There are lots of black people ‘of African descent’ in the UK. Perhaps the Kreyol expression ‘nou bel e nou la!’ / ‘we are here and we are beautiful!’ reflects the centuries-long battle to have our presence merely acknowledged.
Despite 500 years of debate and denial of our presence in more and less creative ways, we’re still standing. If this is news to you, please check out the National Archives’ web exhibition. It’s rather appropriately titled ‘Black Presence’ and covers the period 1500-1850.
If it’s not news, then you may also know it would be remiss of me to pretend the UK’s not celebrating black history month this month, and that all sorts of weird and wonderful events and occasions are not happening as a result.
I LOVE black history month – or ‘season’ really considering things start kicking off towards the end of September and slow around mid-November. As October approaches, traditionally my girls and I would keep the social calendar clear, stock up on What’s On brochures and debate what looked ‘actually unmissable’, and what looked like a rehash of something already done. In London we were always spoilt for choice as councils, museums, theatres and arts venues seemingly competed for the most innovative and interesting ways to bring history that is black and yet British to life.
This is a not a digression.
Trust me when I say trying to find out about the contributions of black people and the events that shaped the present state of play outside October, can be as slow as the quest for the golden fleece. But in black history month, the elders come out to play and demand to be heard.
Not one to avoid contributing my two cents/pence, for black history season, movingblack will be a ‘short and frequent posts’ blog. This is the first of the 5 key events which I believe definitively shaped the lives of today’s Afro-Saxons, in chronological order.
1807 & 1833 : The Official Ending of Slavery within the British Empire
Unfortunately much of the earliest mainstream contacts between the ancestors of today’s black and white Brits were based on some ideas which are now decidedly less fashionable. Namely that kidnapping and transporting people against their will, in a formalised system of forced labour until death, was okay because it was legal and black people were not as human as white people.
Active Dissent Targets The Trade
Thankfully at the same time there were a number of people who quite strongly disagreed, some on both parts, all on the former. Sometimes known as abolitionists, sometimes known as people of conscience, sometimes known as enslaved folk, and some who like Oluadah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano had been a combination of all three within their respective lifetimes, they all urged the British government in no uncertain terms to criminalise this barbaric practice commonly known as the transatlantic slave trade.
In one of the earlier examples of successful single-issue campaigning coalitions, after only a few generations and thirty five years of intensified legal and parliamentary pressure following the Somerset case aka Somerset v. Stewart of 1772, MPs finally voted to pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act with a vote of 114 in favour to 15 against in 1807.
A Moral Victory?
The UK was of course, not shy in claiming moral superiority over the other slave-trading nations once it became the first country to criminalise trading in humans.* And after only 250 years of involvement so institutionalised everybody from the Queen, the Church and industrialisation itself were implicated in profiting from the sweat and blood of betwen 11 and 30 million captured Africans. But so it goes.
Upon abolition of the trade, it dawned upon loyal Brits that
profits people in parts of Africa where other slave-trading nations were carrying on business as usual would benefit financially not be compelled to stop trading in people just because England had decided it was Not Cool Anymore. The Brits then used both naval and diplomatic power to prevent the movement of ships carrying enslaved people, making the trade unworkable for other nations hoping to profit like they once had.
Did slavery end twice?
While the transatlantic trade was outlawed in 1807, trading in slaves continued unabated within the British-controlled Caribbean islands until 1811. Furthermore, you could still be born into slavery in a British colony for some 25 years after the Act was passed because slavery itself hadn’t been abolished: No one had said Africans were free to live as human beings coming and going as they pleased and earning wages from their labour like the rest of the working population doncha know.
‘Haiti Sneezes and the Whole Caribbean Catches a Cold’
For enslaved people living in British colonies in 1807, the beginning of the end was nigh, but it was Freedom Not Yet. And they were well behind their French-connected fellow enslaved Africans in Guadeloupe and Haiti who had long thrown off their chains: As autonomous and ultra-sovereign as Britain likes to think itself, after formerly enslaved people declared the independence of Haiti in 1804 everybody, including the British, had heard the arrival of a new era in the horn of the conches.
France, Britain’s bestest frenemy since 1066 at least had just lost its most profitable colony. The Haitians won every military battle the French launched to ‘retake’ the island following a successful rebellion of the enslaved led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The French fought and fought and in the end only an agreement to pay hard cash would pacify them. They finally accepted defeat in 1825 in exhange for a sum – billions in today’s money – which would strangle the Haitian economy for 122 years. I can’t wait to hear the Haitian case for reparations.
But back to the other side of the channel.
Agitating for Emancipation
Realising they’d won a major if incomplete victory, once the inital celebratory hangover had worn off, the British anti-slavery crowd got to work. Finally the courage was found to attack not just the immoral trade’s practices, but the very institution of slavery itself. British lawmakers were in less of a rush and fended the campaigners off for ten years.
But not forever.
In 1833, less than a hundred years before the birth of my granny, just under thirty years since Haiti had given the French the finger, and twenty six years after the first unequivocal anti-slavery legislation was given Royal Assent, the Slave Emancipation Act was finally passed.
Effective from 1834, it forcefully insisted that children under six should be freed immediately, but everybody else had 5 years to be trained for a job they’d been doing for free up until this point. Mandatory ‘Continued Professional Development’ they may have called it.
From Slavery to Colonialism: Black people in the British Empire
Most of today’s black Brits, whether the descendants of African or Caribbean migrants, can see their own family history reflected in the story of Britain’s bloody involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
The lucrative nature of the trade in mainly West Africans led to increased political as well as economic ‘investment’ in West Africa on the part of the ever-benevolent Brits, establishing many ‘protectorates’ until full blown colonies were established. Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy unforgettably describes the slow encroachment of the British, and their erosion of pre-colonial Nigerian society.
Most of the Africans forcibly transported to the Caribbean settled there after emancipation. Once they’d evacuated the slave quarters, a new system of ‘indentured labour’ brought many paid workers from India and China under 5 and 10 year employment contracts with terms and conditions – such as freedom of movement – which were astonishingly similar to those established with the enslaved Africans. Many Africans worked side by side with them, now for all sorts of money-like things, and even for actual cash from time to time for several generations before the advent of trade unions and independence.
Where are we now?
The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and enslavement is as deep and wide as the earth is spherical. A potent combination of institutionalised brutal savagery and sheer longevity ensured that. But thanks to those enslaved people who refused to accept that what was legal was right and their free counterparts, physical slavery ended.
Convincing the brutalised ie those formerly enslaved that they were equals to their former masters would be work for another generation, but 1807, 1833 and 1838-9 were landmark moments in the lives of black people within the British Empire, so I think it’s worth remembering them.
Our government has never apologised for its role in this shameful period of British history, nor declared the transatlantic slave trade a crime against humanity (unlike the French).
It did however mint a special memorial £2 coin to mark the bicentenary of the Act which abolished the trade in 2007, which while slightly lame, was a somewhat poignant official acknowledgement of the money Britain made out of black blood. And is better than the denial-of-all-knowledge-of-such-things Barclays Bank, are still claiming despite blatant evidence to the contrary.
Andrew Hawkins, a descendant of John Hawkins, the man with the dubious honour of being recognised as Britain’s first slave trader, took a different approach and joined a Lifeline Expedition to the Gambia in 2006, during which he apologised for his ancestor’s pioneering role in the terrible trade. The Guardian has quite an in-depth piece on white responses to apologising here.
In 2007, the Mayor of London also apologised for London’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Meanwhile the question of reparations for slavery has recently been reignited with a new vigour in the Caribbean. Perhaps Barclays is denying all knowledge in advance.
I have my ideas about the other 4 key moments in Black British History, but they’re highly subjective. What’s your ‘things were never the same after…’ moment in Black British History?
*The French had abolished slavery first in 1792 during the revolutionary era, extending its rights of man proclamations to Africans, but Napoleon later scrapped that. Upper Canada, a British colony had also banned slavery in 1793, but as a colony, was not a sovereign country.