The task of defending Britain’s history is a tall order, particularly when Britain’s record of slavery and colonialism gets scarce mentioning at schools.
There is a vague understanding of the basics. People know the name of William Wilberforce, the man who spearheaded the campaign to abolish slavery in the British West Indies. They may also be familiar with the West African Squadron, the fleet of British ships tasked with stopping slavers transporting Africans to the Americas.
But most of the smaller details remain unknown.
In 2018, the Treasury tweeted out a #FridayFact, informing its followers that they had helped end the slave trade through tax payments. On the face of it, this sounds great. It boosts our self-image as liberators of the world, and trendsetters in forward-thinking governance.
However, many were discouraged to learn that the money that got towards ‘ending the slave trade’ was in fact going towards the descendants of slave owners.
In 1833, Britain had paid £20 million – 40% of the national budget – to buy freedom for slaves in the West Indies. This amount was so large that it was not until 2015 that it was paid off.
This is remarkably less glamorous and noble than what we would expect. It does not take a historian to figure out why paying the descendants of slave owners may leave a sour taste in taxpayers’ mouths – especially during a period of austerity, when many government services faced cuts.
So, what is the truth behind Britain’s role in abolishing slavery? Do we deserve the praise we heap upon ourselves?
It is certainly true that the British public at the time were energised by the campaign for abolition – partly, or mostly, due to the fear of God being instilled in them by Christian abolitionists.
Petitions calling for the abolition of slavery outnumbered those calling for Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reform. In 1787 – the year the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established – 102 petitions were sent to Parliament demanding an end to the slavery.
Between 1830 and 1834 – in which slavery was essentially abolished through the Slavery Abolition Act – 4,000 arrived in Westminster. The numbers yielded by petitions was impressive, with one 1787 from Manchester gaining 10,700 signatures, at a time when the town had a population of 50,000.
It is also true that Britain took a leading role in the international campaign against slavery. Britain often pursued abolition through diplomatic means, most notably the Treaty for the Suppression of the African Trade, which was signed by representatives of France, Austria, Russia and Prussia in December 1841.
In terms of enthusiasm for abolition, Britain generally fared better than its continental counterparts. It would not be until 1853 that an anti-slavery society would be established in Holland, and its abolition of slavery in 1863 was described by historian David Brion Davis as a ‘perfunctory gesture’.
However, things are not so clear-cut in Britain’s favour. Before getting a sudden enthusiasm for abolition, Britain dominated the slaving market in Europe.
The city of Liverpool alone accounted for three-sevenths of the trade’s activity in the continent, transporting 27,000 slaves annually. Other cities like London and Bristol also profited from the trade, and even lesser known towns like Whitehaven in Cumbria saw the financial benefits.
My research has led me to believe that the British public were generally more receptive to the idea of the abolition because they felt the Africans could be better civilised out of bondage.
Full emancipation was never desirable, not even for Wilberforce. In fact, many missionaries who visited the West Indies after abolition lamented the poor moral character of the Africans. They were disappointed that the formerly enslaved did not embrace ‘the religious and cultural dispensations of their Christian benefactors’, and this in turn led to resentment back in Britain.
Even the hallowed West African Squadron – often cited in the modern day to demonstrate Britain’s benevolence – was subject to criticism at the time.
The squadron – which freed 150,000 Africans between 1808 and 1860 – was an expensive project for the British. It cost the lives of 1,587 men who died serving, as well as the financial upkeep.
Overall, the anti-slavery credentials of Victorian Britain are somewhat dubious in a modern context. The end goal was never racial equality as we would understand it today.
Where does that leave our collective memories of slavery and abolition, especially now that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has pushed us to re-examine that part of our history?
The easy option would be to imagine that Britain’s role in international racism ended in 1833. The harder option would be to examine the contradictions that came with the abolition of slavery – how slaves were kept on as ‘apprentices’ for colonial masters until 1838, how slavery remained in Nigeria until 1901, etc.
William Wilberforce is a figure worth respecting, despite his shortcomings. But other abolitionists also deserve praise. Olaudah Equiano, arguably the most famous Black-British abolitionist, does not have a grandiose statue like those awarded to slavers like Edward Colston.
Perhaps the first step towards moral consistency – Britain frequently prides itself on being a leading force against modern slavery – would be to rectify our shortcomings and start learning more about the complicated history we left behind us.