Abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was captured from his home in Africa as an 11 year old boy while his parents were out working one day. He was stuffed below decks of a slave ship, shackled together lying down with hundreds of other captives in what Equiano referred to as “a scene of horror almost inconceivable.” By the late 17th century, Great Britain dominated the slave trade and wealthy plantation owners in the American colonies were lining their pockets, thanks to the labor of 11 million captive Africans forced into slavery. In 1833, Britain signed the Slavery Abolition Act, effectively ending British slavery 30 years before the United States. But did you know, Great Britain didn’t just put a stop to slavery, they forced generations of their citizens to purchase those enslaved people? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re talking about abolition, which is just a fancy word for the end of slavery. Specifically, we’re talking about the abolition of slavery in Great Britain AKA England AKA the United Kingdom.
As an American, I feel somewhat knowledgeable about how it all went down here, the end of slavery, I mean. All I really knew about British abolition was that they did it first. And I was all “go them, way to go guys!” They beat us to it by several decades. They beat everyone to it actually. What I didn’t realize was how they managed to pull it off without a civil war and when I learned the truth, I honestly felt sick to my stomach.
On February 9, 2018, the British Treasury posted a seemingly innocent Tweet, a weekly quote “surprising #FridayFact” that read “Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes.” This was followed by an image of Africans, tied up, being marched into slavery. The tweet continued, quote “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.” end quote.
Spoiler alert this #FridayFact was not received well, at all. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking. Like, “Oh, look guys you helped end slavery, go you!” No. Because, you see, the £20 million, around £3 billion pounds today and even more than that in American dollars, was not given to the enslaved people they were freeing. Oh no, it was paid to the enslavers, the plantation owners, to purchase the freedom of the people they enslaved. Like “well, guys, slavery is illegal now but, don’t worry we’re not just going to take your property, we’ll buy it from you and then we’ll set them free and then we’ll just work it into the taxes and the people will pay for it. They’ll buy your slaves, it’s all good, you can still be rich.”
I know that seems like an exaggeration but it’s basically exactly what happened. And then they just downplayed it for 2 centuries so no one really realized what was happening until someone at the treasury decided it would make a cute tweet, which was also factually inaccurate by the way but that’s not even the issue here. The tweet was deleted pretty quickly after the internet exploded in outrage because, honestly, people just didn’t realize what they had been paying for. And it’s not like they were like “well it’s all paid off so we might as well tell um.” No, whoever posted the tweet just did not even realize it would be controversial or perceived as morally wrong by most people. Which is a huge problem in and of itself. It’s extremely revealing. Historian David Olusoga wrote ”[This] is what happens when those communities for whom this history can never be reduced to a Friday factoid remain poorly represented within national institutions.” A Guardian article claimed the tweet “had the stench of British historical amnesia and of institutionalized racism.”
Because what it did was reveal that the British Treasury at least, did not recognize this act, this “compensated emancipation,” as morally wrong, still, in 2018. So, was it really that bad, what they did? Making taxpayers purchase the freedom of enslaved people? I mean they did free them after all, right? They did help end slavery. Well I’ll let you make your own moral judgements. I’ll just tell you the story. For this one, we have to go back around 500 years.
Slavery began in the Americas with the Spanish. The Spanish were the first dominant group to colonize the area. They sent Christopher Columbus after all. First, they enslaved indigenous people living in the Caribbean islands but they just kept dying. They died by the thousands from overwork and disease. So Spain turned to Africa. They had African slaves in Spain already. In 1502 Juan de Córdoba sent several Africans he enslaved from Spain to Hispaniola which is like Haiti/Dominican Republic. They must have faired better than the natives they tried to enslave because in 1517 the first enslaved people were sent directly from Africa and the Atlantic slave trade was on.
By the end of the 17th century, England dominated the slave trade surpassing the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. Now at this point, England and America (or what would later be called the United States) are one in the same. There’s England, which became Great Britain in 1707, and there’s the American Colonies. So, in talking about British slavery here, I’m also talking about American slavery. It’s the same thing at this point.
The tale of slavery starts in Africa. I feel the need to clear up a few things when it comes to how Africans actually became enslaved in the Americas because I’ve heard people say things like “well, Africans are the ones who enslaved them. They captured their own people and sold them to the European slave traders.” And while that’s not all together untrue, it is primarily used to conveniently shift the guilt away from the Europeans and onto the Africans and I don’t think that’s fair. So let’s talk about it.
Based on the research of Akosua (A-co-see-ya) Perbi of the University of Ghana, “European slave traders, almost without exception, did not themselves capture slaves. They bought them from other Africans, usually kings or chiefs or wealthy merchants.” So the obvious question is, why were Africans capturing and selling their own people?
Well, slavery was already a thing in Africa and it had been for a very long time. But slavery was quite different there. In Africa, enslaved people usually had rights and protection under the law. They were typically accepted into the enslaver’s family and referred to as sons and daughters. They became part of the lineage of their enslavers. Now, I’m not trying to justify slavery here, just point out that it was different than in the Americas, much more humane. Actually, research suggests that the African kings and chiefs who were selling their people to the Europeans likely had no idea of the brutality of the slavery they were sending them to. If they had, perhaps many of them wouldn’t have participated.
But at the time, it seemed like a necessary evil. When the Atlantic slave trade was taking off, there was a lot of war going on in Africa. They were capturing people anyway, prisoners of war. Then the European slave traders were like, “hey, you’re in a war and you have all these prisoners. We’ll take the prisoners off your hands and we’ll give you guns.” So that’s what they did. They needed guns, which had been introduced in Africa by Europeans to begin with, and they needed to get rid of prisoners so, there you go.
Now Perbi is very clear on one thing though, she says “I’m not trying to shift blame or make Europeans feel less guilty.” Kwame Arhin of the Institute of African Affairs elaborates "They're trying to uncover the facts so that people will take a lesson from the evil of the past and say 'no more.'”
So let’s take a closer look at the quote “evil of the past.” And, trigger warning, this is not a fairy tale. This is horrific but, just like with the Trail of Tears which I covered in episode 5, it’s necessary that we tell these stories. I’m not trying to shock you or desensitize you. I’m just telling you what happened because only by knowing about it can we ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Let’s go back to the account of Olaudah Equiano who I referenced at the very beginning of this episode. Olaudah was an 18th century writer and abolitionist who wrote a memoir about his experiences as an enslaved person. He purchased his own slavery in 1766 and then supported the abolition of slavery in Britain. I mean, he more than just supported it, he was part of the abolitionist group the Sons of Africa, an active leader in the anti-slave-trade movement, and wrote an autobiography called The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano that helped pass the British Slave Trade Act of 1807. So, he’s kind of like Britain’s Frederick Douglass but 50 years earlier, or that’s at least who he reminds me of, anyway.
But, before all of that, he was an 11 year old boy living in the village of Essakka in present day southern Nigeria. In his memoir, he gives an account of his abduction, writing “One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep.”
Olaudah and his sister were eventually separated and sold to slave traders. Around 6 months later, he was forced onto a European slave ship with 244 other enslaved Africans. While waiting those 6 months to board the ship, he would have been kept in slave forts. Many of these fortresses are still standing along the coast of Africa.
Upon boarding a slave ship, enslaved people were stripped of any personal belongings they had managed to hold onto, branded with hot iron, chained, and sent below decks where they were shackled to other enslaved people and forced to lie down side by side in an area that was only a few feet high. They were cargo, not passengers, so they were packed in as tightly as possible. Death from suffocation, malnutrition, and disease were common. Captains of slave ships usually had sick or injured Africans thrown overboard so they could collect insurance money for them as lost property. Abuse and even murder by members of the crew were not uncommon. The conditions they were forced to endure at sea along the “middle passage” were horrific, so filthy that passing ships could smell the stench of the slave ships from far away.
Olaudah Equiano wrote of his journey “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us….This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”
When the survivors arrived in the Caribbean Islands or the east coast of the American Colonies, they were auctioned off. Families were separated, babies torn from their mothers, sold like property to the highest bidder. Most were shipped off to sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations where they worked in the fields around the clock, controlled by fear and torture.
These were massive operations, businesses really and, because of that, the enslavers kept fairly detailed records of their daily affairs. Many of them openly wrote about torturing and abusing enslaved people. Thomas Thistlewood was an overseer and enslaver on a Jamaican plantation in the mid 1700’s and just an overall garbage human. He loved meticulously recording all of the psychotic things he did to punish the enslaved people under his control. And, seriously skip ahead like 30 seconds if you don’t want to hear this next bit cause it’s seriously disturbing. Thistlewood recorded 3,852 sexual acts with 136 enslaved women during his 37 years in Jamaica. I told you, he was precise with his notetaking. He also recorded any punishments he ordered if they resisted him. In July of 1756 he recorded the punishment of an enslaved person as follows, and please pardon the language, trying to keep this pod clean but this is Thistlewood, not me, actually, I’ll probably bleep it. Okay so here’s what this monster wrote “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full and made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.” Um what? Seriously messed up.
Was every enslaved person’s experience this horrific? No, Thistlewood was likely pretty far on the sick freak end of the spectrum as far as enslavers go. And yes I’m sure there were enslaved people that were treated more like family than livestock, like your Mammy’s from Gone With the Wind. I’m sure that also existed but the vast majority of them worked on plantations under men like Thistlewood. Britain established the first ever slave society in Barbados. This was the first time in known history that a territory’s entire economy was based solely on the labor of enslaved people. Barbados is where Olaudah Equiano was sent for a time before he was sold to a new enslaver in the Virginia Colony.
This booming plantation economy in the colonies fueled the “triangle of trade” between Africa, the Americas, and Britain and certain people were getting very, very rich. According to the Guardian, “Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on Earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on Earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved.”
So what happened to Olaudah? Well he was eventually sold again to a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy named Michael Henry Pascal who gave him the name Gustavus Vassas which is the name he went by for most of his life. Olaudah Equiano is the name he used when he wrote his autobiography, so I feel like it’s his preferred name which is why I’m calling him that. At this point though, he can’t read or write and he barely speaks any English. Pascal took Olaudah back to England with him and ended up sending him to school so he could learn to read and write which was certainly uncommon, likely unheard of in the Americas but maybe not in Britain.
Olaudah was sold a few more times and eventually allowed to purchase his own freedom for 40 pounds which is the equivalent of 5,800 pounds or $7,200 today. Eventually he returned to England because it was way too dangerous to stay in the colonies as a freedman. He was almost kidnapped back into slavery as he loaded a ship in Georgia. After that he was like “nope.”
In England he became involved in the abolitionist movement and published his autobiography which was very successful and played a huge role in the anti-slavery movement there.
Just before that, tensions were brewing in the colonies leading to the American Revolution and at this point, our story of British enslavement becomes two separate stories - British and American. Now we have two separate countries. The United States of America includes the 13 mainland colonies and Great Britain keeps some of the Caribbean territories like Barbados and Jamaica.
Now this separation begins, of course, with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and I find the hypocrisy in it quite frustrating. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Sound familiar? The contradiction here should be pretty obvious. They’re seeking freedom from British rule, meanwhile they are buying and selling humans like livestock. Enslaved people were obviously excluded from the “all men” statement.
This didn’t go unnoticed at the time either Thomas Hutchinson, an American Loyalist and former governor of Massachusetts wrote “I could wish to ask the Delegates of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, how their constituents justify the depriving more than a hundred thousand Africans of their rights to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in some degree to their lives, if these rights are so absolutely unalienable….”So, yeah, right there with you Hutchinson.
What a lot of people don’t know though, is that the topic of slavery wasn’t just forgotten when they wrote the Declaration, it was intentionally left out. Actually, Thomas Jefferson wrote a 168 word passage in an earlier version of the Declaration condemning slavery. He blamed Britain’s King George for his role in the Atlantic slave trade and referred to slavery as “an assemblage of horrors.” And yes that’s King George III, one of our mad kings from last week’s episode. It’s wild how many interconnections there are between seemingly unrelated episodes. Really makes you realize how few people have controlled the narrative of history. Anyway, Jefferson’s anti-slavery passage was omitted from the final version of the Declaration of Independence. The economy of the southern states depended almost entirely on plantations fueled by slave labor and the shipping merchants in the north depended on the triangle trade that included trafficking enslaved Africans. At this point it’s like they knew it was wrong and they needed to put a stop to it, they just didn’t know how to do that without major conflict so they were like “eh, just leave that part out, we’ll let the next generation deal with it.”
Another glaring contradiction here I can’t help but mention. Thomas Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people in his lifetime including his own children with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. Yes, he enslaved his own children, y’all. And yet, he knows it’s wrong. This is almost worse to me than just being blind and ignorant to the immorality of slavery. To know it’s wrong, to call it “an assemblage of horrors” and then continue to do it yourself, for your own personal gain… ew.
So at this point, America knows slavery needs to end but they’re just like, nope, not gonna, it’s too hard. Anti-slavery is brewing in Britain as well, thanks in part to Olaudah’s autobiography. In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade, so, no new Africans coming in but of course at this point, there are so many enslaved African Americans living in the US and the remaining British colonies it’s basically self-sustaining.
Even though the federal government of the US refused to abolish slavery with its Declaration of Independence and later Constitution, the northern states start doing it anyway and by 1804, slavery is illegal in all of the northern states, or at least moving in that direction. The south is not budging though. They are not about to give up slavery, like I said, their economy depended on it entirely. And we all know it took the bloodiest war in American history to actually put a stop to it for good but that’s another episode.
So Great Britain abolished the slave trade but, just like in the southern US, their Caribbean colonies depend on slavery. But on those islands, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, the white enslavers were vastly outnumbered by enslaved men and women and this is about to become a problem for them. In the early 1800’s enslaved people in the Caribbean started to rebel against their British enslavers. In Jamaica 60,000 enslaved people went on strike, they burned the sugar cane in the fields, they used their tools to destroy the sugar mills, they imprisoned the enslavers on their estates but didn’t hurt them which is an impressive show of restraint after the atrocities that had been shown to them by these men.
The British government in Jamaica responded by violently intervening, killing some 540 participants in the rebellion. This incident actually helps to further the abolitionist cause in Britain though. It was referred to as a “death blow” to slavery. So that, combined with a growing interest in free trade which made slavery less economically necessary, pushed Britain towards abolishing slavery.
And now we come to the way in which they actually pulled that off without a Civil War - “compensated emancipation.” So this was the idea that enslavers should be financially compensated, paid, as a way of upholding property rights, that property of course being human beings. This was a relatively new idea. When slavery was abolished in northern US states, no compensation was offered to the enslavers. They were just like “it’s done, let um go, sorry.”
Now this has obvious glaring issues because the only reason enslavers would need to be compensated financially is if the people they enslaved were in fact property. So by offering this, Britain is acknowledging the owning of human beings as a legitimate thing. They are not denouncing the institution of slavery, they are ending it, but upholding it. British abolitionists were super torn at the time. Some saw it as a means to an end, the only way to put a stop to slavery, a necessary evil. Others rallied against it and even demanded that the compensation be paid to the enslaved people, not their enslavers. An 1826 anti-slavery pamphlet stated “to the slave holder nothing is due; to the slave, everything.” Olaudah Equiano had been dead for 30 years at this point, but I can’t imagine he would have supported this either.
But it’s ultimately what they decided to do with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. And it’s not even like once that was signed all the enslaved people walked free, oh no. At the stroke of midnight on August 1, 1834 they were technically free of the legal category of slavery, but then they immediately entered into something called “apprenticeship” which was actually just them continuing to work for free on the same plantations where they had been enslaved so… literally nothing changed except the legal classification. This “apprenticeship” period was all part of the deal and was supposed to last for 12 years but, thank God, only lasted 4. During this period, Britain declared it would teach formerly enslaved people how to use their freedom responsibly and would train them out of their natural state of quote “savagery.” Barf. Who are the real savages here? Which party isn’t using their freedom responsibly? Mmhmm.
One problem with the apprenticeship period was that the duty to punish formerly enslaved people shifted from individual enslavers to a government funded agency called the stipendiary magistrates. And they weren’t any better than the enslavers, they might have been worse. One particularly barbaric form of punishment they used was the treadmill. No, not like the thing you run on at the gym, although it was the precursor to that. Treadmills started as punishment devices in prisons and on plantations. They were basically big wooden wheels with wooden slats, think like a water wheel. I actually have an illustration of an original treadmill @historyfixpodcast if you need a visual. People were hung by their hands from a plank above the wheel and forced to run on it barefoot for hours and this was often combined with whippings. So, so much for freedom right? The treadmill punishment was mostly used after slavery was abolished during the apprenticeship period.
47,000 enslavers were given compensation checks after the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. They lined up at the National Debt Office with their application forms that asked them to itemize the number and types of enslaved people in their possession and they were paid based on this inventory of personal property. Paid with money the country did not actually have. 75% of the money, 15 million was loaned by Nathan Mayer Rothschild - yeah, remember the Rothschilds from episode 6? Same family. I told you they were super rich. So now the government’s in debt - a debt that they proceeded to pay off over the next 2 centuries by taxing citizens who had no idea what they were buying.
Slavery and apprenticeship, which was still just slavery under a new name, officially ended in 1838 and Great Britain was heralded as the first country to abolish slavery. But the devastating consequences of the institution continue to this day. Caribbean nations have been struggling ever since. They are generally impoverished and underdeveloped to this day. Professor Catherine Hall of University College London says “Slavery has left the most terrible marks and legacies on not just people's material lives – which it has; the levels of inequality, the levels of under-development of the Caribbean in terms of health and education are deeply shocking – but there's also the psychic histories connected with that. They aren't just over. They carry on."
In 2013 Caribbean nations still under the control of Great Britain, or the United Kingdom now, started to call for reparations. Basically they just want the UK to apologize and acknowledge their role in the chronic poverty they still experience there today as a result of slavery. But, you guys, they haven’t, they still haven’t. According to the Guardian, “not a single shilling of reparation nor a single word of apology has ever been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved or their descendants.”
Now I’m not saying British slavery was any worse than American slavery, they were one in the same for most of that time. And the British did successfully abolish it first. It took another 30 years and a civil war for America to pull that off. But the American government certainly didn’t pay off the enslavers with the people’s money. They opted for civil war over that and for that, I’m proud. I mean, don’t take that the wrong way, war is terrible, the Civil War was especially devastating. But the cause was important, the sacrifice was necessary. I’m launching this episode on Memorial Day weekend, and today I’m proud of the soldiers who willingly gave their lives to put a stop to slavery in this country and I’m proud that, as a country, we didn’t set our principles, our moral integrity aside in that moment.
I mean can you imagine if it happened that way in America? If it came out, just a few years ago, that a portion of our taxes we paid every year, that our parents paid, their grandparents paid, great grandparents, etc., that a portion of that went to purchase enslaved people without our knowing, without our permission? There would be complete outrage. There would be riots in the streets. They would have to do so much more than delete a tactless tweet to remedy that here. Because what Great Britain did with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, what they really did was make their citizens, all of them, complicit in the sale of human beings without their knowledge and that is reprehensible. And then to come out and tweet about it in 2018 as a #FridayFact, it just speaks terrifying volumes about how far we haven’t come in the past 200 years. Just a few months after that tweet the then prime minister David Cameron, whose family benefited directly from the compensation received by enslavers by the way, made an official visit to Jamaica. While there he told them it was time to quote “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” So much for an apology.
While the UK hasn’t offered any reparations, not even an apology to the descendants of the people it enslaved, America has. On July 28, 2008 the U.S. House of Representatives offered an apology to black Americans for the institution of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. In the resolution, Representative Steve Cohen from Tennessee said “The fact is, slavery and Jim Crow are stains upon what is the greatest nation on the face of the earth and the greatest government ever conceived by man. But when we conceived this government and said all men were created equal we didn't in fact make all men equal, nor did we make women equal. We have worked to form a more perfect union, and part of forming a more perfect union is laws, and part of it is such as resolutions like we have before us today where we face up to our mistakes and we apologize, as anyone should apologize for things that were done in the past that were wrong. And we begin a dialogue that will hopefully lead us to a better understanding of where we are in America today and why certain conditions exist.” end quote
Not that an apology undoes centuries of hurt. There are wounds that will never be healed but it’s a start. And it’s clear we still have a long way to go in the US as well towards healing the hurt that was caused by our ancestors. But the first step is awareness, and not in the form of a playfully ignorant government tweet. We need to be talking about this stuff, teaching it, preaching it as painful as it may be to acknowledge because if we just stand by and let the discrimination and racial inequality continue, if we let the shockwaves of slavery continue to reverberate, we are complicit in it. Not acting is acting and the message is loud and clear.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story meaningful and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from history.com, nationalhumanitiescenter.org, the Library of Congress, the Guardian, CNN, Wikipedia, and Beinecke Library at Yale University. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.