The myth and reality of Britain’s role in slavery.
The country is belatedly grappling with painful truths about its past.
（1）Slave Empire. By Padraic Scanlan.Robinson; 464 pages; £25.
（2）The Interest. By Michael Taylor.Bodley Head; 400 pages; £20.
On June 7th this year Edward Colston plunged, periwig first, into the waters of Bristol harbour. It was an incongruous scene: at least until recently, Britons immortalised in bronze were rarely toppled or drowned by mobs. Part of the shock of this image, and part of its power, was to see a figure dressed in gentleman’s breeches and a frock-coat being treated as a criminal.
The Victorians who put up this statue had burnished Colston as a philanthropist. And this was true: he had given Bristol, his home city, schools and almshouses. But he did other things too, which the statue and its plaque downplayed. During his decade on the board of the Royal African Company in the late 17th century, it trafficked 84,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas. An estimated 19,000 died en route.
If statues can be misleading, so can perceptions of entire historical periods. The Victorians dressed Colston in an air of unimpeachable respectability; similarly, modern Britain has cloaked the country’s role in the slave trade in a haze of selective memory. It has long celebrated William Wilberforce and his “Saints”, the group who fought to abolish slavery. David Cameron, a former prime minister, once said that one of Britain’s “proud achievements” was its “role in ending slavery”.
Like some others, the country is rather less keen to remember its sinners. Two timely books, by the historians Padraic Scanlan and Michael Taylor, set out to weave a more accurate, less flattering version of this story. Take the idea that Britain worked to reduce slavery from 1807, when the act that abolished the slave trade in the British Empire was passed. That is true. It is equally true that until that date Britain did much to make it thrive. Of the more than 6m enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic, it is thought that 2.5m were packed into British ships.
Or take the widespread but mistaken notion that the act of 1807 outlawed the institution of slavery itself. It did not: it stopped British slaving. In the flesh—and this was an argument of flesh—the difference was infinitely bigger than it seems on the page. Chains that bound people before the vote held firm after it. The 700,000 souls who had been enslaved in the West Indies remained enslaved, and tormented, for decades.
Traditional accounts of Britain’s role in slavery culminate with Wilberforce and that act. These two are just getting going. Mr Taylor’s book, “The Interest”, switches the focus from the saints to the sinners. His title derives from the West India Interest, a lobbying group of planters and politicians, publishers and intellectuals, which doggedly opposed abolition. Support for slavery pervaded British society. Viscount Nelson declared himself a “firm friend” to the colonies. The Duke of Wellington toiled to frustrate abolitionists. The celebrated cartoonist George Cruikshank caricatured them. John Murray, a publishing house known today for introducing Jane Austen to the world, was so famous for pro-slavery arguments that its Quarterly Review was described as “one of the most effective and mischievous props” of the system.
Out of sight
Mr Scanlan’s book, “Slave Empire”, concentrates on the financial benefits that slavers reaped. This harvest by no means ended with abolition. The £20m in compensation that was eventually paid by the British government to slavers for the loss of their human property was a vast sum, equating to 40% of the state’s annual expenditure at the time. Until the banking bail-out of 2008, it was the largest specific payout in British history; the loan it required was paid off only in 2015. The money provided the seed capital for mines, banks, railways and more. Britain’s liberal, free-trade empire was, in part, built on human bondage.
Slavers gained not just gold but a fine gilding from their trade. Many were men of status and consequence. Joshua Reynolds painted them; Eton educated them; society opened its doors for them. Until this year, Colston had not only his statue but a fleet of institutions named after him. Even today scholars at Oxford study in the Codrington Library in All Souls College, endowed by the Codrington family who owned plantations in Barbados. The great-grandfathers of George Orwell and Graham Greene were slaveholders. After emancipation, Orwell’s received £4,000 in compensation for the 218 slaves he had owned, which Mr Taylor describes as “a perversion of justice that would have fitted seamlessly into the Orwellian canon”.
“Slave Empire” is lucid, elegant and forensic. It deals with appalling horrors in cool and convincing prose. “The Interest” is more impassioned. Mr Taylor can tell a story superbly and has a fine eye for detail (George IV, readers learn, breakfasted on pigeon and beef-steak pie, washed down with champagne, port, wine and brandy). His argument is a potent and necessary corrective to a cosy national myth. But his writing can be a distraction, peppered as it is with phrases such as “bogus nonsense” and “twisted logic”. Such caustic judgments may be correct but they are superfluous. An argument of this gravity does not require such flourishes.
It never did. One of the most striking things about Britain’s debates over slavery is how unemotional many of the most influential texts were. Take the basic question of how slaves in the West Indies were treated. As in the United States, British abolitionists and slavers had for years quarrelled bitterly over this, the latter painting an image of paradise, the former of hell. There was stalemate.
Then, in 1789, the Board of Trade published a damning report on slavery, filled with statistics and testimony of the tortures inflicted on slaves. “It is no uncommon thing”, the document recorded, “for a Negro to lie by a Week after Punishment.” More damning still was the mass of data published in the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter, which sold 1.7m copies in six years. You can read its findings now, online.
Even at a distance of almost two centuries, they make appalling reading: “39 lashes”; “three or four hundred lashes”; “on her bared body fifty-eight lashes of the cart whip”. On and on go the accounts, unemotional, unsparing, utterly unpardonable—50 lashes, 49 more. This was not rhetoric. It was cruelty, quantified. And little was more persuasive.
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "The human stain"