The price of abolishing slavery
August 9, 2004
To fully grasp how momentous was what began at 2 George Yard, picture the world as it existed in 1787. Well over three-quarters of the people on earth are in bondage of one land or another. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumber free people. African slaves are also scattered widely through much of the Islamic world. Slavery is routine in most of Africa itself. In India and other parts of Asia, some people are outright slaves, others in debt bondage that ties them to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave to a Southern plantation owner. In Russia the majority of the population are serfs. Nowhere is slavery more firmly rooted than in Britain's overseas empire, where some half-million slaves are being systematically worked to an early death growing West Indian sugar. Caribbean slave-plantation fortunes underlie many a powerful dynasty, from the ancestors of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the family of the fabulously wealthy William Beckford, lord mayor of London, who hired Mozart to give his son piano lessons. One of the most prosperous sugar plantations on Barbados is owned by the Church of England. Furthermore, Britain's ships dominate the slave trade, delivering tens of thousands of chained captives each year to French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies as well as to its own. -Adam Hochschild
IN his seminal tome, Capitalism and Slavery, the late Trinidadian scholar Dr Eric Williams argues that when the relations of production that forced human beings to be mere units of labour proved no longer economic, the British empire brought the system to an end and gave generous payouts, not to the slaves, who were routinely beaten, but to the slave owners. By that time, explained Dr Williams, the process had already facilitated the Industrial Age in Europe and enriched generations of planter barons and merchants. Some 20th century social theorists have been known to assert that increased instances of slave revolts and rebellions throughout the West Indies and on the South American mainland made life so uncomfortable for the planters and slave owners that the prospect of maintaining order and keeping slaves in perpetual servitude grew more hazardous with each passing year. A few historians note, also, that many ministers of the church were planting Christian notions in the heads of slaves, who were learning to read the Bible. If a black man is encouraged to believe that he is a child of a loving God, who imbues every person with the same essential humanness and dignity, could it be any wonder that the enlightened soul questions his place in the material world? Of course some churchmen were jailed for so enlightening the minds of black slaves, who then would begin to murmur and fret about their lives of drudgery and brutal treatment.
Another Trinidadian man of letter, C.L.R. James in his classic Black Jacobins documents in explicit and mind churning details, the physical horrors some planters and overseers perpetrated on their black slaves in the name of amusement. The practice mentioned by James of overseers placing pregnant slave women to lie with their abdomens in holes in the ground so that the women could be punished with the whip without their babies coming to any harm lives on in the oral tradition of great-grandmothers at Victoria Village, East Coast Demerara. Victoria is said to be the first plantation purchased by the slaves after manumission in 1838.
Economic constraints and rebellions not withstanding, the descendants of slaves owe a debt of gratitude to those decent-minded Englishmen, who after learning of the cruelty that was routinely meted out to captured Africans by the captains of slaves ships, devoted years of their lives lobbying the British establishment to bring this evil system to an end. Such a man was Thomas Clarkson, an English scholar, who gave up a life of cerebral ease, when he became burdened by the conviction that the country of his birth was countenancing the most horrendous crimes in human trafficking and exploitation. Adam Hochschild, the author of a riveting treatise titled Against All Odds and published on the MotherJones Website in January, chronicles the moment when the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire becomes inevitable. It happens after a 25-year-old divinity student won the annual Cambridge Latin essay contest by writing movingly about the morality of slavery. The young man was Thomas Clarkson, who on his way to London and “a promising church career”, got off his horse smitten with the conviction that if what he had penned were true, “…then it was time some person should see these calamities to their end”.
Some time later, after Clarkson had met like-minded individuals they formed a committee, which had as its meeting-place, a little bookshop at 2 George Yard, London. Hochschild writes: “The committee targeted the slave trade, rather than slavery itself, because abolishing the first seemed within easier political reach and it also seemed likely to eventually end the second. West Indian slavery was by every measure far deadlier than slavery almost anywhere else. Cultivating sugar by hand, under a broiling sun, was-and still is-one of the hardest forms of labour on earth. Tropical diseases were rampant; the slaves' diet was much worse than in the American South; they died younger; they had far fewer children. The death rate on the brutal Caribbean plantations was so high that the slave population would have been dropping by up to 3 percent a year if it were not for the steady shipments of new slaves from Africa. Stop the trade, abolitionists were-naively-convinced, and slavery itself would in the long run become impossible.”
Much too comprehensive to be dealt with adequately in this column, Hochschild’s treatise concludes with the death of slavery in the British Empire on July 31, 1838. This came after a life-long campaign spearheaded by Clarkson and his comrades. We will give Hochschild the last word, which he expresses so eloquently:
“After the most massive campaign of petitions and demonstrations yet seen, Parliament finally gave in. Nearly 800,000 slaves throughout the British Empire became free on August 1, 1838. On the sweltering night before, the Baptist church in Falmouth, Jamaica, hung its walls with branches, flowers, and portraits of Clarkson and Wilberforce. A coffin was inscribed ‘Colonial Slavery, died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years’ and was filled with chains, an iron collar, and a whip. An open grave lay waiting outside. Just after midnight, singing parishioners lowered the coffin into it. Slavery in the largest empire on earth was over.
“Of the 12 men who had assembled 51 years earlier in the Quaker bookstore and printing shop at 2 George Yard, Thomas Clarkson was the only one still alive.”