Earlier this month English Heritage unveiled one of their prestigious blue plaques on the wall of Schomberg House on Pall Mall, central London. It was to commemorate the residence there of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, the author and campaigner, who in 1787 wrote one of the first exposés by an African of slave-trading.
Cugoano criticised the continuing toleration of the horrors of the slave trade by the British government and public, who in consuming the products of slavery — from breakfast table to tavern — made it profitable. Meanwhile, in Grenada, Cugoano, himself a former slave, recounted “seeing my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful, distressed and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it, could not but fill my little mind with horror and indignation”.
Yet, despite such contemporary revelations, slavery remained central to Britain’s trading activities. The country was slow to acknowledge the heinous realities of slavery, and pressure for change met with outright hostility. Even after abolition of the slave trade in 1807, a wealthy and powerful lobby, led by the “West India Interest”, continued with fierce rearguard action to stall reform and prevent emancipation by putting pressure on parliament and influencing public opinion. Leading the charge were the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants, supported by the Atlantic “outports” (Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow). A literary committee was established with an annual budget of some £20,000 (roughly £1.8m today) to protect “West India colonies through the press”. Funding came from the sixpences (“proslavery rent”) on Britain’s imported casks of sugar, coffee and rum.
The long battle to overcome such hardened and well-heeled opposition to abolition is the subject of two new books: one focused on how the establishment resisted reform, the other on the impact of changing consumer behaviour. Together they offer fresh perspectives on the story of reform and challenge many of the prevailing, at times self-congratulatory, narratives of abolition.
In The Interest Michael Taylor asks who and what were “the necessarily ‘great’ obstacles” to reform and how these were overcome. He finds the answer in the heart of the British establishment.
In particular he highlights the 1832 general election, which, in the wake of the Great Reform Act that extended the franchise, produced the first parliament in favour of abolition. The “Interest” and its allies in parliament were on the retreat, Taylor writes, as the gruesome realities of slavery, the unpunished beheadings and rapes in British colonies, ultimately undermined the denial of cruelty that had helped delay abolition. The writings of former slaves such as Cugoano and Mary Prince showed the British public what was being sanctioned and countered the proslavery slogan of “Ships, colonies, and commerce” and claims of a “contented peasantry”. In May 1834 the new Whig-led Parliament proposed — against the wishes of King William IV — that, from August 1 1834, “the title of property in man would no longer be recognised in British law”.
But progress came with conditions attached. The slaveholders, not the enslaved, would be compensated; and adult enslaved people would serve mostly unpaid apprenticeships for up to 12 years, using any earnings to buy their freedom. Following negotiations, “apprenticeships” fell to seven years and compensation to slaveholders was capped at £20m. Thus fortified, British colonial slavery was duly abolished and, after revelations of cruelty, Parliament in 1838 forbade “apprenticeships”.
The compensation payable to shareholders equalled 40 per cent of Britain’s annual expenditure and constituted at the time “the largest single financial operation undertaken by the British state”. Banking syndicates led by Barings, Rothschilds and the economist David Ricardo offered to arrange loans. By mid-1835, 45,000 British slaveholders had claimed compensation. The resulting debt was only finally paid off by the UK Treasury in 2015.
Money is also central to Bronwen Everill’s analysis of the consumer movement that promoted anti-slavery sentiment in Britain and shaped thinking on political economy. Not Made by Slaves explains why it suited the West India Interest to try to keep the public ignorant of the extent of cruelty in slavery, as a way of delaying abolition. She shows how consumer society would eventually limit “the deleterious effects of commercialisation”, including slavery.
Her account covers abolitionists and merchants in Senegambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the first territories to divert trading to “legitimate commerce”; essentially all trade not involving enslaved persons. She also convincingly demonstrates why the 18th and 19th century Atlantic is best conceived as an interlocked single space in which people, money and goods flowed. Within this, consumers were introduced to goods produced and bought with slave labour: cheap sugar for Britain, Indian textiles for Africans.
Everill, a history lecturer at Cambridge university, writes that moral reformers who understood purchasing power countered slave-trading by encouraging consumers to abandon certain supply chains altogether. Alongside William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, a leading abolitionist in the Clapham Sect, and the associated joint-stock Sierra Leone Company, promoted legitimate commerce in parts of West Africa and demonstrated that trading could survive without slavery, hitherto the commercial mainstay of the region. Similarly, Ashanti and Fante merchants on the Gold Coast expanded legitimate commerce in their territories. After the Napoleonic Wars, fiduciary currencies in West Africa and Britain helped accelerate the growth of export cash crops, thereby reducing further the need for slave-trading.
As well as the expansion of the legitimate trade in Africa, Everill describes the mostly British and American efforts to promote “free produce”. Consumers were blamed and shamed for encouraging producers to exploit enslaved workers. The relationship between notions of “civilised” morality and business, and consumer self-interest were given definition.
Yet, West Africa was as important in “conceptualising global commercial relations, developing alternatives for the slave-based Atlantic economy”. Everill repositions West Africa as central to the broader Atlantic story of 18th and 19th century economic morality, its relationship with commercial ethics, and the expansion of capitalism. Abolitionism changed the whole Atlantic world, embracing Christian evangelicals and Quakers in Britain and Islamic slave-trade abstainers in Africa, all outraged at the intolerable commercialisation of human and social relations.
Such views underlie the concept of consumers as individuals with political purchasing power. Everill writes that abolitionist abstainers and consumer activists informed in part by Adam Smith’s advocacy of free labour and fair reimbursement, understood that, “while the market wasn’t inherently moral”, it could improve society through self-interest.
Everill recounts the infamous case of the slave-ship Zong and how that exposed the inherent excesses and cruelty of slave-trading, its associated financial underpinnings and the impact of public sentiment on the subsequent legal action. In 1781, en route between modern-day Ghana, where Cugoano was born, and Jamaica with several hundred slaves on board, the Zong lost its way for days. When drinking-water ran out, the captain and crew decided to throw 132 slaves overboard, provoking the shipowners to sue the ship’s insurer for compensation. After the jury found in their favour, the case went to appeal where the ruling was overturned.
Thanks to the energetic campaigning of opponents to the slave trade led by Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp, the case quickly gained a high profile. In his legal opinions, chief justice Lord Mansfield was careful not to pronounce that slavery was illegal in England, but it seems clear that without his rulings the parliament of 1834 might not have been elected. Mansfield’s rulings were influenced by the climate of the time, partly created by the active consumerism that Everill describes.
The Zong case illustrates how far the commodifying of human lives had strengthened the widespread recoil from its excesses. As Everill reminds us, it “helped to identify the responsibility of consumers, not only to their own moral or religious beliefs, but also to the labour that had made possible the commodity they were consuming”.
Slavery’s value to Britain is still debated, but analysts’ estimates suggest 12 per cent of contemporaneous gross domestic product — the same share today would amount to £260bn — illustrating why the courts and others hesitated to criticise an institution that determined much of the Atlantic economy. Taylor assesses how far earnings from slavery permeated British society. He names the banks, universities and industries that all benefited directly from the trade. He points out that between 1809 and 1874, more than 590 Britons died, each leaving a “slave-earned fortune” of more than £6m in today’s money, to say nothing of the 29 National Trust properties recently identified as being linked to the compensation that slave-owners received in the 1830s.
There are other lessons for today. The growth of sustainable investment illustrates the importance of social responsibility in commercial decisions. Capitalism needs popular — consumer — consent to flourish. As both books show, these are issues that have been debated for centuries, a fact worth remembering as we mark the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s seminal paper on the responsibility of corporations. The contributions to the debate on ethics and capitalism led by the abolitionists help frame today’s discussions around fair trade, supply chains, sweatshops, business and human rights and corporations’ responsibility to behave ethically. These debates continue to influence and, not for the first time, to shape global capitalism.
The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery, by Michael Taylor, Bodley Head, RRP£20, 400 pages
Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition, by Bronwen Everill, Harvard University Press, RRP$39.95/£31.95, 328 pages
Kofi Adjepong-Boateng is a research associate at the Centre for Financial History, University of Cambridge
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