In 1833 Britain allocated the extraordinary sum of £20 million—40 percent of the British treasury’s annual expenditures at the time, and the equivalent today of some $3.35 billion—in compensation payments to make a clean and final break with slavery. This was the year that it freed enslaved people throughout its empire and a quarter of a century after it outlawed participation in the transatlantic commerce in Africans, which it had dominated for 150 years. During that time it had shipped three million slaves to the Americas.
Since then the country has attempted to recast the historical understanding of how it profited from the forced labor of millions of Africans. Britons were taught—and many still believe—that slavery had never been a foundation of their country’s commercial prosperity but was a millstone that needed to be removed so capitalism could truly flourish. Echoes of such thinking can be heard in the claims of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, that exiting the European Union was a way for Britain to reconnect with its proud traditions as a global trading power.
In the place of remorse or even meaningful dialogue about their slave-trading and plantation-operating past, Britons have been encouraged to embrace feel-good messages about freedom. Such efforts began in the early nineteenth century with the promotion of their country as the very avatar of the liberation of human chattel. A central prop in this national image management was Britain’s West Africa Squadron, the ships that periodically swept the African coast in the nineteenth century, interdicting recalcitrant traders in human beings, whether from Europe or the Americas, and freeing the Africans they seized. Britons were also regaled with tales of the gratitude of former slaves who had been freed from bondage on West Indian plantations and allowed to work for themselves in the New World for the first time.
What was wrong with such a flattering picture? To begin with, the generous compensation paid in 1833 went not into the pockets of the enslaved, or even toward their care or rehabilitation, but to the former slave owners. Many of them increased their fortunes by investing in the emerging industries of the day, including banks, railroad stocks, mines, factories, and, for some, American cotton, then a booming new slave industry. Seventy-five baronets are listed in the compensation records, along with dozens of members of Parliament.
The legend of the West Africa Squadron, though not trivial, was blown out of all proportion to its actual impact on the shadowy last years of the illicit international trade in slaves. As Padraic X. Scanlan writes in Slave Empire: How Slavery Built Modern Britain, his bracingly revisionist work on the era of Black bondage and its aftermath, popular histories about this interdiction force bore subtitles like “The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade.” But in reality it did nothing of the sort. More than 2.6 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic after 1810, when the British patrols, always sparse in number, began: “The Squadron was more useful as a fighting force for intimidating and destroying West African coastal kingdoms and chieftaincies that happened to defy British demands.”
And what became of the enslaved people who were freed from their chains when total abolition finally came? Scanlan says they were paid wages far too low to allow them to purchase land of their own, so they had to continue producing sugar and coffee, cotton and indigo for others under harsh conditions in the Caribbean. In fact, he argues, that was the goal all along. Even among the most progressive of English abolitionists, many believed that the best outcome of this new era of nominal freedom for formerly enslaved Black people would be for them to toil indefinitely under the tutelage of wealthy white plantation owners whose commodities British comfort and prosperity required.
The intellectual background of Scanlan’s book, which he acknowledges early on, is the argument—first made by the former Trinidadian prime minister and scholar Eric Williams and recently elaborated and refined by numerous other historians—that an empire in the Caribbean based on slavery was foundational to British capitalism and prosperity. To say that Western historians have not always embraced this interpretation would be an understatement. For decades after the publication of Williams’s landmark work, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), the scholarly pendulum mostly swung in the opposite direction. Mainstream British and American historians attacked his writings as overwrought and unsupported, and made light of his overall argument by seizing on two of his claims: that profits from the slave trade had been an essential part of the financing of British industrialization, and that Britain only renounced slavery once it was no longer profitable. This second idea is clearly indefensible, but today many historians believe that the first can only be considered wrong if it is viewed in the most limited way.
Scanlan, like other recent scholars, argues quite sensibly that profit from the slave trade derived from other activities besides the outright buying and selling of human beings. He makes clear, though, that this brutal commerce was immensely lucrative. Slave traders of the late eighteenth century averaged a handsome 9.5 percent annual rate of profit, more than double the appreciation in value of British real estate. Another way of understanding the profitability of this business comes from examining its effects elsewhere. In a 2014 paper, the economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman argued that the value derived from the trade and ownership of slaves in America was greater than that from all of the country’s factories, railroads, and canals combined.* And imports of slaves to the United States represented less than 5 percent of the total transatlantic trade, with much larger numbers going to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Many of Williams’s critics narrowly considered the market prices of slaves to attack the idea that profit from the trade could have been a decisive factor in British industrialization. Yet it is only when one considers the overall wealth creation made possible by slave labor, which is implicit in Piketty and Zucman’s calculation, that one can begin to take the true measure of the trade’s impact on British (as well as European and American) prosperity. Chattel slavery was the foundation of a great many economic activities, including what was arguably the most transformative one of its era: the sugar plantation.
As businesses, Scanlan reckons, plantations were roughly as profitable as the trade in human beings, but even this falls far short of providing the full picture of how decisively slavery boosted Britain’s (and America’s) fortunes. Limiting the estimate to sugar, or even adding in the profits from the ceaseless buying and selling of millions of human beings, would be akin to measuring global carbon emissions from the internal combustion engine alone. By the mid-1660s, sugar produced in the tiny British colony of Barbados was worth more than all the silver and gold shipped to Spain from its American colonies.
With the sharp growth of sugar plantations, in Barbados and then Jamaica, the contribution of trade to Britain’s gross domestic product rocketed from 4 percent in 1700 to 40 percent in 1770. But as this happened, the boom in sugar and other slave-grown commodities, along with the slave trade itself, in turn drove all kinds of highly profitable ancillary activities that employed large numbers of Britons, from rope making to shipbuilding, from firearms and ironworks to banking, from textile production (for two very different markets: to clothe both slaves and their masters) to insurance and finance. It was the cascading wealth derived from this partial list of booming slavery-related businesses that made London the leader in financial services and the biggest city in Europe in the eighteenth century, with more than 750,000 residents—over 200,000 more than Paris and six times larger than Vienna or Madrid. As a result, Scanlan writes, “trade made the empire; slavery made trade.”
To capture the essence of all of these money-making activities even more damningly: “Slaves. Cotton. Sugar. This country’s nothing but an off-shore laundry for turning evil into hard currency.” The line comes from the popular television series Succession and is quoted in Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.
The contribution of slavery to British wealth was not limited to things measured as trade or easily captured in the bookkeeper’s ledger. As the anthropologist Sidney Mintz pointed out in his classic work Sweetness and Power (1986), in the eighteenth century sugar plantations, kept running by the enslaved, were important precursors of industrialization. Not only were they much larger than almost any other type of production common to Europe at the time, they operated on the basis of clear specialization of regimented labor working under severe time pressure and relied on the synchronization of multiple complex operations, anticipating the modern factory. These operations included not only planting, weeding, and harvesting, as well as the management of a large enslaved workforce, but also the highly time-sensitive boiling and “purging” of the cane juice into molasses and sugar. They were brutal, Scanlan writes, but also among “the most prosperous, heavily capitalised and mechanised workplaces of the pre-industrial era.”
To grasp the full import of Scanlan’s statement that slavery in effect made the empire, though, one must move even further away from classical economics. He argues, for example, that it was the creation of new productive economies in the New World, and above all in the West Indies, that facilitated the political stitching together of what became the United Kingdom. The story of white indentured servants in places like Barbados in the early seventeenth century, at the very outset of the sugar boom, is well known, at least to historians of slavery and empire. In that era, before they were replaced after midcentury by enslaved Africans, whites of varying backgrounds, some economically desperate, others merely chancers seeking their fortunes in the booming plantation world, supplied much of the energy and no small portion of the labor that launched these complex, wealth-generating operations.
This outpouring of Johnny New-Comes, as they were sometimes called in the popular culture of the time, relieved some of the destitution in England that resulted from enclosure laws that barred commoners from access to vast tracts of land beginning in 1604. The West Indies (and the American mainland) thus became a vital “escape valve” at a time of tremendous social upheaval. “For the enslaved, the British empire was a prison,” Scanlan writes. “For many Britons, the slave empire opened a path to ‘British liberty.’” For those whites who survived, one might add, passage to “the islands,” and the slave regime being built there, also constituted an enormous economic opportunity and a historically unique social upgrade, in which they became part of a new racial master class.
No less important was the way that this new emigration outlet became a locus of self-reinvention and wealth creation for the already well-off, thus serving as a vital catalyst in the consolidation of a still-fragile union encompassing what are now the British Isles. Scanlan writes that the West Indies (as well as the then much less wealthy American mainland) were open to the migration of a managerial class of Scots and Irish in a way that England in the mid-eighteenth century was generally not: “The Americas offered ambitious Scots and Irish a new place to earn their fortune and secure land for themselves far from an England where Celts often got a chilly reception.” At an elite social level, the demand for professional services, especially from the lawyers who ran plantations on behalf of absentee owners, and the opportunities for striking it rich through enslavement, sugar, and other commodities were especially important in forging unity within Britain:
The profits of trade and slaveholding drew wealthy English, Scots and Irish landowners and merchants closer together, and provided ambitious and educated young men, especially from Scotland, with a steady source of employment.
The trade in enslaved Black bodies from ports in Scotland and the constant cycling through the Caribbean islands of the Scottish professional class combined to help make Glasgow the unofficial second capital of Britain’s lucrative Atlantic empire, in Sanghera’s phrase. Scots and Irish who made a fortune in slavery could also acquire a proper London address, which gave them social entrée to England’s elites, helping to establish a single political class.
A further way that the British Empire was built can be explained by the thesis of the late American sociologist and political thinker Charles Tilly that “war makes states.” Scanlan’s book joins a growing body of historiography, including my Born in Blackness (2021), that argues that the English, and subsequently British, states grew in administrative capacity and robustness as a direct consequence of prolonged military contests with the Dutch, the Spanish, and especially the French over who would dominate the slave trade and the plantation economy centered in the West Indies.
War with France, Scanlan notes, whether alone or in coalition, lasted for nearly the entire eighteenth century, and much of it explicitly involved slavery, although this is seldom emphasized in standard accounts of the period. In British narratives, for example, the Seven Years’ War largely took place in Europe. In the United States, in contrast, it is mostly remembered as the French and Indian War, a fight for control of the Ohio River Valley, a story enlivened for American readers by the appearance of the young and not-yet-surefooted George Washington. For the French, however, an important rationale behind the war in continental America involved tying down their British rivals there to prevent them from taking over France’s West Indian colonies.
As Scanlan points out, William Pitt the Elder urged Parliament to borrow as much money as the government’s creditors would allow in order to muster and deploy huge numbers of troops in a conflict that became truly global. British victories were won from Nova Scotia to the Philippines, but the richest prizes were concentrated in the Caribbean: Guadeloupe, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, and Tobago, as well as Spanish Havana, all of which were vastly more lucrative for Europeans than the American mainland. After Pitt’s navy seized Guadeloupe in 1759, Britain imported more slaves there in two years than France had since the beginning of the century. As a result, by 1761, this small island led all of London’s possessions in the export of sugar, cotton, rum, and coffee.
Despite all this, a diminishment and trivialization of the place of slavery in Britain’s modern economic life is still a powerful, even dominant current in the country’s mainstream historiography. Sanghera observes that P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins’s major study British Imperialism: 1688–2015, published to acclaim in England in 2016, barely mentions slavery at all.
Such erasure is not limited to discussions of the economics of empire. Determined to control the richest of the sugar islands following its seizure of Guadeloupe, in 1793 Britain sent the largest naval expedition it had ever assembled to capture Saint-Domingue, which under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture had risen up against the French. The former slaves of what would soon become Haiti, however, defeated the British; more of their soldiers died there in battle and from disease than had died in the American Revolutionary War two decades earlier. As Louverture said, rallying his men to victory, “We are fighting that liberty—that most precious of all earthly possessions—may not perish.” Neither the name Saint-Domingue nor Haiti has ever appeared on a British regimental banner in remembrance of this campaign, unlike major defeats by European armies. British students, furthermore, are rarely taught about these events, because they run so contrary to the preferred national narrative.
Empireland is deeply preoccupied with questions of memory and forgetting, with Britain’s vexed and contorted feelings about empire, and with the grudging place accorded to nonwhites of all backgrounds in its society. Although he is of Indian extraction, Sanghera, a British-born journalist and documentary filmmaker, describes himself as having been “clueless” about topics like these for most of his life, and his book opens in a confessional mode about how the scales of ignorance tumbled from his eyes.
Sanghera’s personal approach—much more anecdotal than most historical writing—is disarming and makes his account of occasionally horrified discovery all the more effective. Despite having a degree in history, he nonetheless says that he learned more about the dark side of Britain’s imperial past during the recent bout of what he calls “statuecide”—the toppling of statues of some of the most ignoble figures in the country’s imperial past—than he did from all the lectures he attended and books he read in school.
A similar revelation came to him during a visit to India, where he went to film a documentary in 2019. Sanghera says that he first learned about the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, one of the worst British atrocities in the country of his ancestors and what he calls “one of the key events of the twentieth century,” from watching the movie Gandhi while tipsy on a long flight. By confessing his ignorance, though, Sanghera is all the better equipped to invite his readers to question their own lack of awareness and shame about Britain’s actions in South Asia and elsewhere.
His book begins with the atrocities that first opened his eyes to the violence and looting (a word imported into English from India as a direct result of this history) that characterized the British takeover of India. From there, he dwells on London’s prolonged and extraordinary economic exploitation of its rich Asian colony. Estimates of the wealth that accrued to Britain vary. One of Sanghera’s Indian sources writes that his country was “bled anything between 5 to 10 percent of her GDP annually for close to two centuries.” Another calculates that the colony was “drained” of nearly $45 trillion in today’s money between 1765 and 1938, or seventeen times the total annual gross domestic product of the United Kingdom today. Still other estimates are cited, leaving both Sanghera and the reader uncertain how exactly to appraise the economic relationship between metropole and colony.
More interesting is the contrast between reckonings like these and the statements of powerful British figures over the years, which are steeped in denialism. Santham quotes a speech by Benjamin Disraeli in 1872: “It has been shown with precise, with mathematical demonstration, that there never was a jewel in the crown of England that was so costly as the possession of India.” A line can be drawn from this to the remarks made by former British prime minister David Cameron during a visit to India in 2013, where he said, “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.” These two remarks share the idea that Britain was doing others a favor by colonizing them, purportedly even at its own expense. Here is the essence of “the white man’s burden,” the phrase immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem of that name, and a keystone in the refashioning of the country’s sense of itself in the post-slavery nineteenth century.
Sanghera is at his best in exploring the many contradictions raised by all this. Britain wants its people to be proud of the country’s grand imperial past, but it doesn’t seem to want them to know much about it. Another British prime minister, Gordon Brown, argued during a 2005 visit to East Africa that Britain should stop apologizing for its empire and recognize that what he called some of the “greatest ideas” in history came from it. It is—to say the least—curious, then, that so little is taught about the imperial past in schools. Beyond the silence of his own elite boarding school education on the topic, Sanghera cites numerous others, including professional historians such as Bernard Porter, who has written that he did “not remember the empire ever being discussed or even mentioned at home as a child,” and that he had encountered “no imperial history whatsoever” before his postgraduate studies. The novelist Charlotte Mendelson claimed that she had “one of the best educations Britain can offer” but that she had been “taught nothing about slavery or colonialism. Nothing. Ever.”
“The British Empire,” Sanghera writes,
was not only the biggest thing that ever happened to us, but one of the biggest things that ever happened to the world. At its height it covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and governed nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
He quotes the Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman, who observed that “for a Martian historian” this would surely be the most interesting aspect of Britain’s modern history. And yet, Sanghera says, the country’s prevailing sense of itself is almost entirely built instead around carefully tended tales of national sacrifice, heroism, and victory in the twentieth century’s two world wars.
But that is not all. One of the discoveries that seems to have touched Sanghera most during his research is the fact that during those wars millions of troops were conscripted from all over the empire to fight on Britain’s behalf, which receives scant mention in standard histories and is all but absent in films or war commemorations. This makes Sanghera ruminate about the treatment of brown and Black peoples of all descriptions who settled in Britain in the postwar era, often as the result of official recruitment drives aimed at economic recovery and reconstruction. In doing so, he returns once again to his previous naiveté: “The narrative that brown people imposed themselves on Britain is so powerful that I absorbed it myself, as a young brown Briton.” Later he writes, “We forget not only that black and Asian people were invited to work here, but that many came as citizens; we forget more generally that Britain was built on immigration.”
Sanghera’s most powerful question looms throughout his book. Through the slave trade and subsequent colonization, the British Empire presided over “one of the biggest white supremacist enterprises in the history of humanity.” How, then, should it be recognized today? For many, he concludes, understanding of empire has merely become a shallow proxy for nationalism. Britons don’t like to be faced with uncomfortable details, and they confront people like Sanghera, sometimes angrily, with the question of whether intellectuals like him aren’t overemphasizing the negative.
The British, he says, take comfort in the idea that the US is, in the popular view, more “screwed up” than their own country. But at least in the US, which also struggles with denialism about its racial history, the tragedy of slavery has finally become a prominent feature in popular culture. French president Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has gone much further than any British leader, calling his country’s colonialism “a crime against humanity, a real barbarity.” This, Macron said, is “a past that we need to confront by apologizing to those against whom we committed these acts.” For Britain, Sanghera warns,
the way we fail to acknowledge we are a multicultural society because we had a multicultural empire makes our national conversations about race tragic and absurd…. Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modern-day racism, are catastrophic.