The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade, or from the sale of slave-produced sugar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their dynastic stories under the carpet. Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter”. Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether. The Dictionary of National Biography has been especially culpable in this respect. Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”.
an interesting article. this tidbit though: “About 40% of the slave owners living in the colonies were women” – this is why I don’t trust white feminist analyses. Even in a time considered to be highly oppressive to “women” (note how that term is never racially designated), white women could and did hold the power of owning Black human lives, at a rate almost equal to white men.
Whereas the cotton plantations of the American south were established on the soil of the continental United States, British slavery took place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean.
That is also very disingenuous. British slavery started in the 17th century in North American colonies, over 150 years before there was a “continental United States”. Virginia was the first permanent English colony in the “New World”, as they kept bragging about when I was in school there. Though, there they initially concentrated on tobacco and some other cash crops which were in high demand back home, rather than on cotton.
Unsurprisingly, there was tons of trade and movement back and forth between the Caribbean, the Chesapeake, and other convenient colonial ports like Charleston and Savannah. Including trade in slaves.
A settler revolt just created a new government entity, and changed who was in control on paper. (I.e., disgruntled wealthy British people starting out, who already had some political power–many of whom ran plantations.) They took over the systems set up under British colonial governance, and just went from there.
The same goes for genocidal policies toward indigenous peoples, after the attempts at “just” using them for slave labor didn’t work out so well. The new US government just took over existing inhumane systems, and ran with them.
The distinction is not that useful. There is no distinction to be made until about 1780. But, this is a popular separation in the UK. And it’s part of a larger pattern of denial.
As Robin Bunce and Paul Field point out:
They add that Britain is consistently portrayed by politicians as being “on the side of the angels” in race relations, and point to the 2007 celebrations of the abolition of the slave trade as an example of how Britain prefers to propagate a myth of itself as “the utopia of civilized fair play”.
I’m glad that the number of (often still-existing) British fortunes made through colonial exploitation and slavery is getting a little more attention recently. But, that didn’t just happen in the Caribbean colonies, and it’s very intellectually dishonest to act like that was the case. It’s frustrating when someone writing more honestly about some of this ugly history prefers to keep up the largely false distinction there.
Bringing this one back, because it’s pretty much always extremely relevant to so much stuff that’s still happening in the present day.
Whether or not a lot of people want to think about it.