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The brutal history of the slave tax in the UK

June 2020

The brutal history of the slave tax in the UK

In February 2018 the Bank of England’s Twitter page chirpily announced: ‘Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you helped end the slave trade through your taxes’. The infographic attached reported that ‘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’.

It seemed that an overdue and heroic national sacrifice that had burdened generations of British taxpayers with a debt of shame had finally been paid off. The sum paid to end the slave trade was so large (estimated by some to be over £300 Billion at more modern prices) that it took 182 years to be repaid by taxpayers. How could the ending of the slave trade not be a good thing?

Of course, the reality was not so simple; this money was not paid to the slaves but to over 46,000 slave owners as compensation by taxpayers. This ‘deal’ resulting in huge payments to the slave owners was further sweetened by allowing the slave owners to continue to force slaves to work for them for no pay for a further 6 years under a so called ‘apprenticeship’ system.

Unsurprisingly, the Bank of England soon deleted its ill thought out tweet. As not only was it offensive in that it only told part of the history, it was also inaccurate on a number of fronts. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833 and the unpaid ‘apprenticeship’ scheme continued for a number of years. The purpose of the ‘apprenticeship’ scheme was to ‘educate’ slaves on how to use their freedom ‘responsibly’ and to train them out of their ‘natural state of savagery’. The apprenticeship system was supported by British state funded police forces who would punish apprentices according to a tariff, including a torture treadmill to discourage laziness. Enslaved peoples called this period the ‘barbarity time’ and it led to the development of informal banking, legal and trading networks between slaves in different plantation enclaves.

The British slave trade was enormous and very profitable. 11 million slaves were transported between Africa and the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries – 50% of the slaves were carried in British ships. Those slaves deemed too unruly, too sick or weak were thrown overboard. On arrival in the Americas they were sold to the highest bidder. The brutality meted out by the traders and owners makes for shocking reading.

The slave owners were the beneficiaries of the compensation payment at the largesse of the British taxpayer, as some argued it would help end the slave trade. Slave owners argued that since slaves were their property that could be bought and sold, they should be compensated in the same way as when a government compensates landowners when it takes over land to build a new railway or canal. The campaign for the abolition of slavery agonised over the payment of this compensation as it was contrary to their belief that one human could own another. Many were actively against the idea, a pamphlet of 1826 stated, ‘to the slave-holder, nothing is due; to the slave, everything’.

The compensation of slave owners by taxpayers is not an isolated example of their power and influence in Britain. On the 29 November 1781 the Liverpool based ship Zong threw its cargo of slaves overboard after the ship reportedly ran low on drinking water as a result of navigational errors. The owners of the ship claimed compensation for the loss of the slaves from their insurance company who disputed the claim. The matter ended up in court in the case of Gregson v Gilbert (1783) [3 Doug. KB232], with the ship owners successfully arguing that killing slaves was legal in some circumstances and hence the insurance monies were due. The judge, Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield in his summing up of the verdict said that the jury ‘had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board ... The Question was, whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest? The Jury were of opinion there was’. The case was  appealed subsequently, the hearing again being over seen by the Earl of Mansfield when new evidence emerged of the murder of slaves in batches, including after heavy rain had fallen (thereby ameliorating the water shortage). No member of the crew was ever tried for murder despite the efforts of the abolitionist and self-taught lawyer Granville Sharp.

The publicity surrounding the case assisted the abolitionist movement and the Zong massacre as in came to be known, gained notoriety and even resulted in the artist J.M.W Turner painting his work The Slave Ship in 1840 as a representation of the massacre.

Britain is still grappling with its shameful past. The British Prime Minister David Cameron (whose ancestors were slave owners) acknowledged on a visit to Jamaica in 2015 that ‘wounds run very deep’, but also ruled out reparations and urged all parties to ‘move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future’.

It seems that there still a long way for Britain to go in facing up to its brutal history .

Footnote: The University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership centre maintains a database of those slave owners compensated: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

The brutal history of the slave tax in the UK.pdf


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