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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > What we can learn from slavery

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What we can learn from slavery

Last year's anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 provoked a good deal of soul-searching. Now the subject has been made a compulsory part of the secondary school curriculum.

BBC London's Special Correspondent Kurt Barling asks will it change the way we think about ourselves?

Amidst the modern splendour of Canary Wharf there are a few relics reminding passers-by of the source of much of Britain's wealth. One of my favourites is at the entrance to the refurbished West India Quay which now houses the Museum of London in Docklands. 

A huge inauguration plaque was erected in 1802 to commemorate the fact that three hundred and fifty three investors had come together to fund the building of the state of the art trade docks. West Indian planters and merchants used them to transport and distribute their precious cargoes securely. Tobacco, sugar and rum became and have remained a key part of British commerce to this day.

In 1802 those city investors were also still funding and profiting from the dispatch of slave ships to Africa. Once what remained of their human cargo was sold in the West Indies or North America the product of slave labour was returned to be safely stored a few miles from where the whole enterprise began.

The City of London investors behind West India Quay used the financial experts of the day to asses the risk to their investment and sought to offset that risk by buying insurance in the emerging shipping insurance market. To this day London remains an internationally renowned centre for insurance of all types.

Britain's dominance

Of course, other cities like Liverpool and Manchester were also involved in the expanding commerce from the New World. Cotton imports in particular led to the building of large mills and the recruitment of factory workers. The industrialists of the North along with investors from the City ploughed their profits into improving outputs through mechanisation. This was the start of the industrial revolution.

We all know that this was the start of Britain's global dominance of commerce and its emergence as a leading imperial nation. The conditions it created at home for ordinary people are well documented. Just think dark satanic mills or Dickensian London.

Eventually this was to lead to extreme social deprivation in the fast expanding cities and a political struggle that went on for several generations ending in the emergence of democratic politics as we know it. In other words, the study of slavery does not mean ignoring the hardships endured by white people impoverished in Britain.

Kurt Barling

BBC London's Kurt Barling

I shan't apologise for so dramatically abbreviating the course of modern British history. The point is to demonstrate the linkages between how we evolved as a city and society and how this would have been impossible without the slave trade and the slaves who helped keep the whole enterprise going for several hundred years.

Even in 1802 though there was deep ambiguity about the source of this accumulated wealth. It has been argued that the institution of slavery itself made liberty a highly prized and well-defined political objective.

The Wedderburns

Consider the story of those who backed West India Quay.  The ledger of stockholders for this development shows large investments from the brothers Robert and James Wedderburn.

They had a close relative, Robert Wedderburn who was the illegitimate son of a planter relative and one of his slaves. Robert came to London around the same time.  

Robert Wedderburn

Robert Wedderburn

Wedderburn got involved in revolutionary politics in London propagating a message that the ordinary working man and woman had much in common with the slaves of the West Indies. In both places he and his comrades argued too much labour was either "unfree" or exploited by the ruling classes. Slavery was the anti-thesis of a civilised society.

The government at the time was so worried about the London radicals that the Home Secretary had a network of spies reporting on the activities of men like Robert. Eventually he was tried and locked up in Dorchester prison for fomenting civil unrest.

Whilst in prison he was visited by the great abolitionist William Wilberforce and on his release became part of the movement that eventually saw slavery itself abolished.

The first mass political campaign

Again the cause of slavery was instrumental in guiding the moral compass of the day and shaping the political debate. The abolition movement was probably the first mass political campaign. The combination of political pressure, national publicity and public boycotts of the produce being stored in West India docks undermined a widely accepted pernicious trade.

The tea-houses of London, for example, found many ordinary people unwilling to use sugar that originated in the West Indies and slogans like "am I not a man and a brother" became rallying points for many right thinking British people.

All these stories are part of the complex narrative of how modern Britain evolved.   Perhaps just as importantly it provides a valuable insight into how the economic foundations of modern Britain were shaped.

It is no less important to look at the contribution of the working enslaved men and women of the Caribbean and North America, than it is to consider that of the destitute working men and women of the industrial revolution. Let's not forget that between 1607 and 1776 America belonged to and profited Britain.

Educational amnesia

Our collective educational amnesia about the important role slavery played in shaping the social, economic and political fabric of our society has long been unsustainable.  Finally that is about to change and all our young people can hopefully learn that the history of British slavery has many lessons to teach us.  

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) agrees and says that all children aged 11 to 14 will now study the nature and effects of the slave trade, resistance to it and its abolition.

"We can take pride that it was eventually our own people who forced the pace of change"

Kurt Barling

We in Britain may have to look back in shame on how we achieved some of our greatness but surely we can also take pride that it was eventually our own people who forced the pace of change. Slavery is a subject that offers insight into what we should value as well as how catastrophic national mistakes can be rectified.

In a modern diverse nation it would seem we have finally decided to teach children how to recognise the contributions of many different people to the society we are. Rich and poor, white and black. 

This obligation to face an often disturbing past must be some kind of modern redemption.

last updated: 02/09/2008 at 12:30
created: 02/09/2008

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