About half a century ago I was privileged to attend an East Coast college in Pennsylvania, as part of an exchange programme from the University of Warwick. Students of history got to spend a semester at an American university.
I shared a college room with two other women: one was a Finnish-American a little younger than me, and the other was from Brooklyn on a programme. Cheryl was black and at first as outsiders we had bonded. But soon she joined the black activists on campus and in our discussions blamed the English for slavery and the suffering of the black population. I felt no guilt since the trade had been undertaken by people who lived 200 years before I was born.
Nowadays, I am not so quick to reject the idea that I am implicated in the enslavement of African peoples. As far as I can tell, my family were not among the many British people who were compensated for the ‘emancipation’ of the enslaved peoples held on their plantations, carefully noted in the legers of 1834.
So, I do not appear to have ancestors involved in enslavement. But to ignore the financial benefits brought by the slave traders to the ports of England, the ship owners and crews who undertook the notorious Middle Passage, to ignore the economic results of the cotton industry – workers and investors – and those who benefited from cheap cotton goods, especially sugar produced on the plantations and made possible the economic prosperity of England would be wilful blindness. So much of the British prosperity of the 19th and to a certain extent the 20th centuries was built on the back of the enslaved Africans, shipped in their hundreds of thousands across the Atlantic.
I recently read Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016). It is a long read and at times distressing. To read the racist beliefs about black Africans is uncomfortable. To read of the arguments made by those who opposed the abolition, first of the slave trade and then of enslavement itself, is eyewatering. It was argued by some that it was every free Englishman’s right to trade and own enslaved people. The attitude persisted that blackness implied inferiority, that white people were superior. And it was argued that this superiority of white people justified enslavement of Africans.
These beliefs took a long time to weaken. There was strong resistance to Africans and black Caribbeans joining the British Army to fight the Germans in the First World War. It was argued that for black men to kill Europeans would challenge the idea of the superiority of Europeans. While we may have pride in the resistance to the US ideas of segregation that the US troops brought with them in the Second World Wat, it was only 20 years since a black sailor, Charles Wootton who had served in the Royal Navy, had been killed in Liverpool in what can only be described as a lynching.
Perhaps the most significant ‘forgotten’ history concerns the enslavement of millions of Africans. While the trade might have been established by the Spanish and Portuguese, as soon as British ships were able to break the monopoly they engaged in the very lucrative trading in human lives: buying humans on the West Coast and transporting them in terrible conditions and selling them in the New World.
We pride ourselves on the British campaign to abolish the slave trade. This was achieved, despite much opposition, in 1807. Many believed that enslavement would gradually die away. It took another campaign to end it in the colonies of the British Empire, and to achieve this the biggest compensation ever was paid out. But it was not to the enslaved people that compensation was paid, but to those who had owned them. And while they were not deemed to be slaves after emancipation they were required to continue in a form of apprenticeship which lasted for six more years.
What was Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans?
And who were the slaveowners in Britain in the 1830s? This is a difficult part of history, one which some would rather leave alone. But historians chase after the details to build stories from the ground up. In Devon we are lucky enough to have a historian who has looked at Devon’s connection to the enslavement of Africans.
Devon and the Slave Trade by Todd Gray provides documentary evidence of the connection. It is true that the first voyages across the Atlantic were by that famous Devonian John Hawkins. He made three voyages between 1562 and 1568. The difficulties were quite daunting (economic and political) and little involvement was seen again until the 18th century. Even then ships from Devon did not contribute substantial portion of African people making the Middle Passage crossing.
When in the 1790s the campaigns to end slavery were launched Devon people played their part.
When he turned his attention again to the issue, during Lockdowns, and wrote Devon’s Last Slave-Owners Todd Gray had the digitized records of the compensation paid to reveal the names of the slave owners, their birth places, their place of residence and where their enslaved peoples resided. These records were compiled from the legers of the time by a team from University College London. You can find the database here.
His book seeks to answer the question: to what extent did Devonians own enslaved people at the time of Emancipation on 1st August 1834?
43 people, 39 of them men, many of them members of the clergy, owned over 7000 enslaved people, mostly in the West Indies. By examining the records of their lives Gray is able to conclude
Devon’s mid-nineteenth century slaveholders were not a homogenous group. Some were Devon born and bred but they were outnumbered by retirees from the West Indies and other parts of Great Britain: most were former owners who largely favoured the new seaside resorts over Exeter or Plymouth or the countryside. (240)
That is not the extent of Devon’s association with enslavement as Gray reminds us.
Ownership was merely one of the ways in which individuals were associated with slavery. In its widest sense, it could be assumed that any consumer of slave-produced goods, including sugar, rum, coffee and cotton, directly benefitted from enslavement. In 1834 thus would have defined some 16,564,138 people, the entire population of the country. (1)
The difficulties, the awkwardness of our country’s history must not be dodged because it is difficult and awkward, not the country’s finest achievement. What these three books have told me is that we are all bound up with enslavement, through our family histories, and through the wealth that it provided, which made this country one of the richest in the 19th century in the world.
It also tells the story of the individuals, who suffered and who benefited from enslavement. Here is Princess, who testified in court in 1823 in her complaint about Robert Semple’s treatment of her:
That this morning she saw a woman of the name of Cuba sitting down asleep; she said to her: What were you doing last night that you did not sleep? At the same time Mr Semple came out of his bedroom and asked me what I said. I told him. He said You always have something to say. Better shut your mouth. I answered him again. Master, I don’t speak with you. I speak with Cuba and then I came downstairs and into the kitchen. Master followed me into the kitchen and told me I had better go to my work than meddle my tongue. I answered him I am doing my work, and you come to trouble me. I was not speaking to you. Then he went to the store and took a horsewhip and began to flog me. I asked him for what he flogged me. He said for badness. I told him: So long as you flog me for nothing, I shall go to the Fiscal and I came away. (235-6)
The lives in this account, from one county, reveal in detail the great variety of people living in Devon and their connection to the enslavement of black people. Both books of local history are also generously illustrated. Cheryl spoke near to the truth: we all have responsibilities in this sad history. It’s black history month, so it’s time to acknowledge that.
Books referred to:
Black and British: a forgotten history by David Olusoga (2016), Pan Books. 602pp
Associated with the BBC programme, and winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize.
Devon and the Slave Trade: documents on African enslavement, abolition and emancipation from 1562 to 1867 by Todd Gray (2007), Mint Press 2nd ed 2020 134pp
Devon’s Last Slave-Owners by Todd Gray, (2021), Mint Press. 298pp