The Truth About England and Slavery

22 April 2022  /  Updated 23 April 2022

by Dr. Paul Jones

Today is a day for celebration, not that you are likely to see a whole lot of widespread enthusiasm for it. It is of course St. George’s Day and should be a time for celebrating our country, its history and culture. No doubt there will be plenty of individuals out there who will jump all over the fact that St. George was not even from England but rather from what is now present-day Turkey. There will probably be even more who will express outrage over the idea of celebrating a country which has at one time or another been involved in committing terrible acts against other people. The former argument is rather irrelevant and those who use it as some way of deconstructing English identity should, ironically, perhaps be celebrating the fact that multicultural England embraced a non-English saint. Those who regurgitate the latter argument are at best indulging in ideologically driven pursuits to score political points or at worst deliberately constructing a narrative which, while not entirely false, is not completely honest and establishes misconceptions.

This article aims to first identify some fundamental problems with people’s ability to critically engage with evidence before taking the established narrative of the slave trade and locating it within a broader historical and cultural perspective. The intention is to recognise not only what England (and Britain) got wrong but also what it ended up getting right and in doing so move away from simplistic interpretations. The position taken here is that history should not be skewed one way, buried away or cancelled (as seems increasingly fashionable these days), but something which should be respected, learned from and celebrated. And while involvement in the slave trade is undoubtedly a dark period in English and British history, the actions which were ultimately taken to suppress slavery should be recognised and celebrated as a proud moment in our history, for they reveal some important lessons for the world we face today.

I recall a student who recently described England as a ‘godforsaken country’ and I have encountered several others (and many colleagues over the years) who have expressed a disgust for England’s history and heritage. When asked why they have such views, most have been unable to articulate why they have them. Those who have been able to explain their views seem to tell the same story, as if they have been programmed into regurgitating an overly simplistic mantra with zero critical appraisal. This is as much applicable to current affairs as it is to historical understanding, and one wonders how this sits not only with the Teachers’ Standards (for colleagues) but also with the NSPCC’s definition of radicalisation which stipulates that “talking as if from a scripted speech” is one of the key signs that someone is being radicalised. In effect, the person who is being radicalised is unable to engage in an open discussion about their views; the issue is settled as far as the radicalised person is concerned and any facts, points or evidence which challenge those views should be dismissed or shouted down, or in effect cancelled.

The issue with people following some sort of scripted narrative without question seems to be a growing problem. Even worse is the way in which those who deviate from or challenge the prescribed narrative find themselves de-platformed or cancelled. People increasingly find themselves self-censoring for fear of the consequences of speaking out. What they perhaps don’t realise or appreciate is such actions are the manifestation of the strategy mapped out by radical socialists. Mao Tse Tung, for instance, stated how “as far as the saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech”. Herbert Marcuse, the political theorist from the Frankfurt School and a father of Critical Theory, similarly advocated the “withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” He called for the “cancellation of the liberal creed of free and equal discussion”, saying we must be “militantly intolerant”. In effect, socialists aspired to turn people into what Lenin allegedly referred to as “useful idiots” and thereby establish a monopoly over history, culture, politics and society. It is precisely the kind of intellectual totalitarianism which Friedrich Hayek warned us about when he said:

Facts and theories must thus become no less the object of an official doctrine than views about values. And the whole apparatus for spreading knowledge, the schools and the press, wireless and cinema, will be used exclusively to spread those views which, whether true or false, will strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the authority; and all information that might cause doubt or hesitation will be withheld.

Those who engage in propagating lopsided narratives or cancelling and censoring others are doing the bidding of radicals, knowingly or otherwise.

The last two years may have exacerbated the situation by reducing individual capacity to think for oneself while expanding the role of the media and government in directing people how to behave and think. Lockdowns and restrictions were an overt manifestation of collectivisation and group think, with stay-at-home orders creating the illusion of safe spaces. Individual thought and the individual’s capacity to evaluate his or her own risk were frowned upon and a one-size-fits-all approach was adopted, irrespective of the costs. Government and mainstream media told people what to do and what to think. Depressingly, most people complied and didn’t even think to question the narratives they were being fed. Face masks, social distancing, vaccines etc. were the articles of faith and it was (and in some circles still is) heresy to question them. The very same process has emerged in education generally and the writing of history more specifically. Misinformed, disproportionate and downright hysterical responses to COVID-19 have stood alongside what former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has described as a “renewed assault on our history as fundamentally racist”.

Jennifer Oriel, a journalist for the Australian, commented on how the “miseducated are leading the uneducated into a realm of darkness”, and this is a worrying but depressing truth. It seems increasingly evident that the education system is less about training students how to think and more about telling them what to think. As Thomas Plant, Chaplain of Rikkyo University, in The Lost Way to the Good points out, approved ideas are “accepted by educationalists, who genuflect to the latest Twitter-inflicted ideological absurdity and stigmatise those who will not conform”. Prescribed narratives are propagated without question, and those narratives are intended to whip the impressionable into some sort of perpetual state of rage over largely illusory problems. The fashion, it seems, is to portray Western civilisation as abhorrent. Britain (or more specifically, England) was always at the heart of that civilisation and it is frequently seized upon as some sort of historical bogeyman. It’s presented as the instigator of an evil empire which subjected most of the rest of the world to colonial oppression and left an enduring legacy of racism and socio-economic hardship due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It is precisely this topic which should give us pause for thought on St. George’s Day. Yes, this country was heavily involved in the slave trade and that is something we should learn from. But we should also remember that this country played a leading role in fighting slavery, and that is part of our heritage which should be celebrated and remembered.

According to Martin Meredith, Britain was responsible for the trafficking of over 600,000 slaves from Africa to America between 1791 and 1807. The National Archives suggests that Britain transported 3.1 million slaves between 1640 and 1807, though some estimates put the figure far higher at 12.5 million and the UN suggests about 15 million people were shipped as slaves across the Atlantic. Conditions on board slave ships, known as ‘Guineamen’, were utterly horrific, with slave traders cramming as many people below deck as possible to maximise potential profit and offset the costs of those who died during the Middle Passage. From the 1500s to the 1800s, 10% to 30% of slaves being transported died in the cramped and insanitary conditions of their ships. As Olaudah Equiano’s account of his experience of the Middle Passage shows, treatment of slaves was predictably brutal as slaves were regarded as cargo rather than humans, with floggings and beatings being used to maintain control. Even worse things could happen. One infamous incident occurred in November 1781 when the crew of the British slave ship Zong threw over 130 slaves into the sea to save food and water and strengthen their case for an insurance claim. Arrival in America and living on a plantation was hardly any easier either. Disease was rife and one in three slave children died before the age of 10. Slave owners handed out all manner of horrendous punishments to those who resisted or tried to escape.

All this cannot be disputed but, equally, it should not be treated in isolation. Context and perspective matter. It is more or less a given these days to focus solely on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and explain the slave trade through the prism of racism, especially in the wake of BLM activism, but that explanation is too simplistic and doesn’t fit with the broader historical record. In fact, such an explanation is itself promoting racism as it ignores the diverse geographical, ethnic and cultural intricacies which were always present in slavery. Firstly, it treats European and African people as two homogenous groups. Secondly, it casts European people as the villains and African people as the victims without considering the uncomfortable facts surrounding the economics and logistics of how the slave trade could function. Thirdly, it doesn’t evaluate the extent to which racism did or did not play a decisive role in the slave trade. Fourthly, it overlooks the basic fact that slavery had existed long before England and other European countries profited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Fifthly, it downplays or ignores the proactive role of Britain and the West in suppressing slavery.

The truth of the matter is that England arrived relatively late to the slave trade. Slavery had existed for thousands of years before England engaged in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Ancient Egypt relied on slave labour for construction projects, notably the pyramids, and ancient Greece likewise made use of slaves – Herodotus claimed slaves, known as helots, outnumbered free people by as many as seven to one in ancient Sparta. The Roman economy heavily relied on slaves too. Viking raiders enslaved people in any area they targeted, while Arabs began enslaving people from Africa from about the ninth century, establishing the trans-Sahara slave trade. Arab slave traders continued to be prolific in East Africa throughout the 19th century, and pirates from North Africa enslaved at least one million European people between 1500 and 1800. Slave labour provided the power source for the galleys deployed by Italian city states and the Ottomans for centuries and proved crucial in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Roughly 6.5 million people were enslaved and shipped across the Black Sea from 1200 to 1760.

English people were themselves subjected to the terror of slavery as the coastline of Britain was frequently targeted by Barbary pirates. So severe was the problem that it was stated in the Calendar of State Papers in May 1625 that “the Turks are upon our coasts. They take ships only to take the men to make slaves of them”. Raids by Barbary pirates became so problematic that Parliament established the Committee for Algiers in December 1640 to deal with the ransoming of those who had been taken into slavery. Edmund Carson was sent to Algiers by Parliament in 1645 to negotiate the release of English people taken captive and he ended up spending the final years of his life trying to secure the liberty of further English slaves. Yet, despite Parliament’s efforts, North African pirates continued to terrorise England’s coast until combined British and Dutch military forces finally stamped the problem out in 1816 and freed 4,000 slaves in the process.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade itself simply could not have functioned had a vibrant slave trade not already existed from within Africa. For a start, slavery existed in West Africa even before Europeans arrived and even then European slave traders struggled to survive for long in the African interior until the advent of modern medicine. Malaria, various other diseases and ailments to which Europeans had little or no immunity and logistical issues meant European slave traders relied on African slave traders to provide them with a supply of captives. As David Brion Davies put it, “Europeans had little contact with the actual process of enslavement.” African people enslaved other African people. The Masai in East Africa were heavily involved in enslaving other African people, as were the Manyuema, who themselves were targeted by Arab slave traders. Tribes like the Ibo who lived further inland were preyed on by African people who lived in coastal areas and Abyssinian slave traders were still active in enslaving other African people into the early 20th century.

Much like white U.S. citizens on the eve of the American Civil War, free black people like William Ellerson Jr. (who was himself a former slave) were not averse to owning slaves. South Carolina alone was home to over 170 black slave owners and the southern U.S. states had 3,775 black slave owners by 1830. These would of course have constituted a tiny minority of the slave owning population in the USA, of which there were 395,216 by 1860. However, the point of the matter is that slave trading was not confined to the Atlantic and England and that it was not primarily defined by race. European involvement certainly established a prolific slave trade across the Atlantic and gave slave traders from within Africa a new market, but it did not invent the slave trade. The proliferation of slave trading affected people from all manner of geographical, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It was military vulnerability which exposed people to enslavement; the racial aspects which the social justice activists of today focus on were largely a product, rather than a cause, of slave trading.

What is noticeable, however, is that it was the West and Britain especially which drove the assault on slave trading. Thanks to efforts of individuals like William Wilberforce, on March 25th 1807 “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” entered the statute books, having been passed in 1806 by a majority of 41 to 20 in the House of Lords and 114 to 15 in the House of Commons. To be sure, this did not instantly bring about the end of slavery. But it was an important step towards ending this terrible trade and it was one which Britain pursued legally, politically and militarily. We may these days be shocked that it took until 1833 before the Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery across the British Empire, was passed but we must remember that other countries did not legally end slavery until much later. The USA did not abolish slavery until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, though northern U.S. states had begun to abolish the practice from 1780 and Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Mauritania did not officially abolish slavery until 1981. Britain was also active in diplomatic measures which sought to involve other countries in tackling slavery, such as the 1841 Treaty for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade. Furthermore, Britain paid around £20 million to help secure the freedom for enslaved people through the 1837 Slave Compensation Act. This amounted to 40% of the Treasury’s tax receipts and was only paid off in 2015. Criticism is often levelled at this, since the compensation was paid to slave owners, rather than those who had been enslaved. This was nonetheless considered at the time an expedient way to end slavery due to the prestige and influence of those who were slave owners and it is most unlikely the law would have passed without it.

The Royal Navy was deployed to actively suppress slave trading and in 1808 the West Africa Squadron was formed under the command of Commodore Sir George Collier to hunt down and intercept ships involved in slave trading. Some £4 million was spent from 1870 to 1890 maintaining naval forces off the coast of East Africa for the purpose of suppressing slave trading. This would equate to £547 billion in today’s money being spent on efforts to fight for freedom, whereas the U.K. Government has perhaps spent anything from £310 to £410 billion on efforts to restrict freedom through Covid measures. Average GDP from 1870 to 1890 was £1.259 billion and defence spending during that period typically constituted £0.03 billion, or 2.38% of GDP (Britain has often spent about 2% of GDP on defence in recent years). Maintenance of anti-slavery patrols on East Africa alone thus accounted for about 0.015% of GDP or 0.634% of defence spending, and all done with just a fraction of the number of bureaucrats we have today. While it may be true that only a small percentage of slave ships were intercepted by the Royal Navy, perhaps less than 10% by the West Africa Squadron, and some might complain that Britain should have committed more resources to the task, the fact of the matter is that Britain made a clear effort (and a far greater one than any other country) to suppress slave trading. That effort yielded results. Around 1,600 slave ships were intercepted by the Royal Navy between 1808 and 1860, liberating about 150,000 slaves. Liberated slaves often ended up joining the Royal Navy and were themselves involved in freeing other slaves. Between 1866 and 1869, a further 129 slave ships were captured and another 3,380 slaves were freed. Action by the Royal Navy in 1873 shut down the slave market in Zanzibar and British Governor-General, Charles Gordon, made concerted efforts to end the slave trade in the Sudan. It was after Khartoum was captured and Gordon killed by Mahdist forces in January 1885 that the slave trade grew again. British anti-slave trade operations continued into the 20th century, with British action suppressing the slave trade in Tanganyika in 1922. One simply cannot ignore or deny the fact that Britain was at the forefront of the anti-slave trade movement.

It is true that England has been responsible for, or at least complicit in, some terrible acts throughout history. But it is also obvious that this country has played a leading role in challenging and countering horrific acts. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, stated: “I tried to give my people a myth to live by”. Nobody with any sense can question or deny the horror of the Transatlantic Slave Trade but we should be careful not to ignore context as doing so perpetuates misleading perceptions which do nothing to resolve problems and everything to exacerbate tension and division. A lopsided view of history serves only an ideological agenda or vision and, as Thomas Sowell points out, once facts are overruled by visions, history ceases to keep those visions in check. It is far easier to virtue signal and blame either England or Britain for the slavery of the past than it is to recognise broader context and address the very real and persistent problem of the slavery that exists today. In fact, the International Labour Organisation estimated that over 40 million people were in slavery in 2016.

Pontificating about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which was recognised as immoral and subsequently shut down principally by Britain anyway, for ideological gain does little if anything to address the very real problems which exist in other parts of the present world. What it does do, however, is perpetuate a racially charged interpretation which is not supported by a broader historical perspective and in doing so divides society. Such an approach runs counter to the abolitionists who appealed to and promoted a common humanity, as was implored by Josiah Wedgwood’s famous anti-slavery medallion in 1787, and instead focuses on assigning blame and victimhood along racial lines. The great irony is that by emphasising difference, the Critical Race theorists, captains of cancel culture and their compliant keyboard commandos are supporting the very same principles which pro-slavery advocates in the Deep South championed centuries ago. As indicated by the actions of people such as Wilberforce, Christian values drove abolitionism along the principle that we are all part of a brotherhood and thus achieved far more good than the divisive Critical Race theorists of today. As Walter Williams implied, the work of the latter, with their emphasis on victimhood, does more harm than good.

Thomas Plant has observed that “we are so entrenched in divisive categories and identities, so used to seeing the knots of old rope cut out and neatly boxed away under ‘religions’, that we have forgotten the common thread that once united us”. It’s an important point and one which certainly applies to the portrayal of historical events. We should move away from the simplistic and unhelpful interpretations based on myopic identity politics and towards something which is resonant and constructive. There is certainly no shortage of individuals in the media and education today who would happily have us constantly engage in self-flagellation, but those individuals are emphasising political and ideological dogma over scholarly objectivity. In essence, they are writing misleading history and are using the very same radical principles and methodologies which Mao propagated. One must take history, good and bad, and learn from it. Part of that learning process is to be aware of past mistakes and avoid repeating them but another key part is to celebrate what we have got right.

England, and then Britain, was undoubtedly heavily involved in the slave trade, but it was not the first nation to be complicit in it. It was, however, one of the first to suppress slavery and it was proactive in tackling slavery elsewhere in the world. Liberty, however imperfect its form, triumphed over slavery and England was essential in securing that triumph. In 2022 we find England once again leading the defence of freedom as the unrelenting assault on civil liberties which has shaped the last two years finally comes towards an end, despite the best efforts of mainstream media, unelected technocrats and ‘progressive’ ideologues. To be sure, England is not and never has been a perfect country. But no other country has been either. England nonetheless has a history of being prepared to challenge those forces which would deny people essential freedoms. We might do well to remember, learn from and celebrate that. Happy St. George’s Day.

Dr. Paul Jones is Head of History and Politics at an independent school.