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When black lives really did not matter


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Edward Colston had some estimable virtues, as his philanthropic gifts to making Bristol a better town suggests. But those virtues were based on a vice we no longer find bearable. He got his money from participating in the slave trade. It is right that his statue has been torn down. The commentary about him, however, contains some misleading statements. Gurminder Bhambra, for example, notes that it was 'Colston’s company' that sent thousands of Africans to the New World into either death or wretched enslavement. But Colston did not own a slave trading company. He was an employee, working for a state monopoly, of which the largest shareholder was the monarch, James VII and II. It was the whole nation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not just Colston, who thought that black lives did not matter.

We need to consider less Colston and more the Company from which he made his fortune. It was not named the Royal African Company by accident. England made a conscious national decision to support the trade in Africans. The Royal African Company was chartered in 1660 by Charles II with his brother James, Duke of York, later James VII and II, as governor and principal investor. It is the only economic institution established by the state directly controlled by someone who became the monarch. It was established when there was no opposition to slavery worth noting. It was understood that English people were not willing to work on plantations and that Africans could be shipped against their will across the ocean and violently forced to do plantation work.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were truly when black lives did not matter. There was no voice that spoke for Africans until at least the mid-eighteenth century when a few visionary Quakers started to understand slavery as a sin that Christians needed to oppose. Even Britain’s greatest philosopher for liberty, John Locke, profited from racial slavery. As the great Trinidadian historian and prime minister, Eric Williams, argued in 1944, all classes in English society “presented a unified front with regard to the slave trade. The monarchy, the government, the church, public opinion in general, supported the slave trade. There were few protests, and those were ineffective.” We can see just how much support there was for slavery when we read the defence of West Indian planters by Britain’s greatest Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder. He thought that sugar planters should be thought of in the same way “as the landed interest of this kingdom.”  It was a “barbarism,” he thought, “to consider them otherwise.”

Britons had reasons to support slavery. First, it made the Americas profitable and that profit, in the form of taxes on sugar and tobacco, came back to the state and was then put into the navy and army that won wars, gained imperial territory and allowed Britain to 'rule the waves.' Second, it made individual Britons and also the British state rich. Slavery did not play an especially big part in the industrial revolution but it was crucial in advancing the influence of such important national institutions as the Bank of England, the growth of insurance and finance, and contributing to significant areas of manufacturing, such as the copper industry of Wales, and in making cities like Bristol, London and Liverpool prosperous. Finally, the products derived from slavery, notably sugar, made life for everyone in Britain – not just the rich – manifestly more enjoyable. It has sometimes been said that the suffering of millions of Africans in the Caribbean and North America resulted from the incurable sweet tooth characteristic, then and now, of Britons.

The regime that followed the Stuarts – the Hanoverians – may have stopped its own direct investment in slavery after the decline of the Royal African Company with the ascent to the throne of William III but it, like the majority of the aristocracy and most merchants, generally supported slavery (with some worthy exceptions such as the abolitionist Duke of Gloucester). William IV, in particular was a great friend of the West Indian planter interest. Slaveowners could even pose as defenders of liberty, as can be seen in the large statue of William Beckford in the Guildhall of London. Beckford was a great supporter of the libertarian, John Wilkes, but also the greatest slaveowner in the British Empire. Britain was a nation committed to slavery – until suddenly, with the rise of abolitionism, it wasn't.

In short, we need to do what the Germans have done with reckoning with Nazism. We need to understand why we used to be so comfortable with the slavery Colston and the British state profited from that we created a `royal’ company to advance its spread and economic survival. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, with its inspiring Libeskind design, is an important national symbol and a crucial, emotionally-educative resource for younger generations present and future to learn positively from this tragedy. That might be a model to emulate.

In 2007 we commemorated, quite rightly, the sea-change in thinking that occurred in the late eighteenth century when many Britons went from seeing slavery as unproblematic to viewing it as a national sin, leading to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. That campaign against the slave trade was led by young adults, such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and, showing children need not think like their fathers, Britain’s next greatest Prime Minister, William Pitt the younger. They were influenced in their opposition to slavery by their evangelical Christian faith and from black opposition to slavery, such as the brutally suppressed great slave revolt in Jamaica in 1760. That generation were horrified by atrocities such as the murder for an insurance claim of Africans on the Zong – a court case in 1783 which had a similar galvanizing effect on public opinion then as George Floyd’s murder is having now. They sparked a national conversation on slavery and the slave trade. We have celebrated them (and us) for what they achieved – the abolition of a horrible institution. It is time to return to a national conversation, perhaps through increased attention throughout the national curriculum to slavery and its abolition.

Should we not create a prominent National Monument to Slavery and Abolition in our capital city? Washington D.C. has the new and massively popular National Museum of African American Life. Such a monument would build on the important achievements of the International Museum of Slavery at Liverpool. A national Monument close to Parliament would provide a focal point to enable us to continue the national conversation that those abolitionists initiated following a century of British support for the slavery that Colston profited from. That conversation should be more about what Britain has done wrong-supporting slavery over a long time – than about what it has done right – abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself. Until Black Lives Matter, Britain’s slavery history has been publicly discussed, if at all, in a rather one-sided manner, celebrating what Britain did right in 1807. That one-sidedness helps explain why Colston’s statue was still standing so prominently in Bristol with no information on the plaque about the sources of his wealth. Its place now is in a museum of national significance, where the complex and continuing legacy of racial slavery can be fully recognized and addressed.

Further reading

Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1944).

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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