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June 27, 2006

Apologising for the Past? Jeremy Black explores the Eighteenth Century Atlantic Slave Trade

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - explores the Atlantic Slave Trade at its height in the Eighteenth Century and considers the question of apologising for the past.

Liverpool made a public apology in 1994 for its role, and Bristol is now under pressure to do the same. Readers will have very different views of the value of such an exercise, and indeed of the living in the past and politics of grief that such demands can sometimes betoken. The purpose of this piece is, instead, to offer an account of the trade at its height when Bristol, Liverpool and Britain played a key role.

Slavery is one of the most emotive issues in history. To point out that it has been a constant for much of human history and that it has been practised by many societies, is not intended to minimize the suffering and impact of the Atlantic slave trade, which had fundamental effects on Africa, the New World and European imperialism. These effects reach to the present day, nowhere more than in the continued relevance of slavery for modern debates over racism and its impact.

Historically, in fact there was no necessary relationship between slavery and racism. Indeed, enslavement was frequently a penalty for illegal behaviour. There were white slaves in the period of the Atlantic slave trade, most obviously those who manned the oars of the large numbers of galleys that contested the Turkish advance in the Mediterranean.

Yet, despite this, there was a deeper identity of racialism and slavery, for enslavement was frequently the response to the "other": to other peoples (irrespective of their skin colour), and other creatures. Thus, treating conquered peoples and their offspring as slaves seemed as logical to many as treating animals such as horses as slaves. The latter, beasts of burden, were also the creation of God, and therefore part of the divine plan, but the fact that they could be readily subordinated and trained for service to humans apparently demonstrated a natural and necessary fate.

Slavery is like war. In one light, enforced servitude, like large-scale, violent conflict, is easy to define, but, just as discussion of war frequently overlaps with other aspects of conflict and violence, so the same is true with slavery, with force and servitude being open to varying definitions. It is not necessary to draw attention to the modern term "wage slave", in order to note that many who are not formally seen as slaves have had little or no choice about work and its character and context, not least in terms of subservience and remuneration.
In the nineteenth century, comparisons were drawn between the black slaves in the American South and the workers in many New England company towns.

In advancing a typology of slavery, it is possible to differentiate between societies with slaves, in which slavery was largely a domestic institution, and slave societies, in which slavery was the mode of production on which the dominant group depended for its position, and also to focus on two types of the latter: slavery at the disposal of the state, and slavery within a private enterprise system.

The former tends to receive the least attention, but state slaves of various types were important in most pre-modern states. In some cases, indeed, they were key elements in the governmental system, most obviously with the janissary units in the Ottoman (Turkish) army, who played a crucial role in the army and the politics of the state until the 1820s. Certain modern governments, such as North Korea, can be seen to claim so much authority and to wield so much power that their entire population can be regarded as slaves.

European political rhetoric in the early-modern period also employed the juxtaposition of liberty and slavery, typecasting the subjects of political systems judged unacceptable as slaves. This was used for example by the British against the French, and was also to be employed by the American Patriots at the time of the American Revolution.

However, although there were slaves in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, and, in the shape of galley slaves, they continued to exist throughout the early-modern period, a characteristic of Western slavery was that it was predominantly part of the commercial economy and generally practised in colonies outside Europe. Slavery in the Western world was a system of servitude driven essentially by free enterprise, and this provides the crucial context for the slave trade: it was a response to economic need, and a product of the search for economic opportunity.

Western slavery represented an aspect of the commodification of human beings for reasons of labour that is central to economic activity. However, focusing modern concerns, it also reflected particular socio-cultural assumptions and practices in which nationhood, ethnicity and religion all played important, although varying roles. These assumptions became operative in particular contexts, and the key context for the modern world was to be European trans-oceanic expansion. This, however, was not to be the automatic motor of the development of European-controlled slavery, and, therefore, of a slave trade to sustain it. European expansion also involved the establishment of bases and colonies in a number of areas, from Newfoundland to Java, in which slavery did not become the pattern, although enforced labour that can be seen as akin to slavery could still be important, as with the Dutch plantation economy on Java from the seventeenth century.

European slavery was focused on the Atlantic world; and not the Indian Ocean, the other key area of European expansion from the cusp of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The situation was different in the Atlantic world. There, labour was needed and labour was available but not at the same place. The need for labour sprang from the inherent demographic difference between the Americas and South Asia, from the specific labour tasks that the colonists required. Thus, the history of the Atlantic slave trade is also that of Atlantic power systems and economies.

In his novel L'An 2440 (1770), the radical French writer Louis Sébastien Mercier described a monument in Paris depicting a black man, his arms extended, rather than in chains, and a proud look in his eye, surrounded by the pieces of twenty broken sceptres and atop a pedestal with the inscription, "Au vergeur du nouveau monde". To his readers, this would have seemed a utopian prospect and a proof of Mercier's radicalism. Books, however, certainly brought home at least part of the nature of slavery to European readers. In his novel Candide (1759), the Enlightenment French writer Voltaire had his protagonist visit Surinam (on the Atlantic coast of South America), which had been colonized by the Dutch as a plantation economy. A Negro told Candide:

Those of us who work in the factories and happen to catch a finger in the grindstone have a hand chopped off; if we try to escape, they cut off one leg. Both accidents happened to me. That's the price of your eating sugar in Europe … Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are much less miserable than we are. The Dutch … who converted me, tell me every Sunday, that we are all children of Adam...
The last is a reference to Christian hypocrisy. This point was to be echoed in 2003 when, on a visit to Africa, President George W. Bush travelled to the major slave-trading post at Gorée, which had been used by the Dutch, France and Britain, a choice of destination designed to send a message about his concern for African-Americans. Bush declared that:
Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith … Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Saviour and found him as more like themselves than their masters.
The eighteenth-century was the peak period of the slave trade, with about 52 per cent of those shipped from Africa to the Americas in the period 1450-1900 moved in this period alone. As before, this involved selling slaves to the colonies of other powers, and also to one's own colonies. Both France and Britain sought to profit from demand in Latin America, and the wealth of its economies, contributing greatly to the illicit slave flows that challenge the quantification of the slave trade on which so much excellent work has been done. In order, however, to avoid the potential disruption to trade posed by the Spanish regulatory regime, it was far more desirable to gain permission to trade.

In 1701, as a sign of closer Franco-Spanish relations following the accession of the Bourbon Philip V to the Spanish throne the previous year, the French Guinea Company was granted the Asiento contract to transport slaves to Spanish America for ten years, a lucrative opening into the protected trade of the Spanish empire. In turn, the victorious British gained the right to trade with Spanish America in 1713 at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), a conflict in which they had defeated the French.

Powers that lacked important colonies were dependent on selling to others. The Dutch had bases on the Gold Coast of West Africa, but, in the Americas, lacked a market comparable to Portuguese Brazil, French Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), or British Jamaica. Instead, they sold to all they could reach through entrepots in Curaçao and Saint Eustatius, and carried about 350,000 slaves during the century.

In a weaker position, the Brandenburg (Prussian) and Danish companies were unable to make money this way. In 1717, the two forts that the Brandenburg Company had on the Gold Coast, Fort Dorothea and Fort Friedrichsburg, were sold to the Dutch. In succession, three Danish West Indian companies failed to make the necessary profits; the Danes owned several small islands in the West Indies, St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas (sold in 1917 to the USA), but lacked a large market. They carried about 74,000 slaves during the century.

More generally, the slave trade was not a constant. Flows varied, as the sources and destinations of slaves changed. The majority of Africans transported across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century went to the West Indies and Brazil; and fewer than a fifth to Spanish and North America. The biggest shippers, in order, were Britain, Portugal, France and the Dutch.

Anglophone scholarship concentrates on Britain, but France was a key supplier to the West Indies. During the century, the French colonies obtained 1,015,000 slaves from French sources, and, in 1788, the French West Indies contained 594,000 slaves, many harshly treated. In 1687, Saint-Domingue, the largest French colony in the West Indies (modern Haiti), contained 4,500 white and 3,500 blacks; in 1789, 28,000 whites, 30,000 free blacks and 406,000 slaves. The 1780s was the peak decade for the receipt of slaves by the French West Indian colonies: nearly 30,000 annually. The numbers sent to Saint-Domingue rose from 14,000 annually in 1766-71 to 28,000 annually in 1785-9.

The major French source of slaves was the basin of the River Senegal, via the slaving ports of Gorée and St. Louis. Assinie on the Ivory Coast was only held by the French from 1687 to 1705, while Forcados on the Benin Coast was only held from 1786 to 1792. Large numbers of slaves were also sent to the French West Indian islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. The French, having established their first base in Louisiana in 1699, imported the first slaves to the colony in 1719, although it never became a major slave society.

As a result of the efforts of the slaves, exports from the Americas boomed, helping to lead to a major rise in European consumption: of coffee in Europe across the century from 2 million to 120 million pounds, of chocolate from 2 million to 13 million pounds, and of tobacco, especially from Virginia, from 50 million to 125 million pounds; in each case a rise far above that of the European population.

Furthermore, between 1663 and 1775, the consumption of muscovado sugar in England and Wales increased twenty-fold, while British rum consumption rose from the 207 gallons imported in 1698 to an annual average of two million gallons in 1771-5. In 1702, visiting the port of Falmouth, John Evelyn had

a small bowl of punch made with Brazil sugar.
The French West Indian islands were particularly important for the production of sugar. Bordeaux's imports of sugar, indigo and cocoa from the French West Indies tripled in 1717-20, the beginning of a massive increase in re-exports to northern Europe. In 1778, Saint-Domingue exported 1,634,032 quintaux of sugar (100 kilograms to a quintal).

Coffee was another major product and, thanks to slavery, the Europeans took over the bulk of world trade in coffee. Whereas, in 1660, Marseilles, France's leading Mediterranean port, imported only 19,000 quintaux of coffee, which was of Yemeni origin via Egypt, in 1785 it imported 143,310, of which 142,500 came from the West Indies. Introduced to Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1725, and to Saint-Domingue in 1730, French West Indian coffee was more popular than that produced by the Dutch in the East Indies, and it swiftly became the principal global source.

From 1722, the French also produced coffee in Cayenne (French Guiana). In 1770, 350,000 quintaux of coffee were produced by the French in the Americas, and in 1790 over 950,000. Most went to France and much was then re-exported; from Marseilles principally to the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, reversing the earlier trade flow. By 1789, Staint-Domingue also was probably supplying more than half the Western world's coffee. The Dutch began coffee production in Surinam in 1712, and by 1772 were producing over twelve million pounds per annum there.

France's production of colonial goods and slave trade were affected by war with Britain and eventually, in the 1790s, by a major, and eventually successful, slave rebellion on Saint-Domingue. The British captured Guadeloupe in 1759, and Grenada, Martinique, St. Lucia and St. Vincent in 1762. The French slave stations in West Africa, St. Louis and Gorée were taken in 1758. Under the peace settlement, the Peace of Paris, of 1763, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Gorée and St. Lucia were returned. In the War of American Independence, Gorée changed hands in 1779. In the war, the French also took Dominica (1778), Grenada (1779), St. Vincent (1779), Tobago (1781), Nevis (1782), St. Christopher (1782) and Montserrat (1782), although the British captured St. Lucia (1778). The British slave trade was hit by the war, alongside the profitability of the sugar plantations. In the eventual peace settlement, the Treaty of Versailles of 1783, France gained Tobago and Senegal.

In the French Revolutionary War, which broke out in 1793, the slave trade and the plantation economies of the West Indies were disrupted anew. The British captured Gorée in 1800, and, in the West Indies, Tobago in 1793 and St. Lucia in 1796.

In contrast to the assaults the French Atlantic world suffered from the British, the Portuguese slave trade in the South Atlantic did not face a challenge comparable to that mounted by the Dutch the previous century in both Angola and Brazil. Angola, where the major bases were Luanda and Beneguela, supplied about 2 million slaves during the century, mostly to Brazil, and the Portuguese had more bases further north, especially in Portuguese Guinea at Cacheu, and also traded along coasts where they did not have any bases. Of the Atlantic coast, the Portuguese had the islands of Annobon, Fernando Póo, Principe and Sao Tomé, although Fernando Póo and Annobon were gained by Spain in 1776: otherwise Spain had no presence in the African slave world.

Growing demand in Brazil reflected its economic expansion, but also economic change. The sugar plantations of the northeast declined in importance from the 1710s, as sugar production from the West Indies became more important in supplying European markets. Furthermore, gold and diamond extraction from the Brazilian province of Minas Gerias grew substantially in significance, producing, at once, a key demand for slaves in a different area and a major new stimulus for the slave trade that, at the same time, helped to fund it. From the late century, in another important geographical shift, sugar and coffee plantations near Rio de Janeiro became prominent.

There was considerable differentiation in the slave trade. The Portuguese bases in Angola supplied Minas Gerias and Rio de Janeiro with slaves, while West Africa supplied the sugar plantations of the northeast, an aspect of the wider specialization of the Atlantic slave trade. The partnership between Europeans and elite Africans was crucial to this trade, with Luso [Portuguese]-African families, who spanned the Portuguese world of the Angola coast and the African world of the interior, also having links into the plantation-owning families of northeast Brazil. Plantation goods exported from Brazil included sugar, tobacco, coffee and, from the 1760s, cotton. By 1800, there were over one million slaves in Brazil.

Export growth from Spanish America was also linked to the intensification of slavery. This was true of the export of sugar and tobacco from Cuba, cacao and sugar from Mexico, and cacao, tobacco, cotton, coffee, sugar and indigo from Venezuela, where, by 1800, about 15% of the 800,000-strong population were slaves working in the plantations. The economic importance of slave production in South America is generally underrated due to a focus on the West Indies and on what became the USA, because the Anglophone literature focuses on both.

Brazil was a market for British slave-traders, while there were British and French sales to Spanish America, both legal and illegal. But for British - as for French - merchants, the core trade was that of selling slaves to their own colonies.

The British were the most prominent in the slave trade. Between 1691 and 1779, British ships transported 2,141,900 slaves from African ports, and British colonial ships took another 124,000. London dominated the trade until the 1710s, when it was replaced by Bristol, while the developing port of Liverpool took the leading position from the 1740s. The regulatory framework that had maintained London's control had been dismantled in 1698, when the African trade was freed from the control of the Royal Africa Company. This legalized the position of interlopers.

In 1725, Bristol ships carried about 17,000 slaves and, between 1727 and 1769, 39 slavers were built there, while, by 1752, Liverpool had 88 slavers with a combined capacity of over 25,000 slaves. In 1750-79, there were about 1,909 slave trade sailings from Liverpool, 869 from London, and 624 from Bristol. Liverpool had better port facilities than Bristol, not least the sole wet dock outside London, followed by a major expansion of dock facilities, with the opening of the Salthouse Dock (1753), St. George's Dock (1771), and Duke's Dock (1773).

Most slaves were transported by the British to the West Indies, but many also went to British North America. The number of slaves there rose from about 20,000 in 1700 to over 300,000 by 1763, particularly as, first, South Carolina and, then, Georgia were developed as plantation economies, supplementing those on the Chesapeake. In South Carolina and Georgia, rice became an additional plantation crop.

The slave trade was integral to the commercial economy and shipping world of the British Atlantic, crucial to entrepreneurial circles in Britain, and to the financial world there, and had a range of influences elsewhere in Britain, particularly, but not only, in the ports. Not only were the large ports of Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London involved in the trade, but also smaller ports, such as Barnstaple, Bideford, Dartmouth, Exeter, Lancaster, Plymouth, Poole, Topsham and Whitehaven. The role of the smaller ports helped spread the impact of the slave trade on the British economy.

Returns from slave-trading ventures were risky, but also sufficiently attractive to keep some existing investors in the trade and to entice new investors to join up; and the returns could enable men of marginal status to prosper sufficiently to enter the merchant class.

Furthermore, the triangular pattern of Atlantic trade – goods, both British manufactures and imports, such as East India Company textiles, from Britain to Africa; slaves thence to the New World; and colonial products, such as sugar and tobacco, back to Britain – was practicable for small-scale operators, as the outlay of funds required was less than for the trade to the more distant East Indies. The triangular trade also offered considerable flexibility, so that, for example, when sugar became harder to obtain from the West Indies, Lancaster's traders found other imports in which to invest their proceeds from slave sales, particularly mahogany, rum and dyewoods, each of which was in demand in Britain. This enabled them to maximize their profits on each leg of their enterprise, which was particularly important for marginal operators trading in a competitive field, while, when competition did eventually make the slave trade less viable at Lancaster, the contracts and experiences forged by the African trade meant that other opportunities were on offer to merchants.

The triangular trade was not the sole commercial system that was developed to help finance and exploit slavery. Supplying food and other products to the slave plantations was also important, and, for the British, this included the development of a trade in salt cod from Newfoundland, both to the West Indies and to Charleston, the port for South Carolina. Food was shipped from the Thirteen Colonies to the British West Indies. The colonial contribution included slaving from Rhode Island. There were similar developments in other colonial systems.

The slave trade, nevertheless, involved serious commercial risks, created for example by a lack of sufficient slaves or, alternatively, by the glutting of markets. The trade was expensive to enter, while, on the whole, it did not bring great, or even any, profits, which may explain why the majority of British ships involved made only one voyage in the trade, and, indeed, for Britain, as for other countries, the individual merchant and voyage is a key context for consideration.

Bristol merchants in the early 1730s were hit by shortages of slaves, falling profits on colonial re-exports, as prices dropped, and deteriorating relations with Spain. Whitehaven merchants largely abandoned the trade after 1769. More generally, concern about the profitability of the trade was a major factor in the pronounced variation in the number of voyages per year from individual ports.

Similarly, in France, La Rochelle's colonial trade was affected by the wild fluctuations in slave-trade profits, as well as by wars and attendant colonial losses. As a result, merchant families limited their business endeavours neither to maritime trade, nor to any one branch of it. Risk and solvency were also serious problems in the slave trade from Angola to Brazil.

Profitability was also hit by the human cost of slavery, in the shape of the frequently (although not invariably) high death-rate on the Atlantic crossing. If, with time, the percentage who died fell appreciably, this was owing to shorter journey times, rather than improved conditions. Slaver captains were less interested in slaves' survival than slave owners. There was little interest in costly medical care. Many of the officers and crew involved in the trade also died, in part as a consequence of their exposure to tropical disease.

Warfare in Africa continued to provide large numbers of slaves. The intensive nature of warfare in much of the Atlantic hinterland, for example the long civil war in Kongo, and the westward advance of the Lunda empire, fed the slave trade, as did droughts and famines. In the forest zone of West Africa, musketeers had largely replaced archers on the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century, and did so on the Slave Coast in the eighteenth. Asante in the former and Dahomey in the latter were expansionist powers whose conflicts produced slaves.

The Europeans remained confined to coastal enclaves, and not always in a satisfactory fashion. In 1729 and 1743, the Dahomians succeeded in capturing the Portuguese fort at Whydah, where Brazilian tobacco was exchanged for slaves. A sense of precariousness was conveyed by Captain William Cornwallis in a report to the British Admiralty about a voyage to the River Gambia in February 1775:

I thought the appearance of a man of war might be of service. I therefore went up the river in the Pallas to James's Fort, which I found in great distress for want of stores, and particularly gun-carriages, not having above three or four serviceable ones in the Fort, and most of their guns rendered totally useless for want of them … I stayed in the River eight days, during which time we got the king of the country on board, and showed him all the civility we could; he seemed very well pleased, so I hope all will go on well again.
The trade was only possible thanks to the active co-operation of African rulers, but the latter served the needs of a European-dominated Atlantic economy. The Atlantic economy pressed on the local, and the local served the global, and vice-versa, with Anglo-African and Franco-African slave traders matching, and indeed in West Africa, supplanting their Luso-African equivalents. In the Senegal River valley, patterns of trade between the desert and the savannah were annexed to the Atlantic world, as the export of slaves and gum arabic (a product used in textile manufacture that was the other major European-controlled export from this region) reconfigured local economies and interregional trade. The cloth and metallurgical industries in West Africa were hit by European imports.

The European position was far more powerful as far as the slaves in the Americas were concerned, although there were both slave risings and the problems created by escaping slaves. In 1739, in the Stono rising in South Carolina, 100 slaves rose and killed 20 colonists, before being defeated by the militia and their Native (Indian) allies. There were slave risings on Jamaica in 1742, 1760, 1765 and 1776, Montserrat in 1768, and Tobago in the early 1770s, and this is not an exhaustive list.

Circumstances, however, did not favour slave risings, as the whites limited the availability of firearms to slaves and made efforts to prevent them plotting. Indeed, they were unable to co-ordinate action, except in very small areas. In Pensacola in West Florida, which was under British rule from 1763 until regained by Spain in 1781, no slave was allowed out without his owner's written permission, and meetings of more than six slaves were forbidden after 9pm. Those plotting what was to be known as Gabriel's conspiracy in Richmond in 1800 had first to consider how to acquire guns, horses and swords. In the event, the plan was betrayed by other blacks before the rising could take place.

Flight was a more common form of resistance. It led, in Jamaica, to unsuccessful expeditions by British forces against the Maroons – runaway slaves who controlled much of the mountainous interior; the failure of which were followed in 1738 and 1739 by treaties that granted them land and autonomy. In Brazil, there were organized communities of fugitive slaves. The Briton, a London newspaper, in its issue of 11th December 1762, argued that gaining St. Augustine in Florida from Spain would prevent "the desertion of our Negro slaves" from Georgia. Further north, slaves fled to the Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Slaves who did not flee could also engage in social protest and labour bargaining, matching points made about the degree of peasant autonomy in Europe.

The circumstances of slave life varied greatly, with important consequences for the slave trade. As far as British America was concerned, owing to the varied demands of tobacco and rice cultivation, and to related economic and social characteristics, slaves in the Chesapeake were more affected by white life, living in close proximity to owners in relatively small farms, whereas, in the rice lands of South Carolina, there were fewer, but larger, plantations, the percentage of slaves was greater, and the higher death rate ensured that there were more imported African slaves compared with the American-born slaves who were more important in the Chesapeake.

As a consequence, in South Carolina, slaves were more autonomous and more influenced by African culture and material life, and relations between slaves and whites remained more antipathetical than where they lived in closer proximity, although it is not easy to assess slave attitudes. The slave situation in Jamaica, where slaves were also treated harshly, was more similar to South Carolina than the Chesapeake; among both slaves and whites in Jamaica, the majority were immigrants.

The treatment of slaves was related to the racism of the period. Racist attitudes were far from restricted only to the unlearned. Religious and biological explanations of apparent differences between races, whose genesis was traced back to the sons of Adam, with blacks as the children of the cursed Ham, were important.

Influential writers argued in favour of polygenism – the different creation of types of humans. This led to suggestions that blacks were not only a different species, but also related to great apes, such as orangutans. This was related to the argument that, although blacks were inherently inferior, they were particularly adapted to living in the tropics.

Physical attributes, particularly skin colour, attracted much attention. Montesquieu and Buffon explained colour as due to exposure to the tropical sun. Blacks' ability to cope better than whites with diseases in the tropics was held to exemplify an inherent difference that was linked to a closeness to animals that lived there. This was held to justify slavery.

Conversely, the argument that bile was responsible for the colour of human skin, advanced as a scientific fact by ancient writers, was repeated without experimental support by eminent eighteenth-century scientists, including Buffon, Feijoo, Holbach and La Mettrie. An Italian scientist, Bernardo Albinus, proved to his own satisfaction in 1737 that Negro bile was black, and in 1741 a French doctor, Pierre Barrère, published experiments demonstrating both this and that the bile alone caused the black pigment in Negro skin.

This inaccurate theory won widespread acclaim, in part thanks to an extensive review in the Journal des Savants in 1742, and played a major role in the prevalent mid-century belief that blacks were another species of man without the ordinary organs, tissues, heart and soul. In 1765, the chief doctor in the leading hospital in Rouen, Claude Nicolas Le Cat, demonstrated that Barrère's theory was wrong, but he was generally ignored and Barrère's arguments continued to be cited favourably. They accorded with a hierarchical classification of humanity that served the interests of the slave trade.

The combination of these views with economic interest helped ensure that the cause of freedom in the case of American liberty did not generally extend to the slaves. Dedicated to the most prominent French radical, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the third edition of Thomas Day's The Dying Negro criticized the American Patriots for supporting slavery, a theme he returned to in his Reflections on the Present State of England and the Independence of America (1782). The Hessian soldiers sent to fight the Americans felt that the American treatment of their slaves formed a hypocritical contrast with their claims of the equality of man.

Alongside the continuation of slavery, there was also much harsh treatment of other workers that led to comparisons with slavery. Travelling from Füssen in Bavaria to Innsbruck in Austria in 1787, Adam Walker wrote of the women he saw:

I sincerely pity them, they are such slaves as I have heard the Negroes in the West Indies described. No uncommon sight to see them threshing corn, driving wagons, hoeing turnips, mending the highways.
It would not have benefited the slaves to know that they were part of a more dynamic economic system in which consumerism, capital accumulation, and investment in industrialization were all linked. Not only Bristol was involved. For example, profits accumulated in Glasgow from sugar and tobacco trading helped fund the development of the chemical industry in west-central Scotland, and also increased the liquidity of Scottish banks.

Addressing the slave experience will be thrown to the fore as we approach the anniversary of the prohibition of the British slave trade. The issue invites careful treatment if we are to avoid stoking ahistorical animosity.

This piece draws on the introduction to Jeremy Black (ed.), The Atlantic Slave Trade III: Eighteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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