“In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40 per cent of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
This now infamous but subsequently deleted tweet from the British Treasury official Twitter account rightly provoked the ire of the British public and people of the Caribbean and its Diaspora. Denouncing the revelation as duplicitous, dishonest, and immoral, Caribbean leaders for reparatory justice recalled the 2015 reproach made by then British Prime Minister David Cameron that Caribbean people “move on” and “get over” slavery. The British Treasury’s repayment of the slavery loan as late as 2015 makes slavery very much a contemporary concern. Continued racial discrimination and Caribbean impoverishment reveals the long shadow slavery cast.
Although the tweet insists that the treasury continued making payments as late as 2015 because of the enormity of the sum borrowed, the loan’s long life likely resulted from refinancing. Refinancing allows borrowers to take advantage of lower interest rates and generate capital. Much like homeowners refinancing a mortgage with a 4% interest rate could capitalize on a lower rate of 1.5% to reduce their monthly payments and make available household capital, even if it means extending the life of the loan, so it is with government debts. In 2014, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne made clear the present-day debt inheritance of Britons when he announced that the Treasury aimed to pay off some of its debts by 2015. The debts Osborne’s administration intended to settle dated back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and included monies borrowed to pay slaveowners compensation after emancipation.
The debate over the slavery loan is not just about government duplicity or how the British government mortgaged future generations; it is also a stinging parallel of how the debt of slavery passes down across generations in the Caribbean.
While many correctly argue that the Treasury’s statement grossly mischaracterizes the complex history of British abolition and the compensation Britain paid to enslavers (topics which historians continue to debate), we also know that Britain’s moral posturing is not new and fits within a longstanding historical tradition that has defined the British legislative end to the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1834) as “humanitarian endeavors.” The 2018 tweet echoes this tradition and leverages antislavery as “moral capital” to disavow Britain’s role in slavery.
Historian Christopher L. Brown applied John Kane’s concept moral capital to explain the long and complicated development of antislavery consciousness and political action against slavery. According to Brown, the American Revolutionary War gave British policymakers a shocking example of the antislavery argument’s potency. British American colonists’ charges of tyranny and political enslavement gave antislavery polemic tremendous traction as they transformed its rhetoric from conceptual abstraction to tangible political arguments. Revolutionaries successfully argued that their quest for freedom was in resistance to British enslavement and independence would be the vindication of the rights and liberties of English men. The American Revolutionary War resolved slavery as antithetical to what it meant to be British, and as the wounded mother country remade its identity in the aftermath of American independence an antislavery position and a (re)commitment to liberty were necessarily intertwined with what it meant to be British. As the British Empire redefined its identity at the end of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, Britain defined imperial expansion in humanitarian terms and justified territorial grabs overseas as an extension of its war against slavery.
Britain’s proclaimed commitment to freedom informed the earliest histories of slavery and abolition, or, more accurately framed, the mythical story of British abolition without slavery. Thomas Clarkson’s 1808 History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, for example, celebrated the activism of white humanitarian men, but neglected the work of women and Black activists. Although Clarkson drew upon the horrors of the slave trade in his campaigns, such tales of horrors and Britain’s role in perpetuating them vanished in his narrative of British triumph in ending the vile traffic in human beings. Historical emphasis on abolition campaigns obfuscates the role of British involvement in slavery and the slave trade, simultaneously creating a national narrative and cultural identity of Britain as progressive and benevolent. The British Treasury’s tweet builds on the fiction of British liberators also evident in public commemorations of abolition and abolitionists. Residents of Hull, the hometown of William Wilberforce, marked the centennial of his death in 1933 by laying wreaths and holding parades, church services, and memorial lectures. Like historians who have defined British abolition as economic suicide, Wilberforce and fellow campaigners are celebrated as self-sacrificing humanitarians; saints “who doggedly pursued the cause of abolition for over three decades even in the face of bitter recrimination and personal assault.”
The tweet further neglects key historical facts about compensation. The £20 million compensation paid by the British Treasury was less than half the total compensation paid to slaveowners. The total value of slaves in the British West Indies at the time of emancipation was approximately £47 million pounds. Given that the £20 million actually paid out to slaveholders accounted for 40% of the nation’s budget in 1834, payment of the full value of slaves would undoubtedly bankrupt the British Treasury. Enslaved people therefore had to work off the £27 million balance in uncompensated labor to their owners in a near-slavery system called apprenticeship for a period of four to six years after the legislative end of slavery.
Let’s be clear, the compensation package, loan repayment, and refinancing happened and continued to happen “despite the fact that the moral basis of the campaign against slavery was that it was wrong to hold property in people.” The issue is therefore not just about the deception of Britain’s political leaders. It is also about the duplicity of financiers who continued to claim interest on the slavery loan after decades of outrage about slavery’s immorality and the United Nations’s declaration of slavery as a crime against humanity.
The insistence on abolition as a reflection of British morality, benevolence, and commitment to freedom has not gone unchallenged. The wealth of scholarship, too numerous to list here, that has emerged since C.L.R James and Eric Williams challenged the humanitarian thesis of earlier historians have yielded robust debates about the complex interplay of gender, capitalism, industrialization, and imperial expansion that shaped abolition. In addition to a legacy of centering enslaved peoples’ roles in securing their own freedom and how British industrialization propelled abolition, Williams’s and James’s work insists on distinguishing between “emancipation as policy formulation” and “abolitionism as a social movement.” Personal convictions of slavery as immoral that impelled many British men and women to sign petitions and boycott goods produced by enslaved people is not the subject of the debate. We are, however, less certain that British policymakers were driven by the same evangelical zeal and moral conviction that drove the social movement against slavery. Moreover, it is a mistake to assume that the rejection of slavery on moral grounds extended to the denunciation of a British Empire that replicated the racist and exploitative relations of slavery.
New research shows that several prominent abolitionists were staunch supporters of empire and that many British policy makers had financial investments in slavery. My recent book, for example, shows that abolitionists like Wilberforce and James Ramsay made a convincing case for abolition not simply by illustrating the horrors of the slave trade but by arguing that the biological reproduction of slaves would better serve Britain’s larger imperial goals. Recycling the proslavery argument of Africans’ supposed inferiority, Ramsay and Wilberforce insisted that enslaved people born in the colonies were more civilized than their African-born counterparts. Instead of importing adult workers, often deemed intractable and rebellious, planters should reform slavery to make it favorable to childbearing women. Along with missionaries, slaveholders should also train enslaved children to become subject-citizens who could undertake various responsibilities, not just brute labor, in the colonies.
Using Nicholas Draper’s concept “swing to the east” to illuminate the extraction of wealth and expertise from the West Indies to the newly developing plantations of Asia between the 1790s and 1830s, the work of historian Kris Manjapra also raises critical questions about how slaveholding members of parliament like Sir John Gladstone shaped emancipation policies—including the need for compensation for lost slave property – that were favorable to British slaving and commercial interests. Gladstone was a Liverpool merchant with active trade to Calcutta. He also owned seven plantations in Demerara (part of present-day Guyana), the slave colony that staged a rebellion in 1823 and raised the alarm in Parliament that “emancipation from below” loomed. Gladstone, like many other West Indian slaveholders, reinvested their compensation money in Britain’s burgeoning Asia trade and plantations. In an age where moral abolition and “revolutionary instability” made the future of slavery uncertain, compensation permitted the liquidation and the laundering of slave capital.
It is unlikely that the revival of moral abolition merely coincides with the groundswell of the reparations movement. The continued focus on British virtue embodied in the Treasury’s tweet distracts from the complex entanglement of abolition with economic and imperial interests.