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A Sad, Bad History

Queen Elizabeth I was appalled when she was told that Sir John Hawkins had gone into the slaving business. The venture “was detestable and would call down the vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers,” she said.

Then Hawkins showed her the accounts. The Queen immediately invested in his next slaving voyage. That pretty much sums up the English attitude towards slavery. It was “detestable.” But they held their noses because the trade made shedloads of money.

Slavery helped finance Britain’s industrial revolution and stately homes as well as providing the economic foundation stone of colonial America.

The British did not invent slavery. Historians estimate that 30% of the Roman Empire were slaves. The difference is that the African slave trade was based on racial superiority which subsequent generations are still trying to shed.

The Portuguese were the first in modern times to deal in the African flesh. But by the end of the mid-fifteenth, their Spanish neighbours had replaced them. King Charles V insured Spanish dominance by selling the rights to a monopoly—the asiento– to provide African slaves to Spanish colonies.

If anyone other than the asentista tried to sell slaves in a Spanish colony the captain and crew could be tried as pirates. This did not stop Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. The two men are better known for capturing Spanish treasure ships, circumnavigating the globe and saving England from the Spanish Armada. But they were also England’s first slave traders.

The first Black slaves in America arrived in 1619. But the African tsunami did not hit the American South until the very end of the 17th century. Until then the southern plantations relied primarily on indentured servants. It is estimated that up to a half of all the white immigrants to the original thirteen colonies between 1606 and 1776 were indentured servants.

African slaves arrived in major numbers after 1675 when the future King James II took the lead in forming The Royal African Company to establish a royal foothold in the profitable African slave trade. Because of the company’s royal connections, it became official government policy to encourage the colonials to buy slaves. In 1650 there were only 300 slaves in all of Virginia. By 1700 they were being imported at the rate of a thousand a year. It is estimated that between 1713 and 1776 an average of 70,000 slaves a year crossed the Atlantic in British ships

Slavery, however, threw up a moral dilemma for the American authors of such high-flown phrases as “All Men are created Equal”. Slave-owning founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, recognised the problem but were too closely tied to the economic benefits to find a solution.

As the Americans struggled to reconcile the high-flown ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the institution of slavery, British abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, campaigned for a ban on the slave trade. The breakthrough came in 1807 when Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. This was followed by a second Wilberforce campaign to ban slavery outright. He achieved his goal in 1833 and died five days later.

One of those who attended Wilberforce’s funeral was William Lloyd Garrison. The year before, the Bostonian had helped to form America’s first serious abolitionist organisation. By 1840 the American Anti-Slavery Society had 100,000 members and strong support from the British who—now that the empire had been dealt with—shifted their full attention to America. British abolitionists supplied money, literature, campaign tactics and speakers.

With the end of the Civil War the British public lost interest in the plight of African-Americans. They were free. The South’s Jim Crow laws that followed Reconstruction were of little concern to the British public until well into the 20th century. This is mainly due to the fact that the British did not have clean hands when it came to the treatment of its Black colonial subjects. For centuries they had been regarded as an inferior race. It was difficult to reverse that mind-set.

Until the 1950s most public places in the British colonies were segregated along the same lines as in the American South. The Afrikaners are blamed for South Africa’s apartheid, but the foundations were laid by the British. The Glen Grey Act of 1894, put limits on the amount of land Africans could own. Blacks were denied the vote in 1905. The infamous pass laws were a British creation. The 1923 Urban Areas Act introduced residential segregation and in 1926 Africans were banned from skilled trades.

The first cracks in the segregation policies of the American South appeared in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The move started the civil rights movement which eventually culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, colour, religion or national origin. But for many African-Americans the civil rights legislation was too little too late, and definitely too slow. They demanded positive discrimination to redress the balance of centuries of slavery and bigotry.

The race issue that began with the British control of the slave trade and continued with the mistreatment of African-Americans remains a problem and stain on the national character of both countries and another set of dark Anglo-American roots which helps to bind the two countries together.

Tom Arms is a regular contributor. This article is a precis of the slave trade chapter from his forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”


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