An exercise in self-flagellation

Bruce Coleman finds that this book on the West India Interest is more polemical than historical


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Michael Taylor’s book studies the West India Interest that defended slavery in its colonies until abolition in 1833-34. It is a worthwhile subject, not least to balance the coverage normally given to the abolitionist movement, and Taylor has published articles on it in the journals. Unfortunately, the realisation here falls short of the profession, with the author hardly bothered to analyse and dissect the Interest in any depth.

Warning comes in the rather forward sub-title of the kind now beloved of publishers’ marketing departments. As the Introduction makes clear, the book’s inspiration is more polemical than historical. David Cameron is condemned for, on an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, failing to deliver a handsome apology (only “regret”) and an even handsomer cheque by way of “retributive justice” for slavery. Theresa May and, bizarrely, the DUP are also rapped. One senses already that Taylor doesn’t much like this country.

The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery by Michael Taylor, The Bodley Head, £20

He also has problems with Christianity and so with the traditional picture of an abolitionist movement largely fuelled and organised by Evangelical Christians. Their earlier triumph, the ending of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, is dismissed as mainly a response to Trafalgar’s weakening of French naval power (“imperial realpolitik”) and otherwise as “an opportunity for self-righteous one-upmanship”. (Should people in glass houses …?)

Much more might have been done with the Interest itself. The coverage of the years from the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823 to abolition in 1834, is rewarding on one key figure, Charles Rose Ellis (Lord Seaford), sometime MP, heir to plantations, friend of George Canning and chairman of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants centred on the West India Club in St James’s. Few other figures in the Interest are mentioned more than fleetingly; George Hibbert, the official agent for Jamaica and sometime chairman of the West India Dock Company, might have repaid more attention.

Taylor’s largely narrative style works against serious focus and analysis. The major ports linked to the Interest — Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow — are treated, but again without depth. The economics of the slave (and largely sugar) economy are left sketchy, its importance to the British economy unquantified. An economic historian would have written a very different book.

Taylor portrays the culture wars over slavery as binary, a matter of extremes only

The Interest had several components: first, the “West Indians” themselves, the planters and merchants in the slave colonies, a pretty parvenu lot who had to deal with slave rebellions on the distant edges of the colonial empire; the owners back in the metropolis, some aristocratic, who derived direct financial benefits from their holdings, whether in estates or slaves (not a distinction Taylor makes clear); and the politicians and influencers who had no personal interest but who defended slavery because of conceived national interest — figures like Canning, William IV or the Duke of Wellington (who is billed as the most pro-slavery of major politicians and figures in portrait on the book’s dustjacket).

These elements were sometimes divided, though Taylor underplays the point; the colonists, the most vulnerable and the most intransigent, often clashed with the London representatives over both objectives and tactics. Ellis was eventually overthrown by more extreme elements in the Interest, partly because the metropolitan elites showed some concern for amelioration of the slaves’ condition. (Taylor is too dismissive of the appeal of “amelioration” and gradual abolition to both sides of the argument; it might well have been a majority viewpoint until late in the debate.)

Taylor portrays the culture wars over slavery as binary, a matter of extremes only. For him the conflict is between absolute evil and its defenders on one side and an ideal of absolute justice (imperfectly embodied in human beings) on the other. Though in the culture wars over slavery both sides were skilled in propaganda and exaggeration, Taylor credits one side implicitly and dismisses the other as dishonest.

He is good at shooting his own argument in the foot and ignores what his account shows of black betterment both within and without the slave system. Most of the slave leaders were educated and Christianised, skilled employees such as book-keepers or craftsmen, readers of newspapers and deacons of chapels. There were black merchants and a black newspaper owner/editor, albeit resented by the white planters, as were the Evangelical missionaries who worked among the black populations.

In Demerara the slave population fell by 12,000 between 1814, when Britain had gained the colony, and 1831, but the free black population doubled. Numbers bought themselves out of servitude. How did financial accumulation come about? In the Demerara rebellion of 1823 the main group of rebels requested not emancipation but just more leisure and freedom to worship on Sundays; in the later Jamaica revolt some slaves defended their owners and their property from violence. In all the revolts black regiments remained loyal to the authorities. It is not to defend slavery to suspect that there was more to the sugar colonies than just the lash.

If treatment of the Interest is disappointing, that of “the Establishment” is worse. Historians have surely long given up the idea of a single, monolithic Establishment dominating national life and culture. It is the kind of assumption for which one marks down undergraduate essays. Taylor insists that the Interest was the Establishment, though at other times he allows how divisive the slavery debate was.

The social and political elites were divided by material interests, historic rivalries, religious sensibilities (or lack of them) and even vague political ideologies. Why treat a Wellesley or a Lascelles as “Establishment” but not a Grey or a Stanley? Opinion evolved and influential figures who had once ignored the question moved over to the abolitionist side later (the Canningite former premier Goderich was one such), but Taylor, who seems to think British culture as morally culpable now as in the 1820s, is unwilling to accept that the opinions of people and societies evolve. Nor does he ask why figures of the East India interest, as much part of an imperialist establishment as the West Indians, were prominent in the opposition to West India slavery.

Another failing is the lack of any contextual or comparative perspective. British colonial slavery isn’t compared with that of other colonial empires or indeed other independent countries.

In places he drops the narrative approach and analyses the relationship of the slavery debate with religious beliefs  and with emerging economic theory, including the relative merits of slave and free labour

Some of the new Latin American states and some states in the US had ended slavery, but the latter’s constitution permitted slavery until the 1860s, while the newly-independent Brazil encouraged the slave trade until the 1880s. Nor was slavery always white-on-black. Much of eastern Europe sustained serfdom until the 1860s; the Ottoman empire remained a slavery culture even longer.

As for Africa itself, presented here as the passive victim of British brutality and avarice, Taylor admits in passing that “the initial process of enslavement (was) on the coastal plains of western Africa”.

One of the most inadequate parts of Taylor’s story is his treatment of those he calls “the Radicals”, activists concerned with the “Condition of England Question”, demanding social reform at home rather than the “telescopic philanthropy” later satirised by Dickens. Taylor treats them as simply opponents of abolition. William Cobbett was long a crude negrophobe, but he had moved to support emancipation by 1832 and others like Richard Oastler (“Yorkshire Slavery”) were abolitionists. Taylor doesn’t concede that they had a point.

How did slave labour in the Caribbean compare with the dangers and indignities of coal-mining, child labour in textile factories or even the winter toil of ill-paid agricultural workers? After scorning all these concerns, Taylor concedes that life expectancy for slaves in Demerara was twice that for industrial workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

In places he drops the narrative approach and analyses the relationship of the slavery debate with religious beliefs — the authority of the Bible which seemed to legitimise slavery was much at issue — and with emerging economic theory, including the relative merits of slave and free labour. He is also informative on shifts in press opinion. Even if the story would have rattled along less attractively, more of this sort of analysis would have helped.

In the Epilogue, any pretence at dispassionate objectivity ends in the quest for condign justice — indeed retribution — to be visited on those responsible for “crimes against humanity”. The argument is that Britain did not emancipate its slaves: they emancipated themselves, by writing influential accounts of slave life and by rebelling in Jamaica. In fact, the significant polarisation of the debate occurred in 1829-30, before the publication of Mary Prince’s notable narrative and the Jamaica rising in 1831, a critical year in domestic politics.

The main legacy of the Jamaica revolt was the damage that the planters did to their own cause; their violent hounding of Protestant missionaries, whom they blamed for black discontent, alienated reformist and particularly Dissenting opinion back home when the Reform Bill had heightened political emotion. The passing of the Reform Act and the nature of the first general election under the reformed system ensured that the emancipationist cause, now formidably organised, would triumph.

Taylor insists, though, that Britain did not stand as a moral, philanthropic nation through emancipation: Forget “the idea of Wilberforce, Clarkson and Buxton riding a wave of Christian sentiment to undo great evil”; emancipation was no “gift” but authored and seized by blacks themselves. Indeed, Taylor dislikes the idea of religious conscience playing any significant part in the story, ignoring those parts of his narrative that showed how much it did, both in Britain and in the West Indies.

Some may take to the aggressive “wokeness” of this book, others think it risible, but it raises questions about the direction of historiography

Any sense of balance is abandoned in what becomes almost a rant. A series of assertions tests the reader’s credulity: “slaveholders and slave money built modern Britain”; protectionism in Britain “owes much to the defence of slavery”; if modern West Indians have suffered from a sugar-rich diet, “should the guilty not pay for the cure”? The enemy is now clear: not just the Interest, not even “the Establishment”, but “the British” (above all “educated white men”). It’s an exercise in national self-flagellation, even national self-hatred, and, in an embarrassing passage, Taylor doesn’t spare himself: “I am not immune from this criticism: I must do more, I must do better.”

Some may take to the aggressive “wokeness” of this book, others think it risible, but it raises questions about the direction of historiography. Generations of academic endeavour have established standards of dispassionate analysis based on the rational evaluation of evidence. Those standards are not much in evidence here. Too often Taylor opts for polemic and partisanship, a re-fighting of old battles in the spirit (or worse) with which they were once fought. Is this the direction of historical study? But, whatever the future holds, Taylor can feel confident that this country, which he seems to hate, does not pursue even dodgy historians with “retributive justice”.

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