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The age of historical reckoning: what has Britain chosen to forget?

The 35th Tacitus Lecture was titled Finance and the City in the Age of Historical Reckoning. Delivered by historian, author and broadcaster Professor David Olusoga OBE, the lecture took a deeper look at the accumulation of wealth for prominent City of London professionals as a result of their work in the transatlantic slave trade. The lecture was as eye-opening as it was heart-breaking, as the horrors of slavery that we would rather not engage with were detailed with sharp clarity. In this piece, I will take a further look at the history of the slave trade and a legacy that Briton’s have struggled to come to terms with.

The brutality of slavery

A question posed at the end of the lecture asked how we can apply the ‘unmasking’ of Colston, Beckford and Cass, as well as a more complete knowledge of the horrors of slavery, to efforts to eradicate modern slavery. Professor Olusoga countered that while human trafficking is an abhorrent crime, its likening to the transatlantic slave trade shows a fundamental misunderstanding of its operation. Human trafficking today is being tackled by national and international law enforcement and perpetrators are rightly punished with lengthy prison sentences. Contrastingly, by legal mandate and with zero recognition of their dignity as humans, Africans were bought and sold at auction. Children born to enslaved people were treated as property to be sold just as their parents were. Their gruesome punishments were put into the law of the day.

I almost wish I never heard the name Thomas Thistlewood in Professor Olusoga’s answer. Even a brief internet search will give details of the English plantation owner and overseer’s personal diary, in which he recorded his cruel and unusual punishment of enslaved people working on his plantations in Jamaica. James Walvin, author of Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery noted that rather than Thistlewood’s actions being a cause for concern, it would have been par for the course for British slaveholders on the island. In a time when human rights for all is widely recognised and upheld, it is hard to even fathom that such acts could occur. Yet this has been documented and was the legally established system of order for centuries. The difficulty of this subject matter makes it easy to band the entirety of the slave trade under the heading of ‘a dark part of history’ rather than engage with the brutalisation of enslaved people conducted across generations.

The role of Scotland

For generations, the slave trade was deemed as good business – a market that people of any social standing could partake in. A standout of the lecture for me was the prevalence of Scottish merchants in slavery. The Scottish History Society and the National Records of Scotland have worked to detail Scottish involvement in the slave trade from the early 1700s to abolition. Scotland gained formal access to the slave trade when the Acts of Union were passed in 1707, making the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland a United Kingdom of Great Britain. The link between the West Indies and the Scottish economy is thought to have been incredibly strong – trade between the two in 1790 alone is estimated to have been equivalent to £50 million in today’s valuation. By the 1800s, 30% of estates in Jamaica and 32% of enslaved people were owned by Scots.

Indeed, hiding in plain sight on the streets of Glasgow’s Merchant City are the names of prosperous plantation owners that funnelled their wealth back into Scotland: Glassford Street, Ingram Street (also home to the Gallery of Modern Art, housed in the former home of plantation owner William Cunningham), Buchanan Street, Dunlop Street – all within a mile of each other. Many of these men would have been compensated generously when slavery was abolished. Geographically, the primary focus of people who benefitted from slavery has been centred on London, Bristol and other English ports. These revelations tell a different story. It is a harmful illusion that Scotland’s role was just limited to the abolition movement, as the pervasive presence of wealth built from the slave trade is all over the UK.

The gaps in modern history

The prevailing legacy of slavery is racism – for how else could the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of peoples be justified unless they were not deemed as fully human? Though the forced movement of peoples across the Atlantic ended, the legacy of slavery, of people of African descent being viewed as inherently inferior or different is with us to this day. In spite of this, certain stories have been erased from British history by a curriculum that is ill-equipped to draw links between past trade and modern discrimination.

Citizens of former British colonies have been called on time and time again to uplift a nation on its knees and have suffered great injustice in the process. The Black diaspora that enlisted in the British army in World War One faced violent discrimination when they stayed in the UK once the war was over. In 1919, race riots erupted in multiple seaports all over the UK spurred by the erroneous notion that higher immigrant populations were ‘taking’ jobs from white men. Three people died and hundreds were injured as a result. The story of later generations of immigrants that moved to the UK has also been left out of the mainstream. The Windrush generation has recently been brought to the forefront of public consciousness by the egregious wrongs committed by the Home Office in regards to their status as citizens of this country. This injustice is all the greater when we consider the role of the Windrush generation in bolstering staff numbers in the early NHS and the transport systems of multiple cities.

Where do we go from here?

As Professor Olusoga said in an interview with the LCCI’s Black Business Association, the story of Black Britain is a shared story – the history of empire is not a threat to the history of predominant groups and historical institutions, it is their history. We do ourselves no favours when we ignore parts of our history that are painful or paint institutions we once celebrated in a bad light. Erasure gives way to denial; we cannot meaningfully tackle racism today without giving due recognition past wrongs and learning from them.

Eleanor Umeyor, Research Assistant, LCC