Posted on August 17, 2007

Slavery: Nothing To Do With Wales?

Slavery: Nothing To Do With Wales?

They didn’t put brakes on the sugar crushing machinery on Caribbean slave estates. Instead the estate owners put a sharpened machete next to the powerful iron rollers.

If an enslaved African got a hand caught in the rollers he faced a stark choice—certain death by being dragged through the rollers or use the machete to cut off his arm.

The history of slavery is littered with this kind of everyday, casual cruelty. But what has it got to do with Wales? The answer, surprisingly, is plenty.

Take the African with his hand stuck in the sugar rollers. The rollers could well have been made out of iron from the Dowlais ironworks in Merthyr. The machete he was about to use to cut off his arm may also have been made from Welsh iron.

And that’s not the end of it. He may have been bought from an African chief in exchange for Welsh copper bangles, pots and pans—either made at Greenfield Valley near Holywell or made in England from copper smelted around Swansea.

The ship on which he crossed the Atlantic may well have had a copper-sheathed hull—again made of Welsh copper. This “coppering” was possible because of technologies developed by the Anglesey entrepreneur Thomas Williams. The copper ore might have come from Parys Mountain in Anglesey.

The ship would have been armed. It may have carried guns made at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr. The Royal Navy ships which kept the sea routes open for the slave trade certainly carried guns from Merthyr.

There was Welsh involvement in every aspect of slavery and the slave trade. There were Welsh slave ship captains, sailors, plantation owners and financiers directly involved in the slave business.

They were all drawn in because slavery was such an important part of the economy that its influence was felt everywhere.

The economic effect

“British mercantile life was dominated by slavery. One way or another the Welsh economy is intimately connected and directly connected with the slave system as a whole,” Dr Chris Evans of the University of Glamorgan told a special BBC Wales programme to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

“The British economy as a whole is linked in to this vast engine of Atlantic commerce and which depends on the enslavement of people. There is this kind of merry-go-round effect, where the enslavement of some people allows for the enrichment of others. And therefore British industry as a whole is a beneficiary of the stimulus provided by slavery.”

Across Britain industries like shipping, banking and insurance gained directly from the slave trade. But in Wales its possible to trace direct links between some major industries and the slave trade.

The slate industry in north Wales was developed by a family who had made their fortune on Jamaican slave estates. And the father of the Welsh iron industry was a man who made a fortune trading in slave grown crops like tobacco. He also traded in slaves. And slavery boosted demand for Welsh iron—either in the form of cannon or equipment for slave plantations.

The copper industry too got an important boost from slavery. Copper mined in Anglesey or smelted in Swansea was turned into bangles, pots and pans which were used to trade for slaves on the coast of Africa. One of the founders of the Swansea copper industry was a slave trader.

Historians argue that the whole direction of the industrial revolution was influenced by slavery. Dr Evans said: “The industrial revolution would have happened without slavery but probably not at the same time, probably not with the same intensity and probably not with the same kind of strategic direction.

“It would have been slower, it would have been more drawn out. As a stimulus, as an electric shock to the system, the slave trade has an important role to play.”