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How blood of slavery fed profit system

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As slave traders’ statues and memorials are taken down across Britain, people are demanding a reckoning with Britain’s imperial history. Nick Clark looks at how slavery helped build British capitalism
Issue 2709
A drawing depicts brutal conditions on a slave ship
A drawing depicts brutal conditions on a slave ship

Defenders of slavers’ statues warn that ­tearing them down amounts to an attempt to “erase” Britain’s history. On the surface of it, many of them pretend this is about keeping the legacy of slavery visible, not hiding it away. 

But what they also mean is they want us to simply accept slavery as the dark side of Britain’s “complicated” history. Something horrible and regrettable, maybe, but which can’t—or shouldn’t—be dealt with now.

It’s “complicated” because, as they know, the slave trade was completely central to what they might call Britain’s “progress” or “development”. Start trying to overturn its legacy, and you end up confronting the whole basis and history of British capitalism.

That’s exactly why we need to do it.

Slavery was the source of huge profits that fuelled the growth of British industry.

Every industry and business relies on human labour to produce its profits, and in the early Caribbean plantations that came from “indentured” workers.

These were poor Europeans who had agreed to work for a master for three to five years in return for transport out of Europe. They were treated horribly, but they weren’t slaves. 

The plantation owners needed a cheap, constant source of labour to satiate the drive to keep growing and produce ever greater profits. Enslaved Africans were their answer.

The capture and transportation of slaves from Africa became an industrial operation.

In the first half of the 17th century, some 370,000 people were taken from Africa to the Americas as slaves. In the latter half, just under one million were transported. At the peak, over 3.5 million were transported over the course of 50 years.

In the first half of the 17th century, some 370,000 people were taken from Africa to the Americas as slaves. In the latter half, just under one million were transported. At the peak, over 3.5 million were transported over the course of 50 years.

Between the early 16th century and 1870, over 12 million slaves were transported to the Americas to work on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations.

It is likely that as many as 21 million people were captured in order to get that many live slaves across. 

Britain sat at the corner of a triangular slave trade route. 

Its colonies in America and the Caribbean became a market for slaves captured in Africa. The tobacco, cotton and sugar produced in the plantations were then sent to be sold in Britain, where the weapons, tools, and shackles were produced and shipped out.

As production in the plantations exploded off the back of slave labour, it fuelled the growth of industries in Britain. 

The plantations produced the raw materials industries needed, while their profits were the invested in production—canals, railways, ships and machinery.

Profits from the triangular trade made up around a third of the entire new investment made by British capitalists in the years around 1770.

Britain’s cotton mills depended on slave money and produce. Boulton & Watt, Britain’s most important maker of steam engines, also depended on the slave trade.

Many of the brutal working conditions that made industrial production possible came out of the slave industry too.

Capital — built on slavery
Capital — built on slavery
  Read More

The big ­workforces on the plantations were a model for the creation of factories in Britain. The use of child slaves in the Americas was the template for the use of workhouse children forced to labour in the textile mills in Britain. In the Barbados sugar cane fields slaves were unlikely to live for more than four or five years. Many died in their teens or early 20s. In Manchester in 1840 the average age at death for labourers was 17.

Accounting methods designed to measure slaves’ output, and the production line methods—and punishments—designed to make them work harder and longer, were taken up in other industries.

Human beings were recorded and valued in slave owners’ ledgers as if they were tools or cattle. They were branded with red hot irons as if they were too. Those ledgers are the evidence of the cold, dispassionate way that capitalism turned people into commodities and then grew out of their suffering. It took the invention of racism to justify this—a “scientific” explanation for why black people were inferior and denied the freedom and humanity of white Europeans.

The British-run Royal Africa Company specified a “standard space per slave” that allowed traders to pack as many people into as small a space as possible. This was five foot long, 11 inches wide and 23 inches high— for a journey that could last up to 10 months.

Slave decks were so crammed that the people forced into them didn’t even space to move, sometimes even to breathe.

There were even cases where whole shipyards of slaves were thrown ­overboard so that the ship’s owners could claim them as a “loss” against their insurance policies.

Even with Britain’s eventual abolition of slavery in 1833, businesses and owners were compensated for their “losses” in property and profits.

The abolition act set aside £20 million in compensation—the equivalent of some £300 billion today—to be paid to slave owners. It was funded in part by a loan the government was still paying back in 2015. Much of it went to companies and banks still operating today—including Barclays, Lloyds, RBS and the Bank of England.

Those institutions essential to British capitalism are all monuments to the slave trade too. The whole thing must be pulled down.

Slave revolt delivered death knell to brutal system

If they’re not making excuses for Britain’s slave trade, they’re patting it on the back for its supposed role in ending it. The mainstream, safe version of history says slaves had William Wilberforce to thank for the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. 

Wilberforce was a deeply right wing MP and was at the conservative end of the abolition movement in Britain.

For a start, he never campaigned for total emancipation, was horrified by slave revolts, and opposed the boycott of West Indian sugar—the main product grown by slaves.

This tactic came from the grassroots of a campaign that had huge support from people at the bottom of society. At a time when just one in ten men had the vote, and women were excluded altogether, masses of people signed petitions to demand abolition.

Jamaica - a history of racism and revolt
Jamaica – a history of racism and revolt
  Read More

In 1788 parliament had received 103 petitions for abolition, signed by up to 100,000 people. They were the product of a campaign that for the first time involved mass meetings and involved the support of working class people.

Slave traders—and abolitionist campaigners—had thought that workers in industries dependent on slavery would be hostile to abolition. Instead there was near total support.

In 1787 abolitionist Thomas Clarkson visited Manchester hoping to set up a petition. He wasn’t hopeful—some £200,000 worth of goods were sold to slave colonies from the city each year. 

Instead when he got there he found a petition had already been set up. When it was sent to parliament, it had been signed by 10,000 people—one in every five people who lived in the city.

It was a similar story in Sheffield, where steel goods were made to be sent to west Africa for the purchase of slaves.

In 1789, 769 metalworkers from Sheffield petitioned parliament against the slave trade. “Your petitioners may be supposed to be prejudiced in their interests if the said trade in slaves should be abolished,” they wrote. 

“But your petitioners, having always understood that the natives of Africa have the greatest aversion to foreign slavery, consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own.”

Rather than feeling they owed something to the slave trade, workers in British slave trade-based industries identified their own horrendous conditions with slaves’. They saw a common cause against the bosses in charge of an industry that exploited them both.


That meant there was much more support among ordinary people for the slave revolts that ended the industry than there was among its official leadership.

The Haitian Revolution, a slave revolt in 1791, ended colonial rule in the French territory of St Domingue.

Led by slave coach driver Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave army took a vast part of St Domingue from its French rulers and established the free black republic of Haiti. The defeat forced the French government to abolish slavery.

It also inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Britain when it tried to take the opportunity to capture St Domingue. Some 80,000 British soldiers were killed—a catastrophic defeat inflicted on an imperial power by freed slaves.

It would be another four decades before Britain completely abolished slavery. But the Haitian Revolution was a turning point. 

A history of oppression and revolt in Haiti
A history of oppression and revolt in Haiti
  Read More

It wasn’t the first slave revolt—but it showed that the rule of slavers could be overturned. And it made the cost of policing and repressing slave revolts too great for the British state to manage.

At the same time more ruling class figures, such as Wilberforce, could see that “free labour” would now bring greater profits. 

The revolt split the abolition movement in Britain. The conservative official leadership was frightened of what it could mean.

A mass meeting in London in 1830 revived the abolition campaign, and is said to have helped inspire a revolt in British-owned Jamaica that was the final blow to the British slave industry.

In 1831, 60,000 slaves revolted across Jamaica. It took the British army a month to crush the revolt—which they did brutally. But in the process hundreds of British soldiers were killed.

Henry Bleby, a British Methodist minister, said the revolt showed “the slaves would assuredly take the matter into their own hands, and bring their bondage to a violent and bloody termination”. 

Some bosses had decided it was more profitable to make money from “free” labour. But without the revolts, British rulers would not have abolished slavery. 

Marx’s war cry was ‘death to slavery’ 

Karl Marx and the International Working Men’s Association’s wrote to US president Abraham Lincoln in January 1865—a few months before the South lost the American Civil War. 

“We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the slave power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

“From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. 

Read the letter at

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