Observations of an expat: A sad, bad history

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Queen Elizabeth I was appalled when she was told that Sir John Hawkins had gone into the slaving business. The venture “was detestable and would call down the vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers,” she said.

Then Hawkins showed her the accounts. The Queen immediately invested in his next slaving voyage. That pretty much sums up the English attitude towards slavery. It was “detestable.” But they held their noses because the trade made shedloads of money.

Slavery helped finance Britain’s industrial revolution and stately homes as well as providing the economic foundation stone of colonial America.

The British did not invent slavery. Historians estimate that 30  percent of the Roman Empire were slaves.  The difference is that the African slave trade was based on racial superiority which subsequent generations are still trying to shed.

The Portuguese were the first in modern times to deal in the African flesh. But by the end of the mid-fifteenth their Spanish neighbours had replaced them.  King Charles V insured Spanish dominance by selling the rights to a monopoly – the asiento – to provide African slaves to Spanish colonies.

If anyone other than the asentista tried to sell slaves in a Spanish colony the captain and crew could be tried as pirates. This did not stop  Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. The two men are better known for capturing Spanish treasure ships, circumnavigating the globe and saving England from the Spanish Armada. But they were also England’s first slave traders.

The first Black slaves in America arrived in 1619. But the African tsunami did not hit the American South until the very end of the 17th century. Until then the southern plantations relied primarily on indentured servants.  It is estimated that up to a half of all the white immigrants to the original thirteen colonies between 1606 and 1776 were indentured servants.

African slaves arrived in major numbers after 1675 when the future King James II took the lead in forming The Royal African Company to establish a royal foothold in the profitable African slave trade.  Because of the company’s royal connections, it became official government policy to encourage the colonials to buy slaves. In 1650 there were only 300 slaves in all of Virginia. By 1700 they were being imported at the rate of a thousand a year.  It is estimated that between 1713 and 1776 an average of 70,000 slaves a year crossed the Atlantic in British ships

Slavery, however, threw up a moral dilemma for the American authors of such high-flown phrases as “All Men are created Equal”. Slave-owning founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, recognised the problem but were too closely tied to the economic benefits to find a solution.

As the Americans struggled to reconcile the high-flown ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the institution of slavery, British abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, campaigned for a ban on the slave trade.  The breakthrough came in 1807 when Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. This was followed by a second Wilberforce campaign to ban slavery outright.  He achieved his goal in 1833 and died five days later.

One of those who attended Wilberforce’s funeral was William Lloyd Garrison. The year before the Bostonian helped to form America’s first serious abolitionist organisation. By 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society had 100,000 members. They had strong support from the British who – now that the empire had been dealt with – shifted their full attention to America.  British abolitionists supplied money, literature, campaign tactics and speakers.

With the end of the Civil War the British public lost interest in the plight of African-Americans. They were free. The South’s Jim Crow laws that followed Reconstruction were of little concern to the British public until well into the 20th century. This is mainly due to the fact that the British did not have clean hands when it came to the treatment of its Black colonial subjects. For centuries they had been regarded as an inferior race. It was difficult to reverse that mind-set.

Until the 1950s most public places in the British colonies were segregated along the same lines as in the American South.  The Afrikaners are blamed for South Africa’s apartheid, but the foundations were laid by the British. The Glen Grey Act of 1894, put limits on the amount of land Africans could own. Blacks were denied the vote in 1905.  The infamous pass laws were a British creation. The 1923 Urban Areas Act introduced residential segregation and in 1926 Africans were banned from skilled trades.

The first cracks in the segregation policies of the American South appeared in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The move started the civil rights movement which eventually culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, colour, religion or national origin. But for many African-Americans the civil rights legislation was too little too late, and definitely too slow. They demanded positive discrimination to redress the balance of centuries of slavery and bigotry.

The race issue that began with the British control of the slave trade and continued with the mistreatment of African-Americans remains a problem and stain on the national character of both countries and another set of dark Anglo-American roots which helps to bind the two countries together.

This article is a precis of the slave trade chapter from Tom Arms’ forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • John Marriott 12th Jun '20 - 11:20am

    I bow to your superior knowledge of history, Mr Arms. However, as anyone, who has watched programmes about the Roman Empire will tell you, slavery is far from a phenomenon exclusively of the second millennium. Perhaps, therefore, we should have a go at all those roman artefacts.

    There were other players in the slave trade besides the Europeans. Arab traders played their part too, and I reckon a few African chiefs as well. Even after abolition, didn’t the British government, while officially claiming to be neutral, tacitly support the South in the American Civil War, because, for no other reason, it needed the latter’s cotton for its northern factories? Perhaps we need to find a few statues of the then PM, Lord Palmerston, or his Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, to pull down, and perhaps also those of his Chancellor of the Exchequer, a certain William E Gladstone?

    However, there is a significant difference between most black Americans and our black citizens. The ancestors of the former arrived on the other side of the Atlantic against their will, to fuel an economy from which our own ancestors to a greater and lesser extent benefitted, whereas most of ours came of their own free will to answer the call of a nation in desperate need of workers in many key industries, from which people of my and later generations have clearly benefitted.

  • Thanks for the bow John. You make a number of excellent points which I actually expand on in my book. Unfortunately there was insufficient space on Lib Dem Voice to reprint the chapter which was over 10,000 words.

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Jun '20 - 1:17pm

    Just to enlarge upon your view that the British Empire was segregated I attach a link to a pamphlet published on 7th January 1822 by Lt John Sheringham, Royal Navy. It shows a mess-deck scene known as “swinging the lamp” wherein tall tales are exchanged to much laughter. Drink is usually involved. Lt Sheringham thought this typical glimpse of life in a wooden man-o-war of the time would entertain the public.
    Please note that the United States Navy did not even begin its de-segregation process until 1947.


  • Sue Sutherland 12th Jun '20 - 3:20pm

    John I think that you’ve forgotten that the ancestors of the Windrush generation were forcibly taken to the West Indies as slaves. When the Windrush generation arrived they were met with overt racism, people calling them monkeys, making monkey noises, notices in lodgings saying “ no Blacks” and people telling them to get back to their tree. I was told about this by black people themselves who were deeply hurt by what had been said and done to them.

  • The pamphlet issued in 1822 shows .to me, shows two people of colour ,one being the story teller at the front. The navy recruited from wherever it could. Black sailors were seen in all UK ports from all over the World. However they were a bit thin on the ground so not overly noticed or thought about.and the colonies were far away.,out of sight out of mind. Along comes the Victorian era and Empire. The ‘inferior’ had to be removed or exploited to fund the society that had been built up.for the rich and powerful. Wilberforce and others new this was morally wrong and campaigned to abolish it,won, things moved on.
    A sense of guilt developed.It was hidden and these great men had a makeover in the papers and ‘good people’ who ruled us. Leading to statues of the ‘good works’ they did. A u-turn and one of the events that lead to was involved in this was the fact that HMS Gannet, a cruiser, patrolled the West and East coasts of Africa policing the still illegal trade. At this time Darwin and Galton came up with their works leading to ,in time, people thinking there was a difference in peoples intelligence. Science is an ever evolving practice which dismisses theories as it goes along .Ideas changed but Hitler took up the worsed of the ,now dismissed, theories to justify his reasoning. There were still after the war people who had been influenced by the mistakes of Galton, Hitler.(no blacks in this B and B . Rivers of blood by a Tory politician) A reincarnation of the’inferior arose. even though these CITIZENS OF THE COMMONWEALTH came to work and do the jobs WHITES WOULD NOT DO. (do white Brits today go work on farms?), Fast forward to today. The far right exploit the situation and give ammo to the far right papers ever willing to keep a battle that should, by now, have been sorted out .

  • John Marriott 12th Jun '20 - 4:44pm

    @Sue Sutherland
    Of course I know that that the ancestors of those who came over from the West Indies were slaves. Please don’t insult my intelligence. That’s not the point. The so called ‘Windrush generation’ were not slaves. They might have been subjected to racial abuse, which I find as repellant as you obviously do, but they came here of their own free will, as did all those immigrants from the Indian sub continent and, later, those EU citizens over the past twenty years or so. The one thing they do have in common is that, by their labours, they have made a massive contribution to our economy and, through their cultures, added greatly to the diversity of our society.

  • There is very little acknowledgement of where we have come from in the fight against slavery and the the racism. I remember as a kid telling jokes in regards to why Romans build straight roads etc etc. So whilst there is work to do there also needs to be acknowledgement of where we came. This constant criticism and calling anyone who raises any concerns about the treatment of the past as racist or fascist is pushing the moderate to the edges. I know plenty who are now annoyed with the whole protest and think the destruction of statues is to far, I am one of those. Do we destroy the statues of Drake, Hawkins and Elizabeth who names are linked to slavery or do we acknowledge that the past of all nations is tainted by slavery. We must also address the underlying hypocrisy of us all… Protesting that black life’s matters when the clothes or shoes we wear and made by people who probably lucky to see a couple of pounds for their labor, black lives matter but so do all those who placed into servitude to keep us happy

  • Stephen Booth 13th Jun '20 - 8:24am

    An excellent reference summary from Tom Arms. Looking forward to the book. I hope it includes reference to modern definitions of slavery, which is common in the many Middle East countries.

    In the meantime I strongly recommend Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons for an account of what slavery meant in the West Indies and particularly Barbados and Jamaica. Once the captured Africans had made the grim Middle Passage that was only the beginning of the horrors visited on them by violent gang masters and plantation owners. A horrible stain on human history, the consequences of which continue to rumble on today.

  • N Hunter: “RN…black sailors….were thin on the ground”
    I certainly wouldn’t argue with that, but obviously enough around to be included in the murals at the foot of Nelson’s column.
    Whether they were there by press gang, I don’t know.

  • N. Hunter,

    I am afraid my book does not mention contemporary slave problems. The focus of the book is on the British contribution to the development of America. But you are right to raise the subject. There are an estimated 40 million people in the world today whose lives we would regard as a form of slavery. These include sex slaves, child soldiers and domestic workers. The most common form is bonded slavery which is endemic in South and southeast Asia. The subsistence workers fall into debt for one reason or another. Their employer loans them money at an exorbitant interest rate. The worker is unable to pay the debt so the employer demands payment in never-ending and back-breaking labour.

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