Who abolished slavery in England

Britain and the long shadow of slavery

Interest in the origins and effects of the slave trade in Great Britain has increased by leaps and bounds since statues were torn down in the UK as part of the US Black Lives Matter movement. The country was deeply involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“There is no black place in the UK, and there were no public lynchings here in the 1950s and 60s. Still, I think the situation here is in many ways worse. Because, oddly enough, black culture is growing in the US More respect, "said British musician Akala recently.

"The industrial revolution and the contribution of slavery to the UK economy were very closely intertwined," Richard Toye, professor of history at the University of Exeter, told DW. "It is therefore difficult to pinpoint the long-term effects of slavery."

The statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London's Parliament Square on June 12, 2020 - with protective cover and police guard

According to calculations by historian David Richardson, British ships have transported at least 3.4 million captured Africans to America. The total number of African slaves transported by European traders is estimated at twelve million people.

Profits from slave labor

As part of the "Atlantic Triangle Trade" ships loaded with goods sailed from Great Britain to the coast of West Africa and exchanged the goods for slaves who had been captured by local rulers. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic and forced to work on plantations. The products of this slave labor - plants for export, sugar or rum, were then brought back to Britain by ships.

In particular, sugar plantations made British colonies particularly valuable. And on the British side, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool developed into major port cities through trade by the end of the 18th century.

"Britain's slave economy was huge and extremely complex," Ryan Hanley, a history professor at Exeter University, told DW. "It is not possible to put a precise figure on the British profits from slavery. What is certain is that the economy has benefited enormously from the exploitation of African slaves in the Caribbean."

The slave trade was also of great importance for other areas of the economy. "For example, the copper bars that some British traders exchanged for enslaved Africans were made in South Wales, as was the cheap woolen clothing that slaves had to wear in the West Indies," says Hanley.

"Slavery and colonialism were also closely linked to the development of the financial infrastructure that enabled Britain to establish itself as the economic and imperial global powerhouse of the 19th century," said Hanley.

By the late 18th century, African slaves were the largest group of immigrants in North America. But many more slaves were brought to South America.

Trade boosted the insurance industry, and the slave traders' hunger for credit helped build some of the largest banks in the country. Lloyd's of London, Barclay's Bank and the Bank of England all played their part in consolidating and expanding slavery, Hanley said.

The British entrepreneur, slave trader and politician Edward Colston (1636-1721), whose statue was torn down in his hometown of Bristol in June of this year, bequeathed part of his fortune to the Society of Merchant Venturers, a charity in Bristol that works in the Victorian period (1837-1901) also participated in the development of the Great Western Railway.

"The construction of the railroads, that symbol of industrial progress in the Victorian era, was largely funded by funds received by slave owners as compensation after the abolition of slavery," says Hanley

However, some historians doubt that the slave trade has permeated the British everyday economy so profoundly. "When it came to food, clothing, and shelter, almost no one used slave labor products," said David Eltis, British history professor at Emory University, Georgia, who also runs the website slavevoyages.org operates.

"Sugar, coffee and rum hardly played a role in the British diet back then," Eltis told DW. He is also critical of alleged links between slavery and industrialization and points out that the largest slave traders on the American continent were the Portuguese, and that Brazil was the country with the most slaves.

"Great Britain industrialized, Portugal did not, or at least much later. How could slavery and the slave trade have anything to do with the development of the West? Germany, Italy and others had no connection to Africa and the American continent, but achieved status nonetheless of a developed country, "argues Eltis.

Abolition and Compensation

It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire. Slave owners in the British West Indies in the Caribbean received compensation totaling £ 20 million. It is estimated that that would be £ 20 billion today.

At that time, the amount was equivalent to around 40 percent of the UK's national budget. In British history, it was the largest disbursement by the state before the banking crisis, starting in 2008, when financial institutions were bailed out with billions of dollars.

In order to be able to compensate the slave owners, the British government had to take out a loan, which it could not finally repay until 2015. Those who received payouts also included ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron and the Church of England, according to University College London (UCL) researchers.

"After the abolition of slavery, a great injustice was committed because it was not the enslaved who were compensated, but the slave owners," says historian Richard Toye.

Selective memories

"We shouldn't try to rewrite or censor our past now," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week. As a columnist for the magazine The Spectator Johnson wrote in 2002 that British colonial history in Africa was "not an eyesore on our conscience. (...) The problem is not that we once were in charge, but that we are no longer in charge".

Catherine Hall, who is leading a research project on slavery at the University of London, believes the subject is simply ignored in British historical consciousness. "Abolition is more remembered than the slave trade, and an extraordinarily large number of people are unaware of Britain's colonial past in terms of slavery," she said on BBC Radio.

After protesters in Bristol tore down the statue of Edward Colston, they rolled it to the River Avon and threw it into the water

Historian David Olusoga wrote in the newspaper The Guardianthat the British education system had "rejected requests and demands" for decades to make black history a central part of the national curriculum.

"And so there is a national blind spot, a void in our collective knowledge that affects us all - black and white," wrote Olusoga.

Ryan Hanley, on the other hand, believes Britain is in the process of dealing with its colonial past and wondering how it is still affecting the present. "For many people this process will be painful - historical truths often are."

Slavery today

But slavery still exists today, says Andy Hall, an activist who fights for workers' rights, especially in Southeast Asia. It should not be forgotten that modern forms of slavery "are systemic around the world, particularly in many supply chains that serve the UK market". The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates the number of forced laborers worldwide at 24.9 million.

The UK's Modern Slavery Act, passed in 2015, requires all companies with annual sales in excess of £ 36 million to demonstrate once a year how to prevent slavery in their supply chains. But many world-famous brands simply do not meet this obligation, criticizes Core, a British non-governmental organization that advocates responsible corporate behavior.

"The complacency of large corporations - especially those that like to blurt out their social responsibility - is appalling," former core director Marilyn Crose said in a statement.