“We’re told Britain’s the good guy, Britain abolished slavery but we can’t do that!” — A look at Britan’s slave-trading legacy
In the wake of national Black Lives Matter protests, Aida Fofana discusses Britain’s slave trade past with Black studies professor, Dr Kehinde Andrews and theatre-maker Akeim Toussaint Buck.
As the Edward Colston statue fell, on the 7th of June, so did a veil that surrounded the legacy of the British slave trade.
Black studies professor at Birmingham City University, Dr Kehinde Andrews recalls the moment protestors toppled the 17th-century statue.
“The method of doing it was so abrupt that it meant we had to have a conversation that, to be honest, hadn’t really happened on a mainstream level before.”
Standing at 5.5 meters tall, the bronze statue towered on Colston Avenue since 1895 and served as a celebratory piece for the philanthropic work he engaged in after leaving the Royal African Company (RAC), responsible for monopolising 1.5 million enslaved Africans.
His position in the slave trade allowed him to acquire much wealth that was invested into Bristol, contributing to the establishment of schools, churches and roads.
The legacy of slavery isn’t exclusive to the city of Bristol.
These cities have gained wealth gained from the enslavement of African people.
How Britain remembers it’s slave trade past
Dr Kheninde Andrews articulates the complex economic benefits Britain inherited from its involvement.
“ Without slavery, there is no Industrial Revolution. Without colonialism, there is no Industrial Revolution. Everything that we [Britain] have today is built on the racist exploitation of others, what does that mean about the economy today?”
Notably, David Cameron during his visit to Jamacia in 2015 declared Britain the nation that “abolished” slavery.
How mainstream British history is remembered is a troubling stance for professor Kehinde.
“That’s how Britain remembers itself literally the country that abolished slavery. Not the country that was the preeminent slave trade for like two centuries.
Slavery and colonialism happens 1000s of miles away, [it’s] a completely delusional way of understanding things. The massive transfer of wealth is how Bristol becomes a city.”
There is much conflict around how the nation recalls it’s legacy, and these frustrations were part of the demands heard last summer.
How abolition came about in British Caribbean colonies
Though it was Parliament that passed the law, abolition efforts and other factors before Westminster’s acknowledgement contributed to the freeing of enslaved Africans.
Britain’s economy was in flux
The slave trade was an important source of wealth for Britain.
“I live in Birmingham, people like James Watts are kind of revered as saints here. James Watts was massively in favour of slavery, he first sold his steam engine to slave plantations in the Caribbean and got lots of money from that.
The first thing refined in the steam engine was sugar by slaves, and then he went onto cotton, which is again, requires slave labour.”
However, during the peak of the British empire, the American Revolutionary War altered the structure of Britain’s economic relationship with neighbouring colonisers.
As a result of losing a large colony, the philosophy that once sustained British slave-trading characterised as mercantilism, changed the economic relationship and no longer sustained the nations means of wealth.
In conjunction with a fiscal decline, British colonial production fell under pressure to increasingly competitive and cheaper French colonial production.
Larger plantation economies like Brazil and Cuba also outperformed Britain’s sugar-produce and consequently, Caribbean colonies couldn’t compete in the new free-trade.
The British West Indies colonies struggled to recover from its economic losses coinciding with mounting fears of slave rebellions.
Resistance and rebellion against the British slave trade
News of enslaved Africans rebelling and resisting circulated in Britain causing fear that uprisings would grow.
“Among these Slaves, were ten of a fierce, and warlike nation, the Corramantees [Maroons]. They appeared to acknowledge one of their countrymen, named Cudjoe, as their Chief.
Two or three days after this event, Cudjoes behaviour made me very sensible of the risk I had ran during my confinement in the Shed.
The Overseer was giving some directions about felling a particular tree, when Cudjoe snatched off his hat, and threw it away with every mark of contempt; making a sign to him with one hand, to quit the place, and at the same time drawing the edge of the other, across his own throat, a very significant intimation of what he would do if he were not obeyed.
The alarmed overseer immediately ran off to an estate in the neighbourhood (that of Mr A. Steward) where I was at dinner; and bursting into the room, pale, and breathless, related what had passed. I was much at a loss how to act…”
A group, in particular, causing concern were the Maroons, a collective of freedom fighters of Akan ethnicity who used the geography of their environment and guerilla warfare to confuse British troops.
Artist Akeim Toussaint-Buck captures how troublesome the Maroons were to colonial officials.
“Because of how wicked they were going on, they moved and separated them from Haiti and brought them to Jamaica, but that still didn’t really stop [them].
The Saint Domingue (Haiti) revolution was a 400,000 enslaved people revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Although a French colony, military forces from Britain and Spain were all defeated to create the first independent Black nation in 1793.
What the Slave trade world saw in Saint Domingue caused much concern and contributed to the school of thought, slave abolition.
Britain couldn’t afford any more economic losses or embarrassment.
Before the revolution, Britain was fighting in its own 12-year war.
The Maroon wars
The First Maroon wars were periodic battles against the British across Jamaica.
A jewel in the crown for the empire, with its high crop of sugar and rum, the disruption exceeded expectations.
Inaccessible forests and mountains on the island were the Maroons playground. Armed with simple weapons such as stolen guns, stones and rocks they terrorised white planters and defeated the British throughout the 18th century.
The king’s troops were sworn in to force the Maroons to surrender and beg for his majesty’s forgiveness, however, the resistance persisted.
The British government in Jamaica recognized that it could not defeat the Maroons and offered them peace treaties, recognising Maroon settlements as independent from British rule.
Maroon settlements still exist today in Jamacia and the descents of those freedom fighters still live there.
The compensation of slaveowners
The efforts of resistance movements throughout colonies contributed to the freedom of enslaved Africans, but emancipation came at a cost.
Freedom under The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, didn’t mean former slaves could exist freely without obligation to white planters. An apprenticeship system was introduced meaning most slaves were still to work without pay for several years before living free.
The act also declared it would compensate the slave owners, stating the money would be
“Compensating the Persons at present entitled to the Services of the Slaves to be manumitted and set free by virtue of this Act for the Loss of such Services”
No longer enslaved, the freed received nothing.
The money was raised through loans accumulating to £20 million, which would be worth around £2.4 billion today.
Initially, the loan was set to be repaid by 1927 however the loan was consolidated into another gilt that was due to be paid off in 1957.
All loans and debts to descends of slave owners were paid off in 2015.
Essentially it took the British taxpayer 182 years to pay off all slaveowner compensation debts.
Moving forward and understanding Britain’s legacy
The national revelation of Britian’s history of slave trading and owning brought forward discussions about the country’s history and racism.
The Black curriculum report suggests the national curriculum
“Systematically omits the contribution of black British history in favour of a dominant white, Eurocentric curriculum”
It calls for a redefined curriculum where the concept of Britishness includes Black history “as a body of legitimate knowledge”. Calls to diversify history and the education workforce are other suggestions made.
With greater understanding of Britain’s history that doesn’t position “Britannia as all-conquering and eternally embracive of ethnic and cultural difference,” it hopes “Teaching Black history not only benefits Black students but is beneficial to British society as a whole.”
How we remember Britain’s legacy
As statues are pulled down, many protested they preserve Britain's history.
Dr Andrews suggests otherwise
“That is not true, statues are not documented history. That’s what books, archives and oral traditions are for
The whole point of statues is to represent what we’re celebrating in the present.
So the fact that there’s a statue put up after he died, is a testament to a time where people thought it was okay to celebrate slaveholders. I’m not sure why you would want to remember that particular bit of history.
These aren’t historical artefacts, they’re decorative and if we’re interested in having an anti-racist public place, they just have no place in the public. Why do they need to be put in a museum? Dash it in the bin. That’s where it belongs.”