The slave trade was hundreds of years ago, why does it matter to Britain today?

If you went to a British school, chances are you learned about the Industrial Revolution; the Spinning Jenny, James Watt and the industrialisation of our towns and cities like Manchester becoming Cottonopolis. You almost definitely won’t have learnt that James Watt once sold slaves as a trafficker. You may just recall being told that the ‘cotton came from the West Indies’ but that was likely as much as you were taught about the relationship between the industrial revolution and the slave trade. The industrial revolution and our colonisation of resource abundant countries around the world meant that Britain was getting rich and would go on to remain rich. In particular, those individuals who benefitted from the slave trade whether directly or indirectly would remain richer than anyone, yes even to this day. (More on that later)

James Watt, father of the age of steam, sold slaves

Britain’s wealth was hugely dependent on the Trans Atlantic Slave. Without the cotton being picked for free by enslaved people Cottonopolis would not have existed. Most people today probably have some understanding of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade but the links with today’s present are sometimes less clear, it is often made to feel like ‘ancient history’ and in fact Black people are regularly told to ‘get over it, the slave trade was years ago.’ However the legacy of the wealth and power created in Britain laid the path to the racism we see today. In fact the very concept of race was invented during the slave trade quite simply to provide an excuse for those involved to carry on. Why would they want to justify enslaving people? The answer is one that is still all too familiar. Money. Driving everything was money.

Because whilst humans all over the world had enslaved people and used them for free and expendable labour or exchanged them for goods for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade that enslaving people began to happen on a global and commercial scale. Quite simply, humans, specifically Black people from the African diaspora became an extremely valuable commodity. The ‘New World’ had resources that could be extremely profitable, if only they had the manpower to make it happen. That manpower was found by enslaving people. This way of working fuelled a new kind of capitalism that would alter history and affect us to this today.


You may be aware of some of the atrocities that happened to Black people from Africa; stolen, separated from their families, packed on ships as closely as sardines during the Middle Passage, left to defecate where they lay, sexually and physically abused, chained, shackled and made to endure the most horrific of journeys across the Atlantic to the Americas. On arrival there they were sold like cattle to White slave owners of cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations. The conditions are indescribable and for those who survived the journey life didn’t get much better than what they had already been through, a daily fight for survival in a world that didn’t even recognise you as a human, merely a possession. These enslaved people nevertheless survived, had children who were also born into slavery and this never ending cycle continued until (and in many instances even after) the abolition of slavery.


Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797) was one of the most prominent Africans involved in the British debate for the abolition of the slave trade.

It would take a book to explain more about the realities of the slave trade and abolition in full detail and how abolition differed between British, American and other colonies; or how abolition was fought for and won by far more than the parliamentary abolitionist Wilberforce; including people like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano Ottobah Cugoano and many more; or that the Haitian Revolution was the first successful slave revolt and only the second colony to be free of European rule, declaring its independence in 1804 and immediately abolishing slavery and becoming the first state in the world to outlaw racism in its constitution. It would take another book to explain that Britain, despite how loud it shouts about it, were not the first country to abolish slavery – that title goes to Denmark in 1772, followed, albeit briefly, by France in 1794. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s response was not to follow suite, but instead it sent it armies to the Caribbean to invade the French held islands and reinstate slavery in order to both boost its empirical hold and continue slavery on an even greater industrial scale. France owned Haiti was the mother of cash cows with all its resources amongst the Caribbean islands. It was not until 1807 that Britain passed an act which made it illegal to purchase slaves directly from the African continent, thereby still allowing the practice of slavery to remain widespread and legal in the British Caribbean. The UK’s Slavery Abolition Law came into force on 1 August 1834 having been signed off as legislation on 28 August 1833. The Act was a crucial step in the process of finally ending the slave trade.


Many believe that abolition is where the story ends. But in a way it was only the beginning.


The only way to get the Abolition Bill through parliament (many of those voting were the very ones who benefitted from the wealth generated by the Slave Trade either directly or indirectly – insurance companies, our banking institutions and even our railways) wasn’t to appeal to their better nature but to promise to compensate the slave owners. You’ll note that money and land still remain the driving force in this story. The Act meant that on abolition the White slave owners were compensated – to the tune of £20 million (£17 BILLION in today’s money). Those compensated, the White slave owners, maintained their wealth, they maintained their land, they maintained their power. The enslaved people? They received NOTHING. This compensation had to be picked up by the British taxpayer. It has taken until 2015 for this debt to be cleared – yes, that means if you’re a taxpayer YOU contributed to paying this debt. If you were a Black British taxpayer at that time, descended from the Caribbean or the West Coast of Africa, you were made to contribute to a debt paid to slave owners of your ancestors.


Abolition meant people could no longer force people to work for free. However, the plantation owners, continued to exploit people by allowing them to live on their land and work for them for a pitiful wage that would keep them ‘in their place.’ So whilst Black people in British colonies were now ‘free men’ they had no land, no wealth, no ownership of anything than themselves. What leg-up in terms of compensation or land ownership was given to those who had been enslaved? None. That generation had to start from scratch. There have only been around six generations since the end of the Slave Trade. Yet where has the wealth, land and power remained throughout those generations?


This legacy of White ownership and colonialism remains the most important contributing factor in today’s inequalities. The forced un-intermittent, shackled slavery of Black Africans was borne out of a need to justify an interminable greed for money and power. The notion that Black Africans, were not people, were not human was created because the use of them as slaves was paramount for success. Once slavery was abolished that notion that Black people were ‘lesser’ did not change, so as mentioned above, there was no need or thought to place those once enslaved on anything remotely resembling an equitable footing. Moreover, as the generations passed, the history of Empire became more whitewashed until it resembled a romantic notion of fond memories of British Rule. “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

By glorifying history in this way, the notion of ‘lesser’ has remained and the need for repatriation and equity has never been understood, never mind welcomed. Nor has the hard look at wealth inequality in Britain itself.  In 2014 a survey found 58% of British people were proud of Empire and the history they understood this to be, unaware of the horrors of a history done in their name and instead suggests colonisation was done for “Africans’ own good”. This has left not only a people who are judged differently solely because of the colour of their skin, but also continuously given lesser opportunities to ever “catch up”. Today our government calls teaching the true history un-British, or unpatriotic. It isn’t, it is truthful. We can still celebrate the best of Britain and learn about our worst.


It is 2021. We can and should question where racism came from. We can and should question where wealth and power is distributed in Britain and in its former colonies. We can and should ask why we are where we are now. This means we need to look back, we might not like everything we see, but without looking back, how we can ever look forward?