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The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery

by Michael Taylor

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In the early hours of Monday, August 18, 1823 a slave rebellion broke out in the British colonial county of Demerara, in what is now Guyana. Amid rumours that he and his fellow slaves were about to be set free, a carpenter and Methodist deacon called Quamina Gladstone roused thousands of people to take matters into their own hands.

The rebellion did not last long, though. Faced with ranks of British troops, the rebels offered a deal: they would surrender if they were granted three days’ holiday a week and the right to attend church on Sundays. In answer the troops shot them down where they stood. Hundreds were killed. Ten ringleaders were hanged and decapitated, their heads fixed on spikes. Quamina was shot out of hand before his body was hung from a gibbet. As his corpse rotted, a colony of wasps built a nest in his stomach.

So begins Michael Taylor's powerful history of the struggle to abolish slavery in the West Indies, based on his Cambridge doctorate. It is commonly thought, Taylor says, that Britain abolished slavery in 1807. In fact only the slave trade was abolished, not the institution itself, and abolition left some 700,000 people in bondage in the Caribbean.

In the following decades white British planters claimed their slaves were "a contented and happy people, uniformly treated with a mildness and humanity". This was not true. Slaves worked for as long as 19 hours a day in horrendous heat. Flogging was common and Taylor does not stint on the gruesome stories. One notorious planter, Thomas Thistlewood, invented a punishment called Derby’s Dose, in which a runaway slave was beaten before salt pickle, lime juice and pepper were rubbed into his wounds. Then, after another slave was forced to "shit in his mouth", he was gagged while his mouth was still full. After four hours the gag was removed.

Taylor began his project with a question: "How and why do intelligent people defend the indefensible?" But the answer is blindingly obvious. Slavery made a lot of people very rich. And then, as now, many people cared far more about their pockets than their principles. So even after the trade was abolished in 1807, there remained a strong and well-funded pro-slavery movement, with deep roots in Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. The "West India Interest" commanded the loyalty of dozens of MPs — among them a young William Gladstone, whose father owned plantations in Jamaica and Guiana — and ran a literary committee that spent the equivalent of almost £2 million a year promoting slavery.

In periodicals such as Blackwood's, the Quarterly Review and The Spectator, writers hammered abolitionists as pious hypocrites and defended slavery as divinely ordained common sense. According to this argument, African life was marked by cannibalism, violence and stagnation. But, thanks to slavery, wrote one planter, the African was "an improved, a more moral, a better instructed and a more rational animal in the West Indies".

For slavery's defenders, therefore, abolition would betray the slaves' own cause. In 1824 one of the Interest's chief allies, the Tory politician George Canning, delivered an extraordinary speech inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The typical African, he told the Commons, had "the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose ... would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance; the hero of which constructs a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of man”, but without any “perception of right and wrong".

Not everybody agreed. The Demerara revolt had been inspired by news of the foundation of an Anti-Slavery Society, rooted in the Nonconformist conscience, which organised petitions and speaking tours. Missionaries and preachers brought back terrible stories of life in Jamaica, "the land of sin, disease and death". And by the late 1820s the pro-slavery camp was losing ground.

The Tory prime minister Lord Liverpool was felled by a stroke in February 1827 and his successor, Canning, died after only 118 days. When the Tories fell apart over Catholic emancipation, in came a Whig government devoted to parliamentary reform. On Christmas Day 1831 a gigantic slave revolt broke out in Jamaica, costing hundreds of lives. When the Whigs won a landslide majority a year later slavery was doomed. On August 28, 1833 William IV gave his assent to the Slavery Abolition Act, and it was all over - or so it seemed.

As Taylor shows, though, that was not quite the end of the story. First, the slaves themselves were not entirely free. They were bound to their masters as “apprentices”, and only won true freedom five years later. And there was the issue of compensation. As part of the abolition package, the British government agreed to pay former owners some £20 million, then about 5 per cent of GDP. But because of the complicated instruments used to raise the money, the Treasury did not pay off the loans until 2015.

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