A cautionary tale about how 17th Century slave traders are still alive and kicking in Bristol
Oh, dear. I was put on the spot. If you’ve been following my Yale Trilogy, you’ll know that Part One, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale, is rooted around Elihu Yale’s involvement, on behalf of the English East India Company, in the Indian Ocean Slave Trade during the 1680s. Now, we have a pub in the middle of Wrexham called the Elihu Yale. It’s a Weatherspoons pub. And there’s presently a petition going around requiring the company to change the name – a petition that sprang up, of course, from the Black Lives Matter protests. The name seems fairly appropriate to me, given the way the company’s owner, Tim Martin, treats his staff – but that’s a different matter entirely. Though, given the Yale books, I suppose it was fairly natural that I’d be asked for my views.
So my basic answer was to say that, no, I don’t think there’s any overwhelming majority view in Wrexham that the pub’s name needs changing. But is there a need to educate local folk a bit better about Elihu Yale’s dark side? Or to educate our kids better about the lasting evils of the slave trade? Oh, definitely.
I suppose what’s surprised me most over the past few weeks has been to see a whole batch of posts that seemed to question the significance of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its current impact on today’s society. Almost apologists for the slave trade. Things like: ‘Well, this is just how civilisation was at that point, it’s what they did.’ Or: ‘Well, they were just men of their time.’ Or sheer nonsense, like: ‘Well, there were more whites taken as slaves to North Africa than blacks as slaves to the United States.’
It’s plainly true that most cultures have kept slaves throughout history – usually captives taken as prisoners of warfare or conquest, and almost always for the direct use of their captors. Slave labour, of course. But the European powers – and especially Britain – are unique in both the industrial scale of their slave trading and the way in which they used that trade to build much of their national economies. But it was never true that slavery was simply “just how civilisation was at that point.” Throughout history from the 16th century onwards there have been huge movements recognising that slavery was an evil – the various Quaker/Dissenter faiths in Europe and the USA, or the steps taken by the Muslim Mughal Emperors to stop the trade in Indian slaves by the East India Company etc.
But it all prompted me to check out the consensus among historians specialising in comparative studies of the slave trade in the modern era (1500s onwards). The best data seems to show the following…
Crimean Khanate Slave Trade: organised by Crimean Muslim Tatars – 1.5 million Russian, Polish and Lithuanian slaves between 1500 and 1700;
Barbary Slave Trade (so-called “White Slave Trade”): organised by North African Arab raiders – possibly 1 million European white Christians slaves from Spain, Italy, France, Britain etc between mid-1500s and mid-1800s;
Indian Ocean Slave Trade: organised by English, Dutch and French East India Companies, plus Arab raiders – possibly 1 million Indian, East African and Chinese slaves between mid-1600s and late-1700s;
Atlantic Slave Trade: organised by Portuguese, British, Spanish, French, Dutch and Danish companies – a conservative 12 million African slaves between mid-1500s and mid-1800s.
There doesn’t seem to be a generally accepted figure for the probably incalculable numbers of First Nation American Indians taken into slavery, but this was also almost entirely by European colonists.
Worth noting, too, that current estimates put the numbers presently suffering enslavement, forced labour, at around 25 million, the highest proportion of those being women and young girls.
But is slavery linked to racism – or, rather, to exploitation and the exercise of power? Well, of course, it’s all of those things. It’s a typical feature of slavery that those engaged in its practice generally seek their prey among people they consider to be racially (and/or gender-wise) inferior. So, that mindless “bred in the bone” hatred or fear or loathing of black folk, Asians, Jews etc. Maybe always, too, that added ingredient of misogyny towards women. Hence the quite correct Black Lives Matter link between racism and slavery.
And pulling down statues? I had to admit that – being me – if I’d been in Bristol on 8th June I probably would have been tempted to join the protestors who pulled down Edward Colston’s statue. Tempted, but only that. Because I’d have known I was on a slippery slope. First, that I’d have been giving the Daily Mail exactly the excuse they wanted to detract from the massively important main message of the Black Lives Matter campaign. And, second, that I’d be giving a licence to the UK’s right-wing lunatics to claim they were exercising “the will of the people” by attacking statues of Nelson Mandela or Emmeline Pankhurst, or International Brigade memorials.
No, in the end I’d have fallen into the camp arguing that Colston’s statue should have been kept – though possibly shifted to a museum – with a decent plaque saying something like:
This statue was sculpted by Irish artist John Cassidy and erected in 1895 by the citizens of Bristol who, at that time, wished to commemorate his local philanthropy, even though that philanthropy amounted only to a tiny proportion of Colston’s personal wealth – wealth derived substantially from the Atlantic Slave Trade – and his philanthropy driven entirely by his selective religious beliefs.
In fact, during the last few decades, there have been various proposals to add a second plaque to the plinth to make Colston’s history more clear. The best of these said:
As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.
The addition of such a plaque was blocked, however, both by Conservative councillors and, strangely, by the charity calling itself the Society of Merchant Venturers. That organisation may presently perform many charitable acts but has its origins as a company which, in the 1690s, successfully campaigned for the Royal African Company’s monopoly in the slave trade to be opened up for all comers. It was thanks to this same Society of Merchant Venturers that the Atlantic Slave Trade proliferated to such an extent. 12 million African slaves!
So maybe that’s the story the papers didn’t bother to tell us. That Colston’s statue isn’t some innocent piece of street furniture. That it stood in the heart of Bristol without any educational plaque because organisations like the entirely unaccountable Society of Merchant Venturers – a throw-back to the 17th Century but continuing, even today, to exert considerable behind-the-scenes influence in our society – are in fact still unwilling to be honest about their part in the slave trade, maybe even proud of it.
Racism alive and kicking in that particular chunk of the British Establishment at least – and racism very directly linked to the slave trade.