Sunday, 24 February 2013

Mr David Cameron, British Prime Minister: Where are my forty acres and a mule?

A Concise History of Slavery in the UK

Yesterday saw the Independent Newspaper report that new and previously unseen historical records that audit British involvement in transatlantic slavery detailing specific amounts paid in compensation to wealthy slave owners, at the time of the abolition of slavery, are to be released online on Wednesday by University College London. This follows an extensive three year research programme led by Dr Nick Draper.

What emerges is that whilst enslaved Africans were set free after abolition, in the vast majority of cases, they walked off the plantation into a life of tied servitude, abject poverty and racism, yet British slave owning families were all handsomely compensated by the British Government of the day.

The research identifies individuals naming some of Britain’s wealthiest, most powerful families and political dynasties that directly benefited from the huge amounts of compensation paid at the time. The research also knocks on the head a popular myth that only the very wealthy benefited from slavery; the research shows that lots of “very ordinary men and women” were compensated which illustrates the true extent and breadth of British involvement in slavery.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron’s family personally received £3 million in today’s money in compensation for the 202 enslaved Africans they owned at the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.  Britain’s 19th century Prime Minister William Gladstone’s father received the equivalent of £83 million.

The family of former Tory Cabinet Minister Douglas Hogg received the equivalent of £101 million. Sir Joseph Bazalgette an ancestor of current Arts Council boss Sir Peter Bazalgette was paid £5.7m in today's money for 420 enslaved Africans.

In total the British Treasury paid out £20 million, equating to 40 % of annual spend at the time, a staggering £16.5bn in today’s money

Slavery was abolished by Britain in 1830 after increasing rebellions on the plantations meant that Britain could no longer afford to maintain its armies throughout the British Caribbean that were used to quell rebellion and keep Africans on the plantation.

Once the brilliant African Toussaint Loverture defeated the British and French in their attempts to retake Haiti in the late 1700’s, African rebellion spread like wildfire to plantations throughout the world. Over the next 40 years rebellions increased, particularly in Jamaica, and the price of sugar collapsed. In order to understand the importance of sugar to world economy back then one should view sugar’s strategic importance as being the equivalent of oil in today’s economy.

These uprisings, combined with an unprecedented public abolition campaign supported by the British public (most of whom had never met an African) and driven by one of  Britain’s most foremost abolitionists Thomas Clarkson, led by the African and freeman, Olaudah Equiano, the radical campaigner William Fox, alongside religious groups such as the Quakers and radical Anglicans and later joined by British Women’s Emancipation movements, the institution of slavery was finally brought to its knees in 1830.

It is a fact of British history that Britain was made “Great” through the ruthless and brutal exploitation of African people during the period of its involvement in the singularly brutal economic enterprises of slavery and empire.

A United Nations resolution in late 2006 declared "the slave trade and slavery as among the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity”

As is the want of men of my age of late I have been meandering and ruminating on my family’s cultural ancestry. It seems that once one reaches a certain age, you begin to feel a sort of mild panic at the process of coming to terms, with one’s own mortality, I have begun to philosophically reflect on the balance of my own life in an attempt to make sense of who we are as a people and what will be the legacy of our lives.

Like many Black people living in Britain today my own cultural history informs, defines, shapes me and in some ways makes me. The rich history, culture and geography of my family run’s through my veins, its echoes reverberates deep in my consciousness and infuses my heart with a passion that makes me the person I am today. Those histories represent an incredible journey through the history of the Britain Empire encapsulating the migration.

My father is a proud Jamaican and born in the beautiful remote hill top village of Bois Content, Western St Catherine, Kingston, Jamaica. His father was Jamaican and his mother Cuban. My mother was a matriarchal Mancunian whose father was African; her mother was English of Irish descent, born in desperate circumstances in 1901 in the Manchester Workhouse.

My African Grandfather was from the Kru Nation whose ancient homeland was split in two by the creation, by both Britain and America, of the modern day states of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

He arrived in the UK, having stowed away on a British Merchant Navy ship sometime in the earl 1990’s at the age of 15, found and deported and returned at the age of 16. He and my Grandmother married in the 1920’s in Manchester.

I have managed to trace my British grandmothers family tree back to 1776, my African grandfathers history is less clear but much is being revealed as I write, having recently located his British Merchant Navy records and uncovering further research about the Kru Nation,

When we turn to my Jamaican father’s early history, finding information here is much more difficult. I am slowly piecing this together but such was the devastating effect of British slavery in Jamaica, much is lost as a result and untraceable. My historical search has been bogged down and become clouded in a blood miasma born of the greatest crime in human history.

Much is lost and that which is found, is painful and seared with pain. An important part of my historical legacy is gone, destroyed and there are millions of others, just like me, whose cultural, social, economic, theological histories have been stolen and by and large eradicated during the great Maffa.

The loss to me today is profound, all of the pregnant possibilities and potential legacies are denied. The psychological ballast that knowledge of personal histories provides those with unbroken histories, the joy and meaning associated with the cultural transmission of tradition, the psychological, cultural and economic legacies that are taken for granted by others, are denied to me and are a constant reminder of that 400m year, violent rip in the temporal and spiritual historical timeline of my ancestors.

This period of non-history haunts the majority of the present day descendants of those enslaved Africans, usually in the form of guilt and or denial.

There are none so ashamed of slavery than the modern day descendants of slavery, the mental and economic toll of decades of struggle against modern day racism that infects our reality, the gruelling biological stress that has been injected into our genes by virtue hundreds of years of sustained and unremitting brutality, the continual denigration of our culture’s and faiths made us so.

Acute and unimaginable levels of generational stress fed to us in our mother’s wombs and transmitted after birth in our mothers milk and reinforced by our contemporary experience, can today be discerned in the behaviour attitude, culture and customs of the some of the descendents of enslaved Africans.

Dr Na’im Akbar the world famous African American Psychologist writing about slavery and its modern day impact on African Americans wrote:

 “This shock (slavery) was so destructive to natural life processes that the current generation of African-Americans, although we are five to six generations removed from the actual experience of slavery, still carries the scars of this experience in both our social and mental lives. Psychologists and sociologists have failed to attend to the persistence of problems in our mental and social lives which clearly have roots in slavery. Only the historian has given proper attention to the shattering realities of slavery, and he has dealt with it only as descriptive of past events.”

The economic legacy was equally profound both for Britain and the descendants of slaves. It was the period of the greatest capital accumulation in British history. Britain now had necessary cash to fund the research and development that produced the Industrial Revolution.
Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad in his book Capitalism and Slavery  puts it neatly,

“By 1750 there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.”

London's importance as a world city today, with its financial service sector, owes its success largely to profits made from the slave trade. Slavery was a respectable occupation in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries, and many City of London merchants grew wealthy on it by providing credit and insurance for slave voyages.

The Bank of England set up in 1694, made capital available for slave voyages and the City became the financial centre of the slave trade. Alexander and David Barclay were Quaker slave traders who operated in the West Indies, and founded Barclay’s Bank on slave trade profits. Sir Francis Baring whose family eventually founded Barings Bank, had major financial interests in slavery. Today Baring Road in Lewisham south east London is named after him.

The footprint of slavery can also be seen in the world of art, culture, and religion. The Church of England was heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade. In February 2006, the Church voted to apologies to the descendants of victims of the slave trade, ‘recognising the damage done’ to those enslaved.

Debating the motion, Rev Simon Bessant, from Pleckgate, Blackburn, described the Church's involvement in the trade, saying: "We were at the heart of it." The amendment was supported by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu. Rev Blessant explained the involvement of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in the slave trade. The organisation owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word "SOCIETY" branded on their backs with a red-hot iron.

The National Gallery was founded on an art collection of pictures given to it by John Julius Angerston, which he built up with money from the slave trade. This included his activities as one of the underwriters of Lloyds of London that insured slave voyages. The Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery were also founded on profits from sugar cane grown in the Caribbean and cut by African slaves.

The Royal Dockyard at Deptford, one of Britain's major ports and centres for shipbuilding, and Blackheath and Greenwich, was where prosperous captains and merchants made rich by the slave trade lived in comfortable mansions. Greenwich resident, Ambrose Crowley, was an iron merchant who made his fortune producing manacles, ankle irons, and collars to secure slaves to prevent them from running away or throwing themselves overboard on the dreadful journey from Africa to the Caribbean or London.

Thomas King of the slave trading company Camden, Calvert and King also lived in Greenwich. This was the largest company in London and at one stage, owned one in five slave ships that sailed from London to Africa. The Pett family, master shipbuilders in Deptford, built many of the ships that were involved in the trade. The woodland that provided much of the trees for their shipbuilding and is named after the family is near Chislehurst in Kent. It is familiar to many Londoners today as Pett’s Wood.

The economic, cultural and political legacies of slavery are rarely discussed but surely the modern conception of racism and white supremacy constitutes the most damaging social evil in human history, bearing in mind, particularly, the scale, duration and lingering impact of both slavery and Empire.

The ideas that informed the institution of slavery are at the heart of profound social and economic inequality, hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice which continue to affect people of African descent today.

Who knows what my people would have become had they not been subject to the evils of slavery and colonialism. On the one hand, a Kru nation was displaced from their lands and on the other a people enslaved in chains and whipped into centuries of slavery.

I can’t tell today what my family may have accomplished had they not suffered from the twin evils of British colonialism and transatlantic slavery. What I do know is that as a consequence, both I and millions of descendants of enslaved Africans have been forced to endure grinding poverty, cultural and political marginalisation and the post traumatic stress associated both with slavery and racism.

We do not have the access to wealthy family connections or familial assets whether in terms of resources built up over centuries. Our countries of origin have been impoverished by slavery, colonialism and now neo liberalism and so are unable to support us, on the contrary, we in the Diasporas support them, through the millions of pounds of remittances we send home every year.

Should there be reparations paid for Britain’s involvement on transatlantic slavery?  Yes, hell yes, reparations should be paid by the Government, those institutions and families who directly benefited form the greatest crime in human history, should now do the decent thing and follow the example of Quaker companies such as Cadburys or Joseph Rowntree, who have both had long standing commitment through their charitable trust to fund work on race equality issues.

I don’t want a cheque but I do want formal recognition. I do want to see companies like Lloyds of London and Unilever paying up. Millionaires whose family assets can now be traced like British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Douglass Hogg and Bazalgette’s families should make donations to our cause. Institutions like the National Gallery, the Royal family, the Church of England and others can donate substantial sums commiserate with the crime and the profits made into a charitable trust that can address the continued legacies of slavery; namely racism and poverty.

The British Government could cancel all outstanding historic debts from former colonial nations.

The Queen herself could apologise under instruction form the Government so to do.

Otherwise the festering malignant resentment of a people, some of whom were robbed of their land, some enslaved and then made destitute, systematically stripped of their language and culture, their families sold like cattle, whose countries of origin were raped of resources, who were forced to work for hundreds of years under the brutal lash of the slave masters whip, whose descendants endured and continue to endure modern day Jim Crow racism, will forever view British society and its blind refusal to acknowledge the greatest crime in human history as a gross affront to our common citizenship and humanity.

Lee Jasper


On Wednesday 27th February, Catherine Hall will give a public lecture entitled 'Towards a New Past: the legacies of British Slave-ownership' to celebrate the publication of the Encyclopedia of British Slave-ownership and the inauguration of our new project, The Structure and Significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership, 1763-1833. The event will be followed by a demonstration of the Encyclopedia by Nick Draper and Keith McClelland. The event will take place at 6pm in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre at UCL and a reception will take place afterwards in the South Cloisters. For directions to the lecture theatre, see