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When will Britain face up to its crimes

against humanity?
After the abolition of slavery, Britain paid millions in compensation – but every
penny of it went to slave owners, and nothing to those they enslaved. We must stop
overlooking the brutality of British history. By Kris Manjapra

On 3 August 1835, somewhere in the City of London, two of Europe’s most famous
bankers came to an agreement with the chancellor of the exchequer. Two years
earlier, the British government had passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which outlawed
slavery in most parts of the empire. Now it was taking out one of the largest loans in
history, to finance the slave compensation package required by the 1833 act. Nathan
Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore agreed to loan the British
government £15m, with the government adding an additional £5m later. The total sum
represented 40% of the government’s yearly income in those days, equivalent to some
£300bn today.

You might expect this so-called “slave compensation” to have gone to the freed slaves
to redress the injustices they suffered. Instead, the money went exclusively to the
owners of slaves, who were being compensated for the loss of what had, until then,
been considered their property. Not a single shilling of reparation, nor a single word
of apology, has ever been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved, or
their descendants.

Today, 1835 feels so long ago; so far away. But if you are a British taxpayer, what
happened in that quiet room affects you directly. Your taxes were used to pay off the
loan, and the payments only ended in 2015. Generations of Britons have been
implicated in a legacy of financial support for one of the world’s most egregious
crimes against humanity.

The fact that you, and your parents, and their parents in turn, may have been paying
for a huge slave-owner compensation package from the 1830s only came to public
attention last month. The revelation came on 9 February, in the form of a tweet by
HM Treasury: “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you have helped
end the slave trade through your taxes. Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20
million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The
amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t
paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the
slave trade.”

The tweet, which the Treasury says was prompted by a Freedom of Information Act
request submitted in January, generated a storm of anger and crowdsourced
corrections. First, the British slave trade was not abolished in 1833, but in 1807.
Second, slavery was not abolished in all parts of the British empire in 1833. The new
law applied to the British Caribbean islands, Mauritius and the Cape Colony, in
today’s South Africa, but not to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) or British India, for instance.
Third, no freedom was “bought” for plantation slaves in 1833, as the enslaved were
compelled to work in unfreedom, without pay and under the constant threat of
punishment, until 1838. Most importantly, the Treasury’s tweet did not mention that
generations of British taxpayers had been paying off a loan that had been used to
compensate slave owners, rather than slaves.

The tweet, which was hastily deleted, had the stench of British historical amnesia and
of institutionalised racism. A few days later, the historian David Olusoga wrote:
“[This] is what happens when those communities for whom this history can never be
reduced to a Friday factoid remain poorly represented within national institutions.”

The tweet was no aberration. It was emblematic of the way legacies of slavery
continue to shape life for the descendants of the formerly enslaved, and for everyone
who lives in Britain, whatever their origin. The legacies of slavery in Britain are not
far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day.

We can only begin to understand slavery’s influence on Britain today by first


allowing 500 years of human history to flash before our eyes. Beginning in the last
decades of the 1400s, we see African people kidnapped from their families, crammed
into the dark pits of slave forts, and then piled into the bowels of ships. We see
voyagers and traders, such as John Hawkins in the 1560s, becoming some of the first
British men to make massive fortunes from this trade in kidnapped Africans. By the
late 17th century, we see the British coming to dominate the slave trade, having
overtaken the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. We see tens of thousands of merchant
ships making the “middle passage”, the voyage across the Atlantic that transformed
captives from Africa into American slave commodities. Half of all the Africans
transported into slavery during the 18th century were carried in the holds of British
ships.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, more than 11 million shackled black captives
were forcibly transported to the Americas, and unknown multitudes were lost at sea.
Captives were often thrown overboard when they were too sick, or too strong-willed,
or too numerous to feed. Those who survived the journey were dumped on the shores
and sold to the highest bidder, then sold on again and again like financial assets.
Mothers were separated from children, and husbands from wives, as persons were
turned into property. Slaves were raped and lynched; their bodies were branded,
flayed and mutilated. Many slave owners, in their diaries, manuals, newspaper
writings and correspondence, readily admitted the punishments and violations they
exacted on black people on the cane fields and in their homes. Take, for example, the
unapologetic recollections of violence and predation that comprise the diary of
Thomas Thistlewood, a British slave owner in Jamaica in the mid-1700s. Thistlewood
recorded 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse with 136 enslaved women in his 37 years in
Jamaica. In his 23 July 1756 entry, he described punishing a slave in the following
manner: “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his
mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it 4
or 5 hours.”

In Barbados, the British established one of the first modern slave societies. Slavery
had certainly been practised in many parts of the world since ancient times. But never
before had a territory’s entire economy been based on slave labour for capitalist
industry. Beginning in 1627, the enslaved were put to work in the intense cultivation
of sugar cane, working in chain gangs in shifts that covered a 24-hour production
cycle. In one of the greatest experiments in human terror the world has ever known,
this system of plantation slavery expanded over the following centuries across the
Caribbean, South America and the southern United States. Fear and torture were used
to drive black workers to cut, mill, boil and “clay” the sugar, so it could be shipped to
Britain as part of a lucrative “triangle of trade” between the west coast of Africa, the
Americas and Britain. The trade in slaves, and the goods they were forced to produce
– sugar, tobacco and eventually cotton – created the first lords of modern capitalism.

Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn
of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on
earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved. And the legacy of such large-scale,
prolonged slavery touches everything that is familiar in Britain today, including
buildings named after slave owners such as Colston Hall in Bristol; streets named
after slave owners such as Buchanan and Dunlop Streets in Glasgow; and whole parts
of cities built for slave owners, such as the West India Docks in London. The cultural
legacy of slavery also infuses British tastes, from sweetened tea, to silver service, to
cotton clothwork, to the endemic race and class inequalities that characterise everyday
life.

Britain’s central role in 500 years of the slave trade and plantation slavery is often
dissolved like a bitter pill into the much more palatable tonic of the nation’s role in
the story of abolition. This narrative often begins in the pews of Holy Trinity Church
in Clapham, where the cherubic William Wilberforce worshipped. Today, he can be
seen on the stained glass above the altar of that church, giving the news of the 1807
abolition of the slave trade to a black woman who kneels before him. Around
Wilberforce coalesced a group of Church of England social reformers, known as the
Clapham Saints, who led the campaign against the slave trade, and then pressed
onward to fight for the abolition of plantation slavery in 1833. Over the past few
decades, scholars have also stressed the ways in which the antislavery movement
depended on expanding democratic participation in civic debate, with British women
and the working classes playing a crucial role in the abolitionist ranks. British
parliamentarians were inundated with thousands of petitions from ordinary people
pressing them to pass laws that eventually brought slavery to an end.

Abolitionists in Britain maintained that slavery was a violation of God’s will. Since
every human being possessed a soul, they argued that no human being could be made
into another man’s possession without also perverting the divine plan. To encourage
their fellow citizens to look into the face of the enslaved and see fellow human
beings, British abolitionists distributed autobiographies of people who had
experienced slavery, such as works by Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Mary
Prince. If only the British public could hear the voices of black people through their
writing, then they could empathise with their oppression. It would then become
possible to look into the eyes of the enslaved and see a person staring back.
But narratives of abolition cannot be reduced to a story of angelic white benefactors
gifting freedom to their black wards. (There are 32 images of William Wilberforce in
the National Portrait Gallery, but just four images of black abolitionists and
antislavery activists from the same period.) In Britain, the popular narrative too often
ignores the fact that blacks on the plantations were convinced of their own
personhood long before anyone else. Rebellions were endemic to slavery, and by the
1810s and 20s, many slave societies in the British Caribbean were experiencing
insurgencies. Enslaved people rebelled in Barbados in 1816, and Demerara (today’s
Guyana) in 1823. Shortly after Christmas 1831, an audacious rebellion broke out in
Jamaica. Some 60,000 enslaved people went on strike. They burned the sugar cane in
the fields and used their tools to smash up sugar mills. The rebels also showed
remarkable discipline, imprisoning slave owners on their estates without physically
harming them.

The British Jamaican government responded by violently stamping out the rebellion,
killing more than 540 black people in combat, and later with firing squads and on the
gallows. The uprising sent shockwaves through the British parliament and accelerated
the push for the abolition of slavery. Henry Taylor, head of the West India division of
the British Colonial Office, later commented, “this terrible event [of the rebellion]…
was indirectly a death blow to slavery”.

Not only did blacks mobilise for their own liberation, but by the 1820s slavery was
also beginning to clash with an economic principle that was becoming an article of
faith for British capitalists: free trade. Eric Williams, a historian of slavery who also
became the first prime minister of independent Trinidad in 1962, has argued that
slavery in the British empire was only abolished after it had ceased to be
economically useful. Many British merchants involved in selling Cuban, Brazilian
and East Indian sugar in Britain wanted to see an end to all duties and protections that
safeguarded the West Indian sugar monopoly. British capitalists also saw fresh
possibilities for profit across the globe, from South America to Australia, as new
transportation and military technologies – steamships, gunboats and railways – made
it possible for European settlers to penetrate new frontiers. The economic system of
British slavery was moribund by 1833, but it still needed to be officially slain.

By 1830, debates were raging in the British parliament, and in the public sphere,
about ending slavery. The powerful West India interest – a group of around 80 MPs
who had ties to Caribbean slavery – opposed abolition. They were joined by an
additional group of some 10 MPs who did not possess slaves themselves, but still
opposed any proposal to tamper with slave owners’ right to property – that property,
in this case, being human beings. The faction presented “compensated emancipation”,
or the payment of money to slave owners at abolition, as a way of upholding property
rights. Beyond parliament, many thousands of Britons across the country – slave
owners, West India merchants, sugar refiners, trade brokers, ship owners, bankers,
military men, members of the gentry and clergymen – actively championed the
principle of compensation by attending public rallies organised by various West India
Committees.
This notion of “compensated emancipation” was relatively new. When slaves were
emancipated in northern US states in the years before 1804, no compensation to their
owners was paid. Only in the 1810s did the British government take the
unprecedented step of paying compensation to Spain, Portugal and some West
African states to solicit their cooperation in the suppression of the slave trade. The
attempt failed, however, as Spain and Portugal pocketed British money and continued
their slave trading until the later 19th century. British slave owners nonetheless
demanded, in the 1830s, that this international precedent be applied to them.

The argument for slave-owner compensation relied on perverse logic. Under English
law, it was difficult to claim compensation for the loss of chattel property, since rights
to movable things – such as household possessions, or tools, or livestock – were
considered inherently unstable, expendable and ambiguous. So, the West India
interest in parliament, led by the likes of Patrick Maxwell Stewart, a rich London
merchant who owned slaves in Tobago, made fanciful arguments to align the enslaved
more with land or buildings, or even with body parts, than with human beings.
According to one line of argument, because the government paid money to
landowners when it took over fields for public works such as docks, roads, bridges
and railways, so too it had to pay slave owners for taking over their slaves. According
to another argument, because the government paid soldiers for the injury to organs or
the loss of limbs during war, so too it had to provide slave owners aid for cutting them
off from their slaves, which maimed slave owners’ economic interests.

Many mainstream abolitionists felt uncomfortable about the compensation of slave


owners, but justified it as a pragmatic, if imperfect, way to achieve a worthy goal.
Other abolitionists, especially a vanguard group within the Anti-Slavery Society
called the “Agency Committee”, railed against the idea. “It would reconcile us to the
crime,” wrote one contributor to the Anti-Slavery Monthly Report in 1829. “It would
be a sap on public virtue,” wrote another the following year. Some activists even
demanded that compensation be paid to the enslaved. “To the slave-holder, nothing is
due; to the slave, everything,” said an antislavery pamphlet in 1826. Many antislavery
members of parliament, such as Thomas Fowell Buxton and William Clay, spoke out
vociferously against slave-owner compensation. Hundreds of petitions were also sent
in by the corps of abolitionists beyond the ramparts of the political elite, insisting that
no money go to the perpetrators of crimes against God’s will.

The decision to compensate slave owners was not just an inevitable expression of the
widespread beliefs of those times. Political decisions reflect who is in the room when
the decisions are being made. The Reform Act of 1832 drastically transformed the
British electoral system and extended the franchise, to the detriment of the West India
interest. But even in the reformed House of Commons, scores of MPs still had close
financial or family ties to slave ownership. On the other hand, it bears remembering
that the first black Britons were not elected to the House of Commons until near the
end of the following century, more than 150 years later.

Other slave-owning states, including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Brazil,
would follow the British example of compensated emancipation in the coming
decades. But the compensation that Britain paid to its slave owners was by far the
most generous. Britain stood out among European states in its willingness to appease
slave owners, and to burden future generations of its citizens with the responsibility of
paying for it.

The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research
by historians at University College London has shown the striking diversity of the
people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the
Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the
money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number
of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the
total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed
down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite. Among the descendants of the
recipients of slave-owner compensation is the former prime minister David Cameron.

The decision to emancipate slaves by treating them like property, and not like
persons, was no mere theoretical exercise. Rather than putting a sudden end to their
suffering, the process of emancipation marked a new phase of British atrocities and
the terrorisation of blacks.

The emancipation process was minutely orchestrated by government bureaucrats. In


September 1835, less than a month after the government received its loan, slave
owners began their feeding frenzy as they obtained compensation cheques at the
National Debt Office. Payment amounts were determined based on application forms
that asked claimants to itemise the number and kinds of enslaved people in their
possession, and to provide certificates from the slave registrar. There were some
47,000 recipients of compensation in total.

In addition to money, slave owners received another form of compensation: the


guaranteed free labour of blacks on plantations for a period of years after
emancipation. The enslaved were thus forced to pay reverse reparations to their
oppressors. At the stroke of midnight on 1 August 1834, the enslaved were freed from
the legal category of slavery – and instantly plunged into a new institution, called
“apprenticeship”. The arrangement was initially to last for 12 years, but was
ultimately shortened to four. During this period of apprenticeship, Britain declared it
would teach blacks how to use their freedom responsibly, and would train them out of
their natural state of savagery. But this training involved continued unpaid labour for
the same masters on the very same plantations on which they had worked the day
before.

In some ways, the “apprenticeship” years were arguably even more brutal than what
had preceded them. With the Slavery Abolition Act, the duty to punish former slaves
now shifted from individual slave owners to officers of the state. A state-funded, 100-
person corps of police, jailers and enforcers was hired in Britain and sent to the
plantation colonies. They were called the “stipendiary magistrates”. If apprentices
were too slow in drawing water, or in cutting cane, or in washing linens, or if they
took Saturdays off, their masters could have them punished by these magistrates.

Punishments were doled out according to a standardised formula, and often involved
the most “modern” punishment device of those times: the treadmill. This torture
device, which was supposed to inculcate a work ethic, was a huge turning wheel with
thick, splintering wooden slats. Apprentices accused of laziness – what slave owners
called the “negro disease” – were hung by their hands from a plank and forced to
“dance” the treadmill barefoot, often for hours. If they fell or lost their step, they
would be battered on their chest, feet and shins by the wooden planks. The
punishment was often combined with whippings. The treadmill was used more during
the apprenticeship period than it ever was under slavery, precisely because it was said
to be a scientific, measurable and modern form of disciplinary re-education, in line
with bureaucratic oversight. One apprentice, James Williams, in an account of his life
published in 1837, recalled he was punished much more after 1834 than before.
Indeed, it is likely that slave-owners sweated their labour under apprenticeship, in
order to squeeze out the last ounces of unpaid labour before full emancipation finally
came in 1838.

While the British state, even after emancipation, still failed to see black people as
persons, the enslaved themselves inhabited a complex society of their own creation.
Enslaved people called the experience of slavery “barbarity time”. And during the
barbarity, they developed their own internal banking and legal systems. They created
extensive trading relations between towns and villages, and across plantation
enclaves. They had their own spiritual practices, such as Obeah, an Afro-centric
repertoire of divination and social communion cultivated alongside the religion
bestowed by the Christian missionaries. Slaves had their own rich musical forms and
traditions of storytelling. They were engineers, chemists and medics on the plantation
fields they inhabited. Many of their innovations contributed to making life under
slavery livable, such as the architectural design of the tapia house in Trinidad. Even if
the official white gaze could not see the 800,000 persons that lived in the plantation
colonies, those persons still persisted.

Benjamin Disraeli, the great Tory prime minister of the late 19th century, once
described the “forlorn Antilles”, or Caribbean, as millstones around the neck of
Britain. Here in Disraeli’s remark, is the British habit of externalising the problem of
slavery as playing out in some distant place, rather than within Britain’s own heart of
darkness. Today, evading the question of British slave legacies takes the form of
celebratory national narratives about British abolition, and in the nervous reflex of
switching the topic to “modern slavery” whenever the history of British slavery is
raised for discussion. Slavery becomes comfortable for the British nation if it can be
situated “out there”, among the dark-skinned peoples of the earth, in countries far
away.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the British establishment has been so resistant to
hearing calls for reparations for slavery. In 1997, manacled human remains were
found on a beach in Devon. It was soon determined that the bones were those of
enslaved blacks who had probably been kept in the hold of The London, a vessel
shipwrecked in 1796. The enslaved people, who were probably from the Caribbean,
were supposed to be sold on the British slave market. Labour MP Bernie Grant, a
reparations advocate and one of the first black members of parliament, took the
occasion to make a pilgrimage to Devon, and to renew the call for reparations.
Grant’s programme began with the demand for an apology from the British state for
the legacies of British slavery. “I am going to write to the Queen,” Grant had said in a
speech in Birmingham in 1993. “I know she is a very reasonable woman.” He died in
2000 without ever receiving that very reasonable apology.

In 2013, a powerful renewed call for reparations arose among representatives of


Caribbean nations, stimulated by the publication of the book Britain’s Black Debt.
The following year, its author, Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of
the West Indies, and chair of the Caribbean Reparations Commission, gave an address
to a group of British MPs and peers in the UK parliament’s British-Caribbean all-
party group. His voice booming across Committee Room 14, Beckles argued that
Britain has a “case to answer in respect of reparatory justice”.

He anchored his demand for reparations in the need for the British state to admit its
role in forcefully extracting wealth from the Caribbean, impeding industrialisation
and causing chronic poverty. The Caribbean, by the late 20th century, became one of
the largest centres of predatory lending, orchestrated by the IMF and World Bank, as
well as by European and American banks. Even today, the economies of Jamaica,
Barbados and Antigua find themselves dangling precariously between life and debt,
suspended by their historically enforced dependence on foreign finance.

The legacies of slavery and racism are no less present in Britain, where black workers
are more than twice as likely than white workers to work in temporary or insecure
forms of employment. While 3% of Britain’s general population is black, black
people comprise 12% of the incarcerated. And people of colour are still hugely
underrepresented in positions of power in Britain – in politics, academia and the
judiciary, in particular.

Six months after Beckles’ speech, the Treasury finally finished repaying the debt on
its Abolition of Slavery Act loan. And a further six months after that, in July 2015,
then-prime minister David Cameron travelled to Jamaica on an official visit. There,
on behalf of the British nation, he took a big leap backwards. It is time to “move on
from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future,” he stated glibly.

But how can you move on from something that has not yet stopped happening?
Neither the history of British slavery, nor the process of emancipation that re-enacted
slavery, nor the bones of the enslaved that wash up on British shores, nor the debt for
slave-owner compensation that continued for so long to cycle through British national
accounts, seem ever to be able to bring the nation’s representatives to acknowledge its
crimes against humanity and to provide restitution.

The scholar Christina Sharpe has written about the “residence time” of black bodies
thrown into the dark sea during the “middle passage”. This is the span of time,
measured in thousands of years, that it takes for the atoms of jettisoned slaves’ bodies
to pass out of the oceanic system. The Atlantic is one kind of vault of slavery’s
aftermath. But so too is the ocean of British national debt, through which the ghosts of
the enslaved circulated for centuries, waiting for their moment of due reckoning;
waiting for an apology from the British state, and for its commitment to redress what
British slavery sought to obliterate: the personhood of black folk who emerged out of
this empire, like me and my ancestors.

• This article was amended on 29 March 2018. An earlier version stated incorrectly
that the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol was named after slave-owners. It was
named after a merchant whose family’s business profited from the slave trade.

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