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Did slavery make Britain rich? – Decolonisation and Progressive Masochism.

brittish slave wealth
Doug Stokes
Written by Doug Stokes

Slavery has been common across all human civilisations as an institution. The dominant ‘decolonial’ narrative we now have in the UK, primarily due to the wholesale importation of America’s culture war psychodrama, seeks to attribute responsibility and guilt to the UK in the present day, not least by attributing its past and present wealth to slavery. What is the evidence?

Many decolonial theorists draw upon a one-sided view of history to give a moral impetus to their critique. They argue that the UK’s pre-eminence did not emerge from its science and the advent of the industrial revolution. Instead, “we need to trace how genocide, slavery and colonialism are the key foundation stones upon which the West was built” argues Kehinde Andrews, one of the UK’s leading critical race theorists.  Echoing the rejection of the enlightenment tradition, he continues that its legacy “was essential in providing the intellectual basis for Western imperialism, justifying White supremacy through scientific rationality”.[1]

Given this worldview, Great Britain’s status and history are thus said to be built on a fundamentally immoral foundation. This view of history provides the impetus for the decolonial critique of British history, its institutions and, more broadly, the moral repudiation and challenge to Western civilisation. When a global perspective on the development of capitalism is applied, “we develop a new appreciation of the centrality of slavery, in the US and elsewhere, in the emergence of modern capitalism” argues Sven Beckert, one of the leading proponents of what is called the New History of Capitalism thesis. This thesis argues that slavery was central to the West’s economic development. He continues that “industrial capitalism and the Great Divergence” between the west and the developing world “emerged from the violent cauldron of slavery, colonialism, and the expropriation of land”.[2]

African Agency & Progressive Masochism

There are several problems with this decolonial critique. First, a critical issue that Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò identifies is that it fully embraces “the racialisation of consciousness,” where modernity and science are seen as “white” and, therefore, in some intrinsic way anti-black.[3] In this, Africans or, more broadly, the agency of non-European cultures are portrayed as either victims or resisters against modernity itself “rather than critical appropriators of it”.[4] Táíwò argues that this “absolutisation of European colonialism” turns Africans into “permanent subalterns in their history.” Instead, he argues that we need to take African agency and the histories of non-European states and civilisations seriously and not as mere objects of European perfidiousness without their agency, interests and accounts. Through the castigation of modernity or the broader scientific enlightenment as racially tainted, a “hermeneutics of suspicion” is introduced that undermines the capacity for democratic dialogue. Life becomes an endless struggle that pits people against one another based on identity.[5]

Pascal Bruckner argues this inward anti-scientific decolonial critique of history reinforces a form of Eurocentric narcissism. In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, he argues the west has a deeply ingrained sense of guilt that feeds a paternalistic need to endlessly atone “for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity.” He continues: how “can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too a form of indirect self-glorification.” As such, the decolonial critique places Europe centre stage yet again whilst also erasing the agency, complex histories, and ways in which non-Western states and civilisations have shaped history.[6]

Wealth and collective guilt?

Second, the charge is not just that Britain and the West participated in the slave trade but that the trade created a legacy of unequal and unjust economic enrichment on the part of Britain. It helps explain present-day disparities and alleged racism in the present day.[7] It is argued that the “backs and souls of enslaved people built Britain – the backs of those who toiled in cotton fields and plantations in British colonies, and the souls of those who did not survive the journey”.[8] As such, today’s UK and, by extension, the white majority is collectively guilty and ‘owes’ both a moral and financial debt to the descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Indeed, there is an active ongoing campaign for reparations.[9]

How accurate is this charge? It is undeniable that small groups of individuals in Great Britain, often drawn from the aristocracy and then tiny economic and political elites, often personally benefited enormously from slavery.[10] Colston, whose statue was thrown in the River Avon by BLM protesters in 2020, is but one example. The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery has a fascinating database on individuals and families directly benefiting from the transatlantic slave trade.[11] The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 provided £20 million to compensate 3,000 slave proprietors. Its distribution was overseen by the Slave Compensation Commission and made by the UK National Debt Office.[12] At the time, this represented 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual spending budget. A massive sum, with one of the most significant pay-outs going to John Gladstone, the father of 19th-century prime minister William Gladstone who got £106,769 (modern equivalent £83m) for the slaves he owned across nine plantations.[13] As morally repugnant this is to us in the modern day, it was designed to ease the passage of abolition by placating the powerful and politically entrenched interests of those that stood to lose from its dissolution. It was done to expedite the ending of the transatlantic slave trade.

Did Slavery Make the Great Britain Rich?

Third, whilst huge for a small number of individuals, the profits from transatlantic slavery and its associated industries were not big enough to change the economic fortunes of Britain as a whole.[14] As Mokyr argues, the development of British capitalism and the industrial revolution is only tangentially linked to slavery. He argues that it is “hard to see exactly how the imperial policies, which protected British merchants doing business overseas, could have had much impact on the Industrial Revolution beyond, perhaps, assuring favourable treatment in some markets”. In short, the British Empire’s foreign policy conveyed a slight advantage. After all, Britain lost the United States, that was “one of its richest colonies during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, and yet after 1783 commercial relations with the young United States were none the worse for wear until complications in Europe drove the two apart again”. Concerning West India, slavery as an institution was “important to Britain as a source of products that could not be produced locally” given the climate etc. However, and in no way diminishing the brutality of Caribbean slavery, in its absence, Mokyr argues that “Britain would have had to drink bitter tea, but it still would have had an Industrial Revolution, if perhaps at a marginally slower pace”.[15]

Eltis and Engerman have shown that the slave trade only constituted a small portion of British overseas commerce. In 1792, the most significant year, 204 vessels of an aggregate of 38,099 tonnes left British ports. However, in the same year, there were 14,334 ships registered in Britain grossing 1.44 million tons. So only 1.5 per cent of British vessels and three per cent of tonnage were involved in the slave trade. They continue that if “economic activity on so modest a scale could contribute significantly to industrialization, then we might expect Europe’s first industrial economy to have been Portugal, not Britain. Though Portugal had less than one-third the population of Britain in the late eighteenth century and a total national income which was no doubt still lesser, the country’s nationals nevertheless managed to carry nearly two-thirds again as many slaves across the Atlantic than did the British over the course of the slave-trade era”. [16]

Moreover, the logic of capitalism itself would suggest that if sugar, the primary commodity produced by slaves on the major Caribbean islands, yielded a massively higher return on investment, capitalists would shift their assets into the sugar industry during this period. However, sugar “was just one of hundreds of industries in a complex economy; and while sugar was one of the larger industries, its linkages with the rest of the economy and its role as an “engine” of economic growth compare poorly with textiles, coal, iron ore, and those British agricultural activities which provided significant inputs to industry”.[17] In short, the sugar industry was equivalent to barley and hops and brewing in terms of economic outputs. While some individuals made huge profits on trading a commodity popular with the rich, it was not central to the industrial revolution. Would anybody argue that Britain’s Industrial Revolution would never have happened absent beer?

Indeed, one analysis concludes that the possession of the British West Indies had the effect of retarding the growth of Great Britain’s economy. The “income of Englishmen would have been at least £500,000 higher in the absence of the West Indies from the empire”.[18] If slavery was the engine of Great Britain’s wealth, why are other societies that practised slavery not as wealthy? The British Empire required steam and steel ships after the industrial revolution had already begun; in short, slavery and empire happened because Britain was already comparatively wealthy relative to other states, not because of it.

History is essential, and these debates are ongoing. Still, the claim of the collective guilt or that cultural institutions should continue to self-flagellate is a simplistic narrative weaponised by activists to provide a moral impetus to their broader goals of political transformation.

[1] Andrews, Kehinde. The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World. Allen Lane, Penguin Books., 2021; for more in this genre see Andrews, Kehinde. Empire 2.0. PublicAffairs, 2020; Sanghera, Sathnam. Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. Penguin UK, 2021; Gopal, Priyamvada. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. Verso Books, 2019.

[2] PBS NewsHour. ‘How the West Got Rich and Modern Capitalism Was Born’, 13 February 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born.

[3] ‘Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously (African Arguments): Amazon.Co.Uk: Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi: 9781787386921: Books’. n.d. Accessed 23 June 2022. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Against-Decolonisation-African-Seriously-Arguments/dp/1787386929.

[4] Areo. ‘Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s “Against Decolonisation”’, 17 June 2022. https://areomagazine.com/2022/06/17/olufemi-taiwos-against-decolonisation/.

[5] Niemonen, J. (2010) ‘Public Sociology or Partisan Sociology? The Curious Case of Whiteness Studies’, The American Sociologist, 41(1), pp. 48–81. doi:10.1007/s12108-010-9086-x.

[6] ‘The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism : Bruckner, Pascal, Rendall, Steven: Amazon.Co.Uk: Books’. n.d. Accessed 23 June 2022. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tyranny-Guilt-Essay-Western-Masochism/dp/0691154309.

[7] PBS NewsHour. ‘How the West Got Rich and Modern Capitalism Was Born’, 13 February 2015. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/west-got-rich-modern-capitalism-born; See his extended discussion Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. 1st edition. New York: Knopf, 2014; For the classic statement of this see Williams, Eric Eustace. Capitalism & Slavery. 1st Edition. Chapel Hill: University North Carolina Pr, 1994; See also Findlay, Ronald, and Kevin H. O’Rourke. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium. Princeton University Press, 2009; Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. Verso, 1998. For an incisive critique see Burnard, Trevor, and Giorgio Riello. ‘Slavery and the New History of Capitalism’. Journal of Global History 15, no. 2 (July 2020): 225–44. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1740022820000029.

[8] Khan, Imran. ‘Britain Was Built on the Backs, and Souls, of Slaves’. Accessed 13 July 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/6/11/britain-was-built-on-the-backs-and-souls-of-slaves.

[9] Hirsch, Afua. ‘The Case for British Slavery Reparations Can No Longer Be Brushed Aside’. The Guardian, 9 July 2020, sec. Opinion. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/09/british-slavery-reparations-economy-compensation; Chappell, Kate, and Brian Ellsworth. ‘British Royals’ Jamaica Visit Stirs Demands for Slavery Reparations’. Reuters, 23 March 2022, sec. Americas. https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/jamaicans-protest-slavery-reparations-ahead-visit-by-british-royals-2022-03-22/.

[10] Engerman, Stanley L. ‘The Slave Trade and British Capital Formation in the Eighteenth Century: A Comment on the Williams Thesis’. The Business History Review 46, no. 4 (1972): 430–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/3113341.

[11] ‘Legacies of British Slavery’. Accessed 14 July 2022. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs//.

[12] ‘Office of Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission: Records’. Volume(s), 1851 1812. T 71. The National Archives, Kew.

[13] The Independent. ‘Britain’s Colonial Shame: Slave-Owners given Huge Payouts After’, 26 February 2013. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britain-s-colonial-shame-slaveowners-given-huge-payouts-after-abolition-8508358.html.

[14] McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo9419313.html.

[15] Mokyr, Joel. ‘Editor’s Introduction: The New Economic History and the Industrial Revolution’. In The British Industrial Revolution, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1999; Chapter in full here https://cpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com/sites.northwestern.edu/dist/3/1222/files/2016/06/Editors-Introduction-The-New-Economic-History-1999-1thoner.pdf

[16] Eltis, David, and Stanley L. Engerman. ‘The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain’. The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (2000): p.130.

[17] Eltis, David, and Stanley L. Engerman. ‘The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain’. The Journal of Economic History 60, no. 1 (March 2000): 123–44. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700024670. P.135.

[18] Thomas, Robert Paul. ‘The Sugar Colonies of the Old Empire: Profit or Loss for Great Britain?’ The Economic History Review 21, no. 1 (1968): 30–45. https://doi.org/10.2307/2592202.p.30.

About the author

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes is Professor & Head of Research and Development, Strategy and Security Institute (SSI), University of Exeter; The Thomas Telford Associate Fellow, Council on Geo-Strategy; and an advisory council member of the Free Speech Union.