After the abolition of slavery, Britain paid millions in compensation – but every penny of it went to slave owners, and nothing to those they enslaved. We must stop overlooking the brutality of British history.
On 3 August 1835, somewhere in the City of London, two of Europe’s most famous bankers came to an agreement with the chancellor of the exchequer. Two years earlier, the British government had passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which outlawed slavery in most parts of the empire. Now it was taking out one of the largest loans in history, to finance the slave compensation package required by the 1833 act. Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore agreed to loan the British government £15m, with the government adding an additional £5m later. The total sum represented 40% of the government’s yearly income in those days, equivalent to some £300bn today.
Today, 1835 feels so long ago; so far away. But if you are a British taxpayer, what happened in that quiet room affects you directly. Your taxes were used to pay off the loan, and the payments only ended in 2015. Generations of Britons have been implicated in a legacy of financial support for one of the world’s most egregious crimes against humanity.
The fact that you, and your parents, and their parents in turn, may have been paying for a huge slave-owner compensation package from the 1830s only came to public attention last month. The revelation came on 9 February, in the form of a tweet by HM Treasury: “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you have helped end the slave trade through your taxes. Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
The tweet, which the Treasury says was prompted by a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in January, generated a storm of anger and crowdsourced corrections. First,the British slave trade was not abolished in 1833, but in 1807. Second, slavery was not abolished in all parts of the British empire in 1833. The new law applied to the British Caribbean islands, Mauritius and the Cape Colony, in today’s South Africa, but not to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) or British India, for instance. Third, no freedom was “bought” for plantation slaves in 1833, as the enslaved were compelled to work in unfreedom, without pay and under the constant threat of punishment, until 1838. Most importantly, the Treasury’s tweet did not mention that generations of British taxpayers had been paying off a loan that had been used to compensate slave owners, rather than slaves.
The tweet, which was hastily deleted, had the stench of British historical amnesia and of institutionalised racism. A few days later, the historian David Olusoga wrote: “[This] is what happens when those communities for whom this history can never be reduced to a Friday factoid remain poorly represented within national institutions.”
The tweet was no aberration. It was emblematic of the way legacies of slavery continue to shape life for the descendants of the formerly enslaved, and for everyone who lives in Britain, whatever their origin. The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day.
We can only begin to understand slavery’s influence on Britain today by first allowing 500 years of human history to flash before our eyes. Beginning in the last decades of the 1400s, we see African people kidnapped from their families, crammed into the dark pits of slave forts, and then piled into the bowels of ships. We see voyagers and traders, such as John Hawkins in the 1560s, becoming some of the first British men to make massive fortunes from this trade in kidnapped Africans. By the late 17th century, we see the British coming to dominate the slave trade, having overtaken the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. We see tens of thousands of merchant ships making the “middle passage”, the voyage across the Atlantic that transformed captives from Africa into American slave commodities. Half of all the Africans transported into slavery during the 18th century were carried in the holds of British ships.
From the 15th to the 19th centuries, more than 11 million shackled black captives were forcibly transported to the Americas, and unknown multitudes were lost at sea. Captives were often thrown overboard when they were too sick, or too strong-willed, or too numerous to feed. Those who survived the journey were dumped on the shores and sold to the highest bidder, then sold on again and again like financial assets. Mothers were separated from children, and husbands from wives, as persons were turned into property. Slaves were raped and lynched; their bodies were branded, flayed and mutilated. Many slave owners, in their diaries, manuals, newspaper writings and correspondence, readily admitted the punishments and violations they exacted on black people on the cane fields and in their homes. Take, for example, the unapologetic recollections of violence and predation that comprise the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a British slave owner in Jamaica in the mid-1700s. Thistlewood recorded 3,852 acts of sexual intercourse with 136 enslaved women in his 37 years in Jamaica. In his 23 July 1756 entry, he described punishing a slave in the following manner: “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.”