In this splendidly controversial book, Michael Jordan studies the reality behind the legend of the British state's opposition to slavery. He investigates the parliamentary debates that took place on the subject of slavery between the first one on 9 May 1788 and the Emancipation Act of 1833.
He studies the origins of the trade, the growth of abolitionism, and parliament's prevarication and obstruction. He looks at the roles played by Pitt and Wilberforce.
The British Empire, so praised by our current rulers, was fundamentally a slave empire, held together by slave-trading between slave colonies. The British ruling class, not the nation, owned the slave ships, the slaves and the plantations. British workers did not control their own labour power, never mind own other people.
By 1807 the slave trade was becoming less profitable: it employed only one in 24 of Liverpool's trading ships and the West Indies sugar industry was dying. All the plantations were running at a loss; many had been abandoned. Two-thirds of the slaves carried in British ships were bought by Britain's imperial rivals France and Spain, to grow sugar which undercut West Indies-grown sugar on the vital Continental market. All these factors opened the way to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act; from 1 May 1807, no more slave ships sailed from Britain.
But the government let the British Army and the Royal Navy force slaves into unpaid military service and buy and sell slaves until 1812, breaking its own law. The office of Jamaica's Governor General wrote in August 1811, "I am commanded by the Commander of the Forces to direct that you will go on purchasing Negroes for the Kings Service after you have completed your own regiment. The men so purchased are only to receive rations and slop clothing, no pay is to be issued to them until they are further disposed of."
Further, in 1814, Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh agreed that Bourbon France could resume slave trading to restock her colonies and to resupply Britain's West Indies plantations. As Lord Grenville said, "We receive a partial contract at the Congress of Vienna by which the British Crown has sanctioned and guaranteed the slave trade."
Slavery lost its former importance to the metropolitan economy. The slave colonies took an ever smaller share of Britain's exports. From 1820 the slump in the West Indies grew worse and worse. In 1832, an official wrote that the West Indies system "is becoming so unprofitable when compared with the expense that for this reason only it must at no distant time be nearly abandoned."
The years 1830-32 also saw the Swing Rising in Britain, revolution in France, a major slave revolt in Jamaica and the parliamentary Reform Act. All led to the 1833 Slave Emancipation Act, which freed the 540,000 slaves in the British West Indies. Parliament gave the planters £20 million (a billion pounds in today's money) as compensation for the loss of their slaves. The workers paid the money in tax, though they pointed out that the Church should have paid, as it owned so many slaves itself and as its priests justified the slavery of both black and white, at home and abroad.
The Empire then imposed another form of servitude on the `freed' slaves of the West Indies - compulsory six-year `apprenticeships'. Later in the century, it used indentured labour, workers forcibly imported from India.
Slavery had been profitable in the 18th century; abolition was even more profitable in the 19th. The effort `to stop the foreign slave trade' was designed to damage rival empires and to protect the West Indies planters, now denied annual slave imports, from competition by sugar producers Cuba and Brazil, still reliant on buying slaves. The suppression of the slave trade on Africa's West and East coasts brought ever closer control of West and East Africa, at first by private companies like the British East Africa Company, later by the Empire itself. Abolition was a weapon to expand the empire.
Throughout the century, the Empire continued to steal people, land and resources from Africa, reinforcing slavery there and killing millions of African people. The Empire continued to contribute to and profit from the slave trade well into the twentieth century. As Marx wrote, we see in slavery "what the bourgeoisie makes of itself and of the labourer, wherever it can, without restraint, model the world after its own image."