How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery
Bodley Head, 2020
Review by Colin Grant
On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron (whose ancestor, Sir James Duff, was a slave owner) was expected by the Jamaican government to apologise for Britain’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. The Prime Minister declined, answering instead that it was time ‘to move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future’. Cameron concluded, ‘Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in [slavery’s] abolition’.
In The Interest Michael Taylor shows how reluctantly Britain gave up the abominable trade before recasting its involvement in a positive light, elevating abolitionist heroes such as William Wilberforce who had been instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade (i.e. in the plunder of Africans from the continent) in 1807. Yet ‘until 1833, slavery had been an essential part of British national life’, writes Taylor, ‘as much as the Church of England [and] the monarchy’.
As well as enriching affluent investors, more modest slave holdings in the Caribbean yielded profits for three thousand absentee slave owners resident in the UK. They included Anna Fraser from Inverness who lamented that the one enslaved person she inherited was ‘all the property I possess in the world’. But impoverished spinsters like Fraser also benefited from the West India Interest – a collection of politicians, planters and prominent supporters such as Lord Nelson – who lobbied to protect the interests of wealthy slave owners.
Abolition of the slave trade had little impact on the continued brutality of plantation life. In the 1828 testimony of Mary Prince, rescued by abolitionists when she was abandoned by her ‘master’ in London, Prince bemoaned that, ‘to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh upon with the cow-skin was an ordinary punishment’.
Taylor reveals successive governments’ preference for diluting slavery – such as outlawing the separation of enslaved families – as cynically kicking the can of emancipation down the road. The Interest reads like a murder mystery, with slavery the bleeding corpse whose death is, finally, mourned by few. On the eve of emancipation on 31 July 1833, the black Jamaican congregation of William Knibb, the abolitionist Baptist preacher, observed him prepare for slavery’s funeral: ‘A chain, a whip, and an iron collar were placed in a coffin’.
But what caused Britain to capitulate in passing the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833? There were a number of converging factors: the steadfast commitment of anti-slavery firebrands such as Elizabeth Heyrick who proposed a sugar boycott; the great Reform of Parliament which introduced more MPs sympathetic to emancipation; and the shock of slave rebellions, especially Jamaica’s 1831 Sam Sharpe insurrection, that convinced the government that ‘the endurance of slavery risked repeated scenes of bloodshed’.
In 2018, the Treasury, in a “fun Friday facts tweet” invited Britons to congratulate themselves (and their ancestors) – for underwriting the £20 million grant assigned in 1833 to compensate not the enslaved but the slave owners for their loss of income from their emancipated ‘property’ (an enslaved African was valued at £20 – £50, about £2,300 – £5,800 in today’s money). But The Interest poses an uncomfortable question: ‘Should criminals ever celebrate the end of their own criminality?’ Taylor challenges nostalgic politicians’ desire to resurrect a sanitised, ‘civilizing mission’ version of our imperial past, perpetuating the myth of Britain as an anti-slavery nation.