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:

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.

Letter from a Barbadian – topple structures before statues

The pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors has reignited the debate around Britain’s historic involvement in slavery as well as sparking fears of hasty revisionism and lawlessness. Here Barbadian blogger Safiya Robinson offers a different approach, calling for a deeper public understanding of the story at the heart of the controversy  

I had so many feelings when I heard that the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol had been torn down and thrown into the harbour. 

When I moved from Barbados to the UK in the 1990s, Bristol was the first place I lived, studied and worked. It was there I learned that my new university friends knew nothing of the enslavement and transportation of Africans to the Caribbean and Americas. Instead they had learned a whitewashed view of history.

As someone who studied Caribbean history in secondary school, I was puzzled. Isn’t history just facts of what happened when? Given the fact that so much of the history of former colonies is British history, I wondered how the historians had managed to gloss over this – especially given how much of the wealth in the UK was built from profits generated through the trading of enslaved Africans and their labour. 

It seems instead the focus was on the generosity of figures such as Colston, without mention of the source of his wealth. 

I have heard the arguments that slavery was legal, and that is why the economic and philanthropic contributions of figures like Colston were celebrated. However, not mentioning connections to the slave trade sounds more like shame than acceptance of their involvement.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is now an optional part of the British curriculum for 11-13 year olds, so I hope that the younger generation will consign the ignorance I encountered to the past. There is much that I hope is included, and much that I want anyone older to understand.

Teaching should include what took the Europeans to the Americas – a search for an alternative route to Asia, a search for riches and undiscovered lands, and how the people native to the Caribbean – the Lokono, Taino and Caribs – were enslaved to work in agriculture and largely eradicated by European diseases and firearms. It should include the use of indentured servants in the seventeenth century, often from Ireland, which was a precursor to slavery, and the sanctioning of the slave trade by the Church and government. It should include the triangle slave trade, the deaths of thousands of enslaved Africans en route, their bodies thrown overboard, and survivors traded as chattel. 

I would want people to understand that the measures used to maintain power and supremacy in the Americas were psychology and brute force, and that abolition campaigns were only one factor in the ending of slavery, alongside economic ones (a decline in sugar trade, the Industrial Revolution increasing cotton production in the UK) and resistance by the enslaved people throughout the Caribbean. The inequity that existed after slavery between the White Europeans, who still held the majority of power in the Americas, and the freed people of African descent who had fewer rights – this inequity continues. And the post-colonial legacy on the Caribbean islands left them largely dependent on the countries that previously ruled them. 

This should be basic learning for all Brits, not just an optional inclusion for children – an understanding that the wealth and power of an empire was built on the backs and work of enslaved peoples, who still fight to this day for equality with their White counterparts in the Americas, and in the UK, centuries after the end of slavery.

If we are unaware of our history, then we run the risk of it repeating itself, and speaking as a Black Caribbean woman, I have no interest in that. Instead, I hope for a greater understanding of the shared histories of the UK and the Americas, and the toppling of the structures that represent the whitewashing of history. I want more respect and honour for those whose lives were sacrificed through slavery and the slave trade, and for the descendants who play such a vital role in British society and are your neighbours, colleagues and friends. 

Safiya Robinson is an author and blogger who lives, works and writes in Barbados. You will find her blog at She is also a dentist and a keen world traveller. You can find her book “Everything is a thing – my journey to living a truly authentic life” on Amazon.

Above: The Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown, Barbados, were fashioned after those in London. The square opposite used to be called Trafalgar Square but in 1999 was renamed National Heroes Square.

What next after the toppling of Colston?

Edward Colston, the slave trader whose statue was toppled by protestors and rolled into Bristol harbour yesterday, was described the year after his death as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” 

Colston’s wealth came from trade, including in slaves. It is estimated that while he worked for the Royal African Company around 84,000 men, women and children were forcibly transported to the Americans and the Caribbean as slaves on tobacco and sugar plantations, although around 19,000 perished en route, their bodies tossed overboard. 

During his lifetime (1636-1721) Colston was known as a generous philanthropist, supporting and founding schools. Yet his generosity extended only to those who shared his views. 

Only in the last two decades has the city begun to discuss its part in the slave trade and disentangle itself from bizarre array of traditions and church services that took place to maintain his honour. Councillors had got as far as to suggest adding a second plaque to the statue, addressing his slave links, but could not agree on what it should say

They have missed their chance. The Grade II-listed monument now lies at the bottom of Bristol Harbour following the actions of protestors of various ethnicities. Speaking yesterday, TV historian David Olusoga told the BBC: “Today should never have happened, because this statue should have been taken down. And it should have been a great collective day for Britain and Bristol when the statue was peacefully taken down and put in a museum, which is where, after all, we remember history properly.” Indeed – by all means display the statue in the city museum along with photographs and footage from yesterday, which are all part of Colston’s and slavery’s uneasy legacy. 

Disappointingly, Home Secretary Priti Patel viewed the incident only through a law and order lens, linking it unfairly with the few violent acts at otherwise peaceful protests in London. She descried the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”.

Does it? The protestors yesterday didn’t go on a looting spree through the city centre, they didn’t hit out at anyone. No arrests were made. They didn’t injure 27 police officers, throw glass bottles or light flares – that was in London. As for the statue, Bristol’s Labour Mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, told Channel 4 News he “couldn’t support criminal damage or social disorder,” but he added: “We have a statue up to someone who made their money by sometimes throwing the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here.” 

And perhaps a sense of homecoming: after centuries of the most horrific forms of abuse of Africans, the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota arrived in the city from where some of the earliest British slave ships docked from Africa and set sail for the Americas and the Caribbean.

Colston’s fall needs to be followed by dialogue and constructive action, and Bristol could serve as a model for the country and beyond. It is vital that black citizens explain the way they would like to see wrongs righted, rather than having non-black leaders decide what’s needed. Which structures and institutions reinforce and legitimise a worldview that puts whites firmly on top? Which street names? What else needs to be moved to a museum before it gets ripped down in frustration?

What has become clear in the two short weeks since the Black Lives Matter protests began is that us white people don’t even realise how we perpetuate racial inequalities. So let’s learn.