Slavery in the British Empire

Britannia Ruled With Slaves!

By Gwydion M. Williams

Slavery of a very modern and commercial sort was closely associated with the rise of Britain as a world power, and the rise of the USA as a British offshoot. Not that it was English-speakers who began it, obviously. Slavery already existed and was taken for granted when human history began to be recorded.

The basic human condition is tribal, people living together with ties based on kinship. Someone without kin ties and without their own tribe to protect them had no more rights than an animal. It is likely that some tribes became dependent on others, through defeat in war or because the dominant tribes were richer and could impose control by having food to offer during times of famine.

Communities with slaves gradually passed laws, mostly to regulate who was a slave, how they could be freed and what they were if freed. Also to stop anyone helping them escape: the famous ‘Code’ of the Babylonian king Hammurabi says:

15: If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates [to escape], he shall be put to death.

16: If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the [police], the master of the house shall be put to death. (Document held at the Avalon Project.)

Other nice provisions are that a noble shall lose an eye if he puts out the eye of another noble, but is merely fined if he does it to a commoner. If a ‘sister of a god’ open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death—the ‘sister of a god’ being some sort of priestess or nun. Anyone stealing from a temple or from the king shall be put to death. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off. Nothing is said about any punishment for a free man harming a slave: that came much later and was also not part of Roman law. Hammurabi’s code has merely a fine for killing another man’s slave, listed along with fines for damage to animals and crops.

It may also be true that the Code of Hammurabi was an improvement on older rules or tribal rules, more just and humane than the normal rules 4000 years ago. That just shows how much things change across the centuries. How much they’ve changed since the days when the Code was praised as a model document, which you still find occasionally today.

It’s likely that from very early on, there was a steady flow of slaves from poorer regions to richer, a slave-trade. Black Africans shipped to the New World was the tail-end of a very ancient commerce. It was also the first time that English-speakers became prominent as slave traders, rather than slaves traded by someone else. Back in 1567, an eminently respectable slave-trader called Francis Drake was mortally offended by the Spanish. In retaliation he began a piratical crusade that was later seen as quintessential Englishness:

“A kinsman of Sir Francis Drake, Hawkins began his career as a merchant in the African trade and soon became the first English slave trader. By carrying slaves from Guinea, in West Africa, to the Spanish West Indies, he provoked conflict with the Spaniards, who did not allow unauthorized foreigners to trade with their colonies. Hawkins’ first slave-trading voyage, in 1562-63, on behalf of a syndicate of London merchants, was so profitable that a more prestigious group, including Queen Elizabeth I, provided the money for a second expedition (1564-65). His third voyage, with Drake in 1567-69, however, ended in disaster … A Spanish fleet attacked him in the harbour, and, of the six ships, only the two commanded by Hawkins and Drake were able to escape. This episode marked the beginning of the long quarrel between England and Spain that eventually led to open war in 1585.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Drake and Hawkins were working within a very old British tradition. Celtic antiquities include a slave-chain that must have been used for the securing of a six-pack of British slaves, to be sold from Free Britannia to the Roman Empire in the days before the Roman conquest.

Celtic tribal chieftains probably took the same view as West African tribal chieftains would later take, sell an unwanted slave or war captive and have the cash to buy something more useful. But trade with a stronger society mostly leads to conquest by that society. Britain was invaded by the Roman Empire and made part of an Empire that took slavery to an extreme that no other empire ever did.

The Roman Empire was one of many states that copied the imperial model invented by Cyrus and the Persians. All of them had slaves, but mostly as a small inferior class at the bottom of society. Rome with its gigantic slave-based farms and factories was an exception.

Roman Britannia was conquered by the freedom-loving English, who however kept slaves and sold them too, when there was a market. Saxons were in turn conquered by Normans. Slavery continued, as part of normal commerce:

“Archbishop Anslem, at the London Council of 1102, denounced the practice of selling Englishmen as ‘brute beasts’; his pious contemporary Bishop Wulfstand preached against the practice of selling English slaves from Bristol to Ireland.” (The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, Picador 1997, page 35)

Bristol’s role began with equal-opportunity enslavement. The English slaves sold to Ireland were probably bought by middlemen who sold them on to a much richer Islamic world. And in those impoverished days, it was maybe a step up to a happier cleaner life for an unfree English man or woman.

Some churchmen were true to the anti-slavery bias in Jewish and Christian tradition–the only sacred scriptures in which servile origins are admitted and even seen as a sign of divine favour. But others were less idealistic.

“Out of nearly 500 Visigothic laws which survived… almost half referred to some aspect of slavery. St Isidore of Seville… had, meantime, no doubt about the divine origin of slavery: ‘Because of the sin of the first man, the penalty of servitude was inflicted by God on the human race; to those unsuitable for liberty’.” (Ibid, page 34.)

The ideas were strikingly similar to 19th century pro-slavery arguments, except that this was white-on-white enslavement. All that changed between the 12th and 18th centuries was the colour of those found suitable for a servile role:

“Saxons, Angles, Wends and Avars could all be bought at Verdun, Arles and Lyons [in the empire of Charlemagne]… Verdun prided herself on the production of eunuchs, most of them being sold to the Moors in Spain.” (Ibid.)

Slavery must be understood in its whole history, not just the final phase when Europeans applied it to Black Africans. European Christians in the Dark Ages enslaved other European Christians and sold them to a rich Islamic World, a very similar pattern to Black Africans selling other Black Africans at a time when Europe had become much richer and stronger

As well as praising the slave-trade, St Isidore of Seville was also a definer and inventor of the political and proto-modernist Catholicism that was later expressed through the Vatican and the Papacy. These same forces were normally supporters of the feudal system which destroyed as much as possible of the free peasantry, a peasantry that the Anglo-Saxon monarchs before the Norman Conquest had preserved, the mainstream of society with lords above and a small class of outright slaves or thralls below.

Most history books speak of the mediaeval system as serfdom, not nice but also quite distinct from the terrible business of slavery. This is simply untrue. Saying ‘serf’ is a Victorian trick and invention, used to put an exaggerated distance between English-on-English enslavement and foreign customs that the British Empire was supposed to have benevolently removed:

“Serf: used by modern writers with reference to mediæval Europe In English Law Latin the terms corresponding to the modern use of serf were nativus, villanus, and occasionally servus… the servus of Domesday Book, are usually rendered ‘slave’.” (Oxford English dictionary CD-ROM Version 2.0)

The pretence nowadays is that ‘capitalism’ benevolently swept away slavery. Adam Smith presented it as a survival of past backwardness. He notes the continued existence of serfdom,

“A species of slavery that still subsists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of Germany. It is only in the western and south-western provinces of Europe, that it has gradually been abolished altogether. (The Wealth of Nations, III.ii 8)

Smith left out the residual serfdom of colliers and saltiers in his native Scotland. It was a point he had been happy to mention in Lectures On Jurisprudence, his lectures to a Scottish audience that knew all about this disgraceful survival. When writing up and expanding part of these lectures as The Wealth of Nations, the matter suddenly ceased to be mentioned

Adam Smith also ignored the massive re-growth of a slavery promoted by modern commerce. He mentions in passing the flourishing commercial slavery of the West Indies. He does not deal with it because it does not suit his overall case, that trade is benevolent if left to itself. Money talks most sweetly and does not crap, in Adam Smith’s vision of the world. Facts that do not suit his vision are smoothly evaded.

West Indian slavery was a modern creation involving trade between three continents. Not normally the three-legged voyage from Britain to Africa with trade-goods, Africa to the West Indies with slaves and then back to Britain with refined sugar, molasses and rum. This was the flow of goods, but not necessarily the itinerary of actual individual ships. The slave ships were often specialists and would sometimes return empty from the West Indies to Africa.

18th century slavery was a very sophisticated process, something that commerce created and which only ethical protest managed to remove. It was not primitive, but highly modern and ‘economically rational’. The West Indies had been violently seized from the islands’ original inhabitants, happy and fairly peaceful savages who soon died off. On this land, enslaved humans, not all of them black, were used as a factor in the production of sugar. Modern and sophisticated slave production was also used for the production of tobacco, for which Glasgow had managed to become a major trading centre. This was the flourishing reality of modern 18th century slavery, which Smith did not face up to. He tried to dismiss it as uneconomic:

From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe that the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves. It is found to do so even in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, when the wages of common labour are so very high. (Ibid., I.viii 41)

Slavery never did yield good returns north of Virginia, which was the furthest-flung outpost of slave-grown crops produced for the world market. White people were still quite often bonded labour at this time, there was no law preventing them from being outright slaves, but public opinion and a frontier hungry for new people made it impractical to keep them as living tools.

Blacks were another matter, accepted as fellow humans only by Quakers, radicals and other marginal groups. Fortunately for future developments, black slaves turned out not very useful except for plantation agriculture growing cash crops in a climate where they were more at home than the white settlers. Slavery was marginal in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, not useful for much except exotic servants. So Smith could point there for facts suitable for his argument. He is very careful not to look where his ‘brave new world’ would not have seemed so good. (Smith also avoided taking a public stand on the War of Independence, but was closely associated with Townshend and Wedderburn, two of the main ministers blamed by later historians. He was also made a Commissioner For Customs by Lord North, the man in charge of the government during the actual war.)

Slavery was abolished most places by autocrats or local elites who found it embarrassing. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, the USA in 1809, but that just ended the capture of black Africans: existing slaves remained slaves. Spain abolished slavery completely in 1811: France had abolished it in 1794, but re-imposed it in 1802, following the black revolt in Haiti. Mexico abolished it in 1824: The refusal by English-speaking settlers in the Mexican province of Texas to free their own black slaves was a major factor in the secession—something Texans don’t want you to remember along with the authentically brave stand of the men at the Alamo.

Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s, when it had already become illegal in some other countries and when the West Indian islands were no longer producing profitable crops. Britain had the advantage of being able to keep the former slaves in a separate jurisdiction, crown colonies far separate from Britain itself. It’s also worth mentioning that far more African slaves were imported into the West Indies than into the US South: but the slave population in US plantations multiplied whereas in the West Indies they were worked much harder and died faster. Still, slavery was in the end banned by the British Empire.

Even Tsarist Russia abolished unfree labour ahead of the democratic USA, where slave-owners had votes and slaves did not. It was abolished because the Southern states were foolish enough to secede, which meant that the rest of the USA was able to prohibit slavery (13th amendment), declare that all adult males were citizens (15th amendment) and ban racial discrimination in voting (15th amendment). The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, but not applied honestly for another hundred years.

Had the South stayed within the union, they could have blocked anti-slavery campaigns for ever. They could have preserved Article IV Section 3 of the US Constitution: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due”. What they couldn’t do was secede, which in the abstract might seem a valid democratic right. Not a right that democracies are keen on allowing to their components: Switzerland had also smashed secessionists back in 1848. (What idiot claimed that democracies don’t fight each other?)

The US Civil War consisted of two-thirds of the nation beating the remaining one-third into submission. And doing so unskilfully: most of the military talent was in the South.

The moral odium of slavery distracted from the main issue: a large democracy refused to let some of its people go. They were not denied self-determination because of slavery: they could have kept slavery but the principle of secession was denied.

Which isn’t to say that the cause of the South was a good one. There were various irritants; it’s broadly true that the South was much as it had been in 1776 whereas the rest of the country was changing. But the key issue was the refusal of the Federal government to support slavery or to extend it into the West. Texas—independent from 1836 to 1845—was successfully incorporated as a slave state. But when California was taken from Mexico, its US citizens banned slavery.

With the West Coast closed to slavery, it remained to be seen how the middle of the USA would be filled in. It was south of the Mason-Dixon Line; its immediate neighbour was the slave-state Missouri; the separation of unsettled territory into Kansas and Nebraska was seen by the South as likely to yield one free state and one slave state:

Stephen A. Douglas maneuvered through Congress a bill for reopening the entire Louisiana Purchase to slavery and allowing the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska (with “popular sovereignty”) to decide for themselves whether to permit slaveholding in those territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act provoked violent opposition in Illinois and the other states of the old Northwest. It gave rise to the Republican Party while speeding the Whig Party on its way to disintegration. (Encyclopaedia Britannica DVD edition 2002)

In the event there was an internal civil war in Kansas and it entered the union as a free state. This convinced the South that compromise was not working and that the USA was no longer looking after their interests. Stephen A. Douglas’s compromises failed to please either side. He was the official Democrat candidate for 1860, but the South chose to run their own candidate:

With the Republicans united, the Democrats divided, and a total of four candidates in the field, [Lincoln] carried the election on November 6. No one in the Deep South voted for him and no more than 40 out of 100 in the country as a whole. Still, the popular votes were so distributed that he won a clear and decisive majority in the electoral college. (Ibid.)

The South believed that they needed to expand onto fresh soil to avoid ruin. Even if the arguments were wrong, they were believed at the time and were among the reasons for secession. The South also had no wish to become an enclave in a nation with different values, which in fact they have become.

Note also that opposition to slavery was not the same as accepting blacks as fellow-citizens. Up to the Civil War, there were few blacks in non-slave states—escaped slaves could be reclaimed from anywhere in the USA. Western settlers from non-slave states were mostly opposed to having blacks among them on any basis, free or slave. Popular terrorism supported by elected local governments did mostly keep them out of the West.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review,  in 2005.

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