The Reality of the Great British Empire, Part 1: Standing on the Shoulders of Slaves
Updated: May 12
TW: Descriptions of extreme violence, racism, and references to sexual abuse.
I have written this post in response to what is going on in the world right now in terms of the rise of anti-racism movements and the ever-more apparent issue of a lack of awareness regarding Britain's colonial past. As both a historian and a Brit, I see it as my responsibility to raise both my own awareness and that of others on this issue, with the hope that it helps those of us who are white to understand the role played by our ancestors in establishing both a horrific slave trade and a repulsive culture of racism, which still has a negative effect on the experience of Black people in this country, even 200 years after the abolition of slavery.
When I was about 14, we did a 6-week History module on the British Empire. We learned that Britain held a quarter of all the land on Earth, that sea captains brought home great wealth, new foods and spices, and explored amazing places around the globe, meaning a golden age for Britain and ultimate glory to the king, whoever he happened to be at that point. Marvellous, right? Our tiny island, making a huge mark on a world full of 'uncivilized' peoples and doing great things for our own economy.
We never really looked at slavery properly in that module at all. I seem to remember having an 'Enrichment day' focused on slavery, though. We had an hour of History in the morning talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and then for those of us who were musical, most of the rest of the day was spent learning about slave songs and practising one to perform at the end of the day. For those of you who don't know what I mean by slave songs - enslaved people working on plantations would often sing to pass the time and raise morale. Although many of their songs were Christian songs and work songs, they also used them to communicate plans about escape attempts without arousing suspicion from their overseers. To be honest, it was pretty much passed off as something that happened in America, and a lot of it was quite romanticised in a way, albeit unintentionally. We briefly looked at the heroes who helped slaves to escape such as Harriet Tubman, but overall, slavery was a mere side-note to the glorious British empire. Sure, we enslaved thousands and treated them pretty badly, but LOOK AT ALL THIS AMAZING STUFF THE EMPIRE GAVE US AND HOW IT BENEFITTED US!
This is one of the biggest issues that seems to be facing us right now against the background of the anti-racist protests that are going on - that many people in the UK think that racism is an American problem, both in the present and historically. I was watching an interview with podcaster George the Poet, and the interviewer asked this:
"Surely you're not putting America and Britain on the same footing? [...] Our police aren't armed, they don't even have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same..."
I wish she were right, but unfortunately not. This is the exact problem - in Britain, many of us have not been sufficiently educated on the realities of our colonial past, and because of great British figures like William Wilberforce who succeeded in abolishing the slave trade here, we often overlook what came beforehand, and focus on America as the 'most recent guilty party' involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Let's not forget that America was a British colony until 1776, 57 years before the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and only 31 years before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. As a historian, I feel it is important that I do what I can to make sure that these realities are not overlooked, not least for the sake of my own level of awareness. That may sound somewhat pretentious, but it's so important. So buckle up, dear reader, and join me as I educate myself on the realities of Britain's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I will be looking in-depth at its various stages as the enslaved themselves would have experienced them, ending with what this means for our society now.
Stage 1: Abduction
Contrary to popular opinion, early-modern Africa was not entirely a collection of tribal villages - they also had major cities that were centres of trade and education such as Djenné and Timbuktu, and there had been multiple thriving economies there long before European colonization. Nobody could just sweep in and take over, so Europeans actually worked with groups of West African 'press gangs' who would kidnap people and transport them to the coast, which could take months. Captives would be held in compounds such as this one before transportation:
Olaudah Equiano was an ex-slave and abolitionist who worked with the Sons of Africa movement and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the late 18th century. This is what he says about his own kidnapping in his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789:
"One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep."
He was eight years old.
Stage 2: Transportation (The Middle Passage)
If you didn't like stage 1, then I have some bad news for you. The transportation stage was also entirely horrific. The men, women and children who had just been taken from their homes were now stripped of both clothes and belongings, branded, placed in chains and packed tightly into a deck with roughly 4 feet of space per person on average. For the traders, this was all about the quantity of cargo they could cram in so that they could make as much money as possible on the other side. If you can't picture it, then here you go:
On average, 15% of captives died in transit, and death could occur in a number of ways. Illness and malnutrition were, of course, massive killers, but let's not forget that torture and murder by the crew also took place, and undoubtedly suffocation in such cramped conditions. Oh, and slavers threw people overboard if they were injured or sick so that they would be covered by insurance. Feeling repulsed yet?
Stage 3: Auction
For the 85% that made it to the Americas or Europe, auction was the next stage. It was how it sounds - people were sold to the highest bidder. Families who had been fortunate enough to stay together until this stage were rarely bought together, so it was often the last time that relatives would ever see each other. Like animals, they were often sold based on their health, physical strength or perceived capacity to be 'tamed', and because those who were healthier-looking fetched more money, each one would be vigorously scrubbed down, and any wounds were filled in with hot tar before auction in an attempt to conceal them. Those left behind would be sold at a 'scramble auction' - the traders would set a fixed rate per head and the buyers would literally scramble to grab the people they wanted.
Stage 4: Life in Captivity
This stage was by far the most dependent on various factors: the character and intentions of the enslaver and how strict they were; the nature of the work the captive was given and the environment they had to do it in; the health and physical strength of the captive; and also their courage, i.e. whether or not they would attempt to escape or rebel.
Upon arrival at their enslaver's property, the enslaved would be given a new, "less barbaric" name that was simpler to remember and/or pronounce for British people, erasing as much as possible of their African identities. There is an extremely poignant scene that has always stuck with me from the BBC drama Roots (the newer one, aired in 2016) in which the main character, Kunta Kinte is lashed repeatedly with a spiked whip after refusing to respond to the name "Toby", given to him by his captors. The scene lasts a full three and a half minutes before Kunta Kinte gives in and submits to the overseer, who throughout the scene has been yelling at him that his name is Toby and that he is nothing more than animal property. Even after Kunta Kinte finally says "Toby", the overseer continues to whip him until he says it loudly enough for everyone to hear. It is a scene that I had to force myself to watch whilst feeling physically sick, and I'm not often queasy watching violent scenes on-screen.
Captive life also meant living under a series of legal restrictions in addition to literally being property. Of course, when put simply, they had zero legal rights - their status was considered to be equal to livestock and therefore their lives were a matter of economic concern as opposed to social concern. The enslaved could marry one another (with permission) but this was not binding in the eyes of the law, so they could still be separated without legal issues if one of them was sold. Any children were automatically the property of their parents' captor; no-one was born free. Again, it almost goes without saying that many enslavers sexually abused and raped female captives, resulting in countless mixed-race children who were rarely accepted into the White family. It was also common for enslaved people to be sold without warning, and there were almost no restrictions on the mistreatment of Black people. In Antigua, it was even legal to kill a slave until 1723. Those who were accused of committing crimes (not necessarily proven to have done so) were regularly lynched.
There were two main uses for captive workforces. Some were sent to work on plantations in the Americas (remember that America was a British colony until 1776 and that we also colonised much of the Caribbean as well as Guyana), and many were set to work as domestic servants, both in the Americas and in Britain. There were other ways in which enslaved people were put to work, but we'll focus on these two:
It almost goes without saying that the work on farms and plantations would have been brutal, to the point that the average life expectancy for an enslaved plantation worker was only seven years. Much plantation work evolved around growing sugar cane, the demand for which rapidly increased over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Harvesting the cane had to be an extremely quick process as once the cane is cut, the juice inside can ferment very quickly and so must be processed fast if any sugar (i.e. profit) is to be made from it. Therefore those working the plantations were under strict time pressures, made even more difficult by the 24-hour shift system (!!) that was in place on many plantations as well as the extreme temperatures. Other kinds of plantations in the Americas included tobacco, indigo, cotton, and rice farms.
Escape was virtually impossible, made extremely difficult in various ways, with most of this difficulty being psychological - there were various punishments in place to dissuade those captive from running away for fear of what would happen if they were caught. Some overseers such as Thomas Thistlewood were extremely sadistic, coming up with inventive punishments for those who were caught making a break for it. For example, there are multiple entries in his extensive diary collection that detail an occasion on which salt pickle, lime juice and pepper were vigorously rubbed into the wounds of someone who had just been whipped in order to extend their torture even more. Someone else was stripped, covered in molasses and left outside in the sun for the flies and mosquitos. Thistlewood is a particularly brutal example, but he was not unique in being innovative in his punishments.
More common punishments included whipping; heavy, spiked leg shackles; tongue restraints; and facial branding:
Of course, it was not only escape attempts that prompted these punishments. Olaudah Equiano also recalls in his memoirs that he once saw a man beaten so hard that almost all his bones were broken for having allowed a pot to boil over.
Those who became too sick to work were usually attended by Black doctors who used herbal medicines, or simply another captive was allowed to attend them. This was obviously very much in the interests of captors because ill slaves meant fewer people on the workforce, endangering profits. Those thought to be faking sickness were severely punished.
Domestic slaves generally had slightly easier lives than plantation workers, but it was by no means a breeze. They certainly had better food and were frequently able to travel with their captors, and they sometimes were able to form personal relationships of a sort with the White family, meaning that they were able to avoid more severe treatment if they were fortunate. To some extent, they were a step above those working on plantations in the hierarchy, but they were still very much expendable.
In Britain, slavery technically had no legal grounds, but ways were found to twist or bypass the law so that Black people could still be treated as property. Racism was, of course, still rife in British society either way, and there were very few Black and mixed-race people who attained any kind of true status. Having Black domestic servants in Britain was seen as a sign of great wealth, especially if one could pay to dress them in fine clothes and give them a British education, such as Charles Ignatious Sancho, who worked as a servant of Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu:
Very few people enslaved in the British colonies lived to see freedom. Those who were either freed or managed to escape still had to struggle against the intrinsic societal racism, as well as the constant risk of being captured and enslaved again. Even after slavery and the trade were abolished across the empire in 1838, Black people were still at a significant disadvantage in society - one fact that has come up a lot recently is that after the abolition of slavery, those who had enslaved others were compensated for their 'loss of property', but those who had been enslaved were given nothing at all for the loss of their basic human rights, nor for the loss of countless lives.
All of this sounds abhorrent to us but at that point, there was a genuine belief that Black people were genetically inferior to White people. Because of the emergence of various pseudo-sciences during the 1700s, it was believed that Black people had differently-shaped heads which gave them less capacity for intelligence, but that they were also naturally crafty and deceitful, so the natural thing was therefore that the White man should be dominant. 18th-century philosopher and historian David Hume said the following:
"I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men."
Turns out that a lot of people thought the same thing. The Bible was also twisted horribly to justify this kind of practice and belief and clearly, some people forgot that Jesus was not, in fact, caucasian...
"Why are you telling me all this? How can something that happened and finished over two centuries ago have any relevance now?"
I'll be looking at this issue more so in part 3 of my little series here, but for now, I will just say this:
To be able to understand modern racism and the difficulties faced by Black people today, we have to understand that slavery is still having an impact. As I said in stage 4, after the abolition of slavery there was compensation for the enslavers, but not for the enslaved. They were given no help to restart their lives whatsoever, so while some profited from abolition, those previously enslaved were left to their own devices. This has had a massive knock-on effect over the generations for the economies of slave societies such as those in the Caribbean, and for the families of those who stayed in/relocated to Britain. Also, the racism that was present in 19th-century British society after the abolition was never properly tackled in terms of any attempt to modify people's attitudes towards different races, which as we can see quite clearly, is still having a huge effect today.
We have to realise that our country's wealth resulting from the days of the British empire was made primarily through the abhorrence of slavery and the exploitation of the countries we invaded. It is easy to view the different elements of history as isolated, particularly when focusing on them in history class, e.g. when studying WW2 it is difficult to realise that it had any relevance to Spain given they didn't take part, even though Franco and Hitler were allies and Spain almost entered the war in 1940 on the same side as Germany. In the same way, it can be hard to see (I say this from personal experience) how slavery helped Britain's economy when so much of it was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. The fact is that the money made from the slave trade and colonial plantations was a major source of funding for the Industrial Revolution, and the cotton grown by enslaved people in the Americas was what kept the mills running in Britain. The sugar, spices, and materials produced in the British colonies that gave us such a huge trade advantage across the world were things grown and made by captives. So many of the beautiful stately homes we have in the UK were built and decorated using money made from the products of plantations - Jane Austen occasionally hints at this in her novels, most notably Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park has a plantation in Antigua which seems to supply a great deal of his income.
Knowing one's ancestral heritage is often the privilege of White people because of slavery. In enslaving people to the ridiculous extent we did, many people's ancestry was erased. If you are able to trace your family history through records from the 18th century and further back as I have been able to do, then you are at an immense advantage. Maybe ancestry and genealogy aren't your thing, but if you are not a descendant of someone who was enslaved, then you would probably be able to do some quite thorough research on your family tree if you wanted to. Because of slavery, a great deal of Black people have been robbed of that opportunity.
Slavery is not solely responsible for modern racism - it existed here long before that - but it still had a huge impact on perpetuating and accelerating it. I will not apologise for the detail I have gone into - I believe it is important that the violent acts committed by the British state and its people in the time of the slave trade should not continue to be glossed over and hidden as they previously have been. This has happened to a shameful extent - in the 213 years since the abolition, Britain has never issued a formal apology for the part we played.
I hope that you have learned something from this post; I certainly have learned a great deal from researching for it. Racism must be combatted through this kind of education, which is severely lacking in our school curriculums today. If you want to change that and have a say on other issues surrounding race equality, then please consider signing these petitions, and writing to your local MP: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions?state=all&topic=race-and-equality
If you want to find out if your ancestors owned people, then enter your surname into this search engine of the T71 lists of slave owners paid compensation after slavery was abolished: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
Read Part 2: 'What We Did in our Colonies' here, and keep an eye out for Part 3: 'Why Does it Really Matter Today?' coming soon!
Links and sources:
BBC interview with George the Poet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xn6t74KJoO8
Library of Congress - 'A Journey in Chains': https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/ presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/african3.html
BBC Roots, 'I am Kunta Kinte' whipping scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nthxeoyukgw
The Guardian, 'The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed': https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/12/british-history-slavery-buried-scale-revealed
BBC documentary mini-series, Britain's Forgotten Slave Traders, written and presented by David Olusoga: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b062nqpd/britains-forgotten-slave-owners-1-profit-and-loss
LDHI, Plantations and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/plantations_before_the_transat
Historic England, Black Lives in England (and sub-sections): https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/the-slave-trade-and-abolition/sites-of-memory/black-lives-in-england/