Michael Wood on... slavery

"The slave trade is the great unspoken of British history", according to Michael Wood...

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

I once met a slave. Or at least, a former slave. Her name was Hindiya and I met her in a refugee camp during Saddam Hussein’s assault on the Marsh Arabs following the first Gulf War. She was in her 70s, tiny, her African face framed by a blue abaya. She came from the south of Iraq where her mother (a slave too) had brought her as a child from Zanzibar before the Second World War, to be sold in  one of the slave markets of the Gulf by Arab slave traders. Her owners had lived near Basra in a fine brick house in palm groves – like Tara, the mansion in Gone with the Wind.

Freed by a merchant 20 or 30 years before, Hindiya had stayed on in the house as a servant as she had no family of her own; until Saddam forced her to flee for her life.

The slave trade of course was not just western. Slavery existed in ancient China too, though not in ancient India – as the Greek ethnographer Megasthenes observed – because the caste system made it unnecessary. In the Arab world there had long been black slavery: the great estates of the caliphate were sustained by African slaves, and the rising of the Zanj in the 870s (the greatest of all African slave revolts), as told by al-Tabari in an intensely dramatic section of his huge history, was as cataclysmic to the Abbasids as Spartacus was to the Romans.

Up to the end of Ottoman rule, slavery in Iraq was still widespread, fed by the markets of Bahrain and Qatar. The British waged a long war against it in the Gulf. But it persisted in Yemen and Arabia until the mid-20th century. Even in the fifties, people of African origin did the menial jobs down the Euphrates, and (as the explorer  Wilfred Thesiger once told me), as often as not, if you took hospitality in a Marsh sheikh’s guest house, it would be an African preparing the battery of coffee pots.

It was the same, Thesiger said, on the estates of landowners along the river. These were the owners of the rice fields and date forests who lived in their old fortified mudbrick mansions. Indeed when I first worked as a journalist in the mid-seventies, there were still said to be slave markets in the Arabian peninsula.

I thought of Hindiya recently when I watched the grim tale of Twelve Years a Slave. The transatlantic slave trade is one of the biggest stories in history. Over three centuries 12 million people from Africa were transported by force to the slave estates of the Americas and Caribbean, a tale in which the British played a crucial role as operators of the trade, and later as the movers behind its abolition. The great unspoken of British history, the effects of the slave trade are still with us: from its shattering impact on Africa, to today’s efforts to recover black identity in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, and now the calls for reparations – with which, taking the longue durée, I have to say I have some sympathy.

In 2007 the first and only slavery museum in the world opened in Liverpool. It is fitting that it is here. Liverpool was the capital of the British slave trade: two-thirds of all British slave ships were registered here; the most horrific case of the age, the Zong, involved a Liverpool ship, with Liverpool insurers (in 1781, the Zong’s crew threw more than 100 slaves into the sea in the Caribbean, and then made a claim to their insurers for the slaves’ deaths).

Initially the idea of the museum met some resistance, but it’s been a brilliant success: with a million and a half visitors to the waterfront museums as a whole in the last year. And now some Liverpudlians – including people of African descent – are getting together to push things further. One group, based in Toxteth, whose church is full of memorials to slave owners, wants to erect a monument to the slave trade on the waterfront, facing out to the sea lanes which, between the 1600s and 1833, took millions of Africans across to the Americas. Nothing would be more appropriate.

History, I always think, is our reality check. And understanding it in places like Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum is an essential part of deepening our historical sense as Britons in today’s multi-ethnic society. Everyone interested in our history should go and see it. For history, after all, is a tale of tragedies as well as triumphs – and of wrongs as well as rights. 

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. His most recent TV series was King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons

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