In light of the global Black Lives Matter protests and toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in June, former Wales Book of the Year-winning author John Harrison reflects on the need to confront history and understand its changing contexts in order to recognise our own blind spots.
In March this year, on a small Caribbean cruise ship, I gave a talk about sugar which included five minutes about Edward Colston, the Bristol slaver who recently took his first swimming lesson so late in his afterlife. It was not especially prescient of me to use Colston as an example of slavery’s tainted legacy; I chose him because in his day he was normal and mainstream, and so was slavery. The slave trade was not invented to serve colonialism though it did so very well; forms of slavery have been the norm for most societies throughout history. In Assyrians and Egyptian monuments celebrating conquest, slaves fill the picture. In Britain in the Middle Ages serfdom served the same purpose. Among a population of perhaps 1.75 million, the Domesday Book of 1086 recorded 25,000 serfs, who held no more rights than a slave. Parliament passed Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. When, in this progress from acceptance to abolition did Edward Colston live?
He was born in 1636 (only 20 years after Shakespeare’s death) and died in 1721. Until he was in his mid-forties, he traded in wines, textiles and fruit, mostly between European ports, then he became a member of the Royal African Company formed 20 years before. From 1672 to 1698 the company held a monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade. In less than 70 years they took approximately 212,000 slaves out of Africa of whom 44,000 died in passage. Colston was an investor who took posts in London in the administration of the Royal African Company; he was not directly involved in the transportations. He never visited Africa and, like many, could remain in the bubble of “respectable” English merchants of his own class. He was not forced to witness the brutality with which these human beings were trafficked, but he did see the accounts and knew the physical conditions on the ships and the death toll during the voyage.
The Company was led by The Duke of York, later King James II, and the whole royal family invested in it. Other investors included Sir George Carteret, Treasurer of the Navy, and the first Lord Shaftesbury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and promoter of the Habeas Corpus Act, a cornerstone of civil liberties. Add fifteen Lord Mayors of London and twenty five Sheriffs of London, Samuel Pepys the diarist, MP and Secretary to the Admiralty, and John Locke, the philosopher of freedom known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’ and author of A Letter Concerning Toleration. These were not outrageous rogues, or monsters operating at the margins of society; they were the heart of the establishment. When we consider the legacy of slavery, it is a legacy owned by the establishment and therefore indirectly by us all.
I was in the Caribbean as the on-board historian for a cruise of the Lesser Antilles, starting and finishing in Barbados. When we were discussing the options for slide presentations the twin elephants in the room were colonialism and slavery. The audience uniformly comprises well-educated successful Americans, and I, an Englishman, would need to talk about the pachyderms, because visitors cannot understand the islands without knowing why these islands were fought over by European powers. But the guests were on vacation, and slavery was sadistic and savage. The solution we agreed was to talk about sugar: the first crop Europeans grew reliably and profitably in the Caribbean, and the British settlers in Barbados were the first to evolve a method for producing it, based on slave labour.
Barbados was first mapped by the Spanish in 1531, but in 1625 was occupied only by a much reduced indigenous population when the Olive Blossom, a ship commanded by the trader John Powell, was blown off course to its shores. The vessel’s owner was William Courten, the son of a protestant Dutch merchant who had fled Spanish persecution to set up as a silk and linen trader in London where he made his fortune. In other words, an upmarket refugee. He now employed nearly 5000 men sailing 20 ships and could lend a prodigious total of £200,000 to James I and Charles I. He sent John Powell’s brother Henry back in 1627 on a mission to create a colony. Henry dropped off Courten’s new tenants: 80 settlers and 10 indentured English labourers, people who volunteered or were forced to work for a contracted length of time. They were typically worked brutally hard; indentured servitude is now illegal. In imitation of the Virginia colony, they were tasked with creating a tobacco plantation, the new cash crop of the tropics. A second wave of colonists two years later included middling people like James Drax, whose sisters stayed home and married London artisans.
After a couple of years, when much had been expended but little reaped, Charles I airily re-allocated the entire Caribbean to an ally, James Hay Earl of Carlisle, a man so spendthrift that from a lifetime’s income of £400,000 pounds, equivalent to around £50 million today, he left no worthwhile assets, not even a house. Courten was forced to take a loss of £40,000.
It took ten years to grow a decent tobacco crop, by which time the market was sated due to rapid expansion in Virginia. Prices had fallen 90%, and the inferior quality Barbadian leaf was unsaleable. Cultivation shifted to cotton, then sugar. In Britain, Barbados maintained the allure of a bonanza in waiting. The migrants were similar to those who might follow a gold rush: those with ambition and money to invest, others with ambition and nothing to lose, above all, they were men. There were 16 men for every woman and the colony needed immigration to survive. The islands were hot and unhealthy for Europeans, and they made unproductive field hands. Everything changed when James Drax bought 22 slaves from West Africa. These slaves did three times the work of indentured British and Irish men and were less prey to diseases. Sugar flourished in a way tobacco and cotton never had. Soon the slaves outnumbered the settlers. Having started with capital of £300, after four years in business Drax could talk of buying English estate worth £10,000 a year, the income which Jane Austen grants Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to mark him as unquestionably rich. Such an income placed Drax in England’s top 400 families.
To Colston, slaves were another commodity to move into. Around the same time he entered the lucrative trade bringing Newfoundland cod to Naples. He spent more than £70,000 of his profits on charitable causes in Bristol and elsewhere, including schools, almshouses and hospitals, equivalent to over £8 million in modern money. When asked why he never married, he would reply: ‘every helpless widow is my wife and her distressed orphans my children.’ His philanthropy exceeded all his contemporaries, and stimulated a spate of bequests and donations from others.
It is important to understand both the moral and social climate in which people like Colston, insulated from the day-to-day cruelties and brutality, made their decision to invest in the Royal African Company. The ancient world had little problem with humans being property. Aristotle regarded certain races and classes being ‘natural slaves’. In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, when his adopted city of Athens built the Parthenon and the adult franchise comprised only 30,000 men, there were 80,000 slaves. If we are to remove all statues tainted by slavery then all Greek ones must go, including the Elgin marbles, not to mention the Egyptian pyramids.
In the New World, Bartolomé de las Casas c.1484–1566 campaigned fiercely against the institution of slavery itself, yet the concept of slavery being wrong was slow to develop. In the 1780s, the peak of British income from slave-based industries, the largest individual slave owner was the Reverend John Braithwaite – don’t miss that title, Reverend – while successive Bishops of London were plantation owners. Even sixty years after Colston’s death in 1721, the Church of England had no problem with slavery. When, on 22 May 1787, twelve men gathered at a London printer’s and formed The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, nine of them were Quakers, only three were Anglicans. After a campaign of almost half a century, the Act was passed, and a sum was set aside for compensation to be given, not to the slaves but their owners; slaves were property, and their owners had been deprived of them. The compensation pot was capped at £20 million: 40% of the national budget, over five times the share the NHS now takes. Because individual owners had to make claims from this fund we have a record of the owners in 1833. At 24 Albion Street, Paddington, a minute’s walk from my home, William Barron, army agent, made a successful claim for the loss of 301 slaves at Mount Wilton in Barbados, receiving £6736 11s 9d, approaching half a million at today’s worth. A second claim was approved for 161 slaves, valued £3561 10s 4d, on another Barbados estate. In the newly-built West End, the ordinary middle classes were up to their necks in slavery. If we forget this, and demonise individuals, we pose the wrong questions about guilt, and will follow solutions which will not solve the real problem.
The Codrington family made riches comparable to James Drax, and enshrined the contradictions of his age. Codrington endowed All Souls College Oxford with a Nicholas Hawksmoor designed library and a collection of books second only to the Bodleian Library. A fellow at All Souls Oxford, distinguished military officer, and confidant of the King, he retired to study church history and metaphysics. He bequeathed funds to the Society for Propagation of the Christian Religion in Foreign Parts to establish a college in Barbados which would be open not only to white settlers, but to free men of colour, a remarkable concession for its time. His purpose was to establish ‘A convenient number of Professors and Scholars… to Study and Practice Physick and Surgery as well as Divinity’ to ‘have better opportunities of doing good to men’s souls whilst they are taking care of their Bodies.’ He also arranged an income to operate it; the Society was to have the revenue from two sugar plantations worked by 300 slaves. The Society, an arm of the Church of England, accepted without a qualm, and to insure against loss of assets, had each slave branded with the word Society. It still functions as an Anglican theological college, the oldest in all the Americas. We visited it on the last day of the cruise.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police triggered widespread action and debate over race, heritage and legacy, and triggered the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. Who decides who should be memorialised? In recent years the process has been made a little more democratic and inclusive, as with the faces on our banknotes. More important questions concern the degree to which the underlying attitudes still persist today, the attitudes which once allowed pillars of the establishment to trade human beings and work them brutally hard under daily threat of torture.
The Colston statue was not a product of his own times; it was erected in 1895 and was the initiative not just of one organisation dedicated to Colston’s memory, the Anchor Society, but of one man, its president, James Arrowsmith, a printer. It was an anachronistic exercise in myth-building. A failed public subscription to fund the statue had to be bailed out by an anonymous donor.
A few days after Colston was toppled, Bristol City Council quietly fished him out of the water, noting their duty to protect a navigable harbour. Equally tactfully, they did so at 5 am. Laudably, they plan to exhibit it in a museum with explanatory text and artefacts, including protestors’ placards, left behind in the street on the day. For long enough, Edward Colston looked down on the descendants of slaves, and on the general populace. But we should not forget his name or work. The fact that we are no longer a society that tolerates that trade is progress of the most important kind.
Two of the most chilling letters I came across researching my talk were from the same young man, who had gone to the Caribbean to work as an overseer. In the first, he writes home describing with soul-felt abhorrence the sadistic punishments meted out to slaves by his fellow overseers. A month later he writes again saying they are absolutely necessary to ensure the work of the plantation gets done: it took four weeks for him to lose his humanity. But we cannot be complacent about our own age. The past blindness of the Church of England is mirrored in recent issues; it has struggled with the introduction of women priests and performed contortions over gay clergy. Institutions contain the frailties of the individuals. The church contains the flaws of the society it serves. We must remember all the things mankind does, good, terrible and incomprehensible. Otherwise we will do them again and wonder why. Or perhaps not notice at all: a common reaction to injustices one does not suffer oneself.
We all have that brand on and in our breasts: Society, it both helps and confines us. We define it to suit ourselves and exclude those we find it convenient to ignore, or sideline, or see as different. It seems wired into us to see ourselves as the norm, while people who are not like us as threatening or inferior or both.
I fear the righteous anger of recent weeks being channeled into symbolic acts against disposable symbols. Who was that other slave owner whose statue stood outside the London Docks Museum, somebody Milligan? He’s gone now. I didn’t know him a month ago and I have already forgotten his name. We need to remember these people. Not to look up to them, but, like the people of every time, as flawed: gentlemen when among their own kind, but profoundly blind to injustices against people not like them. We should use them to look for our own blind spots, and fight every day to illuminate them. The author L P Hartley opened his novel The Go-Between with the breath-stopping line ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ A mental journey into the past is a more radical displacement than any physical journey, and it is a journey that is impossible to complete. In daily life we often misunderstand the mind of a loved one; how much harder to enter into the mind of a stranger in another age. But if we don’t, we may not understand our own minds. We must try, and go on trying.
John Harrison is a writer and adventurer whose first travel book was a Sunday Times book of the week highly praised by Jan Morris. His second won the Wales Book of the Year 2011, and his history guide to Antarctica won the 2013 Wales Book of the Year Creative Non-Fiction Award, and the 2014 British Guild of Travel Writers’ best narrative guide book award. He has twice won the Alexander Cordell Travel Writing Competition. He is a highly experienced public speaker, and has given talks around the world on exploration and history, as well as on his own writing. When not writing, he guides, and drives small boats, mostly in polar regions. John is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers.