Who would have imagined, at the time of the 2016 referendum, that slavery and the history of the British Empire would become burning issues of public debate? Precisely why this is so we can perhaps leave to future historians. But in the mix of causes can be included the influence of American political culture, with its long-established focus on race, identity and victimhood; the political manipulation of ‘woke’ causes by certain groups in the UK; and a disaffection from British and English national identity, perhaps aggravated by anti-Brexit sentiment. Some have suggested that there is also a desire among privileged socio-economic groups to defuse criticism by identifying with radical ideologies and movements seeking to portray Britain—ignoring evidence—as a fundamentally racist country.
Whatever the underlying reasons, one of the principal weapons used is history, and more particularly the attempt to create a guilt-laden version of British history focused on slavery and the Empire, presented as a racist, violent and wholly exploitative system, as an fundamental source of Britain’s wealth, and as the root cause of the supposedly systemic racism rife in our society.
In much of the language used in the media, and now being adopted by great cultural institutions, the accusations are implicitly accepted: we hear of ‘looting’, ‘massacre’, ‘subjugation’ and ‘racism’ irrespective of context or fact. Irrespective too of differences of time and belief. As Nigel Biggar has written elsewhere, there is a strange moral schizophrenia at work: non-Europeans are treated as not responsible for their actions, as if children or imbeciles, whereas Europeans are judged strictly by the ideas of the 21st century
We believe, perhaps a little idealistically, that the best way of responding is by presenting information based on serious and dispassionate historical scholarship. We suspect that many people feel intuitively that the attempts to rewrite British history are wrong, but do not have the information to answer accusations made against historic figures or indeed against our whole past. For that reason, we often hear people objecting to attempts to ‘erase our history’, whereas in many cases the appropriate response should simply be ‘this is untrue’.
For this reason, we are very glad to diffuse Nigel Biggar’s rigorous and concise survey of British involvement in slavery and abolition, which gives a rounded, and not a selective, analysis. We have sent a new version of Professor Biggar’s to all MPs and to a range of people in the media and in the Lord’s. The new version of the Report is on this site at https://briefingsforbritain.co.uk/britain-slavery-and-anti-slavery/. We reproduce Professor Biggar’s executive summary here.
BRITAIN, SLAVERY, AND ANTI-SLAVERY
- Colonialism and slavery. There is a connection between them, but not an equation.
- The British were involved in the slave trade for about a hundred and fifty years until 1807, when it was abolished in the British Empire. For the following one hundred and fifty years, until the dissolution of the Empire, they were actively committed to suppressing, first the slave-trade across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and then the institution of slavery throughout Africa and Asia.
- Eric Williams’ 1944 claim that profits from the slave-trade made a major contribution to Britain’s world-leading industrial revolution “has now been wholly discredited by other scholars” (David Brion Davis).
- At one point the Royal Navy was deploying over 13% of its total manpower in suppressing the slave-trade from West Africa across the Atlantic.
- The British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trans-Atlantic slave-trade in the forty-seven years from 1816-62 as they earned in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807 (David Eltis).
- Britain’s effort to suppress the trans-Atlantic slave-trade (alone) in 1807-67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history” (Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape).
- “Almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. Frederick Douglass noted after arriving in England in 1845: ‘I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the United States]’” (John Stauffer).
- Between the slave-trade and slavery of the 18th century and the present lies a hundred and fifty years of imperial penance in the form of costly abolitionist endeavour to liberate slaves around the globe. For the second half of its life, anti-slavery, not slavery, was at the heart of imperial policy. The vicious racism of slavers and planters was not essential to the British Empire, and whatever racism exists in Britain today is not its fruit.