Birmingham's slavery links uncovered by Inside Out
The city of Birmingham was more involved in the slave trade than widely
believed according to compelling evidence recently uncovered.
Unearthed documents show details of the business links between the city's manufacturing
sector and slave traders, along with a pro-slavery petition signed by
The findings, which will be unveiled tonight on BBC One's Inside Out programme
for the West Midlands, challenge the assumption that it was primarily ports
like Bristol, Liverpool and London which played a significant role in slavery.
It appears Birmingham's industrial sector also made huge profits from the slave
Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University says: "Birmingham was the main
supplier of iron and ironware to Africa... padlocks, irons, chains and muzzles -
all the instruments to police the slave trade. Of course that made an enormous
amount of money."
From the 1760s onwards, there was also a large trade in weapons, with 150,000
guns made in Birmingham and believed to have been sold to West African rulers.
Guns were exchanged for enslaved Africans and it was a common saying
that the price of a slave was one Birmingham gun.
"Birmingham armed the slave
trade," adds Professor Dabydeen.
This year, on 25 March, marks the 200th anniversary of the day Parliament
voted to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire and events are
being planned throughout the year to mark the occasion.
It now appears though
that even some of the key figures instrumental in bringing about the end of
slavery may have had blood on their own hands.
The Lunar Society, which met regularly in Birmingham, is known for its role in
the abolitionist movement.
Among the group of influential industrialists and
thinkers were prominent abolitionists including Thomas Day and Josiah Wedgwood.
But the stance of other members of the group is less clear-cut.
Some of the
capital that financed industrialists Matthew Boulton and James Watt in their
development of the steam engine originated from trade with the West Indian
More than a hundred steam engines were ordered from Boulton and Watt, destined for
the Caribbean between 1778 and 1807.
Rita McLean, Chief Curator at Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries, says: "It is
true (Boulton and Watt) supplied steam engines to the sugar plantations in the
West Indies, but from the records you also see that by supplying steam engines
they thought they reduced the need for slave labour. So it's not as straight
forward as it first looks."
Another name mentioned is Samuel Galton, a gun manufacturer supplying guns for
the slave trade.
He remained a member of The Lunar Society despite being thrown
out of the Quakers over his support of slavery.
Birmingham's Connecting Histories Project has unearthed a pro-slavery petition
which was delivered to the Houses of Parliament in 1789.
Dr Andy Green, from Connecting Histories, says: "It is formed by lots of people involved in different
kinds of heavy industrial works in Birmingham who basically feel like their
livelihoods, their trades, are going to be lost."
He adds: "Birmingham has been very slow in coming to terms with the legacy of
its industrial involvements. We haven't got to terms with the full story of
what was taking place."
Soweto Kinch, Birmingham's MOBO-award winning musician, grew up in
Handsworth and presents tonight's Inside Out.
He presumed, like many others, that
Birmingham had little to do with slavery.
Yet, during the course of making this programme, he has seen plenty of evidence
to change his mind: "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
"I was also shocked to find out that my city, Birmingham, was so
Inside Out, BBC One West Midlands, Friday 2 March 2007, 7.30pm