Slavery's painful legacy: the British empire's role in the trade of enslaved people
Teni Gogo reveals why the British empire’s role in transporting millions of African people overseas not only changed what it meant to be ‘black’, but also ‘British’
For centuries, the British empire was one of the major European powers leading the largest forced migration of any people group in history: the transatlantic slave trade. Among the most immediate consequences was, of course, the African diaspora that spread across both the Americas and Europe, and, in the aftermath of slavery’s eventual abolition, the empire’s colonisation of whole sections of Africa. Until the 1940s, migration from Britain’s Caribbean and African colonies would be slow but steady, before rising sharply in the years immediately after World War II. As such, the face of Britain in the age of empire was ever changing. The small, but significant black population would grow to become a defining feature of British culture, making contributions to everything from legislation and the economy to food, music and culture. Therefore, any understanding of black British history requires a clear understanding of the impact of the empire.
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Riches and race
By the early 20th century, the British empire ruled over 400 million people, making it the largest empire in history. However, in considering its origins centuries earlier, there is ongoing debate among historians about the motivations behind the empire. Britain’s desire for financial gain is unanimously accepted, but it is the magnitude of this desire that is up for continued discussion. Regardless, this desire would shape the actions of British authorities from the 17th century onwards.
By the 16th century, Spain had built a thriving empire, colonising much of South America and controlling around 80 per cent of the world’s supply of silver. The British envied the Spanish success and were willing to go to great lengths to match and surpass their wealth. Be it for protection, international reputation, monetary gain, or the proposed intention to see those in other lands converted to Christianity – the British sought their own grand version.
The pursuit of this goal was inevitably going to have enduring ramifications for the indigenous peoples of the lands targeted by the British. To justify the seizing of land and colonising of the settled peoples there, a narrative needed to be entrenched not only in the minds of those leading the expeditions, but also in the minds of those at home, so that they would fully support Britain’s international ventures. This narrative was one of racial superiority.
While such views were far from new in the 17th century, they took on a more aggressive form in the race to control lands across the Americas, Asia and Africa. The European belief in their racial superiority would define attitudes towards the black communities – and other ethnic groups – that they encountered for centuries to come. Across the empire, indigenous people were often characterised as ‘uncivilised’, simply due to the fact that their ways of life were different to what was known and acceptable in Europe. The main mark of difference was the complexion of their skin. The British presented themselves as the ‘superior’ race looking to share their own civilisation with these ‘inferior’ indigenous groups. As a result, building an empire, and making fortunes in the process, could be done in the name of acting as a civilising force.
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The journey from hell
The goal of civilising the peoples of Africa took on an even more inhumane form in the transatlantic slave trade. As tens of millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas, Europeans developed an unerring belief in their racial superiority. This manifested itself in the appalling treatment of enslaved people and later in genocides and legislation that would continue to oppress black communities long after slavery had been abolished.
It is thought that around 2 million died in the horrors of the ‘middle passage’, the journey from the west African coast to the colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. Many perished during the months held in dark cellars in coastal forts waiting for slave ships, or from the squalor and rampant diseases experienced on board, where those being transported were shackled and packed into the hold for the duration of the weeks-long voyage. Others chose to jump overboard for fear of what lay ahead, many succumbed to the brutality of the slave traders, and many died resisting enslavement. Around one in 10 ships experienced a revolt.
Upon their arrival, those who survived were sold to work chiefly on plantations, either in the British American colonies; the British, Spanish and French islands in the Caribbean; or in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. The dehumanisation continued and, in many cases, worsened. The first slave code, passed in Barbados in 1661, defined the enslaved as “a heathenish, brutish and uncertain dangerous pride of people”, confirming their status as legal property. The US Constitution – written in 1787, nearly 80 years before slavery was abolished in that nation – branded them as “three-fifths” of a person when it came to counting the population or determining taxation and electoral representation.
Although the vast majority of enslaved people never set foot on British soil, they are an integral part of black British history. And there were those who were brought back across the Atlantic. Their experiences were often less violent, but in many cases more complicated than those on the plantations. Young black children became a sign of wealth, to be bought and gifted to elite families in Britain. As slavery was never technically legal there, they lived as servants and attendants. They would not have been exempt from the physical and sexual abuse faced on plantations – they were not dissimilar from a ‘house slave’ in the Caribbean, enslaved in all but name.
Across the Atlantic
That said, there were some fortunate enough to enter families who saw them as humans, to be educated and cared for. Occasionally, black Britons were embraced by their white families, a notable example being Dido Elizabeth Belle, raised as a freewoman by her great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. She was a rare example, for she was also written into Lord Mansfield’s will. Most black Britons, if released from service after a death, ended up fending for themselves on the streets.
By 1772, Britain was transporting approximately 42,000 Africans to the Americas each year. Meanwhile, around 15,000 black people lived in England. That year, the Somerset case – judged by Lord Mansfield – ruled it illegal to forcefully remove an enslaved person from the country. This case came to symbolise freedom for black Britons as it was taken to declare slavery illegal as a whole. Many in servitude were able to live free lives and become successful entrepreneurs, such as George Africanus and Cesar Picton.
Yet, the nature of ideas like that of racial superiority does not distinguish between one black community and another. Neither does it disappear with new legislation, even something as significant as the abolition of slavery across the empire. As such, descendants of enslaved people and members of the Afro-Caribbean communities had to battle against British authorities and citizens still entrenched in imperial notions of their own racial superiority. It is no surprise that the most influential black Britons of this period were abolitionists: a symbol of perseverance and determination against enduring oppression that would be passed down through the generations to Britain’s civil rights movement.
In 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect across the empire, with the apprenticeship system that followed ending in 1838. The process was far from smooth; it was a culmination of centuries of slave revolts and decades of intense protesting by abolitionists, both black and white. But while it was a moment celebrated by those no longer to be enslaved, the slave owners had reason for their own celebrations, since the government paid out £20m (around £17bn today) in compensation for the “loss of property”.
These massive payments served to cement the belief that it was right to regard enslaved people as property, if their loss needed to be accounted for financially. This was exacerbated by the fact that nothing was paid to freed people, either. It would be a long and continued struggle before the same British authorities would outlaw discrimination on the basis of race.
A diverse society
Slavery may have come to an end in the empire, but the colonisation of west Africa was in full swing. As colonies were established, there was an increase in the migration of people from them to Britain. Descendants of enslaved people in the Caribbean were also part of this slow but steady migration in the 20th century. Many men would go on to fight for the British in both world wars.
The enduring legacy of the British empire has been felt by many people around the world, and in myriad ways. Through the lens of black British history, it is possible to see that it shaped and reinforced ideas of racial superiority that enabled Britain to play a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade; to colonise the land of more than 400 million people; and to leave a legacy of racism that is pervasive in society today. It provides the context for the activism of many key black Britons in history.
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However, the empire also provides a deeper understanding of the black British community and the richness and complexities of its culture, the results of which can still be seen. London, for instance, is brimming with streets full of Caribbean cuisine and west African delicacies, and every summer Notting Hill spills over with explosions of music, food and festival celebration to commemorate the work of various individuals.
These individuals persevered against colour bars in Bristol and race riots in Brixton so that today we might be able to look back at black British history and acknowledge the hardships, but also celebrate the diversity of society.
Teni Gogo is a history teacher who has spent much of her career exploring black British history. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford as an action research fellow for the Empire, Migration and Belonging Project
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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