From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Britain was once the slave capital of the world, its cities and its empire built on the profits from this trade in brutality. Yunus Bakhsh explores an age our rulers would like us to forget and argues it forms the foundations of modern day racism
The killing by police of a 40 year old Jamaican woman, Joy Gardner, was more than just another example of British state racism. The use of chained manacles and tape to bind her hands and feet was for many black people chillingly symbolic of the treatment black people suffered in the days of slavery.
For between 1500 and 1800 an estimated 30 million black people were enslaved. Taken from their homes often at gunpoint, chained hand to foot, loaded like cargo aboard waiting ships, they were branded with the mark of their new owner, sold naked in markets like cattle, then shipped off to work in plantations for up to 18 hours a day for the rest of their lives.
Small wonder, then, that the age of slavery is one which our rulers would prefer us to forget. As late as 1957 a lengthy history of Liverpool, once the world’s largest slave port, could devote just 28 lines to the trade that put Liverpool on the map. The history concluded that the slave trade ‘was to bring benefits to all, not least the transplanted slaves whose descendants have subsequently achieved in the new world standards of civilisation far ahead of their compatriots whom they left behind’.
So slavery benefited the slaves!! Of course the real beneficiaries were the slave owners, the mayors, the alderman, the judges, the MPs, who made their fortunes from the trade in human misery. In the 18th century the number of slaves owned was a marker of social standing. The parliamentary West Indian pro-slave lobby could count on up to 60 to 70 MPs, most of whom bought their seats in the so called ‘rotten boroughs’. Nor was slavery some peripheral economic activity: it was to provide a vast chunk of the capital that was to lead to the development of British capitalism. The cotton mills of Manchester, the iron works of the Midlands and the banking and commerce sectors of London all grew on the markets and profits generated by slavery. As Marx put it, ‘Overworking of the negro ... the using of his life in seven years of labour became a factor in a calculated and calculating system.’
The trade began in the late 15th century with the opening up of new trade routes to the Americas in the west and Asia and Africa in the east. Along these routes lay the colonies which the four great sea powers – Spain, Portugal, Britain and Holland – were to fight a series of wars for the better part of a century to control. The age of empire building had begun.
Britain emerged as the dominant military and economic power, by the early 18th century controlling much of the known world’s sea routes. To maintain this position a huge increase in Britain’s naval powers was undertaken.
It was a price worth paying. The West Indian and North American colonies were both an outlet for British goods, accounting for fully 20 percent of exports in 1700, and a source of cheap raw materials which could then be re-exported at profit to Europe.
However, in order to develop, the colonies needed labour. Initially native Americans were enslaved. They, however, had a nasty habit of dying of overwork or simply running away. A brief experiment with white slaves, usually convicts or debtors, was abandoned due to the high mortality rates and because of the dangerous political and social undertones of white enslavement. The quest for labour then turned to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese had been trading in African slaves for some time. Africa became the source of slaves, as Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, explained ‘The origins of negro slavery ... were economic not racial, it had not to do with the colour of the labourer but the cheapness of the labour’.
Within a few short years from the late 17th century slavery reappeared on a scale never before seen. There had of course been slave societies in the past in ancient Greece and Rome for example. However, the new slavery was fundamentally different to the slavery of antiquity.
Firstly the slaves now worked to produce a commodity, sugar or cotton, which was traded on the emerging world market, not used simply to service the lifestyles of the rich. Secondly they worked not in households in small numbers but on huge plantation ‘factories’ often with hundreds of labourers. Lastly and very importantly, slavery now for the first time became racially exclusive. Slaves were black and blacks were slaves. This was a new development. The pre-capitalist slave societies were no utopias, but slavery in ancient Rome and Greece was never racially exclusive. Indeed from the evidence we have the majority of slaves in Rome were white. They were drawn from the conquered territories and therefore were mostly European. Incidentally the Romans tended to regard the white Britons as excessively lazy and stupid and the black Nubians (Ethiopians) as cultured and noble. Certainly being black in ancient Rome was not synonymous with being a slave. Racial slavery was therefore a creation of early capitalism and not a feature of previous slave societies.
The British slave trade was initially monopolised by the Royal Africa Company, but its monopoly was broken by an act of parliament in 1698 allowing for a massive expansion in the trade. What developed was the infamous ‘triangular’ trade pattern with its centre in the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol. Britain could proudly boast to be the slave capital of the world.
It was an immensely profitable business. The return per voyage of a ‘slaver’ was £6,000–8,000 – a fortune in the 18th century. At the height of the trade between 1750 and 1790 an estimated £6 million of profit was paid into the hands of the slave owners. The mood amongst the rich was summed up by this Liverpool ditty of the time.
‘If our trade had gone, an end to our lives,
There was inhumanity and cruelty to match the profits. On the ships the slaves were penned in galleries, one above the other. Each was too short to lie in, too low to sit up in. At least one in eight died in transit, many were tortured for sport or thrown overboard, women were raped and mutilated. Should any escape, they were hunted down like animals.
Such naked brutality presented the merchants with a problem. As members of a rising class, they were eager to stamp their mark on society. Their political slogans were those of equality and freedom. They declared for the rights of man, each man being free and equal before God. How was it then that at the same time they could amass great wealth from the systematic and brutal denial of these supposed universal rights to millions of slaves? The answer was racism, as CLR James has pointed out:
‘The conception of dividing people by race began with the slave trade. The thing (the slave trade) was so shocking, so opposed to all the conception of society which religion and philosophers had... that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide Africans were an inferior race.’
Blacks could not have human rights, it was argued, because they were not human, they were a subspecies, beasts of burden. It was the beginning of what we know as racism. Whilst there was ignorance, superstition and prejudice in pre-capitalist societies, racism as we know it today did not exist. Again, as CLR James explains:
‘Historically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard, civilised and barbarians and you could have a white skin and be a barbarian and you could be black and civilised.’
The delineating factors in pre-capitalist societies were language, culture and religion, all of which could be acquired. Skin colour (Michael Jackson notwithstanding) was inherited.
Racism did not emerge as a fully rounded ideology. It started as ‘whispers on the plantations’ but quickly gained shape in print. Neither was it a ‘conspiracy’, but it did serve to justify slavery and could potentially be used to bind the lower orders of whites to their rulers.
Nor did it take hold automatically. The extent to which the slave owners had to use all the ideological weapons at their disposal attests to that. Religion and religious imagery were employed to reinforce the perception of blacks as infidels, soulless heathens, whose enslavement was the price they paid for their original sin (of being black). A black skin was the curse of Ham, the mark of the devil. The Church of England refused to baptise slaves. God was a white European man (though he confusingly managed to beget a Palestinian Jewish son!). In reality, the anti-black image of the Bible had more to do with its extensive rewriting in the 14th century, a time of conflict with the Islamic Moors of North Africa.
Even some of the giants of philosophy weighed in. Champions of the rights of man such as David Hume and John Locke contributed to the racist onslaught. Hume could write in 1753:
‘I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men ... to be naturally inferior to the white. There never was a civilised nation of any complexion other than white ... no ingenious manufacture, no arts, no sciences.’
John Locke was apt to suspect the same, a suspicion no doubt influenced by the £600 worth of shares he had in the Royal Africa Company! Even cruder was one Edward Long, the Enoch Powell of his day, who believed blacks were more akin to orangutans than humans. The 23 volume universal history of 1760 depicted blacks as ‘lazy, treacherous ... incestuous, brutish and savage, cruel and revengeful devourers of human flesh ... they are inhuman.’
To prove blacks’ innate inferiority a school of racist pseudo-science developed. The scientist Linnaeus devised a method of racial categorisation which naturally placed white European man top and Africans bottom.
One Samuel Morton believed cranial capacity was a determinant of racial superiority and intelligence, though he discovered, somewhat unfortunately, that the largest capacity amongst whites he studied belonged to criminals, especially murderers. Perhaps most ludicrous was Johan Michels, who declared black people have black blood and black bones! They only appeared red and white once exposed to the purity of God’s air.
Regardless of the irrational and nonsensical basis of these notions, a clear picture of anti-black racism began to emerge. Blacks were lazy and stupid, inferior to whites, and nature dictated that they should remain so.
All this did not go unchallenged. The abolitionist movement grew apace, drawing its greatest strength from amongst the poorest sections of society. William Wilberforce, the abolitionist MP for Hull, may have been accredited with the bill which ended the British slave trade in 1807, but he was motivated less by concern for the slaves and more by the fact that slavery was becoming uneconomical and a fetter upon the further development of British capitalism.
Other abolitionists were motivated by humanitarianism. The lawyer, Granville Sharpe, gave his services free to runaway slaves seeking help and on one occasion he led a raid on a slaver to rescue a captured runaway.
But it was amongst the poor, the artisans, the embryonic working class, that resistance to slavery was greatest. Their own lack of rights gave them a keen interest in fighting for all those denied their freedom. The authorities frequently complained of how runaway slaves were sheltered in the rougher areas of London.
Anti-slavery leaflets and pamphlets had a wide circulation. In 1795 a 20,000 name petition from Manchester calling for the abolition of slavery was presented to parliament. Manchester’s population at the time was 75,000 thus over a quarter of the population signed. In 1814 a nationwide petition of 1.5 million was placed before parliament opposing the reintroduction of slavery into the French colonies by Napoleon.
Opposition to slavery was not just on a humanitarian basis. The radicals with their base in the growing working class opposed slavery in class terms. A radical resolution passed by a mass meeting of several thousand Sheffield cutlers in 1794 stated, ‘Wishing to be rid of the oppression under which we groan, we are induced to be compassionate to those who groan also.’
Such sentiments were echoed in the same year in revolutionary France. At the National Convention, with the Parisian masses entering decisively onto the stage of history, a resolution ending the ‘aristocracy of the skin’ was passed. In abolishing slavery in the French colonies the convention declared:
‘All men without distinction of colour, domiciled in the colonies are French citizens and enjoy all the rights ensured under the constitution.’
But of course the greatest opposition came from the slaves themselves. In innumerable unrecorded instances of resistance they fought for their freedom. From amongst their number came Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was to lead the greatest slave revolt in history. The revolution which swept aside slavery in the French colony at St. Domingue in 1791 was led by a black army of ex-slaves, who fought and defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain. Their slogan was, ‘Death before slavery’.
Slavery, then, died not just because it became an uneconomic form of production. It had after all played a key role in what Marx called the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ vital to the later development of British capitalism. It died also because of the resistance of the oppressed; both black and white.
It is a point worth remembering for we are told today that racism can be solved by recourse to parliament. Those politicians like black Labour MP Paul Boateng, who recently leapt to the defence of the Lloyd’s parasites, should remember that Lloyd’s wealth was built on slavery. The stock exchange and the City of London so beloved of John Smith once traded in human cargo. That cradle of democracy, parliament, once danced to the tune of the slave owners.
The Marxist tradition locates the roots of racism in slavery and this is the emergence of early mercantile capitalism. Slavery was not some aberration. It flowed from the logic of the system, the same system that today still consigns black people to the bottom of the heap. The chains may have gone but the legacy of racism lives on.
Marx, whose great historical hero was Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, understood also that racism was not just a problem for black people. He wrote, ‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin, where in the black it is branded.’
Our fight today is a fight to remove the brand of racism and the system which produces it.
Last updated: 28 February 2017