Professor David Richardson
Emeritus Professor and Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute
As his new book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and Its Abolition is published, Professor David Richardson considers the power of ordinary people to effect social change.
In an essay published in 1946, the anti-imperialist George Orwell explained why he wrote. Orwell recognised egoism – the need ‘to be talked about’ or even ‘to be remembered after death’ – as a motivator of writing. He also claimed to have ‘a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts’, going on to point to historical impulse and political purpose as driving his literary endeavours. The impulse included a desire to uncover ‘true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’; the purpose, an ambition ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ (George Orwell, Animal Farm and Selected Essays (Wordsworth Classics, Ware, Hertfordshire, 2021), 203, 205-6).
Published a year after Animal Farm, his masterful attack on the wartime British ally Stalin who he saw as betraying the Russian Revolution, Orwell’s essay provided a philosophical rationale for other of his works, notably Nineteen Eighty-Four, published a year before his death in 1950 and which constituted a satire on the evils of totalitarianism and unrestrained power. But his 1946 essay is relevant to writings on other historical questions concerning the use and abuse of such power, including British imperialism, to which Orwell often alluded, and, more specifically, the story of British abolitionism and transatlantic slavery, about which he appears to have written very little, if anything, yet from which his ancestors seemingly profited (Wikipedia.org). Interestingly, re-interpretations of abolitionism from Marxist or pseudo-Marxist perspectives began to appear at the time that Orwell was writing. They identified abolitionist impulses with wider revolutionary events in America, Britain, France, and Haiti, portraying them as appropriated or betrayed by motives other than the humanitarianism that informed earlier assessments of British slave trade abolition in 1807. In such reformulations, policy decisions relating to British slaving and ultimately Caribbean slavery were driven by calculation of British economic self-interest, not morality, as the nation industrialised. Put another way, British antislavery was integral to a capitalist-driven ideological shift from mercantilism to laisser-faire during the Industrial Revolution.
Political interventions to end the slave trade and slavery were, however, not costless. In the British case, as I show in my book Principles and Agents: The British Slave Trade and its Abolition (Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2022), the campaign against the slave trade occurred as British slaving was at its height and when its domination of the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak. The campaign lasted twenty years from 1787 to 1807. Driven primarily by moral values, it was resisted by powerful and well represented pro-slavery interests in Parliament that highlighted slavery’s net contribution to the British economy. Such claims find validation in some recent historical research (Klas Ronnback, ‘On the Economic Importance of the Slave Plantation Complex to the British Economy in the Eighteenth Century: A Value-Added Approach’, Journal of Global History, 13, no 3 (2018), 309-27; Ronnback, ‘Governance, Value-Added and Rents in Plantation Slavery-Based Value-Chains’, Slavery & Abolition, 42, no 1 (2021), 130-50). Unsurprisingly, dire economic consequences were predicted for Britain and its slave colonies should the longstanding and legally sanctioned trade in enslaved Africans be abolished. In the end it was not economics but national security issues in the middle of a titanic power struggle with Napoleonic France, and that included the security of the West Indian slave colonies following the slave-led Haitian revolution of 1791-1804, that accounted for the passage of the slave trade abolition act of 1807. The timing of that act owed more to the geopolitics of war and to fears of slave rebellion than the advancement of capitalist interests.
As my book shows, the humanitarian concerns that first motivated British abolitionism from the 1780s had long roots, developing in parallel with growth of British slaving activity from the 1640s onward. They became enmeshed, in turn, in continuing debates about the nature and political ramifications of Britain’s emerging American empire. The issues were aired in scientific, religious, and philosophical writings of the later seventeenth century. And they evolved in intellectual content, as well as in social reach and intensity, in the century before the age of revolutions that began with the War of American Independence in 1776-1783. The process embodied for some a profound disquiet, even anger, at the nation’s involvement in enslaving Africans as fellow humans in pursuit of imperial goals. For a nation imbued with a sense of its own people’s personal freedom as well as emergent notions of empathy or benevolence, trafficking enslaved Africans for economic gain became an unpleasant, and for increasing numbers, unacceptable, facet of British empire building. Such ideas surfaced in both imaginative literature and the press as well as in religious tracts and philosophical treatises, some of which professed incompatibilities between human trafficking and slavery and notions of human progress and civilised society. Underneath the rising scale of British slaving activity therefore there existed simmering ideological tensions at home over it. These have been largely neglected or, when mentioned, usually seen as of marginal importance before the 1780s.
Those tensions, however, became politicised in the 1770s during the deepening crisis between Britain and its mainland North American colonies. They prompted David Hartley, MP for Kingston upon Hull, to propose a motion in the House of Commons in 1776 condemning the slave trade on grounds of its inhumanity. That was thirteen years before the Hull-born William Wilberforce, MP for Yorkshire and designated parliamentary leader of the formal anti-slave trade campaign, addressed the House on the issue in May 1789. Wilberforce’s speech, eulogised by Melvyn Bragg (Twelve Books that Changed the World (Sceptre, 2007)), coincided with a huge eruption of extra-parliamentary outrage against the trade in 1787-1792 that forced Parliament first seriously to address and then ultimately to resolve the domestic ideological conflict surrounding it. If, as noted, security issues dictated the timing of the 1807 abolition act, it was publicly articulated humanitarian concerns over British slaving that inspired, underwrote and drove the anti-slave trade campaign that provoked parliamentary action.
“Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807,” TPL Virtual Exhibits, accessed January 31, 2022, http://omeka.tplcs.ca/virtual-exhibits/items/show/143.
As a writer and journalist, George Orwell would doubtless have admired the many contributions of eighteenth-century British imaginative literature and newspapers that encouraged people to campaign openly for ‘progressive’ social change such as slave trade abolition in early industrialising Britain. That campaign was a prime example of an emergent mass politics in Britain during the early years of industrialisation and the rapid urbanisation of British society to which it gave rise. It involved a mobilisation of public opinion on an unprecedented scale and one unmatched by any other anti-slave trade movement in history. The movement continued beyond 1807 in looking to suppress slaving activities by other nations. Support for both came from towns and the countryside; it transcended class, gender, religious affiliation, and race. And, while leadership of the movement in Parliament was ultimately critical in delivering formal abolition in 1807, it was the nationwide scale of petitioning against the trade in 1787-1792 and the maintenance of that public support for abolition thereafter that put outlawing the slave trade on the national political agenda and ensured that it remained there even as Britain became embroiled in war with revolutionary and later Napoleonic France in 1793-1815. That support was acknowledged a month before the abolition bill passed in March 1807 when a Jamaican sugar planter resident in Ayrshire, Scotland, observed that ‘the voice of the Country was very much in favour of this Prohibition’ (Alex Renton, Blood Legacy, Canongate Books Inc., Edinburgh, 2021, p. 208).
Public support for abolition extended far beyond the campaign’s political leaders that most historical studies focus on. It included hundreds of thousands of people, the mobilisation of whose feelings played a decisive part in defeating the Western world’s largest and most resilient slave trafficking regime in its prime. It was a truly remarkable and historic movement, underscoring the power of ordinary people to effect social change. As an advocate of democratic socialism, George Orwell would probably have rejoiced in that. Within it, perhaps, may also be found inspiration, even lessons, for those concerned by and committed to overcoming today’s unpleasant facts of life such as contemporary slavery, racial injustice, and the climate emergency.