Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”. ~David Olusoga
[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]n August 1, 1838, the British ended the Maafa (Atlantic slavery) in the territories, they had invaded and colonized and turned into labor camps mainly for the production of sugar. Over 800,000 bondpeople were freed in the British Caribbean, receiving no compensation. However, Britain’s 46,000 slaveholders received about £20 million in government compensation for the loss of people who had slaved on their labor camps.
In his book The Reaper’s Garden, Vincent Brown related the story of two emancipation “cermonies” in Jamaica, in which the Maafa/Atlantic slavery was given a funeral:
“At dawn [on the morning of August 1, 1838], a multitude assembled around a coffin, containing a chain, handcuffs, an iron collar and other hateful ensigns of ursurped command. The names of two pro-slavery newspapers were painted on the sides, while the coffin’s memorial plate bore the inscription “Colonial Slavery died July 31st, 1838, aged 276 years,” and also “Sir Hawkins,” the pioneering sixteenth-century British slave [trafficker]. The crowd sang:
Now slavery we lay thy vile form in the dusts;
And buried forever, there let it remain;
And rotted, and covered with infamy’s rust,
Be every man-whip, and fetter and chain!
The people buried the coffin and planted a young coconut tree at it’s head which acted simultaneously as a symbolic tree of liberty and a prison for slavery’s spirit.
Two days later, a group of more than five hundred children held a similar rite at the chapel on Salter’s Hill. As they prepared for the “burial of slavery,” they produced and then condemned its symbols–the whip, the chain, and the shackles–in demanding that the whip be cut up, the chain broken, and the shackles destroyed. When this was done, the children let out a cheer. Then the question arose, What was to be done with the remains of slavery? They answered in unison, Bury them, bury them.…”
Perhaps, the children’s voices echoed across the ocean to the British Isles. For, the British have also buried the Maafa/Atlantic slavery. When the clock struck midnight on July 31, 1838, perhaps it also struck out the British slave-owning and slave-trafficking past; because since then the British have buried their collective guilt, and presented their nation as the great anti-slavery champion. As David Olusoga wrote: “Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and as successful as the erasing of slavery from the Britain’s “island story”.” The British used their abolition campaign, emancipation, and the policing of their Royal Navy to stop slave trafficking, to wash the blood from their collective hands.
Here are a few facts about British slaving history:
Although the British were not the initiators of the Maafa/Atlantic slavery, they more than any other European nation perfected the oppressive system and raised it to new terrifying heights of oppression. The trafficking in Afrika’s peoples were seen as “in perfect harmony with the principles of the Word of God.” Two region of the Americas–British Caribbean and British North America–owed their enslavement system to the British. At the height of British slaving history, between 1660 and the abolition of the slave trafficking in 1807, British ships carried away 3.5 million of Afrika’s people from their homeland into bondage in the Americas. More than 10 percent of the Afrikans died before reaching the European New World destinations.
British involvement in the Maafa/Atlantic slavery began as a piratical act. In 1562, John Hawkins captured 300 Afrikans and sold them illegally to the Spanish; bringing Elizabethan England into slave trafficking. However,there is evidence that British merchants had for decades before that, bought and sold Afrikan people in Andalucia (Spain). British participation grew with the annexation of territories in the Caribbean and North America. The British founded its first colony at Virginia in 1607. Then colonies were established in St Kitts (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Antigua and Montserrat (1632), Jamaica (1655), Cayman Island (1655), Virgin Islands (1666) and Bahamas (1670).
When sugar planting began on the islands, slave trafficking was first nurtured by freebooters, then by a succession of monopolistic companies with royal charters — the Guinea Company in 1651, the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa in 1663, and the Royal African Company in 1672. For over next twenty years the London-based Royal African Company (with the Duke of York, later James ll as a major shareholder) was charged with developing and maintaining a number of forts along the African coast in order to traffick in Afrikans. The company was responsible for transporting over 150,000 Afrikans.
The company’s monopoly ended in 1698 after another European war destroyed the slaving fort of Fort James in Gambia. Private businessmen were allowed to enter the traffick, and they expanded to eclipse the Portuguese, Dutch and French. This was given impetus with the ending of War of Spanish Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which gave the British control over the Spanish asiento; a contract to supply the Spanish colonies with 144,000 Afrikans a year! Throughout the 1700s the British were the world’s preeminent slave traffickers, during their peak in the 1760s embarking more than 42,000 Afrikans yearly.
British ships from London, Bristol and Liverpool followed winds and currents that Portuguese navigators had charted in the fifteenth century, south past the Canary Islands, then along the Afrikan littoral, where slavers purchased men, women and children, situated between the Senegal and Zaire rivers. Each ship concentrated its efforts, usually gathering captives from only one or two regions along the coastline. Closest to Britain was the area embraced by the Senegal and Gambia rivers, yet by mid-eighteenth century the British were more active to the south and east, in Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, the Blight of Benin, and especially the Blight of Biafra. They also bartered for people further south along the Loango Coast of West-Central Afrika.
Having loaded their cargo the slavers sailed west first reaching Barbados, or the Lesser Antilles, where they replenished supplies and gauged regional markets, before proceeding downwind to the biggest slave bazaar in the empire, Jamaica, where they knew they could sell the most Afrikans at the highest prices. Between 1713 and 1739, when the British had held the asiento contract, 33 to 50 percent of the Afrikans who landed at Jamaica embarked again for the mines and plantations of South America, but from 1740 onward only about 17 percent of the captives were reexported to other colonies. In total Jamaica absorbed more than any other single British colony did — more than 500,000 Afrikans.
Bunce Island: ‘The place where history sleeps’
According to David Olusoga in his book, Black and British: A Forgotten History , Bunce Island, located some 30 kilometers from Freetown, was establish as a slave fortress by the British (English) in seventeenth century. It was attacked and destroyed on six different occasions — four times by the French (1695, 1704, 1779, and 1794), and twice by pirates (1719 and 1720). Afrikan captives arrived on a beach on the eastern side of the island. They were landed there by inland slave-traffickers who had brought them on river canoes. Some of these traffickers were Afrikans, others were from mixed-race Afro-Portuguese or Afro-English peoples who were the offspring of European slavers and local women. From the beach they were taken to the Sorting Yard where buying and selling was done, and once purchased the captives were branded with hot irons. They were then taken into the fortress itself. The men were separated from the women and children, and all were taken to special holding yards. These yards were large open spaces behind walls more than three metres high. It is believed that there was a “rape house” at Bunce Island where Afrikan women were routinely sexually assaulted. In the final hours of their captivity the captives were marched out of the holding yards, through the main gates and down a stone pathway towards the jetty. On their way to the water’s edge, shackles were fitted to their legs. They were loaded into small boats and ferried out to the ocean-going slave ships. The whole operation was carried out under the gaze of a huge cannon. Between thirty to fifty thousand Afrikans took their last step on the continent of their birth on Bunce Island.
The British called the Atlantic journey of slave trafficking, the Middle Passage. It is from the British involvement in this nightmarish oceanic journey that history was able to obtain the plan of a slave ship. The Brookes was a British slave ship of the 18th century that became infamous after prints of her were published in 1788 to depict the conditions on board a slave ship. First designed in Plymouth in 1788 and published in December 1788 by the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The print became the most widely recognizable image of the Middle Passage as it was reproduced countless times as a means of forwarding the abolitionist cause. The image portrayed captive peoples’ arrangement on the ship’s lower deck and poop deck, in accordance with the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788. The Brookes was reportedly allowed to carry 454 Afrikans, by allowing a space of 6 feet long and 16 inches wide (and usually about 2 feet, 7 inches wide) for each man. Every woman was allocated a space of 5 feet 10 inches long by 16 inches wide. Every boy was allocated a space of 5 feet by 14 inches; every girl, 4 feet, 6 inches by 12 inches. However, the poster’s text of the Brookes alleges that a slaver confessed that before the Act, the Brookes had carried as many as 609 captives at one time.
The Zong Massacre
After leaving the coast of Afrika on 6 September 1781 bound for Jamaica, with 470 captured Afrikans on board — more than the slave ship could hold — navigational error and bad weather extended the length of the Atlantic journey of the Zong to eleven weeks. By the time the Zong was in sight of Jamaica, more than sixty captives and seven members of the crew of seventeen traffickers had died. The epidemic promised to kill more. Sickness aboard the ship would surely caused a quarantine of the Zong, therefore the head-slaver (captain), Luke Collingwood, steered the ship away from the island (and would later claim that he had mistaken it for Hispaniola), back into the sea and called a meeting with his officers. As dead captives represented a financial loss, it occurred to Collingwood, that the Afrikans with an insurance tag of £30 each, could be “thrown alive into the sea,” whereby he could claim on the insurance for his losses. He ordered them to throw overboard the sickest captives, informing them that if they were asked later about the reason, to say that the act had been necessary to safeguard the limited water supplies.
On 29th November, the traffickers/crewmen went into the dark and suffocating hold and selected 54 ailing men, women and children, bound their hands and cast them overboard. The next day they came for 43 more and repeated the evil act; but one man had the strength to grab hold of a rope that hung overboard and drag himself back unto the ship. The next day it rained, and the traffickers collected enough fresh drinking water to add a three-week supply to the ship’s store. Then again on Collingwood’s order, the traffickers went below and took 36 more captives. They managed to bind 26 of them before the last 10 leapt unfettered into the sea. In just three days, Collingwood and his traffickers had murdered 132 Afrikans. Whether from disease, dehydration, or sheer fright, 30 more died before the Zong made landfall. On 28 December, the slaving firm Coppells & Aguilar offered two hundred survivors of the massarce for sale, advertising them as “choice young Cormantee, Fantee and Ashantee.”
When the Zong landed in Jamaica it still had 420 gallons of water on board. Having learned of the presence of the water and that Collingwood had an opportunity to augment his stock from rainfall, the insurers refused to pay out and the case went to court twice in 1783, not over the murder of the Afrikans but to settle the insurance dispute. None of the traffickers were charged with or prosecuted for murder. The case received a lot of attention in the press and was used by abolitionists to highlight the horrendous treatment of Afrikan.
The rising tide of uprisings amongst bondpeople and the growing abolitionist campaigns led to the abolition of the British slave trafficking in 1807. Although Britain banned the slave trade, imposing stiff fines for any enslaved person found aboard a British ship, other nations, most notably the Spanish and the Portuguese, trafficked a further 3-4 million Afrikans into the Americas. However, the Royal Navy moved to stop other European nations from continuing slave trafficking by declaring that slaving was equal to piracy and was punishable by death. (The United States Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited the building or outfitting of ships in the U.S. for use in the slave trade. In 1807 Congress outlawed the importation of slaves beginning on 1 January 1808, the earliest date permitted by the United States Constitution for such a ban.)
Between 1807 and 1860, the Royal Navy’s Squadron seized approximately 1,600 ships involved in slave trafficking and freed 150,000 Afrikans who were aboard these ships. Several hundred captives a year were transported by the navy to the British colony of Sierra Leone, where they were made to serve as “apprentices” in the colonial economy until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
August 1st is Emancipation Day in Canada and other countries that were once British colonies. Africans who had been enslaved in Antigua, Barbuda, Canada and South Africa were freed on August 1, 1834. Africans who had been enslaved by the British in several Caribbean islands including Barbados, Dominica, Trinidad and Jamaica, in British Guiana (Britain’s sole South American colony) and in British Honduras (Britain’s sole colony in Central America) were subjected to a system of “apprenticeship.” Only children below the age of six were freed. Enslaved people older than six years of age were turned into “apprentices” and forced to work 40 hours per week without pay as compensation to their former enslavers. Full freedom was finally achieved at midnight on 31 July 1838.
The first country in the world to commemorate Emancipation Day as a national holiday was Trinidad and Tobago, which did so in 1985. It was brought on stream to replace Columbus Discovery Day which commemorated the arrival of the European explorer at Moruga on July 31, 1498.
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the Atlantic World by Vincent Browne
Three Continents, One History edited by Clive Harris
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
Britain’s Slave Empire by James Walvin
This post will be continuously updated with new sections. I especially would like to add a section on Jamaica which was seen as the jewel of British Caribbean crown.