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24 September 2014
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abolition

Birmingham City Council House
Birmingham City Council House

Did Birmingham Profit?

By Dr Andy Green
Local Historian, Andy Green, explains how Birmingham benefited from the brutal enslavement of Africans.

Birmingham Canal
Birmingham Canal

The history of Birmingham cannot be understood without recognising its relationship to transatlantic slavery and profits it undoubtedly harvested, directly and indirectly, from an economic and industrial system of human degradation and displacement. 

With slave vessels arriving and departing around Britain in droves in the eighteenth century, it would have been impossible to avoid witnessing how cities like London, Bristol and Liverpool thrived upon the economic profits of the transatlantic trade. At the same time however, these cities were only the most visible examples involved in a trade that connected every corner of national life.

The Brasshouse
The Brasshouse

The degradations of ‘chattel’ slavery were motivated by the chance of vast material profits that drew in many ‘African merchants’ and plantation owners. But of course it also took a powerful industrial structure in place simply to make possible the forced removal of millions of men, women and children from the west coast of Africa to the Americas.

Chain

Ship parts were needed to help transport the human cargo. Chains needed to be made to physically abduct people from their homeland. Guns needed to be forged to exchange with local Africans who had been corrupted by the West into dealing with European slave merchants. Huge quantities of brass wire and ‘Manilla’ bracelets were needed as trading tokens. Each of these trades had a strong Birmingham connection.

Taking a major role in Britain’s status as the ‘workshop of the world’, Birmingham held centre stage in this ‘industrial connection’ to slavery. In the same year the ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’ was passed, Letters from England (1807) by the poet Robert Southey publicly drew attention to Birmingham’s shameful legacy:

Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House

If it be considered how large a proportion of that ingenuity is employed in making what is hurtful as well as what is useless, it must be confessed that human reason has more cause at present for humiliation than for triumph at Birmingham. A regular branch of trade here is the manufacture of guns for the African market […]No secret is made of this abominable trade; yet the government never interferes, and the persons concerned in it are not marked and shunned as infamous’

In fact, by the late eighteenth century, some of those involved in the profits from the transatlantic trade had started to be called to account for their actions. Samuel Galton Jnr. was cast out of his local Quaker society for his ‘immoral’ involvement in the gun making industry. His surprised indignation at this was a good indication of how traditionally accepted the ‘African trade’ had always been. One defense he made of his actions was that, after all, he was only following in the same trade as his father.

Matthew Boulton & James Watt Statue
Matthew Boulton & James Statue

Galton was not the only one locked in this shadowy world of profits gained from human suffering. In 1771, the Birmingham Aris’s Gazette advertised an auction to take place in the city of Lichfield: “Negro Boy from Africa, Supposed to be about ten or eleven Years of Age, he is remarkably strong, well proportioned, speaks tolerable good English” and was, unsurprisingly, “fond of labour”. Fortunately, such cases of outright exploitation in the local press seem to have been rare. 

Perhaps Birmingham’s most notorious example of a company which profited from slavery is the firm called ‘Hiatt’. Dating back to at least the early nineteenth century, ‘Hiatt’ was a local manufacturer advertising handcuffs, chains and ‘dog collars’. It was also known to be involved in making African slave restraints. In a powerful echo of history, the still existing ‘Hiatt’ firm has recently been faced with protests over its involvement in making handcuffs used in ‘Guantanamo Bay’, the notorious American detainment camp.

African slave for sale
African slave for sale

Such links show Birmingham cannot escape the history of its involvement with slavery. At the same time, it would perhaps be wrong and shortsighted to blame one firm alone for a history which possibly connected so many Birmingham trades. A more collective acknowledgement and learning about this aspect of our past would be a worthier response to injustices perpetuated by our role within the development of a bloodstained empire. 

CONNECTING HISTORIES

If you want to find out more about Birmingham's links to the Transatlantic slave trade, go to:

www.connectinghistories.org.uk

All images reproduced by permission of the 'Connecting Histories Project', Birmingham Central Library.

Photographs by Dr Andy Green & Mandisa Gordon.

last updated: 03/03/07
 
Have Your Say
What's your views on Birmingham's involvement in the transatlantic enslavement of Africans?
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The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

John Bryan
What was the point of this article? Isn't obvious that Birmingham, as a major industrial centre, would have made items used in the slave trade? I am not interested in the author's opinion of Guantanamo Bay and I expect the BBC to exercise some editorial control to prevent personal political bias in its articles

Sean
You cannoy exspext this genoration to be apollogetic for what people done 200 years ago as regards slavery, as for the profits made by the gun making industry doe it not still go on today. By that i mean. the British arms dealers are still making millions of pounds selling to unscupulous goverments throughout the world, so has much really changed in the last 200 years No !!

Its History leave it
neither I nor many generations of my family had, or used slaves or where involved in the trade. In fact if you look at the figures less than one percent profited from slaves, yet many UK citizens where virtual slaves in workhouses, or tied to farms or estates in abject poverty. Yet the media wishes to make all white people believe they are some descendants of evil plantation owners. Any slavery is wrong but can we have a balanced approach & the full truth.

chris
here in Poland we don't have to put back as far.How would you name a worker who earned 20 pounds per month in 80's while all goods were send to Soviet Union?

oliver g
I belive that our part in the slave trade was shamefull and wrong and i feel ashamed to be a resident of birmingham

Tom
The idea that the West corrupted Africans into selling their Brethren isn't entirely fair. Had they not been selling off members of weaker tribes to the Muslim North for many years before the Europeans took an interest. However I am sure that Birmingham did benefit a lot from the trade. I think the gtreater profits are in evidence in the stately homes in the countryside around.

Brian Perrins
Yes Birmingham gained vast wealth from the slave trade along with the ports of London,Liverpool and Bristol.My home town of Swansea also made money out of this vile trade.Swansea was the main copper producing area in the world and had close links to Bristol,most of the smelters had westcountry owners and vast amounts of POPO MANILAS were manufactured at Swansea,the barter goods for slaves.

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