Review: The Interest; How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery by Michael Taylor (2020) Assessment 8 out of 10

“The sufferance of evil has endured only in consequence of being removed out of site” Wilberforce

Emancipation can happen “if comparable with the safety of the colonies and with a fair and equitable consideration of the interests of private property” Canning

“To excite exaggerated expectations in those who are the objects of benevolence would be as fatal to their welfare as to that of their employers” Lord Eldon

Initial attempts to abolish the slave trade within the British Empire in 1791-3 failed with the French revolution and execution of Louis XVI. Napoleon’s intended re-introduction of slavery in the French Empire and Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar was followed by abolition in 1808. The crushing of French sea power meant French colonies would no longer be such a rival to British planters. 

By 1815 establishment of a slave register in British colonies was proposed intended to provide evidence of continuing slave trading. It was opposed in the colonies as an internal matter, which should have been left to island assemblies. It was interpreted by slaves in Barbados as preliminary to their liberation leading in 1816 to a slave revolt which was quickly and ruthlessly suppressed. The proposal for the register was dropped.

Owners argued Abolitionists had not visited the West Indies and knew little of slave conditions there. In reality their conditions remained deplorable

The Interest represented by the London Society of West Indian Planters and Merchants was led by Charles Rose Ellis There were outstations in Liverpool, which had once carried 40% of the European slave trade, Bristol and Glasgow. Their political protector George Canning had helped guarantee the independence of the former South American colonies of Spain and Portugal and proposed the Monroe Doctrine to the Americans to discourage European re-colonisation.

Its opponents were The Anti-Slavery Society, for which Thomas Clarkson established 150 local chapters. The conflict over abolition was played out in petitions and in periodicals, which could be persuasive in a period before political parties, only interests. The Edinburgh and Westminster Reviews supported abolition; funded by the West Indian lobby, Blackwood’s and Gentleman’s Magazines and the Quarterly Review and later the Spectator opposed it.

In 1823 the Interest participated in drafting and passing law for the amelioration of slave conditions “to conciliate public opinion”. These included provision for Christian instruction and prohibiting flogging of women and the separation of slave parents and children. Nonetheless such changes were not welcome by planters and following the American example, there was talk of secession mirroring earlier threats when abolition of the slave trade was proposed.

 Colonial slavery continued to flourish after abolition of the slave trade, facilitated by local slave marts. Jamaica and Barbados had their own Assemblies. Their opposition meant amelioration was attempted by order in council in the Crown Colony of Trinidad, until 1797 a Spanish possession, amelioration thus only  affected 30,000 out of 700,000 West Indian slaves.  

85% of Jamaican plantations produced sugar leading to overworking of the soil. Other plantations produced coffee and cotton. The depletion provided the opportunity for Demerara’s plantations. Ownership of Demerara and Berbice had fluctuated between Britain and the Netherlands between 1783 and 1814 when they became British Guyana The slave revolt there in 1823 was stimulated by hopes of emancipation encouraged by the abolitionists.

Methodists and Baptists seeking to convert slaves were unwelcome in the West Indies. Biblical literalists took the Bible’s acceptance of slavery as support for it. See in particular the Epistle to Philemon. In his first speech in the House Gladstone, whose father was a Liverpool slave owner, found Christianity was not antipathetic to slavery.

The West Indies benefitted from Tariff Protection relative to Indian sugar, consistent with England’s Corn Laws. Sugar and coffee etc from the Colonies generated purchase of English manufactures in the West Indies. The wealth earned by planters was reinvested in Britain, a closed functioning system.

Abolitionists argued consumers shouldn’t purchase slave produced sugar. There were hopes for sugar produced by free labour. The experience in Haiti and Sierra Leone didn’t suggest these would be successful. 

McAulay as the young editor of the anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter recorded the steady downward trend in slave numbers suggesting slavery was insupportable. Slave numbers declined from 775,000 in 1814 to 665,000 in 1831

The Royal Navy captured continuing slavers establishing freed slaves as indentured apprentices in the smaller West Indian Isles.  The Interest thought sugar plantations could only be maintained with forced labour. Former slaves would survive where they were with little effort. They would not do the very hard work required to produce sugar willingly.

Lord Liverpool Prime Minister since 1812 suffered a stroke in 1827. Within fourteen months he was succeeded by Canning, who died in office, Goderich, who failed to form a government and Wellington, leader of the High Tories. They did not speak out in favour of slavery, but that was the effect of their government, Wellington telling the Colonial Secretary he could not impose reform on Colonial Assemblies.

Under the rules of the day O’Connell could win an election in Clare, but then as a Catholic not take his seat. Wellington passed the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 but most of the 142 MPs voting against were conservative Tories who became the incorrigible enemies of Wellington and Peel

Prices for planters were falling. Slave grown sugar from Mauritius was admitted to UK markets. In Europe West Indies sugar was undercut by cheaper Brazilin & Cuban product.

In 1830 on accession of William IV, as was then usual, there was a general election. It was unclear who had won but the government lost a vote on the Civil List and Wellington stood down in favour of Lord Grey, the first Whig PM since 1783. When the first Reform Bill was savaged by the ultra-Tory Isaac Gascoyne, a Liverpool MP, who for 30 years had supported slavery. Grey went to the country.  Taylor suggests the Interest’s money meant they had been able to pack rotten boroughs with pro-slavery MPs. He therefore links opposition to reform and to abolition.

Reform was blocked in the Lords and Grey resigned. No government could be formed. Wellington urged peers to resist no further. The enemy of change Wellington again avoided conflict, as he had over Catholic Emancipation, by backing down.

In 1831 concerned with the threat of a Whig government a Colonial Congress took place at Barbados

There was a slave rebellion in NW Jamaica at Christmas 1831-2. Its defeat by the army and marines was followed by suppression by local militia and juries and terrorism in particular aimed at non- conformist missionaries, terrorism which Taylor sees as presaging the Ku Klux Klan.) The reaction to the slave revolt in Guyana in 1823 was to slow reform of colonial slavery, with a Whig government in place reaction to that in Jamaica in 1831-2 was to hasten abolition, persuaded slavery was the root cause of the violence.

In Jamaica after arresting vigilantes and protecting missionaries the Governor dismissed its Assembly.

In 1832-3 the first Reformed Election was an election focused on the abolition of slavery. Radicals more concerned with poverty and inequality at home with child labour, the workhouse and the lot of miners or Irish peasants were not at one with abolitionists, who they saw as sanctimonious puritans.

The result was a Whig majority for abolition. However fearing opposition from King William IV there was no proposal for abolition. In part the result of pressure from Abolitionists the Whig Colonial Secretary Edward Stanley, former Chief Secretary for Ireland and later Conservative Prime Minister, introduced an Abolition Bill. It was only assented to by William IV by persuading him abolition would fail.

Passed in 1832 it granted emancipation in 1833 on terms that kept slaves as unpaid “apprentices” for six years for field workers and four for domestic slaves. In practice apprenticeship resulted in the continuation of slavery and was ended after four years in all colonies

Compensation was paid to slave owners, the rate depended on slave profitability, being £20 per slave in Barbados and Jamaica, but £50 in the new colonies, Guyana and Trinidad, presumably reflecting exhaustion of the soil in the older colonies and the differential effects of abolition of the slave trade.  The total cost was £20m equivalent to 40% of UK government’s then budget. Abolitionists objected claiming paying compensation gave effective approval to the previous existence of slavery within the Empire.

Conclusion

This is an interesting story well told. It is focused on the period between British abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and its abolition of slavery in 1834 in practice 1838 with the end of apprenticeship. It concentrates in particular on the period 1823 to 1834. It ties in continuation of slavery or its proposed abolition to the situation in the colonies, to UK domestic politics and the balance of international power, an interesting parallel for Jersey readers with the current Brexit turmoil.

I would have rated the Interest 9 out of 10, but disagreed with Taylor’s suggestion in his Epilogue that Britain should recompense the West Indies for past slavery. I was also put off by his occasional political correctness, unnecessary as the reader can come to his or her own judgements. Taylor thus departs from Anderson’s high standards in “The Realness of the Past” of understanding the past on its own terms. 

Therefore whilst giving “The Realness of the Past” my highest assessment 9 out of 10 I rated “The Interest” 8 out of 10.

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