Sunday 12 July 2015

A Slave To The Past

The Mail on Sunday had an article relating to the University College data base on the 1833 compensation payments to the owners of freed slaves following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.  Some 46,000 are named who had a total of in the order of 800,000 slaves, many of who were the descendants of slaves.

The story fastened onto a handful of famous people who have an ancestor owner at the time.  It is a pity they did not also mention those on the staff of the Mail and in management and ownership who will have the same connections.

Given the way the number of ancestors increases as you step back from generation to generation while total population reduces in most cases so the possibilities rise sharply.  Essentially, this will mean given total population figures as you go back decrease, the chances of having an ancestor whose life and living is disliked, unwelcome, surprising or obnoxious increases.

Even if we know who they were and are familiar with history we simply have to accept this, it happened.  The chances of having a close relation the same becomes quite high as there are more relations than ancestors.

One reason why we know a good deal about the British slave  interests is because the record keeping and archiving has been so much better than in other places.  As historians like to work from written records inevitably there is a bias to more being known about the British rather than all the many, various and very large numbers of others.

Then, what do you mean by slavery?  The African Slave Trade to the America's was not exclusively British, but part of a wider whole.  Also, the people bought were often already slaves, notably those from central and east Africa taken and marched to the coast by others, sometimes their own people and others non European.

This was Institutional Slavery, part and parcel of the economy and culture of the areas concerned.   Then there is Quasi Slavery, contract or indentured labour and such, transportation and others which mean those used do not have work or living choices.  Workhouse children sent down the coal mines had no choice and no money.

Also, there is Effective Slavery, the complicated other means of tying people to land or service with no hope of release.  Debt slavery is one as well as tenancy systems, such as the Hanging Gale permanent arrears of rent common in Ireland at one time.

While in theory, Britain had ended slavery, some of use and movement of labour later in the 19th Century and early 20th was little different.  Other powers were active in this field, contract labour, and large numbers of Indian and Chinese were used in conditions that compared with slavery as such.

To turn to the past, 18th Century slavery in all its various forms and locations was simply the extension of previous activity made more possible by the migration of populations and the means of maritime transport.  Quite when humans took to enslaving each other can only be guessed at but seems to have been evident in the world as a whole in The Bronze Age.

One effect is that given the ancestry statistics etc. again, it is difficult for anyone to avoid having slave or serf ancestry at some stage.  It is likely that long ago HM The Queen had someone, given some lines of her mother's although I suspect rather fewer than you or I.  King William the Conqueror was born of a tanner's daughter.

For many centuries the Atlantic Isles along with other coastal areas were vulnerable to attacks and piracy where not only loot was taken but able bodied males and young women.  One reason for the creation and expansion of the British Navy from 1400 onwards was to curb this and protect our coasts.

From there the fight was carried on into the Mediterranean  One might think that the diversity and lack of racial discrimination of the pirates and corsairs in who they took and from where and to whom they were sold might tick the right modern boxes.  Alas, our ancestors had their prejudices.

But to return to 1833 and the issue of compensation.  When I looked at some of the figures in terms of the valuation of slave estates on probate before then they do not make economic sense. The value of the slaves declared was far higher than the value of work that might be obtained using ordinary hired labour.

In particular if the slave value represented real price, which would apply to those bought and it is likely that the capital for this was borrowed at stiff interest rates, what we have is a financial system in place that depends on high prices and high interest loan funding.

So the simple abolition of slavery could trigger a financial debacle in the West Indies and therefore problems in The City of London.  In addition, there were already serious problems with the specie available for the economy as a whole as a result of the gross inefficiency of The Royal Mint.

In other words the only safe way of abolishing slavery and avoiding some serious side effects in the Empire's financial system was to buy out the slave owners.  In the background to this were the needs of the HEICS which was heavily engaged in sundry wars in India.  This reduced the flow of bullion and silver to London in that period.

Whether defined in narrow or broad terms we still have many slaves in the world and the numbers may be increasing.  Given the power that is now with non elected bodies and their notions about how, what and why people might do, it is possible that modern slavery may be just returning the world to a past norm.

In the Atlantic Isles we had slavery for most of our history and it is only recently that it seemed to be ended but now it is returning slowly but surely.


  1. Try Wikipedia and the Colliers and Salters (Scotland) Act 1775. Scottish colliers were effectively slaves tied to the colliery.