Re-examining the slave trade is good for Britain

This week the statue of Lord Nelson was taken down in a dignified ceremony to be taken to a museum. The monument to the naval leader who had defended slavery had been a symbol of pain and humiliation, and its removal was described by culture minister John King as “a step towards the healing of the nation”. 

Despite the efforts of Black Lives Matter protestors, the statue wasn’t atop Nelson’s Column in London; it had been standing in the Barbadian capital Bridgetown for more than two centuries. 

Throughout the Anglophone world, calls are growing for the re-examination of the slave era. In Britain there is more public interest in Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and the industries that relied on slave labour now than at any other time in recent decades. This is partly because staggeringly little is known about it among certain generations and partly because attitudes have shifted away from the assumption that the Empire was simply a force for good, towards wanting to hear the experiences of the black and brown people who now call Britain home.  

And as historian James Walvin said in Enslaved, the recent BBC Two series with Samuel L Jackson, the reason that the British public tolerated involvement in slavery persisted so long was: “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Yet the newly rediscovered interest in Britain’s deep involvement with slavery has the power to disgust and revolt as it did 200 years ago, when abolitionists were travelling the country revealing to incredulous audiences the British-made iron shackles and torture implements being used in and en route to the Caribbean.  

After the statue of benefactor Edward Colston was dragged through the streets of Bristol and tipped into the city’s harbour in June, journalists reported that his employer, the Royal African Company, branded the West Africans it sold as slaves – men, women and children – with the initials of their owners. This detail was, to many people, news.

Portraits of the Georgian aspiring middle classes depict respectability. The Vigor Family by Joseph Highmore, 1744, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as Colston had a hidden side, so do many other figures and events we haven’t tended to associate with slavery. It was King Charles II who expanded British slavery into West Africa; it was the Industrial Revolution that enabled the mass production of restraints that were to be used on African slaves and the “manila” bracelets (often in factories in Birmingham) with which slaves could be bought. Our images of wigged noblemen dashing from stately homes to Georgian townhouses in pursuit of Jane Austen heroines all need serious updating. How did those noblemen make their money? What funded those mansions? The British economy was increasingly built around slavery, so even people not involved in human trade or forced labour may well have only been one step removed. 

Manilas such as these made in Birmingham were used as currency to buy slaves. Credit: Coincoin.com

The process of writing slavery back into our history is gaining pace. Last month the Financial Times told its readers about an “uncomfortable” walking tour of the City of London, a “financier of slave industries and a hotbed of abolitionism”. Institutions such as the Church of England and the Bank of England have apologised for their links to slavery. Other institutions’ links have been brought to light by recent academic work, while still others are hastily and nervously peering into their own archives.  

Of course, for this to become an academic exercise, or, worse still, just a reputation-saving one – would be a great shame. There is something deeply right, and therapeutic, about opening the door to reckoning when it comes knocking. Britain’s reputation here has not been good. Whenever someone (usually a black person) suggests reparations should be paid, some people (usually whites) roll their eyes and say history has moved on, and how would you know whom to pay and so on. 

Yet on the other side of the ocean, several institutions are just getting on with working it out. Let’s start with the Churches, whose historic involvement in slavery is particularly morally jarring. In the US, a number of Episcopalian (Anglican) and Presbyterian institutions have earmarked or collected funds for reparations. The diocese of Maryland has so far raised US$100,000 of a sought $1,000,000 and Long Island has pledged $500,000 to invest in education and training for local African-Americans. Georgetown (Catholic) University in Washington has undertaken a host of measures, partly under pressure from students, including raising tuition fees to support healthcare and education programmes in Maryland and Louisiana, which are home to many descendants of 272 slaves the university sold in 1838. 

These actions are striking because they reflect a heartfelt willingness to undo some of the long-lasting social and structural injustices erected by the slave era. What would the altruism seen at Georgetown achieve if it were replicated by banks, that have far more money than Churches, or governments? And what about the trade that continues today – how wealthy would the Caribbean be if every tonne of sugar or coffee it produces were traded at fair rates?

A fuller understanding of the black experience of slavery, along with the payment of reparations, could be an uncomfortable and costly process, but the result will be a more honest acknowledgement of possibly the most shameful chapter in Britain’s history, and an opportunity to affirm the rights of those who were so badly wronged.

Above: Nelson’s statue is driven away through the streets of Bridgetown. Via Sky News.

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, Channel4.com and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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