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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 industrial workers.


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 trade.


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 plantations.


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 system.


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


Inside Out, BBC One West Midlands, Friday 2 March 2007, 7.30pm










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Category: West Midlands Regional TV
Date: 02.03.2007
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