March 1889: Rescued slaves being questioned on board a British ship of war in East Africa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why the narrative on Britain’s role in the slave trade is misleading

Britain’s bleak record with the slave trade makes a horrible story, but it is one not helped by getting it wrong

It is no defence of slavery or the slave trade to say that coercive labour was widespread across much of the world until the late nineteenth century. Nor is it any defence of both to point out that much of the literature on slavery is limited because it focuses on private slavery (ownership by private individuals or institutions) rather than public slavery (ownership by the state). The history of the latter is at least as long and has continued into the last hundred years, as with Soviet gulags, German concentration camps, and North Korean labour camps.

Britain had very little role in public slavery. There was a very small number of slaves in the naval dockyards in the Caribbean and a larger number of slave soldiers, raised from the existing slave population, in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. However, the principal direct role of the state in coerced labour was that of convicts transported from the British Isles, first to the Western Hemisphere and then, from the 1780s, to Australia.

As far as private slavery is concerned, there was a long history in the British Isles as part of a more general European pattern that was similar to that in Africa. Thus, in the case of the British Isles, we have local slavery in the pre-Roman period, imperial slavery with the Romans, and slave-raiding and purchasing in the post-Roman world.

No other European power had such a far-flung presence in Africa than Portugal

Slavery was essentially replaced by serfdom in medieval Britain, and wars of conquest, notably of the English in Ireland from the mid-twelfth century, were not accompanied by enslavement. Moreover, England (and far more Scotland) were late entries into Atlantic imperialism and trade, the focus being, instead, on “near Europe”. The chronology helps explain why, although the British were the biggest slave shippers in the eighteenth century, it was the Portuguese (including Brazil once independent) overall in the period 1519-1867. The role of Portugal also owes much to its colony Brazil, being by far the largest market throughout. This reflected the labour demands in Brazil but also the profitability from sugar, gold and coffee successively, and the resulting liquidity. On top of that, the Portuguese had the largest profile in Africa, with the largest colony there, Angola, as well as a presence in West Africa. No other European power had such a far-flung presence in Africa.

Overall estimates suggest 5,848,266 for Portugal and Brazil, and 3,259,441 for Britain, with Britain transporting more than Portugal in the quarter-centuries of 1726-1800. A bleak record and horrible story, but one not helped by getting it wrong. Britain was not the leading slave trader, while it took the major role in ending slavery. Much of the current discussion also fails to allow for the major role that Africans played in selling other Africans into slavery.

Jeremy Black is author of Slavery: A New Global History and The Atlantic Slave Trade in World History.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover