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Author Topic: Sugar & Slavery: The Making of an Empire  (Read 15629 times)
Posts: 83

« on: August 17, 2013, 08:08:33 PM »

Sugar and slavery: The Making of An Empire

Published: Sunday, August 4, 2013


  At the turn of the 18th century, the intense demand for sugar in Britain, meant that those in the West Indian colonies charged with supplying this collective sweet-tooth could no longer keep up. As such, what had until then been a comparative trickle of Africans being taken from their homes in the West of the continent and forced into a life of slavery, became a deluge.

  This writer holds the view that no account of slavery’s cruelty can be accurate without first acknowledging that it was black Africans who sold other black Africans into a life of slavery. Africa was back then, and still is today in parts, a land scarred by bitter internecine conflicts, where the strong pray on the weak with often deadly consequences. Despite the many success stories, it remains a continent still short of achieving its full potential.

  It was against this backdrop then, that more than six million men and women were rounded up in slave ports dotted along the West African coast and shipped to the West Indies, Britain’s apologists are quick to point out that other European powers were also involved in the abject trade at this time, and bleat on about the British’s role in championing the worldwide cause for slavery’s abolition.

  It must be highlighted nevertheless, that no other country profited as much from the transatlantic slavery as did Great Britain; with ships flying the Crown’s flag being responsible for more than a third of all the slaves transported across the Atlantic on what was to become known as the Middle Passage.

Banking and finance

  Slavery’s fingerprints can be seen smudged across vast swathes of capital’s landscape today. A stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s cathedral is the Bank of England, which has been identified by the museum of London in having played a key role in the run-up to slavery’s expansion in the British West Indies.

  “The Bank of England was set up in 1694 to centralize and create a viable financial system for England’s expanding transatlantic economy. AS a result it was instrumental in the funding of plantation slavery, the slave trade and financing the British in European wars foe dominance in the Caribbean.”

  Just for good measure, one of the bank’s governors, Humphrey Morice, owned six slave ships between 1716 and 1729. Around the corner from the Bank of England is the London Guildhall, which, according to its website, was where “the Lord Mayor of London and the ruling merchant class held court, and fine-tuned the laws and trading regulations that helped create London’s wealth.”The English Heritage Trust reckons that “between 1660 and 1690, 15 Lord Mayors of London, 25 sheriffs and 38 aldermen of the City of London, were shareholders in the Royal Africa Company which ran the transatlantic slave trade. “These connections to the slave trade increased during the 18th century.”

  In his 1938 thesis Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Eustace Williams, who would later go on to become prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, argued that such was the wealth being generated on this side of the Atlantic by the slave trade, that new banking facilities, regulations and functions were needed. Around 1688, a man called Edward Lloyd ran up a modest coffee house located in Lombard Street in the City of London coincidentally, not too far from the bank of England. Lloyd’s Coffee Shop became the place where merchants, shipowners, sailors, and others connected to the slave trade, would meet on an informal basis to discuss the buying and selling of Africans.

  Spotting an obvious gap in the market, Edward Lloyd began providing these men with up to date financial and shipping information relating to the burgeoning trade. He expanded the business even further some years later to provide fleet and cargo insurance policies specific to their needs.

  Today, Lloyd’s of London “is the world’s leading specialist insurance market, conducting business in over 200 countries and territories worldwide-and is often the first to insure new, unusual or complex risks, bringing together an outstanding concentration of specialist expertise and talent, backed by excellent financial ratings which cover the whole market”

  In the first six months of 2009, Lloyds of London recorded a whopping pre-tax profit of £1.32 billion; in spite of global financial crises engulfing all those around it.

  Suffice to say that the need to sell boring old coffee has long ceased to exist.

  A cursory examination of William’s thesis shows that Lloyds of London was far from being the only institution to throw their financial hats into the slavery ring. The global entity Barclays Bank needs no introduction today, but according to Williams, their origins too are rooted in slavery.
  “David Barclay an influential London merchant and Jamaican plantation owner is listed with his brother Alexander as Quaker slave traders in 1756.
  “The brothers married into the banking families of Gurney and Freame to form Barclays Bank.”

  Barclays have totally refuted Williams’ allegations, citing that as a Quaker, David Barclay was a prominent opponent of the practice. Religion, however, would be no bar for those in Anglican clergy-with the church in the 18th century being entirely complicit in the buying and selling of black Africans. It was not until 2006 that a contrite Church of England would acknowledge its role in the inhumane trade and offer an apology.

Spiderweb effect

  Dr. Tom Wareham is the curator of Communities and Maritime History at the Museum of London in the Docklands. He explains that far from being the preserve of a wealthy few connected to banking and commerce in London’s Square Mile, the profits from sugar and slavery contributed immensely to the shaping of London’s entire economy, and to a large extent, even Britain’s industrial revolution.

  “Casual labour was drawn into London from the farms across Essex and Middlesex to help unload the ships, and as the vessels were being unloaded, the crews were housed in lodging houses in Wapping, Limehouse and Shadwell-the heart of East London.

  “Coopers, the men who made of repaired the casks used for storage, were needed in large numbers, as were shipbuilders, carpenters and engineers.

  “Many pubs along the Thames also did a roaring trade.

“The reality is that those involved in the slave trade in the West Indies returned to Britain with significant amounts of capital, and invested it directly London commerce in a host of ventures, from shipping and insurance, to property and business-including the London docks.

  “When slavery was abolished, some of those who had received compensation invested it directly into the railways.”

  Trafalgar Square is one of London’s most celebrated locations; taking its name from the British victory over the old enemy France in the battle of Trafalgar. Sitting atop one of its four plinths is none other than this country’s most famed Admiral, Horatio Nelson, while straddling the eastern flank is another national treasure, the National Gallery.

  John Julius Angerstein, a London entrepreneur-cum-philanthropist was one of the richest and most influential men of his time. He amassed a tremendous fortune by first being a slave merchant; reportedly owning about one-third of all slaves in Grenada, and then by working in the city; selling insurance at Lloyds of London for those wishing to follow his earlier career.

  Being from the gentry, Angerstein was able to rub shoulders with London’s movers and shakers; including both King George the III, and the British Prime Minister William Pitt. Following Angerstein’s death in 1823, the British government bought his entire collection of 38 paintings and established the National Gallery.

Slavery’s legacy

  These days, London’s most famous waterways sees but a fraction of the traffic that it grew accustomed to during the slavery years; with tourist and pleasure crafts now making up a large portion of vessels plying the Thames. In the area known as the Docklands, trendy riverside bars, pubs, flats and offices have replaced the old sugar warehouses of yesteryear that used to line the banks of the river. All that remains in testament to the West Indies’ legacy in this part of the metropolis are two former warehouses.

  The British are steadfastly proud of their history, and rightly so. The traditions of some of their institutions of state, such as the Monarchy, Parliament, and military, are steeped in history. Beaming British historians will tell anyone who would listen about the days when the ships of Brittania ruled the waves, and regale us with anecdotes about the bravery of Richard the Lionheart, or the academic genius of Isambard Brunel. From time to time, however, occasions like Emancipation Day give us the opportunity to remind them that the evil legacy of slavery is part of their history too.

Kito Johnson, a Trinidadian, is a freelance writer living in the United Kingdom.


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