications of slavery are rooted on the far side of the Atlantic. But a closer look at the British case raises equally troubling questions. Moreover, 2007 is a good year to think more critically about the links between Britain and slavery.

The British seem keen to remember key historical anniversaries. In recent years we've had commemorations for the Battle of Trafalgar, the Gunpowder Plot, D-Day and many more. In 2007, the bicentennial of the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 (though not of slavery, which lasted until 1833) will be commemorated through a host of events. There will be exhibitions around the country, most major public institutions offering their own distinctive slant on abolition, new stamps, a new coin and a broadly based cultural focus on abolition, its consequences - and its legacies.

But the closer one scrutinises the abolition of the slave trade, the more problematic and puzzling it becomes. Over the past two years, the debates about how best to commemorate 1807 have gradually deflected any lingering sense of triumphalism about abolition. At first glance, there seem plenty of reasons to feel proud of abolition. For years, abolition was portrayed as a selfless act: a triumph for civility, Christian outrage and humane sensibility. But if the slave trade was sinful/immoral/outrageous in 1807, why had it not been so in the previous century and a half? What had changed - the slave trade or the British people?

It took 20 years for the Abolition Act to emerge from Parliament, forced through by a growing band of abolitionists led by William Wilberforce, and propelled forward by some powerful popular support in the country at large.

But what about the times before 1807 - the years when opponents of the slave trade and slavery were rare, inaudible or simply drowned out by the noise of profitable slave-based commerce? If we are to recall 1807, we need also to remember what went before, and it is at this point that the public memory becomes less certain, because the story is altogether bleaker. Here is the dark stain of British history.

In the century and a half before 1807, more than 3 million Africans were carried across the Atlantic in British ships. Moreover, British slavery survived for a further generation and was promptly replaced by large-scale Indian indentured labour. Add to this the history of the continuing illicit Atlantic trade, which saw many more Africans shipped mainly to Cuba and Brazil, and it becomes clearer that 1807 has complex dimensions - and all this is before we add the complexities of British imperialism in Africa from the late 19th century onwards.

The slave trade was ended by an Act of Parliament. But the Act of 1807 was only the latest of a string of Acts concerned with Atlantic slavery. There was a shoal of legislation after, say, 1660 that enabled, monitored and controlled the slave trade: dozens of Acts confirming Parliament's role as a slaving legislature, long before it turned its back on Atlantic slavery and determined to become a legislature for global abolition.

Why did the British suddenly turn against the slave trade? Here, after all, was a form of trade that had attracted relatively little criticism and that, it was generally agreed, provided a source of great material bounty to Britain and her slave colonies. Critics were silenced by the crescendo of lucrative trade. If anyone had doubts, they had only to look at the rising prosperity of all those ancillary businesses (banking, insurance, maritime industries, supplies to and from Africa and the Americas, the vast consumption of slave-grown produce, the urban fabric of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow) to get a sense of what slavery meant to Britain.

It was a massive, buoyant, expansive business that showed no real signs of slacking. Indeed, in the very years when the abolition took off, demand for Africans was greater than ever. No one involved in the slave trade and Caribbean slavery wanted to bring it to an end, and few thought it was in decline - quite the reverse. Those with most to lose fought abolition to the bitter end. Yet for all that, Parliament ended the slave trade.

After 1807 the British, the Atlantic's greatest slave poacher of the 18th century, became the world's fiercest gamekeeper of the 19th. In a sense, abolition in 1807 put out a smokescreen that hid from view everything that had gone before. It is too easy to think of Atlantic slavery as something that unfolded on the high seas, on the west African slave coasts, in the plantations of the Americas. Yet it is now abundantly clear, thanks to a number of historians in a variety of specialisms, that slavery flourished via an intimate British involvement.

Thousands of British ships, tens of thousands of sailors, shiploads of British goods all headed for the slave coasts. The colonial plantations of the Caribbean and North America were sustained by British investments and goods. And the British economy, from early banking to maritime insurance, benefited enormously from trade and investment in Atlantic slavery. The domestic British economy absorbed, processed and sold enormous volumes of slave-grown produce (notably sugar and tobacco); and even the economies of more distant regions (Chinese tea and porcelain, for example) were locked into the slave economy: tea and sugar went together like love and marriage.

The nation of shopkeepers, discussed by Adam Smith and Napoleon, was sustained in large measure by retailing huge quantities of produce cultivated by Africans in the Americas.

Slavery was, on the one hand, distant, out of sight and perhaps out of mind, yet at the same time it was close and inextricably linked to the British heartland. It was part of the warp and weft of British Atlantic expansion and prosperity from the mid-17th century to the early 19th century. The rise of British power in the Atlantic was partly shaped for the advancement and defence of the slaving system; the slave routes and slave colonies lay at the heart of many British strategic decisions and planning. Keeping enemies out of the British slaving sphere (and grabbing opponents' slave possessions) was part of the broader history of British dominance and wellbeing by the late 18th century. But at every turn there were contradictions. The British were happy to sing about ruling the waves and never being slaves, but at the same time they enslaved Africans by the boatload and ferried them along sea-lanes secured by the Royal Navy.

There has, however, been a deep-seated reluctance to accept how central and intimate was the relationship between Britain and slavery. For a start, the subject has fallen victim to the over-specialisation that has hobbled academic history, with slavery viewed as the preserve of Africanists, Americanists or maritime historians, rather than a legitimate feature of British historical experience. At a more popular level, there has been a tendency for the British to think of their involvement with slavery only at its death, at the time of abolition and emancipation.

In abolishing the slave trade and then slavery, the British were at the vanguard, and it is tempting to feel a sense of national pride in having secured the moral high ground ahead of others. But abolition will be understood fully only if it is located in what happened before, as well as after, 1807. The fact that the British were the dominant slave traders of the late 18th century makes abolition itself all the more remarkable, and more difficult to explain. Therein lies the challenge of 2007 and after.

What is required is a seriously critical appraisal of the role of slavery in fashioning key features of modern Britain. Brown University had a specific and distinctive set of questions to ask of its past: 2007 offers the opportunity for the British to do much the same of their historical involvement with slavery in the Atlantic world.

James Walvin is emeritus professor of history at York University and historical curator for the parliamentary exhibition The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People , to be held in Westminster Hall from May 23 to September 23.

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