The British government are commonly praised for passing the Slave Trade Act in 1807, prohibiting the trade of human slaves in the British Empire. European imposed slavery had resulted in the transportation of millions of Africans to labour in plantations setup within new found European colonies in the Americas, West Indies and Asia. However the common assumption that it was done for altruistic reasons is a fallacy. “The industrial revolution took hold in the 18th century, Britain no longer needed slave-based goods. The country was more able to prosper from new systems which required high efficiency, through free trade and free labour. Cotton, rather than sugar, became the main produce of the British economy and English towns, such as Manchester and Salford, became industrial centres of world importance.” Also the costs were escalating as major slave revolts occured in Barbados 1816, Demerara 1822 and Jamaica 1831-1832; they reduced profitability and gave a strong indication that, regardless of political opinion, the enslaved people were not going to tolerate enslavement.(1)
Now what is also not well known is what happened next.
Slavery continued in practice and it was not until 1833 when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed that it actually became illegal. The crazy thing is slave owners (not slaves) were compensated by the British government! “The Act provided for payments to slave-owners. The amount of money to be spent on the payments was set at “the Sum of Twenty Million Pounds Sterling”. Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million (£16.5 billion in 2013 pounds, when calculated as wage values) to pay out for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. In 1833, £20 million amounted to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income or approximately 5% of the British GDP (5% of the British GDP in 2016 was around £100 billion). To finance the payments, the British government had to take on a £15 million loan, finalised on 3 August 1835, with banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore.”(2)
However demand for labour was still required and two systems were setup. Firstly “The Indian indenture system was put in place initially at the behest of sugar planters in colonial territories, who hoped the system would provide reliable cheap labour similar to the conditions under slavery.”(3) Secondly “the euphemistically titled “apprenticeship” system. This meant the slaves themselves were forced to work the fields for a further six years after the supposed abolition of slavery – 45 hours a week for no pay.”(4)
Transporting the Indian “paid” labour to former slave colonies meant that slave owners did not have to pay the higher wages that former slaves now felt they were entitled to. Having no choice, they couldn’t just leave the area as they didn’t have money and so they had to still work for former masters and accept poor wages or no pay at all.
The numbers of Indians transported to various colonies varies from 1.5 – 3.5 million. They worked either under debt bondage or as a way to repay the cost of transportation to the colony. The overwhelming majority came from poverty due to imposed taxes/laws within British controlled Indian regions and were told that the place they would be taken was “better”. Most were sent to Mauritius, Malaysia, British Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, Natal (South Africa) and East Africa.(3)
“Isolated from the rest of the local population, colonial rulers housed the workers in barracks and regulated their lives in almost every regard, with severe punishments for disobedience and “insufficient work.” The poor living conditions and almost unlimited employer control led historian Hugh Tinker to label the system a “new form of slavery.”(5) The system ended in 1917 because of pressure from Indian nationalists and declining profitability, rather than from humanitarian concerns.”(3)
On 9th February 2018, a tweet was sent out by the Treasury, but subsequently deleted due to the reaction, stating “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes,… The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”(4) The crazy thing about this is that taxes paid by former slaves, indentured workers and their descendants would have contributed towards paying back the loan that “compensated” slave owners!
This lack of knowledge by the masses either because of the way it is portrayed or not even taught to past, present and future generations as part of British history is worrying and provides a distorted world view regarding Empire which consequently leads to polls with the following result, “YouGov found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism”.(6) Also many do not realise that poor Europeans (including children) were also sent as indentured workers. The life expectancy of plantation workers was extremely low and they were willing to even subject their own people to these horrendous conditions.
For me the reason for this stance is if the British Empire was and still is seen as a civilising force, providing the world with “democracy”, the English language, Christianity, railways and other technology then its authority is hardly ever questioned. Thus when the time comes, the masses listen and obey to the point where they will even go to war against each other when told to do so.
Unfortunately post Empire “independence”, pro European governments were “elected” which meant profit driven, worker and land exploitation continued. Eg. Tea growing and picking (long hours, poor wages) in Kenya is controlled by Unilver (a British – Dutch company), with its product sold in the UK.
Post Great Recession in 2009, instead of punishing the Banking industry they were bailed out/compensated by tax payers, so has the mentality of rulers actually changed?
Another reason to question morality behind the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 is in 1839 the British along with other European based powers went to war with China, known as the First Opium War. This is where as a result of a high demand for Chinese goods within Europe, but no real appetite for western based goods within China led to a massive trade imbalance and huge amounts of silver was flowing out of Europe into China. To compensate Opium was being trafficked into China by the west but eventually the Chinese authorities attempted to clamp down by destroying a shipment of Opium. However this led to complaints to the British authorities by the East India Company and other traders which resulted in the British empire declaring war on China.
Albert Einstein more known for his physics also had strong political views and stated “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Thanks for reading. Peace