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24 September 2014
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   Inside Out - West Midlands: Friday March 2, 2007
Professor David Dabydeen
"It was a nasty unimaginable way of treating people..."
Professor Dabydeen
Professor David Dabydeen

Slavery

For many years it's been assumed that Bristol and Liverpool had been most directly involved with slavery.

But new evidence suggests Birmingham not only profited from, but also had a hand in supporting and defending the slave trade.

Inside Out takes award-winning musician Soweto Kinch on a personal journey into his city's past.

He looks at the role it played in enslaving his own ancestors.

Transatlantic trade

2007 marks the bicentenary of the outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade.

But by that date in 1807, millions of Africans had already been forcibly transported to the Americas to work.

Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University believes it could have been as many as 30 million.

Conditions for them were horrific.

Slave ship
Conditions on slave ships were horrific

"A third of those people died going over. Another third died on the plantations within a few months of arriving because of new tropical diseases.

"Others died because of sheer hard work.

"It was a nasty unimaginable way of treating people as goods, with no sense of humanity."

Condemnation

These days the brutality of slavery is universally condemned in Britain.

But does the desire to put the darker chapters of our history behind us mean we're also failing to face up to it?

Musician Soweto Kinch grew up in Handsworth.

Like many others, he assumed Birmingham had little to do with slavery.

Soweto Kinch
Soweto Kinch discovers Birmingham's links to slavery

During the course of our programme he's seen plenty of evidence to change his mind.

"Birmingham was the main supplier of iron and ironware to Africa", says Professor Dabydeen.

"Padlocks, irons, chains muzzles - all the instruments to police the slave trade. Of course that made an enormous amount of money."

And he says, there were the guns:

"From the 1760's onwards 150,000 guns on average were exported to Africa.

"Birmingham armed the slave trade."

Pro-slavery petition

Soweto Kinch
Soweto Kinch is shocked by the Midlands' slave trade past

Another piece of evidence which has come to light is a pro-slavery petition dating from 1789.

It was signed by people involved in industry in Birmingham who feared their livelihoods were under threat from the abolitionist movement.

For Soweto, it's been a journey of discovery.

"I'd seen pictures of slave ships.

"I'd heard about the plantations but nothing prepared me for the sheer scale and brutality of the system.

"I was also shocked to find out that my city, Birmingham, was so involved."

As Britain prepares to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, some are arguing for a greater openness about the past.

Slavery irons
Irons used by slave traders.
Photo - AP Images.

Dr Clive Harris, of the African Caribbean Millennium Centre says we have still got a long way to go:

"I think Birmingham, like the whole of the country, is in denial. I am asking for a truthful account of British history."

Visit the BBC Abolition interactive slavery map

Track down your family history in relation to slavery

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