Sugar Plantations in the West Indies
July 12, 2015 11:49 AM   Subscribe

The history of British slave ownership has been buried: now its scale can be revealed The T71 files have been converted into an online database; a free, publicly available resource.
posted by infini (38 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
This has been a month of revlation about the sins of the British empire, at least in my little corner of the internet. The radiolab piece on on the Mau Mau was fascinating.

Its also interesting that Britain paid off the slave owners when it repealed slavery. It makes sense viewed through the logic of that era, but how did Britain expect those 800,000 slaves to survive with basically nothing?

I'm not really familiar with Orwell's writings. Does he ever talk about issues around slavery? Otherwise, mentioning him just seems to be borderline clickbait.
posted by lownote at 12:15 PM on July 12, 2015


The role of Gladstone Sr. gets even more sordid, as he was one of the key people who arranged the legal gymnastics and logistics that allowed at least a million indentured labourers to replace the slaves after abolition. I coincidentally came across a decent BBC documentary about this recently.
posted by vanar sena at 12:19 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Its also interesting that Britain paid off the slave owners when it repealed slavery. It makes sense viewed through the logic of that era, but how did Britain expect those 800,000 slaves to survive with basically nothing?

It does seem callus but it was actually quite pragmatic. With a relatively small payout for they avoided the lingering bullshit that United States still wrestles with. It's kind of like how in retrospect it would have made a lot of sense to just buy off Saddam Hussein with a billion dollars and a Swiss villa.

Now if you want to see shockingly unrepentant evil look at the French and how they treated (and still treat) Haiti.
posted by srboisvert at 12:36 PM on July 12, 2015 [13 favorites]


The database.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:44 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Abolition of slavery timeline

Two things stand out:
1) Abolition of the slave trade generally comes before doing anything about actual in place slaves - I suspect economic factors.
2) pay-offs seem extremely frequent.
posted by Artw at 12:46 PM on July 12, 2015


The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet.

...

The man who received the most money from the state was John Gladstone, the father of Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. He was paid £106,769 in compensation for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations, the modern equivalent of about £80m. Given such an investment, it is perhaps not surprising that William Gladstone’s maiden speech in parliament was in defence of slavery.


It is no secret that Gladstone's family owned slaves, and it is quite odd to suggest that it has been "swept under the carpet". Also, his maiden speech was more in defence of his father's plantation at Vreedenhoop in Demerara, denying that it was especially cruel, and also denying that cruelty as a rule occurred in the West Indies. He definitely downplayed the abuses of slaves during his speech but, I believe, declared himself an opponent of slavery as an institution. Gladstone was, at this time, a Tory. His concern was far more with both property rights and Christianizing slaves.

Interestingly, the morning before the third reading of the Abolition of Slavery Bill, William Gladstone had breakfast with...William Wilberforce.
posted by Thing at 12:53 PM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Didn't Wilberforce die three days later? What did they eat for breakfast.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:01 PM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm glad the history and data are getting new attention. At the most personal level, walking around on old plantation properties in the West Indies gave me serious heebie jeebies from the awful history that you can see in every rock wall and old ironwork, all the amazing artisan work that was all done by slaves.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:16 PM on July 12, 2015


None of this should be a secret to anyone, but refresher courses are by no means a bad thing.
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not a double post, but previously (an excellent, link-heavy post from Feb 2013, when the database first appeared).
posted by verstegan at 1:40 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


It is good to have a refresher course on British hypocrisy and genocide as well as the subjection of the people of India and its "interests" in China.

Mentioning Orwell seems odd, I don't recall anything he wrote about slavery.
posted by clavdivs at 2:00 PM on July 12, 2015


That spoon of sugar be made up of bone, blood and pain. When walking around the city of Bath, you think of Jane Austen and basis of those yearly incomes and the grand houses on the crescent being made in part on the sugar trade.
posted by jadepearl at 2:01 PM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


When I finally got around to reading Robinson Crusoe some years back, I was much less inclined to care about him surviving his adventures when I discovered the shipwreck was a slaving ship bound for his plantation in Brazil.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:13 PM on July 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


shipwreck was a slaving ship

Oh!

Was in fact just thinking how much we wouldn't have known any better and just swallowed - I had a traditional prep school education until my O levels, with British textbooks, albeit in Malaysia, yet another place where rubber plantations had indentured labour
posted by infini at 2:40 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


And aside from not compensating or helping freed slaves, the compounded value of all that compensation (and value created by slaves before emancipation) is still with us today. Most of the slave holding empires have had continuous systems of government, economics and societal institutions. We literally use the compounded wealth created by slaves today, without even the fig leaf of revolution or expropriation of those who originally benefited from slavery. It's not just plantation ruins that are creepy.
posted by R343L at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I finally got around to reading Robinson Crusoe some years back, I was much less inclined to care about him surviving his adventures when I discovered the shipwreck was a slaving ship bound for his plantation in Brazil.

You should read the account of Alexander Selkirk (the real Robinson Crusoe) whose ship was a privateer--a more palatable undertaking.
posted by Thing at 2:46 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Mentioning Orwell seems odd, I don't recall anything he wrote about slavery

I'm not aware of any works that focus on it specifically, but it does come up.
Consider for instance the re-institution of slavery. Who could have imagined twenty years ago that slavery would return to Europe? Well, slavery has been restored under our noses. The forced-labour camps all over Europe and North Africa where Poles, Russians, Jews and political prisoners of every race toil at road-making or swamp-draining for their bare rations, are simple chattel slavery. The most one can say is that the buying and selling of slaves by individuals is not yet permitted. In other ways — the breaking-up of families, for instance — the conditions are probably worse than they were on the American cotton plantations. There is no reason for thinking that this state of affairs will change while any totalitarian domination endures. We don't grasp its full implications, because in our mystical way we feel that a regime founded on slavery must collapse. But it is worth comparing the duration of the slave empires of antiquity with that of any modern state. Civilizations founded on slavery have lasted for such periods as four thousand years.

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker's name inscribed on the bottom, ‘Felix fecit’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.
posted by zamboni at 2:50 PM on July 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


It is no secret that Gladstone's family owned slaves, and it is quite odd to suggest that it has been "swept under the carpet".

The whole "OMG, why has this been kept a secret from us" thing is badly overdone in the whole piece. It's incoherent to note that Wilberforce remains a national hero and to claim that somehow nobody remembers British slave owning. Does the author imagine that people think Wilberforce was seeking to abolish a hypothetical slave trade? It's also odd to lament that Wilberforce is more famous that any slave owner; would we really want a slave owner to be more famous than that great and good man?

Certainly nobody who is remotely a specialist in the period "forgets" British slave owning. You can't read any history of C18th or early C19th Britain (or any study of the culture of the period) without reading about the slave trade and the response to it.
posted by yoink at 3:08 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I recommend David Brion's excellent book, Inhuman Bondage for an overview of American chattel slavery. (Here is a link to his most recent work, which is bound to be just as good. He's been researching and writing about slavery for fifty years.) I learned a lot when I read it. Some examples:
at the time of the Civil War, Delaware was still a slave state.
A lot of Northern states phased out slavery rather than abolished it allowing slaves to be kept until the owner died (or a time period) so that some slavery in the north was present into the early/mid 19th century.
The Fugitive Slave Act required that Northerners assist in the repatriation of runaways or go to prison.
Every Southern state made teaching slaves to read a criminal offense.
The average life span (e.g., sugar plantations) for the harshest forms of slavery was often in single digit years: most of the these owners used the strategy of working their slaves to death. (this was the most feared form of slavery: literally being sold down the river-Mississippi to the sugar plantations.)
Most households in the South did not own slaves, they were a luxury or else part of a major enterprise.
Every Southern state required the slaveowner to corporally punish a runaway (under threat of law against the owner).
In other words, the book has a lot of sobering facts.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I finally got around to reading Robinson Crusoe some years back, I was much less inclined to care about him surviving his adventures when I discovered the shipwreck was a slaving ship bound for his plantation in Brazil.--Celsius1414

The website http://www.robinsoncrusoe.ca/ mentions this as his 'preconversion' state:
"I looked back on my past life with horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing from God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down upon me." He says further, "I sincerely gave thanks to God for opening my eyes to see the former condition of my life and to mourn over my wickedness and to repent."

And in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe he is clearly anti-slavery, written at a time that slavery was legal in England.
posted by eye of newt at 3:09 PM on July 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


When the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were 46,000 slave owners in Britain.

Holy crap. I had no idea, always imagined it to be in the hands of a relatively small group of wealthy merchants. The fact that slave ownership was so widespread among the population as a whole had never occurred to me.

No sign of my surname in the database; probably mostly because it's not a very common name, but I still tapped it into the search prepared to find someone. With so many people having owned slaves, and several generations having passed, I assume most of us have slave owners in the family somewhere. (Without even starting on the fact that most of our nicest buildings were probably built, directly or indirectly, with the proceeds of slave labour).
posted by penguin pie at 3:13 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's incoherent to note that Wilberforce remains a national hero and to claim that somehow nobody remembers British slave owning.
When Robin Blackburn published The Making of New World Slavery, he remarked somewhere that British historians had written reams about the abolition of slavery and comparatively very little about the institution of slavery itself. It's like slavery comes into focus when it's time to do away with it, but it remains blurry and out of the frame while its being created and maintained. I don't think that anyone is actually denying that British people were involved with slavery, but I have heard it alleged that people like to focus on the aspects that make them feel virtuous, not the parts that are uncomfortable.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:39 PM on July 12, 2015 [8 favorites]


Holy crap. I had no idea, always imagined it to be in the hands of a relatively small group of wealthy merchants. The fact that slave ownership was so widespread among the population as a whole had never occurred to me.

Another article on the same story at the BBC says "3,000 families". I think the Guardian has simply taken the number of names in the database.
posted by Thing at 3:49 PM on July 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Liverpool has been a bit more open about the sources of the city's wealth, but only, I think, in response to a great deal of Black British activism going back a great many years. Bristol, in a similar position always been more chary, treating the slave trade until recently as an embarrassing anomaly too impolite to mention. Since I think the Merchant Venturers, still the main source of Bristol's Great & Good, have been a continuous institution since 1552. They are well implicated.

This history isn't a secret* exactly, but it's been so euphemised and smoothed over I think it does take some effort to take on board the moral implications, and the economic ramifications that are still very much with us. Even for those of us not white and western, to be here, reading this, means we've all been through the Western education that rationalises such things away. What have the Romans ever done for us, Stalky & Co etc.

As for the heeby-jeebies, yeah, I did kinda feel like that walking some areas of around Jacksoville Fl. I can only imagine the emotional violence of being faced with that in the country of my birth, every day of my life.

* talking about colonialisim in general, in terms of consequences, if one is at all reflective. Except maybe to young people going through school. I still remember how shocked my little 12-year-old sister-in-law was when we told her something about the Opium Wars. In fact I think she refused to believe us. 'The British fought that war so the Chinese would be forced to continue buying their opium from India,' 'You're lying! Why are you trying to trick me, you weirdos?'
posted by glasseyes at 3:54 PM on July 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


I have heard it alleged that people like to focus on the aspects that make them feel virtuous, not the parts that are uncomfortable

Well, sure. And that would have been a reasonable way to frame this ("we need to talk a lot more about the ways in which slavery shaped modern Britain" etc.). I just think the author overeggs the custard with the whole "OMG, slaves in British territories? Why weren't we told about this" line.
posted by yoink at 4:10 PM on July 12, 2015


With so many people having owned slaves, and several generations having passed, I assume most of us have slave owners in the family somewhere.

In all likelihood there is not one person on this planet without a slave-owning ancestor.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:51 PM on July 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was chatting cheerfully with a nice woman who'd recently moved to our country and she asked about the history of the park we were at, and five minutes later I was naming massacre sites by the Japanese and British across the place in a "bones used to wash up during storms. There's a small plaque marking the largest murder site if you look carefully" way. She'd read up on the country and was momentarily shocked because it wasn't ever mentioned, all the blood spilled. There's a huge space between the history national governments teach and people assume from the media and shared social memory, and what gets buried and hidden or more cleverly, written down and filed away under a brief citation. It can be shocking to realise that you've been misdirected from a scale of human misery because it was embarrassing or inconvenient to a national story. It should be shocking, and shouldnt be something only specialists in the era know about.

Clearly I'm a fun party guest because twenty minutes later I asked a wealthy parent talking about teen pregnancy as a scare tactic for her kids about structural inequality but that actually ended up as a good discussion about privilege.

Yes, we were all once slave owners and slave descendants blah blah. What is much more interesting and what gets pushed back is that the history and place of slaves and their lives gets downplayed when it interrupts comfortable narratives. Britain abolished the slave trade after centuries of profiting off it and replaced it with other hideous labour exploitation. But let's just make It about Wilberforce instead.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


No, it's not a secret, as in the information is available to people with an interest in that area. But it sure doesn't get talked about very much in general discussion, does it? I guess my reasons for being glad when it does are kind of selfish. Whenever there's an international discussion around race, and an American has anything to say, it seems like some helpful European often pops out of the woodwork to sing another chorus of "We can't be as racist as you because we didn't have slavery, doo dah, doo dah."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:38 PM on July 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


A strong impression I've gotten from a certain I-have-read-it site is that especially younger Europeans have a very blind eye when it comes to the history of slavery in their continent. There's also a sort of "yeah but that was a long time ago, we've reformed don't you remember, lingering racism due to slavery is an American problem don't bring it here" attitude. I see a lot of parallel with the American North, profiting from the existence of slavery while keeping it at arm's length and developing an out of sight, out of mind attitude to the consequences.
posted by traveler_ at 1:30 AM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


You should read the account of Alexander Selkirk (the real Robinson Crusoe) whose ship was a privateer--a more palatable undertaking.

Most privateers weren't shy at all about taking and selling cargoes of slaves when they came across slave transports, so not sure if serious.
posted by walrus at 2:14 AM on July 13, 2015


Thank god for Alex Haley and Roots
posted by infini at 3:37 AM on July 13, 2015


A strong impression I've gotten from a certain I-have-read-it site is that especially younger Europeans have a very blind eye when it comes to the history of slavery in their continent. There's also a sort of "yeah but that was a long time ago, we've reformed don't you remember, lingering racism due to slavery is an American problem don't bring it here" attitude. I see a lot of parallel with the American North, profiting from the existence of slavery while keeping it at arm's length and developing an out of sight, out of mind attitude to the consequences.

The problem is that Europe and America don't have the same history of slavery, and thus the same cultural or social aspects related to it. For Europe, slavery was mostly "elsewhere" in Africa and America. Only a small number were directly engaged or directly profited, even though the whole society was indirectly part of it. The profits came to Europe but the slaves mostly did not. There was never a great and permanent population of slaves in most of Europe, and few places you can point to which have an obvious and lasting relation to slavery. The banks, country houses, and docks which serviced the slave trade are not as easy to recognize as plantations.

A good example is the Congo Free State, which is both relatively recent and unspeakably horrific. Yet what marks of that can be seen clearly in Belgium? E D Morel only learnt about what was happening by examining account books.

Certainly in England, the slave trade is taught in schools. Every student has seen a graphic of the triangular trade and the image of Brookes. But they're also taught about the Empire Windrush and post-1945 migration. The cultural and social resonances between the two are not the same as between slavery in the US and the African-American population today. The same narratives don't work.
posted by Thing at 3:57 AM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Only a small number were directly engaged or directly profited,

I don't know what your impression was of the number of slaveholders in the U.S. at the time of its abolition, but it wasn't 46,000.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:03 AM on July 13, 2015


Certainly in England, the slave trade is taught in schools.

It is now. How long has that been the case though? And for how much longer? Because I remember the consciousness raising and it hasn't been an easy process at all. My children went through school without even touching on the subject. A Maritime Heritage Museum was established in Bristol which only included an (small, as an afterthought) exhibit about the slave trade about ten years after it was built. I just now had a look at the general, touristy About Bristol website and found this sentence: Bristol was the first port to build up trade with America to add to its centuries-old links with the trading cities of Europe and other coastal ports around the United Kingdom. Trade with America, eh! Gosh I wonder what they could possibly have been trading in.

I didn't have to look very hard for that sturdy example of solipsism, it was more or less the second link I got to trying to find out the date the Maritime Heritage Museum was built. Which I actually ought to know since someone close to me was involved in that.

We had an Empire & Commonwealth Museum open here in 2002 and by god, that was an example of 'what have the Romans ever done for us apart from roads, law, medicine, progress' etc if ever I saw one. You'd be hard put to know there was ever any unrest in Kenya that wasn't an irrational reaction to heroic white settlers after a visit there, reading the signage. You would learn absolutely nothing about the rapacious, obsessional, murderous plundering of India undertaken by the East India Company. I mean think about the appendix to Stalky & Co, where one of the boys, now a soldier in India, is presented as some sort of messiah folk hero saving a crowd of little orphan children displaced by famine. In fact, in the writing, I think he's even given a metaphysical halo of sorts, appearing like a saint out of a haze of dust and sun. No mention of the causes of the famine, or the way it was administered. Kipling, give him credit, created a set of immensely powerful and seductive myths, which I'm sure he believed in whole-heartedly himself, and which echo down through popular Western understanding of the colonial workings of power. They are seductive. I'm seduced by them myself. Thank god for Plain Tales from the Hills which tempers ones understanding, just a bit, of that intimate, colloquial Edwardian voice that seems so inclusive and is anything but.

I'm old enough that time slips for me and it's hard to distinguish ten from twenty years into the recent past - was it ten or twenty years ago I was in a group that had an activist speaker come from Liverpool to talk about the history of Black people in Britain, put together from personal testimony and unofficial research because that information wasn't available anywhere, and not on the internet either in it's early days? This changed because of private activism, growing into community activism, growing into community participation becoming an acknowledged asset in the career structure of museum curators and education officers charged with widening access to collections; growing into a funding structure that enabled some person-hours of work dedicated to reaching out and talking to people and establishing the basis for dialogue. And it may all disappear in a puff of tory smoke tomorrow.
posted by glasseyes at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


A strong impression I've gotten from a certain I-have-read-it site is that especially younger Europeans have a very blind eye when it comes to the history of slavery in their continent.

But this will be said about all of us, when historians of the future examine our cultures now, and not just about our further-back history. How could they not have really known where their cellphones come from? How could they not have known where the clothes in Forever 21 were coming from? How could they not know where the World Cup stadium was coming from? How could they not have known where their reasonably priced seafood was coming from? How could they not have known?

And yet, many people know nothing about the current state of slavery worldwide, and those who do know (myself included) have no idea how to even begin to circumvent the slavery-based economy upon which our current models of capitalism are built.

I'm not saying this as an excuse for those who engaged in the Africa-based chattel slavery of previous centuries, not by any means. But we know exactly how people justified it to themselves, and how eager they were to forget about it once given a chance, because we hear the same excuses and justifications all the time.

That's just how you do business in this part of the world. Our economy would collapse without it. We believed that they had weapons of mass destruction. Oh, but I didn't buy it myself, it was a gift. But I recycle. What's done is done. I can't say anything, I might lose my job. How else do you suggest we [enact laudable goal]? It was the only way for our company to stay afloat in these current economic conditions. Well, it was legal back then. We had no idea our vendor was engaged in these practices. The situation might seem bad, but the conditions were better than in other places. It wasn't my call.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


update for UK residents - Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners on BBC 2 and then iplayer. Presented by David Olusoga.
posted by mgrrl at 1:10 PM on July 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


THE inscription on the bronze statue reads: “Erected by the citizens of Bristol and memorial to one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.”

The 18-foot pedestal in Bristol, the United Kingdom’s eighth most populous city, is in honour of Edward Colston, born of the city and a member of parliament in the 18th century, and is just one part of the homage by the prosperous sea town: over a dozen streets and at least three schools are named after him.

He also has an annual day dedicated to him, in addition to giving his name to the sweetened Colston Bun.

Colston also served as a deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly in Britain on the slave trade, minting him the fortune that was ironically used for philanthropic purposes.

This week rich nations slapped down a push for their multinationals to rightfully pay tax. The reason is in plain sight, and goes back centuries.
posted by infini at 7:22 AM on July 17, 2015




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