Nothing changes much when vested interests are threatened

The British pride themselves on the abolition of the slave trade.

Yet the 1807 decision banned the Atlantic slave trade but did not abolish colonial slavery and more than 700,000 men, women and children continued to suffer pain, cruelty and violence in the British Caribbean until 1833. It was not until 1823 that the British Anti-slavery Society was formed.

And when abolition came it was only after an almighty battle; massive compensation; an innovative grassroots abolition campaign; and a long campaign by slaveholders reminiscent of contemporary campaigns by industries ranging from tobacco to coal, oil and gas companies.

In the book, The Interest, Michael Taylor points out the anti-slavery campaign was confronted by “stupendously wealthy planters and merchants whose fortunes depended on the enslavement of Africans, by intellectuals and publishers who deplored the idea of ‘colonial reform’ and by government ministers who dared not endanger the future of the colonies.”

Indeed, argues Taylor, the lobby group which became known as the West India Interest was not only connected to the British establishment but was the Establishment having “corralled the national press, the City of London and the Tory government of the day into the pro-slavery ranks.”

As Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Thomas Buxton got involved in the anti-slavery campaign The Interest rolled out what are nowadays familiar arguments.

The nation couldn’t afford abolition because it would deprive the country of much wealth. It would put Britain at a disadvantage to other nations. The campaigners were dangerous radicals trying to undermine society. If anything was to be done it should only be done gradually to avoid disruption. Claims about the damage being done were over-blown and the life of slaves was comfortable as well as essential to our way of life. Prices would rise and poor people would suffer.

Needless to say authors, economists, academics and others were trotted out to support the argument.

Thousands of short pro-slavery pamphlets were distributed. William Cobbett was enlisted to write a vicious open letter to William Wilberforce. Publishers such as John Murray and William Blackwood became enablers of slavery publications. Hacks produced works arguing that the slave owners were raising slaves out of ‘barbarism’ and had to be defended from agitators who would ruin the progress.

The anti-slavery campaigners put economics at the heart of the debate although their argument was “that economic freedom was just as important as personal freedom …(and) true liberty was attained only by hearing the Gospel and then by exposing oneself to a free market in which the Holy Spirit moved the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith’s imagination,” Taylor writes.

Although Smith, Ricardo and Harriet Martineau argued that people working for themselves would work harder than if driven by a master slave owners replied free labour might be more efficient but it wouldn’t work on plantations in the tropics.

Another writer, Alexander McDonnell, in contrast railed against free markets in  dense books on political economy defending the slave system.

While it was three decades earlier Toussaint Louverture liberation of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was drawn on as a salutary tale when slave revolts broke out in the British Caribbean. Napoleon Bonaparte suddenly became a hero to old enemies remembering the violence directed to Louverture and the revolutionaries.

The British Black Lives Matters campaigners, from the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol to the interrogation of the sources of aristocratic families’ wealth, highlighted just how important slavery was to many in Britain.

While it is now less often argued that the profits of slavery powered the Industrial Revolution there is little doubt that it did aid capital formation as well as country houses.

BLM also prompted a re-examination of Jane Austen’s family building on arguments by Edward Said and reflected in the 2007 film version of Mansfield Park. On the other hand former British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s family, probably benefited more from slavery than Jane’s did.

Cameron was also tone deaf on the subject. He went to Jamaica in September 2015 and was expected to say something about slavery but he found saying sorry as hard as John Howard did.  Instead, he said his audience should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

“Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in its abolition,” he said. Background spokesmen said it was all centuries old, happened under a different government and the right approach did not involve reparations. Taylor remarked that Cameron announced 25 million pounds towards a new prison to house Jamaican nationals convicted of offences in Britain while at the same time Theresa May was deporting many of the Windrush generation.

While governments around the world – particularly the Morrison Government – are pumping subsidies into industries threatening the world’s future the scale of the British compensation paid to slavers – not slaves – is remarkable.

In 1820 it was 20 million pounds – 40% of the government’s annual expenditure and the biggest specific government payment until the 2008 banking rescue.

Taylor writes: “…as a proportion of government spending in 2020 it was equivalent to approximately 340 billion pounds” and “compared with the 2018 combined GDPs of Britain’s former West Indian colonies of 69 billion pounds.”

Resonating with today’s campaigners against climate and other existential issues Taylor concludes: “The West India Interest was not just a handful of planters and merchants: it involved hundreds of MPs, peers, civil servants, businessmen, financiers, landowners, clergymen, intellectuals, journalists, publishers, soldiers, sailors and judges.”

Some of the categories might have changed a bit but it sounds remarkably like a contemporary list of the usual denialist suspects.