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4.41 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The Government are to be congratulated on the arrangements that they have made to celebrate the bicentenary. This was, after all, the largest forced migration in human history. Not even the visionary Wilberforce could have foreseen that a great-great granddaughter of slaves would take part in this debate, 200 years later, on equal terms with other Members, some of whom might be able to trace their ancestry back to slave holders.

The slave trade reshaped Britain, the Americas and the Caribbean, and Britain was involved in it for more than 300 years. I want to make the House think for a few minutes about the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade because it is easy, as we celebrate its abolition, to gloss over its sheer violence, darkness and shame.

The slave trade happened in collusion with some Africans in the interior. The first stage of the slave
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trade supply chain was the collection of slaves from interior Africa. They were tied into columns, loaded with 40 or 50-lb stones to make it harder for them to escape and marched hundreds of miles to the sea. Some came by canoe to the slave ports. They were tied up in canoes and lay in water for days in the bottom of boats with their faces baked by the sun. Like my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I have visited one of the slave ports: Elmina Castle in Ghana. When the slaves reached the slave ports, they were put into stockades, sometimes by the thousand. At that point, about 20 per cent. of them died. They were then packed into galleys on ships where they lay side by side in spaces measuring 5 ft by 3 ft. Over the course of the slave trade, at least 450,000 black Africans died as a consequence of the Atlantic passage alone. They were packed in galleys and lay in their own urine and faeces during the weeks that it took to cross the Atlantic. They were sometimes released once a day, but sometimes not at all.

When the ship reached harbour, the slaves were brought out on deck, where they were inspected and handled like animals. Many slaves—one in 10, I believe—died within a year of landing in the Americas or the Caribbean. At the height of the Atlantic slave trade, the average life expectancy of a slave in the West Indies was seven years. In north America, it was reckoned at one point that a profit could be made if a slave was worked to death in four years.

Some of the accounts of the slave plantations in the West Indies and slavery in north America have the power to shock even today, given the brutality with which the slaves were treated as they were worked to death over seven or four years. I sometimes wonder whether the extraordinary brutality of the slave plantation experience in the West Indies marks Caribbean life today.

I am a tremendous admirer and lover of my parents’ country of Jamaica, but it has the highest murder rate in the world. If we try to trace the roots of brutalisation and read accounts of what happened to those generations of slaves in the West Indies, there may yet be a link.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Does my hon. Friend agree that the very observation that she makes about Jamaica may also be an explanation for some of the brutality that we see in some of the African nations today?

Ms Abbott: I do not want to stretch the thought too far; I just put it to the House that if we read the accounts not just of the work that slaves did, but of the extraordinary brutality of the punishments and the torture that they had to endure and of a life where, at the height of the slave trade, the only people a slave was legitimately allowed to love were the children of the slave master, we have to say that 200 years later, that sort of experience must have affected the societies that we see around the Caribbean today.

Mr. Cash: In the historical context of the issues that she is dealing with, does the hon. Lady also recognise, as I did in Zanzibar some years ago, that there was also an extremely venal Arab slave trading operation, which also perhaps forms part of the general framework and mosaic?

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Ms Abbott: There is no doubt that both Africans and Arabs were involved in the slave trade, but I am going to move on and say that it was not Africans and Arabs who made massive fortunes or who founded an industrial revolution out of the slave trade. The slave trade was brutalising both to the slave and the slave holder, and I want to touch on that point before closing my remarks this afternoon.

As well as the sheer brutality and cruelty of the Atlantic slave trade, which lasted more than 300 years, it is important to stress how much it was part and parcel of British economic life for more than 300 years. The three great slave-holding ports were Bristol, Liverpool and London. Between 1630 and 1807, when the slave trade was abolished, 2.5 million Africans were bought and sold by Bristol slave merchants. Many of the wonderful houses, buildings and monuments that can be seen in Bristol today were built from the profits of the slave trade. As a man called Roger North, an attorney-general under James I, said of Bristol in the 17th century:

The splendours and the beauty of a city like Bristol were built on the trade in men.

Liverpool was another great slave port. By the 1780s, two fifths of British slave ships were built in Liverpool. It became the largest slave ship construction site in Europe, squeezing Bristol out in the league table of slave trading ports. Huge fortunes were made from the slave trade by banks and manufacturers. To provide a few examples, there were the Heywood brothers, Arthur and Benjamin, who made their fortune in the slave trade. Arthur Heywood went on to found a bank, which became the bank of Liverpool, then Martin’s bank and eventually Barclays bank. Thomas Leyland, another huge slave trader from Liverpool, served four terms as the city’s mayor. He set up Leyland’s bank, which became Bullins bank and eventually the Midland bank. Many mayors and MPs in Liverpool were slave traders, including the Gladstones. John Gladstone was a sugar planter in Guyana, who wrote a pro-slaver column in the Liverpool Mercury and his son, of course, went on to grace this House as William Gladstone.

In London, my city, people sometimes minimise or discount its involvement in the slave trade, but it was involved in it for longer and deeper than any other part of the British Isles. In the years before 1698, the Royal African Company shipped 100,000 Africans to the colonies. Fifteen Lord Mayors, 25 sheriffs and 38 aldermen were shareholders in that company. The South Sea Company traded in slaves with South America. One of the many people who made fortunes from the company before the South Sea bubble burst was Thomas Guy, a bookseller, who used his fortune to found Guy’s hospital. Barings merchant bank based its profits on the long-term procedures that it developed to finance the slave trade.

In 1766, it was estimated that 40 Members of Parliament were making their money from West Indian plantations. William Beckford, MP, owned 22,000 acres in Jamaica; his two brothers and his sons were also
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Members of Parliament. The Bishops of London were major slaveholders in Barbados. Another major slaveholder was Humphry Morice MP, Governor of the Bank of England from 1727.

My point is that the slave trade was not an aberration until, kindly, people woke up and realised that it was wrong. The slave trade was part and parcel of British economic and political life for more than 300 years. I have mentioned the major ports—Liverpool, Bristol, London and Glasgow—but small ports around the country did a little slave trading too: Barnstaple, Bideford, Dartmouth, Exeter, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth and Whitehaven. We are not talking about an aberration that occurred on the fringes of British society; we are talking about something that was part and parcel of it for 300 years.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): My hon. Friend speaks of a 300-year legacy. Between 1837 and 1918, half a million Indian indentured labourers went to the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Guyana. Could that not be classed as an extension of the barbarism that led to profiteering in the City of London and elsewhere?

Ms Abbott: The history of Indian indentured labour is not as well known as it should be, but those labourers were certainly in a position of quasi-slavery. In fact, they were brought in to take over from slaves who would no longer do the work and ran up into the hills, where my family come from, to survive on subsistence agriculture.

We come now to the process by which the slave trade was abolished. I do not want to take anything away from William Wilberforce, but the abolition of the slave trade, like any great social movement, was not a purely parliamentary process. The slave revolts, which happened all over the Caribbean, played their part in 1790. Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery, following a revolution under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture. There were rebellions in Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent, Tobago and Barbados, and finally, in 1831, there was a massive slave revolt in Jamaica led by Sam Sharpe.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Many historians feel that the reparations made to the French, amounting to the equivalent of about £10.5 million today, contributed significantly to Haiti’s status as one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Ms Abbott: That is an important point.

In the Empire, in the slave-trading territories themselves, slaves were in revolt. Here in Britain, in an era without television or picture magazines, the testimony of former slaves such as Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, who toured Britain showing their shackles, exemplified the horror of slavery, and its importance cannot be overestimated. Again, I do not wish to take anything away from Wilberforce, but it would do a disservice to the British people to understate the extent to which not just parliamentary leadership, but a massive popular agitation created the conditions for the abolition of slavery. In 1792, Parliament received 500 anti-slavery petitions; by 1830,
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it had received 5,000. Between 1826 and 1832, the House of Lords received 3,500. In an era when people did not have the vote, that was the only way in which they could make politicians aware of what they felt.

Nowadays, humanitarian liberal issues are sometimes derided as issues for the chattering classes and the London intelligentsia, but the remarkable thing about the agitation against slavery was that it covered all parts of the country. In 1789, the Leeds Intelligencer, a newspaper, reported a collection of £18—it does not sound much, but it was a huge amount in those days—in support of the campaign against slavery. It was collected by farmers in Yorkshire who, as the Leeds Intelligencer put it, had been

Reading about the popular agitation, it is remarkable that it involved ordinary people from all corners of the country. Once they learned the facts, they rose up against slavery, signed petitions and supported people such as Wilberforce. There was no self-interest involved; they were just genuinely moved by the inhumanity of a barbaric trade. In recent years, in the Make Poverty History campaign, ordinary and church people were swept up in the campaign against poverty in Africa, and in many ways, the anti-slavery agitation was the Make Poverty History campaign of its day.

There were, of course, also the abolitionists—the lawyers and campaigners here in London. There was Granville Sharp, Lord Mansfield and his very important finding in the Somerset case, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce with his 20-year campaign. Of course, we are commemorating the abolition of the slave trade, but slavery itself was not finally abolished until 1833. This House debates modern-day slavery and modern-day forced labour, which are terrible things, and we need to take action in the spirit of Wilberforce and others.

If we were to draw a lesson from the abolition of the slave trade, it would be this: like all great popular movements, it did not start in Parliament, although, in a sense, it ended in Parliament. It is a credit to ordinary, British people across the country that they were prepared to rise up against slavery. It was, in its origins, a popular agitation, although it was led by Quakers, evangelists, and religious people. Abolition was essentially due to popular agitation, as well as a parliamentary Act. Contemplation of the brutality of the slave trade ought to remind the House of what happens when we dehumanise people and say that they are not human beings. When we read about how slaves were treated in the middle passage, on the plantations, and even by their owners in London, we are shocked, but the people involved at the time were not shocked, because they did not see the slaves as human beings. Indeed, one of the achievements of the religious campaigners against slavery—the Quakers and so on—was that they stressed the essential humanity of slaves.

The warning to us, 200 years later, is about what can happen when we dehumanise people and say, “They are not like me; they are not my friends or my family. They are somehow less than human.” Occasionally, when I hear some of the rhetoric in our popular press about people who have been trafficked, economic migrants and asylum seekers, I think that people would do well
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to remember that if we consistently and systematically dehumanise a group of people, society and Parliament become capable of acts against them that we may look back on in shame years later.

The abolition of the slave trade is an example of what popular agitation can achieve. These days, people are deeply cynical about politicians, although they all have the vote. They say, “If voting changed anything, they would have abolished it,” or “These politicians are all the same—nothing changes,” but the abolition of the slave trade in an era with no television, e-mail, or text messages, and no popular franchise, is an example of what popular agitation, with the right parliamentary leadership, can achieve.

Finally, the abolition of the slave trade speaks to us down the centuries, telling us that in the end, evil does not endure. I am proud to have been able to speak in this debate, and I applaud the Government for the action that they have taken to celebrate this important bicentenary, but there are lessons to learn in this day and age. If my slave ancestors could look down from the Gallery and hear this debate, they would be happy and proud.

4.59 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Government on the way in which they have led the commemoration, and I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister directly on the tone and content of his speech, as well as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). My role is partly to shadow the Deputy Prime Minister, and I am the third Yorkshireman in our Front-Bench group. I was brought up by the Quakers, so I was immersed at an early age in the arguments that we have heard today.

Essentially, I should like to build on the arguments of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) who, in a powerful and effective contribution, said many of the things that I had planned to say. The commemoration is important, because it provides an opportunity, which we must not miss, to understand British history properly. There is a comforting view of the history of the slave trade—I suspect that most people in the country subscribe to it to some extent—that goes roughly as follows: of course, the slave trade was a terrible episode, but it was a long time ago. Many countries were involved and Britain was no worse than anywhere else. Slavery was at the periphery of our society, but it was all redeemed by the abolitionist movement, so we should not feel too badly about it.

That view of history is simply wrong, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. Several points that she made should be emphasised. First, slavery was not peripheral: it was at the heart of the British economy for well over a century, as the great historian, Eric Williams, who subsequently became Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described in detail. He was the first person to analyse the economics of the slave trade and the triangular movement between west Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, showing how that led to the accumulation of capital, which formed the basis of investment in early industrialisation. The slave trade was, as the hon. Lady eloquently said, at the centre, not
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at the periphery of the British economy. It was something in which all parts of British society were implicated—it was not just a few roughneck captains and the odd aristocrat who had plantations in the Caribbean—and it was the basis of the prosperity of the Church and, one should add, of the royal family. The hon. Lady mentioned Members of Parliament, but she understated her case, because in 1720, it was recorded that 420—not 40—Members of the House of Commons invested in the South Sea company, which was the main financial vehicle for investment in the slave trade.

As the hon. Lady said—and this is important—there was not a wonderful moment of enlightenment when Britain was suddenly converted to the abolition of slavery. Tellingly, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made reference—and he has written brilliantly on the subject—to the first and greatest Prime Minister in the Conservative tradition, William Pitt. May I allude to perhaps the greatest Prime Minister in the Liberal tradition—W. E. Gladstone, behind whom there is a rather unfortunate history that is not widely known? It is not just that he entered the House as a Tory—I do not think that that meant a great deal in those days—but that his maiden speech was a passionate defence of slavery. He made that speech 25 years after the abolition of the slave trade, because his family owned plantations and he believed that he should justify that practice. That is how he began his political life—it was not just a personal idiosyncrasy but a reflection of the view among much of the British establishment that although the slave trade was sordid, we had got rid of it, and there was nothing inherently wrong in owning slaves and profiting from them.

It therefore took a great deal of time finally to eradicate slavery. My final point about its history was made eloquently by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. It was not just liberal white abolitionists who were involved in the movement against the slave trade, as black slaves contributed enormously to their own emancipation. There were slave uprisings, and freed black slaves in Britain such as Equiano agitated and contributed to the movement. The hon. Lady missed one small detail in the story, as a key factor that provoked the uprisings in the Caribbean was the French revolution. It is often forgotten that some of the French revolutionaries were black and, for the first time, the French revolution promoted the concept that all men—women were not included at that time—were equal, which was a devastating concept to unleash on a slave society. It was only when Napoleon—who, among his less attractive attributes, was a virulent racist—re-imposed authority that the slave uprisings were finally brought under control. That was a key stage, and it was the black revolutionaries who did much to create the climate of opinion leading to abolition.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to Eric Williams’s work as an historian. Will he join me in paying tribute to that very great historian, CLR James, who in 1938 wrote the famous book about the slave uprising in Haiti called, appropriately, “The Black Jacobins”?

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