Britain and Slavery

I am have been currently taking a lot of classes around American history and obviously a huge part of it involves the horrendous act of slavery which still has its lasting effects today.

I was interested in the role that Britain played in this and thought you might want to know as well. This also came up because a friend of mine returned from visiting the States and remarked that slavery was mentioned everywhere. I simply explained that while it was not our finest hour, it is part of who we are but we did not do it alone. 

I also thought it would be interesting to research because when Barack Obama was first elected president, Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave him a pen fashioned from the wood from a slave trading ship. Obama gave Brown DVDs which were Region 1, so he couldn't watch them!

I am not going to get into the details about the slavery that occurred while we were British colonies for two reasons, we should know this because it is part of our history and two, it is too much for this post.

At first many slaves were treated the same as indentured servants and could own land and other slaves once they had worked off their time. However, as the number of slaves increased the attitudes changed and you see more and more colonies not only making slavery legal but also limiting the right of slaves to marry without permission, when the slaves could travel, the severe consequences if they assaulted or killed their masters (which was always the slave's fault) and much more ill treatment as time went on. The need/desire of slaves were different in the North and Southern colonies for many reasons such as the Northern industries did not make as much money so they could not afford them and there were higher concentrations of people there so there was more available labor. There were cultural differences too which played a big part. The practice of slavery did not end until 1866 after the Civil War nearly caused America to fall apart.

We all know that the American Revolution created the divide between the US and Britain. In 1807, we outlawed the external slave trade. This meant that no slaves could be brought over but created the new industry of trading slaves within the country and their value increased with the invention of the Cotton Gin. The same year the British banned the slave trade. The last of the British Colonies to abolish slavery was in 1927. 

So how did the British prosper from the slave trade? 

There were cities that had ports faired well through this trade. Cities like Liverpool and Bristol were very important in this time and over 1.5 million slaves were handled on their boats. London also benefited from this trade.

There was the slave trading triangle. Guns and brandy were taken to Africa and traded for African slaves. Most caught from African or African-European dealers, this had been going on since the Romans. They were often caught in battles or sold to settle debts. Then the slaves would be brought to America and the Caribbean and sold. Then the ships would bring rum and sugar to England and the cycle started all over again.

King Charles II pushed to make a British slave trading company.

When people like William Willberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Zachary Macaulay and Thomas Fowell Buxton started to push for the end of the slave trade in the 1760s, they did not push for the end of owning slaves because the British economy relied so much on them. In 1835, the British finally freed all slaves in the British Empire, 31 years before the United States.

I cannot find evidence that they had slaves like we did but rather they had servants. In fact, in the 18th century it was fashionable for women to have black children servants. Africans had been brought to Britain since the Romans. There is no records on the numbers of who were free or enslaved. There is an interesting decision made in the courts in 1772 which states that, "Africans could not be exported from the UK to the West Indies as slaves." This suggests to me that they were free if they were living in the UK.

The crop that was mainly produced the need for slaves was cotton. Now Britain did not have slaves but their cotton textile trade depended on the cheap cotton that they procured from the South. By the 1830s the US was the biggest producer of cotton, 80% of the cotton imported was maintained by slaves. Twenty percent of the population of Britain were dependent on the cotton industry.

Southern plantations tried to justify their need for slaves because if they had to pay them they would have to mark up their prices and they would no longer be able to compete. This was not the main reason for the Civil War began but it became one of the reasons why it was fought so hard.

The British also consumed a lot of tobacco and that was the second biggest export for the US which was also grown by slaves. 

During the Civil War, the British tried to help out by using Cotton Diplomacy, where they banned US cotton but this only depressed their market and they looked to India for cotton to fill in the gap.

I just thought it would be interesting to see how slavery impacted another part of the world especially as it is not always associated with Britain.

This is a horrible part of our history but while the industry was created by the expansion of America and the crops that we grew, we were not the only ones who were to blame for how long it lasted.

All the Best!

American to Britain