Monday, November 27, 2006

The real history of slavery

The political establishment’s attempt to distance itself from the slave trade, rewriting history in the process, has begun in earnest. With the bicentenary of the trade’s abolition just four months away, the New Labour disinformation machine is already swinging into action. First up is that well-known purveyor of truth and honesty, Tony Blair. He claims that it is "hard to believe" that what "would now be a crime against humanity" was legal at the time and that we should express "our deep sorrow" that it ever happened. First of all, we should reject any attempt to put us all in the frame through the use of "our". The slave trade was actually conducted by a few hundred aristocratic families and merchants. Secondly, slavery was no aberration but was the world's first global industry, producing the money for the development of industrial capitalism in Britain. At the same time as slaves were being bought and sold, in Britain itself the accumulation of capital also took a brutal form. In England, people were forcibly driven off their land and into the towns through the enclosure of the commons by the landowners, while in Scotland, highlanders were swept aside by the clearances. In assessing what he called "primitive accumulation" through enclosures and slavery, Karl Marx remarked that historically capital came into existence "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt".

From 1730 until its abolition, the British became the world's leading slave traders. Between 1700 and 1810 they transported about 3.4 million Africans. Slave trading in Britain started in London and Bristol but between 1750 and 1780 almost three-quarters of the British slave trade was financed by Liverpool merchants. During this period Liverpool was the biggest slave trading port in the world. The Atlantic slave trade started sometime in the mid-16th century when African labour began to replace Indian labour on the Spanish sugar plantations of Brazil. From this time to the 1860s slave traders transported some ten and a half million Africans into the Americas; another two million did not survive the sea crossing. This was the greatest enforced movement of people in history. Slave ships followed a triangular trading pattern. Vessels left their European home port with manufactured goods which were bartered for slaves and produce on the ship's arrival on the African coast. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean islands or North American colonies, on what became known as the notorious "Middle Passage". On arrival they were auctioned like cattle, the majority becoming field hands on the large plantations. The third leg to Europe carried produce such as cotton, sugar, coffee or tea which were then sold for vast profits.

The slave trade’s illegalisation in Britain came only after brave campaigners, led by women, exposed its brutality in a struggle lasting more than 25 years. It took a revolution of the slaves to destroy France's system and a civil war in the US to free the slaves of the Southern States. While the slave trade was abolished in 1807, it remained illegal to form a trade union and to strike in Britain until 1824. Only in 1867 did the first industrial workers get the vote. British imperialism went on, of course, to enslave hundreds of millions of people through a colonial empire which was only thrown off through revolutionary struggles after 1945. By 1807, capitalism had created a modernised, more efficient form of bondage in the shape of the wage slave. The industrial or agricultural worker had been "liberated" from the land in order to sell his or her labour power to an employer for a price – the wage. But the wage slave was separated from the products of labour as well as the value added by labour, which became the source of profit. The worker then as now was utterly dependent on the employer for providing the means to work with and would have to return to the employer’s place of work on a contracted basis to earn enough to live. Plenty of abolition struggles still lie ahead.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

David Payne said...

And we are all burdened with the duty to effect change. I wish it were different, but I start many a day, my peace of mind psychically laden under the charge of accountability, made at the same time both complicit and impotent by Democracy. Aware that I share a vast commonality, it is nonetheless often wretchedly solitary.

The exploitation worst expressed in slavery reflects uncivilised greed, which knows no moral boundary. For all the wealth served by its predatious iniquities, The UK Government (representing admittedly only the fourth-richest nation in the world) acknowledges by its own system of reckoning, one-third of our own children living in relative at least, and often literal poverty - and at the other end of life our millions of pensioners are constantly failed. What greater condemnation can there be of any society that it does not care even for its own most defenceless, the security of the most vulnerable the only true measure of economic success. Ours is a social model of increasing despair. And we look reflexively westward to that arch and consummate opportunist and defiler, The U.S.A. which while controlling the greatest wealth in the world, similarly keeps its head above the fetid waters of accountability, a veritable sea of misfortunes trawled in regions to dearth, by floating on the raft of its own under-privileged.

There is simply no answer to the charge that fabulous wealth is only created by exploitation, that means someone is rich because he has made/played a part in keeping, many others (as) poor (as possible). To raise argument to a cerebral level is to be too clever (deceitful) when the ready view across the panorama of international history, is a silen(t)nced-cinema of despair. Whether it be the abandonment of social-security to the vagaries of the business sector or the out-shipping of illegal production-processes to the un-protected third-word, it is (as black as) slavery, ever polishing the boots of privilege. And this ‘democratic’ system, (self) acclaimed as the most equitable social-model ever devised, would stand as exemplar for the developing world.

To any who are ever discouraged, I wish you fortitude and whatever small energy may derive from a knowledge of this individual's endeavours.