Speech and Slavery in the West Indies

Fires during the Haitian Revolution; engraving by Jean-Baptiste Chapuy, circa 1791
Fires during the Haitian Revolution; engraving by Jean-Baptiste Chapuy, circa 1791

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] In this excellent article, Fara Dabhoiwala (The New York Review of Books, August 20, 2020 issue) reviews slavery, speech, and revolt through the work of three scholars: Vincent Brown (Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2020), Miles Ogborn (The Freedom of Speech: Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World, University of Chicago Press, 2019), and Tom Zoellner (Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, Harvard University Press, 2020). Here are excerpts; please see the full article—a must read—at The New York Review of Books.

In June thousands of people, provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping America, took to the streets in the United Kingdom to demonstrate against racism in their own country. One target of their anger was statues honoring British men of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries who prospered by enslaving and oppressing others, among them one in Bristol of Edward Colston that was pulled down and thrown into the harbor. It’s hardly surprising that many such monuments exist, for the apathy of the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish toward their historical complicity in slavery has always been as striking as their indifference to its enduring legacy. Compared to the United States, and despite the work of many outstanding British (and non-British) historians,1 slavery remains a marginal subject in the public imagination, its reality and consequences mentally separated from the identity and experiences of the nation.

Across the British Isles there are also numerous public monuments to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807—permanent celebrations of national enlightenment and redemption (though in reality, British slave-owning continued for decades and was phased out only gradually after 1834). As far as I know, only a single recent sculpture, on the quayside of the former slaving port of Lancaster, simply honors the millions of victims. It’s as if every memorial in postwar Germany primarily commemorated the liberation of the death camps and the ousting of the Nazis, rather than the Holocaust itself.

Slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to global power. Throughout the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India but in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands. The two most important—tiny Barbados and its larger, distant neighbor Jamaica—were among the most profitable places on earth. On the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and the craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life—not least because of its association with that other newly fashionable drug, tea. Between 1700 and 1800, English consumption of sugar skyrocketed from about four pounds per person per year to almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as that of the French.

All this abundance, luxury, and social progress at home derived from the brutal exploitation of huge numbers of enslaved African men, women, and children across the Atlantic (thousands of whom were brought over to the British Isles as well): by the eighteenth century, Britons were the world’s preeminent slave traders. As its defenders liked to point out, slavery was not new. It had been taken for granted in biblical and classical times, and practiced by virtually every previous civilization. It was common in Africa itself. But there had never been anything like the plantation culture that the British helped pioneer in the Americas, where so many slaves were held in proportion to the population of free people.

And even within this new system of mass bondage, the West Indian sugar islands were exceptional. In Virginia, which had by far the most enslaved people of the thirteen mainland colonies, they made up perhaps 40 percent of all pre-revolutionary inhabitants: whites always remained in the majority. Only in South Carolina and French Louisiana, which were much more sparsely populated, did the balance ever tip slightly the other way. In eighteenth-century Jamaica, by contrast, enslaved men and women vastly outnumbered their captors. In some rural parts of the island the proportion was as high as fifteen to one; overall, more than 90 percent of the population was held in bondage.

As atrocious as the treatment of the enslaved was in North America, it was incomparably worse in the Caribbean. West Indian sugar estates were not just the largest agricultural businesses in the world but also the most destructive of human life. By the mid-eighteenth century, North American planters no longer needed to import many captive Africans, because their existing slave populations increased through a natural surplus of births over deaths. In the West Indies, by contrast, men and women were worked to death so ruthlessly that this transition to demographic self-sufficiency never took place. As most plantation slaves survived only for a few years, very large numbers of fresh imports were continually needed to maintain the workforce—let alone increase it, as the colonists steadily did. Of the roughly six and a half million Africans taken as slaves across the Atlantic by Europeans in the eighteenth century alone, around 350,000 were sent directly to the North American mainland. During the same period, more than two million were shipped to the British Caribbean. (A further million or so ended up on the nearby French islands, primarily Saint-Domingue—present-day Haiti—whose demography and economy ran on similar lines.)2

Slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to global power. Throughout the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India but in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands. The two most important—tiny Barbados and its larger, distant neighbor Jamaica—were among the most profitable places on earth. On the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and the craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life—not least because of its association with that other newly fashionable drug, tea. Between 1700 and 1800, English consumption of sugar skyrocketed from about four pounds per person per year to almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as that of the French. [. . .]

A century on, the independence of most Caribbean colonies in the 1960s was followed by decades of racist British immigration policies that not only sought to prevent black West Indians from coming to the UK but eventually, under the Conservative governments of the past decade, ended up deliberately destroying the lives of thousands of lifelong legal residents by treating them as “illegal migrants.”6 In the meantime, for almost two hundred years, British taxpayers funded the largest slavery-related reparations ever paid out. Under the provisions of the 1833 act, the government borrowed and then disbursed the staggering sum of £20 million (equal to 40 percent of its annual budget—the equivalent of £300 billion in today’s value). Not until 2015 was that debt finally paid off. This unprecedented compensation for injustice went not to those whose lives had been spent in slavery, nor even to those descended from the millions who had died in captivity. It was all given to British slaveowners, as restitution for the loss of their human property. Black lives, white rights.

For full article, see https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/08/20/speech-slavery-west-indies

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