Socialist Worker

Britain's Slave Trade: who won freedom?

by Hassan Mahamdallie
Issue No. 1670

Channel 4's 'Black History' month has restored my faith in the ability of television to take important historical subjects and present them in an unpatronising and accessible way. The centrepiece has been the four part series Britain's Slave Trade. It took as its inspiration Eric Williams's 1964 study Capitalism and Slavery, but updated it and brought it alive.

However, watching this series and reading the accompanying book I did feel there were crucial bits missing about how slavery ended. You can pull many history books off the shelves that can tell you what the great and the good did to abolish slavery. But it is not so easy to discover how the shackled and the exploited of the 18th and 19th century fought back You can be left thinking that the abolition of slavery was either a gift from the 'enlightened' Christian middle classes or a result of manoeuvres between the French and British governments.

The real detonator under the West Indian plantation regime came, not from the lobbying work of the moderately minded William Wilberforce, but from a much more militant quarter. In 1739 in Jamaica the 'First Maroon War' saw the British sue for peace after they failed to defeat an army of escaped slaves who lived 'free' from then on. In 1763 rebel slaves in the Dutch colony of Berbice (Guyana) expelled their masters from the southern half of the colony. But these uprisings could be contained by the colonial powers. It was the powerful ideas carried on the wind of revolution that swept America and then France in 1789 which really set the cane fields alight.

Saint Domingue (Haiti, as it is known today) was a French slave colony and the pearl of the slave economy. In 1791 the slaves of Saint Domingue claimed their liberty when they rose up under the leadership of cattle keeper Toussaint L'Ouverture. Toussaint welded his slave army into a magnificent fighting force, crushing the plantation owners and then the cream of the Spanish, French and British armies.

In Paris an insurrection gave power to the most revolutionary section of the French bourgeoisie, who condemned 'the aristocracy of the skin' and decreed slavery abolished. They sent 330,000 rifles to Toussaint. The slaves inflicted huge losses on the British force sent by prime minister William Pitt to retake the island for slave owning interests everywhere. The bones of at least 20,000 British soldiers lie beneath the soil of Haiti.

The slaves forced the British to surrender and then drove them from the island. These slave rebellions coincided in Britain with the growth of the first mass working class movement, Chartism. Anti-slavery was a massively popular movement to the great discomfort of the ruling classes.

As Newcastle women Chartists declared in 1838 in the Northern Star newspaper, 'Acting from those feelings when told of the oppression exercised upon the enslaved negroes in our colonies, we raised our voices in denunciation of their tyrants, and we never rested until the dealers in human blood were compelled to abandon their hellborn traffic. But we have learned by bitter experience that slavery is not confined to colour or clime, and that even in England cruel oppression reigns.'

Britain's Slave Trade by S I Martin, Channel 4 Books, £14.99.

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Sat 30 Oct 1999, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1670
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