Posted on March 15, 2024

Britain Has Less to Apologise for on Slavery Than Any Other Nation on Earth

Lewis Page, The Telegraph, March 12, 2024

There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about Britain’s history of involvement in slavery. Indeed there was a lot of actual, formal slavery here in Roman times and the Dark Ages, mostly imposed by white people on other white people. That gradually mutated into feudalism and so then into “freedom” for people living in England itself no matter what their skin colour: but nobody is very interested in that.

The slavery that people would rather discuss nowadays is the Atlantic slave trade, in which Britain was most definitely – and by modern standards, shamefully – involved. A vessel involved in this typically made a triangular voyage: outbound from Britain or Europe with a cargo of trade goods to West Africa, where goods and/or money would be used to buy African slaves. The slaves would then be taken on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic and the survivors sold to buyers in the Americas. The ship would then load a cargo for Europe – perhaps sugar or cotton – and so return home, usually having made a handsome profit on all three legs. American ships had their own variations on this theme.

The British (and other European/American traders) did not enslave the Africans: that was done by other Africans. African kings would typically sell off prisoners they had taken in wars or purposeful slave-taking raids against other nations. If people today would like to rename something or pull down some statues, they might consider renaming “Camp Gezo”, the military base in modern-day Benin, or vandalise a statue of King Gezo, ruler of Dahomey from 1818 to 1859. Gezo enslaved huge numbers of Africans and built an economy based on selling them to the Atlantic traders. The forced marches in which slaves were moved to the coast by Gezo and other African rulers were often as deadly as the Middle Passage itself. Things could always be worse, however: Dahomey also had a tradition of religious human sacrifice.

By the time Gezo was on the throne of Dahomey the slave trade was still very lucrative, with willing buyers across the Atlantic and many northern nations still willing to carry the trade. But one nation in particular had changed its ideas on slavery: that nation was Britain. British slave traders had been in the triangle trade along with Americans and Europeans for around 250 years. But now, not only did this become illegal for Brits, but the Royal Navy – then the most powerful navy in the world – began making active efforts to suppress the African slave trade altogether.

This was an almost unbelievably surprising and forceful move in the context of the time. A few other nations had declared slavery illegal in places where there was no slavery, it is true. This had long been decided in England by the Somerset v Stewart court case of 1772, following which slave owners stopped bringing slaves onto English territory – it was generally considered that this automatically made them free.

No other nation, however, then went on to say that the very slave trade itself should be outlawed and wiped out, and went still further to back its words with deeds.

If we want some new statues and celebrations to make us proud to be British, let us celebrate the men of the RN West Africa Squadron, aka the Preventive Squadron. They fought the Atlantic slave trade at great cost and hardship throughout the 19th century – largely alone during the early, hard part. Mortality among British sailors on the anti-slavery service was more than five times normal, mainly due to disease but also in combat. From 1808 to to 1860 the RN West African force captured or destroyed 1600+ slave ships and freed 150,000 slaves at sea: many more in operations ashore, sometimes hundreds of miles up dangerous rivers in ship’s boats. Something like 1600 officers and men never came back from operations on the slave coasts in the early decades.

And the British campaign did not stop there. Sometimes people forget the East African slave trade, perhaps because it was largely carried out by Arabs and Persians rather than Europeans. But it was just as long established, and just as rapacious.

At first the Eastern trade was largely left alone, but again, when something was finally done about it, it was that splendid nation Britain – again, alone of all the nations on Earth – and its Royal Navy which did the work. The operations on the East Coast at Zanzibar and elsewhere were likewise dangerous and successful. Again there was risky inshore small-boat work and combat action: the slavers’ fortress at Mombasa had to be reduced to rubble in the 1870s. More than 1,000 slaving vessels were destroyed or captured and at least 12,000 slaves liberated in the RN’s Eastern anti-slavery operations.

All these operations were only made possible by British insistence, as the victor of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, that the other European powers should agree to stop their own slaving as part of the Treaty of Vienna. There was constant criticism of Royal Navy anti-slavery operations, both at home (often on the grounds of the significant costs of the naval operations) and from foreign nations whose ships were searched and often seized or destroyed. Continual political resolve and use of diplomatic muscle was required by the British state to sustain these operations, often in the face of strong opposition from all other nations concerned – including the African ones, whose foreign exchange earnings had been largely eliminated by the ending of overseas slave trading. Britain stood alone.

As the Irish historian William Lecky put it:

‘The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.’

Yes, Britain had been a major slave trading nation. So were all others, African, European, Asian and American. The African slave trade, mostly carried out by European slave traders, has been far more intensively studied than any other: but there was slavery everywhere else too. China only formally abolished slavery in 1910, and does not enforce the rule: it has recently been estimated that there are still at least three million people enslaved there. Slave raiding in southeast Asia was endemic until the European powers managed to mostly suppress it in the late 19th century. Indian history was full of slavery: Japan was making enormous use of slave labour as late as World War II.

Britain was unique in her effort and sacrifices made to end the trade, and the movement to end the trade came to power here first. Effective action by Britain against the trade actually began while we were still engaged in a desperate, all-out global struggle to the death against Continental dictatorship. A struggle fought, again, often alone.

Another theme of public discussion recently has been attempts to insert black people into places and times when they were not actually present, as with the case of the ‘Black British’ Roman emperor, or the idea that Stonehenge was built by black people.

Those looking for real black people playing a heroic part in British history need search no further than the Royal Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries. There were plenty of black sailors in the Navy back then, the RN often needing a few good men regardless of colour and whether from Britain or not.

Black sailors were treated as well as white ones – we know this because several of them became Greenwich pensioners. This was one of very few ways for an ordinary man to have a secure and comfortable old age in those days, or to be taken care of if he became disabled, privileges which not all sailors – let alone British civilians – could aspire to.

The black sailors’ presence was known to all, and they were recognised for their part in fighting the Napoleonic wars. In the famous painting The Death of Nelson a black Royal Navy sailor is clearly shown among those on the gun deck of HMS Victory at the climactic moment of the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s Column had bronze reliefs depicting Trafalgar battle scenes added to it in 1849, and one of these shows a black sailor armed with a musket, who is having a target pointed out to him by a white shipmate. The target is clearly up high somewhere, a possible allusion to the French snipers in the tops of the French warship Redoutable who killed Nelson. (Nelson is often said to have been in favour of slavery, though there are reasons to doubt that. He is known to have been on friendly terms with a former shipmate who was ‘a man of colour’ from the West Indies – the last person he shook hands with before setting off on his final voyage to Trafalgar, by one account).

There would have been plenty of free black sailors in the anti-slavery operations, too.

When the terms ‘British history’ and ‘slavery’ are linked, then, this is not only grounds for shame, but also for pride: pride such as no other nation can claim.

There is no other nation on Earth, not in Europe, not in Africa or Arabia, not in North or South America, with as little cause to apologise as Britain for its history with and around slavery.