We Are Here Because You Were There

I am here because you were there. My ancestors were not British subjects because they came to Britain. Britain came to them, sold them into slavery, profited from their labour and made them subjects. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.

David Lammy MP Twitter May 1st 2018

The 25th of March is the United Nations’ International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery. For this we are doing a series of blogs this week.

When we think about what made Britain, we may think about the Industrial Revolution: iron and steel; the technology; the industrialisation of manufacture; transport with trains canals and steam ships; and international trade. We can walk through some of our towns and cities and see large elegant historic buildings, repurposed waterside warehouses, now luxury flats, huge ornate museums, schools, universities and churches. Looking through the trees when driving through the countryside, glimpses of elegant mansions and estates, some of which can now be visited through the National Trust.

We may think of the British Empire, the largest in living history, where Britain colonised at its peak a quarter of the world’s land mass and a quarter of the people. In 1938 across the world there were 531 million people, all British Subjects, their king was King George VI, the father of the current British Queen Elizabeth II. When Britain needed armies to fight in World War II, millions of British subjects volunteered and signed up from across the world, from all the British colonies to fight for King and Country. To fight for the Mother Country. Eloquently put by Connie Marks about recruitment for WW II:

“When war was declared and more personnel were needed for the front line, you had English officers who came to Jamaica. I was 19 and I can remember, they would go into all the little corners of Jamaica and they would beg, literally beg you to come and fight for England because you see we were brought up that England was our Mother Country and obviously when your mother has problems you’ve got to come and help her.  So we all felt obliged to come and everybody was very happy to come.”[1]

Going further back in our history lessons, we find out that many British people were appalled about owning people, slaves, human chattels, un-British, immoral and not on British soil. Today we make great play about the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, but it took nearly 3 decades longer to legislate against the ownership of slaves in 1833.

In the 1600s and 1700s the law was grey about whether anyone residing in Britain could be a slave. Granville Sharpe was a tireless campaigner against ownership of chattel slaves and highlighted the inconsistencies in British law.[2] Plantation owners returning to Britain accompanied by their house slaves assumed that owning slaves was permissible. The sugar planters in Barbados had agreed the Barbados Slave Code in 1661 and it contradicted British law. It proclaimed that a black slave would be treated as chattel, personal property, in the island’s court[3] – like owning a cow, with the owner’s full rights to beat or slaughter, or a machine, the owner having the right to use or destroy with no legal rights. This differentiated the enslaved Africans, whose skin was dark that according to the Code would have no legal rights, from the indentured labourers whose skins were light from England and Ireland, who had legal rights. In the mid-1600s recent arrivals from Ireland may have been Catholic protagonists in the recent Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.[4] Putting this into context, the bloody European wars of religion (Protestants v Catholics) had been raging for over a hundred years by 1660 and were to go on until the early 1700’s killing millions of people.[5]

Jamaica followed suit with its own slave code in 1664 and South Carolina in 1696. Indeed, throughout the Caribbean and North America plantations worked by enslaved Africans set up similar laws, black slaves as chattel property. For over 200 years chattel slavery was legal in the British colonies until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. But it didn’t stop there.

When we think of the slave trade and the chattel slaves on plantations producing sugar, rice, tobacco and cotton, we think of Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow. I looked closer to my home town in Falmouth, Cornwall and found people like Humphrey Pellew (1650-1721) in Cornwall. He was a merchant and ship owner, son of a naval officer, resided at the Flushing manor-house. Part of the town of Flushing was built by Samuel Trefusis MP for Penryn; the other part was built by Humphrey Pellew. He also had a property and a tobacco plantation in Maryland, which funded building part of Flushing. Part of the town of Annapolis stands on what was, before the revolt of the colonies, the Estate of the Pellews.[6] The plantation system started in 1634 in Maryland. and used indentured English and Irish labour, and from 1690 enslaved Africans.[7]

In the grand scheme of things, Pellew seems like small fry, but the captains’ houses for the Packet Ships that started in 1685 were built in Flushing. The Packet Ships, the king’s post that took mail, contracts, money to and from the ‘New World’, the British colonies. The Royal Africa Company in the 1660s set up by the Royal Family and the City of London merchants like Edward Colston, who traded in enslaved Africans from the west coast of Africa.

Owning enslaved people in British colonised territories wasn’t abolished until 1834. What we only found out recently is that those owners of people were compensated for loss of income from enslaved labour. In the exceptionally good Guardian article by Kris Manjapra When Will Britain Face Up to its Crimes Against Humanity[8] 29th March 2018:

‘On 3 August 1835, somewhere in the City of London, two of Europe’s most famous bankers came to an agreement with the chancellor of the exchequer. Two years earlier, the British government had passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which outlawed slavery in most parts of the empire. Now it was taking out one of the largest loans in history, to finance the slave compensation package required by the 1833 act. Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore agreed to loan the British government £15m, with the government adding an additional £5m later. The total sum represented 40% of the government’s yearly income in those days, equivalent to some £300bn today.

‘You might expect this so-called “slave compensation” to have gone to the freed slaves to redress the injustices they suffered. Instead, the money went exclusively to the owners of slaves, who were being compensated for the loss of what had, until then, been considered their property. Not a single shilling of reparation, nor a single word of apology, has ever been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved, or their descendants.’

There are ironies in this:

  • Firstly, it wasn’t until the British Financial Crisis in 2008 did the British Government again borrow such a large amount of money, in 2008 and it was to bail out the banks. According to Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, “When governments have stepped in, whether through bailouts or quantitative easing, it has generally further enriched the rich rather than the toiling classes.” Not even in the aftermath of WWII did Britain borrow so much money. This was at a time when the National Health Service was introduced and as they had done after WWI, housing for poor people was built.
  • Secondly, British tax payers only finished paying off this “slave compensation” loan nearly 200 years later in 2015.
  • Thirdly, British tax payers of African descent living in their country of Britain had themselves been contributing to the “slave compensation” fund. Many of them are descendants of enslaved Africans whose forefathers had worked as slave labourers to create the wealth of the British Empire, and they still had to pay for the sins of the white men.

Going back to what made Britain great, the Industrial Revolution. It relied on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to accumulate the capital and for labour intensive cotton for example, produced by enslaved Africans working on the plantations in the ‘New World’. Samuel Greg who owned the cotton mill, Quarry Bank Mill at Styal in Cheshire and near Manchester:

“Pioneering British industrialist, builder of Quarry Bank house and mill in Cheshire 1796-1797. ‘Greg’s initial capital was accumulated through profits in transatlantic trade, which his father and uncle prosecuted successfully from Belfast with the Cunninghams (who also owned a slave plantation on St Vincent). Consequently, although Greg did not rely on Caribbean estate earnings to finance entry into cotton spinning, his interest in plantations formed part of a wider family engagement in commerce that included significant slave-related business.”[9]

As Tunde Obadina points out:

“The transatlantic slave trade and slavery were major elements in the emergence of capitalism in the West. As Karl Marx noted, they were as pivotal to western industrialisation as the new machinery and financial systems. Slavery gave value to the colonies in the New World, which were crucial in the development of international trade. Trinidadian historian Eric Williams showed in his well-researched book Capitalism and Slavery, that the slave trade and slavery helped to make England the workshop of the world. Profit from slave-worked colonies and the slave trade were major sources of capital accumulation which helped finance the industrial revolution. The transportation of slaves transformed British seaport areas into booming centres. One Englishman calling himself ‘A Genuine “Dicky Sam”, had no doubt about the link between the slave trade and prosperity of seaport city of Liverpool:

“Like the magical wand, the traffic worked wonders; once poor, now rich; once ignoble, now great. Churches have been built and grand legacies bequeathed to all sorts of charities.”[10]

I can see the village of Flushing across the water from my home town of Falmouth in Cornwall. Walking through the pretty village has taken on another dimension, one that’s always been there but hidden, an uncomfortable truth. Where the wealth came from to make it happen, the houses, the affluence, built from the wealth created by enslaved Africans.


[1] Connie Marks in Black History Bootleg

[2] Granville Sharpe was a tireless campaigner against treating people as property, chattels – see Spartacus Education.

[3] Barbados Slave Code – Wikipedia and Black and British: A Forgotten History pages 69 and 70

[4] Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in Wikipedia – 50,000 indentured labourers sent to the ‘New World’, a choice between that or prison.

[5] European wars of religion in Wikipedia. These were bloody. Just one of these wars, The Thirty Year’s War killed millions of people, maybe as many as 12 million. In Ireland over 800,000 people died, 600,000 of them were Irish Catholics.

[6] See the records for Humphrey Pellew’s grandson, Edward Pellew(in Wikipedia), who famously press-ganged Joseph Antonia Emidy(Black History Bootleg) in Lisbon and left him in Falmouth in 1799. Emidy was formerly from Guinea, enslaved by the Portuguese, taught to play the violin, an ‘exquisite violinist’, and on arrival in Falmouth taught young men the violin, cello, flute and went on to lead the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra.

[7] A Guide to the History of Maryland 2007 and Old Falmouth by Susan Gay 1903 p122

[8] When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? By Kris Manjapra in the Guardian 29th March 2018

[9] Legacies of British Slave Ownership University College London database Samuel Gregand from the British Heritage siteHistory of the Cotton IndustryandTextile Manufacture during the British Industrial Revolutionin Wikipedia

[10] Liverpool and slavery: an historical account of the Liverpool-African 1884 Liverpool, A. Bowker & Son and Tunde Obadina in his article Slave trade: a root of contemporary African Crisis in 2000 and found in the web archives. Obadina has written 3 books: Poverty And Economic Issues – Africa Progress and Problems; Population and Overcrowding – Africa Progress and Problems; The Making Of Modern Africa – Africa Progress and Problems

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