Featured Slavery

Capitalism not slavery made Britain rich. It’s time we stopped apologising for our past.

Capitalism not slavery made Britain rich. Its time we stopped apologising for our past
Written by Dan Hannan

The UK did play its part in the Atlantic slave trade, but so did many other kingdoms. Where we are unique is in our role towards ending it.

News that the King wants to open royal archives to historians investigating slavery has prompted quivers of anticipatory delight on the Left. And, in fairness, there are strong historical links between monarchs and the slave trade. It’s just that the monarchs most deeply implicated are not British.

In the 1750s, King Tegbesu of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, was reported to be making £250,000 a year from selling slaves. That astronomical sum, equivalent to perhaps £45 million today, was vastly more than any British aristocrat.

While Tegbesu was trafficking human beings, the future George III, who had recently become Prince of Wales, was becoming a convinced abolitionist. He wrote a monograph arguing that “slavery is equaly [sic] repugnant to the Civil Law as to the Law of Nature”. He went on, as King, to free American slaves who opposed the Revolution – the vast majority of black Americans, unsurprisingly. Later in his reign, he signed the abolition of the slave trade into law in 1807.

That act prompted incredulous rage among West African chiefs. A Liverpool slave captain was told by the ruler of Bonny, now in Nigeria, “This trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.”

Those Africans who sold other human beings were not bandits or pirates. They were, in most cases, kings. Slavery was enforced by the coercive power of the state – right up to the moment when it was snuffed out under British pressure.

In the 1840s, King Ghezo of Dahomey, played by John Boyega in the 2022 film, The Woman King, fiercely resisted such pressure.

“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth,” he complained. “The mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.”

Contrast his attitude with that of his British fellow-monarchs. Although Victoria, as Queen, was expected to refrain from expressing political opinions, her husband was under less constraint. Albert made his very first speech as Prince Consort to the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa. His words are a reminder of how determined Britain was to ensure that ending the Atlantic slave trade did not simply push the commerce eastwards.

“I deeply regret that the benevolent and persevering exertions of England to abolish that atrocious traffic in human beings (at once the desolation of Africa and the blackest stain upon civilized Europe) have not as yet led to any satisfactory conclusion. But I sincerely trust that this great country will not relax in its efforts until it has finally, and for ever, put an end to a state of things so repugnant.”

How bizarre that, in a world where slavery was near-universal, we should train our ire almost exclusively on the country that distinguished itself by its abolitionism. It is true that, during the eighteenth century, Britain had been heavily involved with the slave trade. At that time, human bondage was taken for granted almost everywhere. It had been practised by Aztecs and Incas, Arabs and Persians, Chinese and Koreans, Polynesians and Maori. Barbary slavers had seized more than a million Europeans, raiding as far as Cork and Cornwall. Some 17 million Africans were sold in the Arab world, a trade that continued well into the twentieth century.

What made Britain unusual was not that it had engaged in slavery, but that it went on to pour its blood and treasure into eradicating the foul business, diverting ships to hunt down the slavers even while it was engaged in a life-and-death struggle against Bonaparte.

Yes, the Stuart dynasty can be linked to the Atlantic trade. But Britain afterwards began to diverge from the rest of the world in its commitment to emancipation – partly as a result of religious fervour, partly in response to Enlightenment thinking and partly because it was the first country to industrialise, making slavery obsolete.

The difference between the British Crown and other monarchies can be glimpsed in the story of Aina, a young Yoruba girl owned by King Ghezo. In 1850, a naval captain called Frederick Forbes came to Dahomey to try to convince Ghezo to stop selling slaves. He was unsuccessful but, during his visit, he was offered Aina as a gift.

Forbes knew that such slaves were generally destined for human sacrifice, so he accepted the child, naming her Sara Forbes Bonetta. When Sara arrived in Britain, Queen Victoria became her godmother, paid for her education and arranged for her to marry a wealthy Yoruba businessman. Are the British really the baddies here?

The oddest thing about our public discourse is that those who like to portray our history as a hateful chronicle of racism and exploitation seem genuinely to imagine that they are bravely challenging the consensus.

“Britain’s past, or a glorious version of it, is so central to maintaining the status quo that to question our history is to invite dramatic charges of vandalism and erasure,” writes Nesrine Malik in The Guardian. “If a country has owned, traded in, and profited from slavery and colonialism, it cannot escape or outrun the legacies of these foundational exploitations.”

Does Britain strike you as a country where we refuse to discuss slavery? A country, to remind you, where even a chair in a self-portrait of Hogarth at his easel can be labelled by Tate Britain as a symbol of “unnamed black and brown enslaved people”?

You can find references to Tegbesu and Ghezo, but you will struggle to find new content about this pair of kings on any mainstream news website after 2014, when the Great Awokening gathered pace. Our public version of history is now a morality tale in which the villains are white British men.

Critics talk of telling our nation’s story “warts and all”; but they rarely get around to the “and all”. The “and all” surely includes the vast sums devoted to stamping out slavery, calculated by Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape as 1.8 per cent annually of GDP between 1808 and 1867, the most expensive moral foreign policy in human history. Even if there were a case for reparations in principle (which there is not) that sum alone – not counting the billions given in aid – would surely have covered any debt.

The “and all” might even include the effort to eradicate slavery in Malik’s native Sudan, where the repression of the trade was one of the grievances of the Mahdist war against Britain, and where slavery made a significant come-back in the late twentieth century. That strikes me as a rather more overlooked story than the Atlantic trade, which is taught in every school.

What we are seeing is not a debate about history, but an argument about contemporary politics. Critics want to convince us that Britain became rich through exploitation rather than, as was actually the case, through private property, free contracts and independent courts.

Imperial expansion happened haphazardly, and was usually resisted by London officials, who saw colonies as a fiscal burden and an administrative headache. A constant theme of Colonial Office memos throughout the nineteenth century is frustration at the missionaries and abolitionists who kept dragging Britain into unwanted responsibilities. Those running Britain knew that their taxes were higher than in the colonies.

Consciously or not, critics are parroting the line taken by Lenin in his 1917 work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. The Bolshevist tyrant argued that, in order to stave off the proletarian revolution, capitalists had had to go further and further afield in search of resources. Every other aspect of Leninist economics has been discredited; but this one somehow retains its hold.

In fact, it was capitalism that did for slavery, by emphasising the sanctity of contract and by unleashing such technological innovation that human bondage became redundant. Why would anyone pay to feed and house fifty labourers when a barrel of oil could do their work?

The easiest way to demonstrate the negative correlation between capitalism and slavery is to look at the places where human bondage is most prevalent today – in order, North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Mauritania. If William III owning shares in the Royal African Company bothers you more than the continuing abomination of slavery in those places, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about your motives.

This article was originally published in The Telegraph and is republished by kind permission.

About the author


Dan Hannan