In June thousands of people, provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping America, took to the streets in the United Kingdom to demonstrate against racism in their own country. One target of their anger was statues honoring British men of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries who prospered by enslaving and oppressing others, among them one in Bristol of Edward Colston that was pulled down and thrown into the harbor. It’s hardly surprising that many such monuments exist, for the apathy of the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish toward their historical complicity in slavery has always been as striking as their indifference to its enduring legacy. Compared to the United States, and despite the work of many outstanding British (and non-British) historians,1 slavery remains a marginal subject in the public imagination, its reality and consequences mentally separated from the identity and experiences of the nation.
Across the British Isles there are also numerous public monuments to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807—permanent celebrations of national enlightenment and redemption (though in reality, British slave-owning continued for decades and was phased out only gradually after 1834). As far as I know, only a single recent sculpture, on the quayside of the former slaving port of Lancaster, simply honors the millions of victims. It’s as if every memorial in postwar Germany primarily commemorated the liberation of the death camps and the ousting of the Nazis, rather than the Holocaust itself.
Slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to global power. Throughout the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India but in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands. The two most important—tiny Barbados and its larger, distant neighbor Jamaica—were among the most profitable places on earth. On the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and the craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life—not least because of its association with that other newly fashionable drug, tea. Between 1700 and 1800, English consumption of sugar skyrocketed from about four pounds per person per year to almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as that of the French.
All this abundance, luxury, and…
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