Yesterday morning I was asked to speak on Radio Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ programme to comment on Professor Frank Furedi’s article that mainly focused on David Olusoga’s programme on BBC2, ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’. My commentary on ‘Good Morning Scotland’ can be found on I-Player (49m 30s).
I agreed with Professor Furedi’s point about the tabloid press. They sometimes use and abuse the research of academics (not just historians, and sometimes without credit) in order to generate controversial headlines to sell their newspapers. I wasn’t going to defend the red-tops. However, I pointed out that academic historians very rarely do their talking through the tabloid press. As Professor Furedi seemed to lump T.V. programmes together with newspapers, we disagree on the benefits of using broadcast media to highlight the issues surrounding New World slavery. It is my opinion – particularly given the national publicity over the last fortnight – there is clearly a need for serious, well produced and researched programmes like ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’. It gave the academics involved on the ‘Legacies of British Slaveownership’ project at UCL the appropriate credit and their work reached a wider audience beyond the academy. And as far as I’m concerned, David Olusoga did not adopt an overly sensationalist approach unlike the tabloids.
I did agree with Professor Furedi’s main point that individuals today cannot and should not be held responsible for what other people did in the past. This seems a fairly simple point. Furedi criticised the T.V. programme as it connected the past with present. Yet, the present circumstances of millions of descendants of the enslaved peoples of the Americas – as well as citizens of the European nations involved – are defined by the historical legacy of New World slavery. So there are much wider issues at stake here than a front page splash on David Cameron’s slave-owning ancestors. Although ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’ remarkably refrained from mentioning the phrase ‘the rise of capitalism’ that’s essentially what the programme traced; the plunder of Africa, the exploitation of slave-labour in the Americas and the industrial and commercial transformation of Great Britain. The legacy remains today.
- In the How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1973, Walter Rodney argued that the long term economic exploitation of Africa – including the forced transportation of up to 20 million Africans to the Americas by European colonial powers – meant Africa was a fractured continent, both economically and politically, in the late twentieth century.
- As Eric Williams argued in the classic Capitalism and Slavery, the institution of chattel slavery – and the labour of millions of enslaved Africans – created wealth in Britain which transformed the society and economy, playing a role in creating modern Britain as we know it. Many individuals and elite families profited. However, one of the striking conclusions of the ‘Legacies of British Slaveownership’ project is that many ‘average’ people in Great Britain owned enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and profited from the expropriation of their labour. Also, many less elite sojourners travelled to the West Indies and earned relative fortunes. As well as individual fortunes, institutions and the establishment engaged in systematic profiteering. Let’s not forget the English Parliament ratified the slave trade and subsequently the British state profited over successive centuries with taxes and sugar duties. In Scotland at least, legacy duty on the inventories of deceased slaveowners represented a constant – if yet unquantified – stream of income. So much so, the Crown sometimes pursued the estates of slaveowners for their slice. Joseph Inikori has pointed to a wider commercial revolution in which merchant houses in Britain as well as shipping companies, banking and insurance institutions and museums all profited from New World slavery. Although the extent to which is greatly contested, the industrial revolution in Great Britain was undoubtedly stimulated by the slave trade and plantation slavery.
- On the other hand, there is a continuing legacy for the descendants of the c.12 million people who were forcibly transported from Africa to the Americas – as well as the indigenous population – in ways that are still evident and real today. In Britain’s Black Debt, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles demonstrates that in the early stages of colonialism in the Caribbean, the European powers subjected indigenous people to genocidal policies of extermination and expropriated the land. The Europeans created slave islands that were never intended as settler colonies – perhaps with the exception of Barbados – in the colonial period. Many estate owners were absentees – especially in Jamaica – whose only involvement was the receipt of annual payments from sugar sales. The young men who travelled to the plantation economies – described as sojourners – intended to earn as much wealth as possible in as short a time as possible before returning to Britain. The development of industries in the colonies was stunted under the mercantilist system in the assumption this would stimulate growth in Britain. There was no educational system put in place. In short, the process of colonisation created economies designed to extract wealth based on the trade of produce grown and harvested via unfree, slave-labour. The legacy today for the descendants of enslaved peoples is poverty, deprived conditions, poor health care and poor access to educational standards, which is further compounded by high external debts owed by some nations. Racism is perhaps the most invidious legacy of New World slavery. This is a perpetual cycle and many are trapped in their situation.
So, whilst Professor Furedi found it unpalatable that ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’ connected the past with the present, his dismay is nothing compared the conditions of descendants of the enslaved in the Caribbean whose present is defined by a past created by European powers. After discussing what I felt were the real issues at stake – and the programme addressed at least point 2 – I mounted a defence of the discipline of historical studies. Historians strive to produce critical, unbiased research (however idealistic or unrealistic that may be). This is difficult to maintain when you are essentially writing about historical genocide and a nefarious system of exploitation in which your country-men were historically involved. I’m sure many historians have their own opinions of Thomas Thistlewood, an English overseer in Jamaica who ordered enslaved people to defecate in the mouth of other enslaved people as a punishment. I certainly have my own opinion on the views of Colin Macrae, a Scottish overseer in Demerara who opposed the manumission of slaves in 1827 as, according to him, the plantation economy was perpetuated only by the ‘succession of children’ (see my chapter in the upcoming volume Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past). However, historians do not – or at least should not – produce serious historical analysis that passes anachronistic judgment on individuals such as slaveowners lest they invite accusations of writing polemical work. Through source based historical analysis, historians have a duty – in Leopold Von Ranke’s words – merely to explain ‘how things actually were’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Which leads nicely into the final point.
Professor Furedi’s article and yesterday’s programme critiqued the motives of David Olusoga’s ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’, perhaps the historians involved at UCL and also gauged opinions towards reparations for Caribbean slavery. Professor Furedi stated in the radio programme today (around 56mins) that the BBC2 programme was a prelude for individuals, organisations or the state to provide compensation (eg. reparations). However, the prelude for reparations was evidently the forced transportation and long term-exploitation of millions of Africans in the Caribbean, a status that was only altered by the British Government awarding £20million compensation to slave-owners for the loss of their property, that is, the lives of 800,000 men, women and children. Certainly, CARICOM now base their ten-point plan for reparations in rigorous academic research. We now know the individuals and institutions that benefitted from compensation in 1834, and were evidently involved with the business of slavery beforehand.
In yesterday’s interview on Radio Scotland, there were two questions whether an apology and reparations for Caribbean slavery should be made. I found it striking that I was asked both; should there be an apology and reparations? And in a different approach, I was asked if organisations that profited from Caribbean slavery (such as railways) should pay reparations? Whilst the question should have been asked of both members of the discussion, I set out my position clearly and I’ll elaborate here. The reparations issue is a growing and long overdue debate. However, the legal, financial and even moral questions will be asked and answered by statesmen, politicians, accountants and lawyers. This is essentially a Government to Government process. However, activists, such as Graham Campbell in Glasgow, the general public and the media have a role highlighting issues. Historians also have a crucially important part to play in this process by researching and writing rigorous reparative histories. I have adopted a transatlantic approach to my work on Glasgow-West India merchants, planters and sojourners in the period, 1776-1846. I have researched in Caribbean archives and visited plantations owned by Scots, both of which added a great deal of authority to the work I produce. There are many ways to incorporate this approach into the final product. On a basic level, terminology is all important. Men, women and children were enslaved peoples; they were not defined by this forced status and should not be defined as slaves in modern historiography. Also, slaveowners – such as James Smith of Jordanhill in Glasgow – have previously been described using glorious euphemisms such as ‘West India landowner’ or ‘sleeping partners in a merchant firm’ in modern texts such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). These terms were originally used in nineteenth-century texts –sometimes written by family members – and were designed to obfuscate the true source of their fortune. The relevant individuals should be referred to in modern historiography how they actually were.
Owners of enslaved men, women and children in the Caribbean.
Profiteers from the expropriation of enslaved labour.
Claimants of slave compensation in 1834.
Through collaboration with Dr Nick Draper and others at a UCL group, I have been commissioned by the ODNB to write two articles about prominent Glasgow slaveowners and compensation claimants; James Ewing of Strathleven and Cecilia Dougas of Orbiston. I have the benefit of knowing exactly their connections with the slave plantations of the Caribbean and how much compensation they claimed. This involvement provided the source of wealth which allowed them to purchase landed estates in Scotland and facilitated their rise to elite status. Secondly, I – and some other Scottish historians – recognise the importance of the labour of enslaved peoples to the industrial and commercial development of Scotland. This is a critical issue for Scottish historiography as it has sometimes been sidestepped in the past. Reparations can take many forms. For historians of Scotland and the Caribbean, it is your duty to explain the past in the appropriate transatlantic context. Whether commentators or the general public find it unpalatable or not is not our concern. We are attempting to explain the past as we see it.