Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, first of a Lincolnshire grammar school and then of an academy in Hackney. He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement.
The concept and practice of slavery are both abhorrent. Recently, the issues of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have been highlighted by polling by You-Gov, Black History Month, the Black Lives Matter campaign, the emergence of Critical Race Theory and of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and, in schools and universities, by a desire by some to “decolonise” or to “ethno-balance” the curriculum. Quite rightly, attention has been drawn to the indescribable cruelty of an utterly inhuman practice and to the lucrative profits made by those who transported and owned slaves. Slavery is a topic which arouses bitter passions and raises several extremely uncomfortable questions.
There is no doubt that Britain played a leading role in the trans-Atlantic trade in human beings. Only Portugal shipped more slaves – about 75 per cent more, to be exact. William Pitt, speaking in the Commons in 1792, was explicit about Britain’s role: “How is this enormous evil ever to be eradicated…. There is no nation in Europe that has…plunged so deeply into this guilt as Britain”.
If we are to study slavery in a meaningful way, however, we must approach the subject objectively, dispassionately and, above all, with an attention to historical accuracy. There are two key points which have been given little emphasis recently and which are uncomfortable for some to explore
First, Slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of white Europeans. It was not, therefore, solely a question of European vs African or white against black, but also of African vs African and black against black. In no way does this lessen the crime and evils of trans-Atlantic slavery, but it is essential to realise that people of all colours and many ethnicities were culpable in treating their fellow human beings as chattels. When the Portuguese first set foot in North Africa in the early fifteenth century, they found the machinery and practice of slavery already in place.
Whereas the ensuing trans-Atlantic slave trade operated for some 3-400 years, the African trade to the north and east had already operated for several thousand years and was certainly flourishing in the Egypt of the pharaohs. The internal African slave trade also continued during (and after) the era of the European slave trade. Mungo Park, a 19th century Scottish explorer to the Niger and West Africa, wrote, “The slaves in Africa, I suppose, are nearly in the proportion of three to one to the freemen”.
It should also be remembered that slavery continued long after the departure of the Europeans from Africa. In Mauritania it was still possible be born into slavery as late as 1981, when Mauritania became the last country in the world to legally abolish slavery. It was only criminalised there in 2007.
One of the most despicable elements of New World slavery was that it was underpinned by racism. David Hume is oft quoted for his comment that, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites”, a view held by many during the era of colonial slavery. That said, slavery is slavery and the universal opposition to all slavery should be something to unite all peoples and races of the world, not a vehicle to encourage racial disharmony.
Second, the capture of slaves and their transportation to the west coast of Africa, the so called “First Passage”, was almost entirely in the hands of black African slave traders. According to Hugh Thomas in his book on the slave trade, slaves carried from Africa, “were procured as a result of the Africans’ interest in selling their neighbours…. ‘Man stealing’ accounted for the majority of slaves taken to the New World and it was largely the responsibility of Africans.” Olaudah Equiano, the former slave and leading abolitionist, was captured by Africans, not seeing his first white man until he arrived at the coast. Again, this does nothing to lessen the cruelty of the Middle Passage nor the guilt of wicked white slave traders, but it does prove that appalling inhumanity was not confined to white Europeans.
As James Horn and Philip D. Morgan have highlighted, “appalling as mortality rates on slaving vessels were, deaths in the Middle Passage were always a small part of overall mortality in the process of enslavement. Far more slaves died either in Africa in being captured, marched to the coast, and detained in barracoons or in America…. Estimates of losses in the Middle Passage alone range from about 2 to 20 percent of all deaths attributed to the slave trade, thus a small proportion of the overall mortality loss.” Consequently, anything up to 80 per cent of deaths arising from the slave trade were the result of actions by African traders.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian journalist, told the BBC in 2020 that that their “Nigerian greatgrandfather sold slaves”. A similar Igbo oral account was provided in 1974 by Nkwonto Nwuduaka: “Our people traded extensively in slaves. It was a dangerous trade, but very profitable. It was dangerous because you must be strong enough to overpower your victim. Secondly, you must be prepared to risk your life, wresting children from their parents, and so on”. The explanation given here that slavery was very profitable for many Africans was just the same as that use by Cass, Coulson and numerous other Europeans. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani added the very pertinent observation that in the case of her great-grandfather, “It would be unfair to judge a 19th Century man by 21st Century principles”.
Transatlantic slavery was one of the greatest crimes in world and Great Britain was one of the key perpetrators of that crime. We must not hide, excuse or try to dimmish Britain’s role. It is imperative, however, that the subject is studied objectively and accurately, and is not used to promote a distorted left wing, anti-white racialist theory; revulsion at the thought of slavery should be something to unite, not divide, the whole of mankind.