The myth and reality of Britain’s role in slavery.
The country is belatedly grappling with painful truths about its
（1）Slave Empire. By Padraic Scanlan.Robinson; 464 pages; £25.
（2）The Interest. By Michael Taylor.Bodley Head; 400 pages;
On June 7th this year Edward Colston plunged, periwig first, into
the waters of Bristol harbour. It was an incongruous scene: at
least until recently, Britons immortalised in bronze were rarely
toppled or drowned by mobs. Part of the shock of this image, and
part of its power, was to see a figure dressed in gentleman’s
breeches and a frock-coat being treated as a criminal.
The Victorians who put up this statue had burnished Colston as a
philanthropist. And this was true: he had given Bristol, his home
city, schools and almshouses. But he did other things too, which
the statue and
its plaque downplayed. During his decade on the board of the Royal
African Company in the late 17th century, it trafficked 84,000
slaves from Africa to the Americas. An estimated 19,000 died en
If statues can be misleading, so can perceptions of entire
historical periods. The Victorians dressed Colston in an air of
unimpeachable respectability; similarly, modern Britain has cloaked
the country’s role in the slave trade in a haze of selective
memory. It has long celebrated William Wilberforce and his
“Saints”, the group who fought to abolish slavery. David Cameron, a
former prime minister, once said that one of Britain’s “proud
achievements” was its “role in ending slavery”.
Like some others, the country is rather less keen to remember its
sinners. Two timely books, by the historians Padraic Scanlan and
Michael Taylor, set out to weave a more accurate, less flattering
version of this story. Take the idea that Britain worked to reduce
slavery from 1807, when the act that abolished the slave trade in
the British Empire was passed. That is true. It is equally true
that until that date Britain did much to make it thrive. Of the
more than 6m enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic, it
is thought that 2.5m were packed into British ships.
Or take the widespread but mistaken notion that the act of 1807
outlawed the institution of slavery itself. It did not: it stopped
British slaving. In the flesh—and this was an argument of flesh—the
difference was infinitely bigger than it seems on the page. Chains
that bound people before the vote held firm after it. The 700,000
souls who had been enslaved in the West Indies remained enslaved,
and tormented, for decades.
Traditional accounts of Britain’s role in slavery culminate with
Wilberforce and that act. These two are just getting going. Mr
Taylor’s book, “The Interest”, switches the focus from the saints
to the sinners. His title derives from the West India Interest, a
lobbying group of planters and politicians, publishers and
intellectuals, which doggedly opposed abolition. Support for
slavery pervaded British society. Viscount Nelson declared himself
a “firm friend” to the colonies. The Duke of Wellington toiled to
frustrate abolitionists. The celebrated cartoonist George
Cruikshank caricatured them. John Murray, a publishing house known
today for introducing Jane Austen to the world, was so famous for
pro-slavery arguments that its Quarterly Review was described as
“one of the most effective and mischievous props” of the
Out of sight
Mr Scanlan’s book, “Slave Empire”, concentrates on the financial
benefits that slavers reaped. This harvest by no means ended with
abolition. The £20m in compensation that was eventually paid by the
British government to slavers for the loss of their human property
was a vast sum, equating to 40% of the state’s annual expenditure
at the time. Until the banking bail-out of 2008, it was the largest
specific payout in British history; the loan it required was paid
off only in 2015. The money provided the seed capital for mines,
banks, railways and more. Britain’s liberal, free-trade empire was,
in part, built on human bondage.
Slavers gained not just gold but a fine gilding from their trade.
Many were men of status and consequence. Joshua Reynolds painted
them; Eton educated them; society opened its doors for them. Until
this year, Colston had not only his statue but a fleet of
institutions named after him. Even today scholars at Oxford study
in the Codrington Library in All Souls College, endowed by the
Codrington family who owned plantations in Barbados. The
great-grandfathers of George Orwell and Graham Greene were
slaveholders. After emancipation, Orwell’s received £4,000 in
compensation for the 218 slaves he had owned, which Mr Taylor
describes as “a perversion of justice that would have fitted
seamlessly into the Orwellian canon”.
“Slave Empire” is lucid, elegant and forensic. It deals with
appalling horrors in cool and convincing prose. “The Interest” is
more impassioned. Mr Taylor can tell a story superbly and has a
fine eye for detail (George IV, readers learn, breakfasted on
pigeon and beef-steak pie, washed down with champagne, port, wine
and brandy). His argument is a potent and necessary corrective to a
cosy national myth. But his writing can be a distraction, peppered
as it is with phrases such as “bogus nonsense” and “twisted logic”.
Such caustic judgments may be correct but they are superfluous. An
argument of this gravity does not require such flourishes.
It never did. One of the most striking things about Britain’s
debates over slavery is how unemotional many of the most
influential texts were. Take the basic question of how slaves in
the West Indies were treated. As in the United States, British
abolitionists and slavers had for years quarrelled bitterly over
this, the latter painting an image of paradise, the former of hell.
There was stalemate.
Then, in 1789, the Board of Trade published a damning report on
slavery, filled with statistics and testimony of the tortures
inflicted on slaves. “It is no uncommon thing”, the document
recorded, “for a Negro to lie by a Week after Punishment.” More
damning still was the mass of data published in the Anti-Slavery
Monthly Reporter, which sold 1.7m copies in six years. You can read
its findings now, online.
Even at a distance of almost two centuries, they make appalling
reading: “39 lashes”; “three or four hundred lashes”; “on her bared
body fifty-eight lashes of the cart whip”. On and on go the
accounts, unemotional, unsparing, utterly unpardonable—50 lashes,
49 more. This was not rhetoric. It was cruelty, quantified. And
little was more persuasive.
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print
edition under the headline 'The human stain'