We’re really sorry about slavery, say the Church and the Government and the Queen. It was a real blot on Britain’s moral integrity and we really wish it hadn’t happened. But thank goodness for chaps like William Wilberforce who pricked our consciences and persuaded us to renounce the slave trade. Let’s put his head on a stamp and make a film about him. Let’s listen to earnest speeches by the Archbishop of Canterbury and we can all feel better about ourselves.
1807, let’s recall, only meant the end of Britain’s official involvement in the slave trade. It didn’t even signify the abolition of slavery in the British Empire: that didn’t come until 1833. And while the efforts of the likes of Wilberforce certainly expressed the progressive nature of the bourgeoisie in its halcyon days, let’s not forget that slavery was not an accidental blemish on Britain’s civilising mission. It was an absolutely essential basis for the development of the capitalist mode of production, this ‘civilisation’ for which the British bourgeoisie was such an exceptional pioneer. The immoral earnings drawn from slavery – along with looting, buccaneering and other forms of thievery – were fed into the reservoirs of money-capital which in turn nourished the industrial revolution and the commercial greatness of Britain’s ports and shipping. “Direct slavery is as much the pivot of our industry today as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery no cotton; without cotton, no modern industry. It is slavery which has made the colonies valuable; the colonies have created world trade; world trade is the necessary condition of large-scale machine industry. Thus, before the traffic in Negroes began, the colonies supplied the Old World with only a few products and made no visible change in the face of the earth. Slavery is therefore an economic category of the highest importance” (Karl Marx to Pavel Yasilyevich Annenkov, December 28, 1846).
And let’s not forget that this industrial revolution signified the triumph of a new form of slavery – the wage slavery of a new class of toilers, a form of exploitation which was vastly more productive and thus vastly more profitable than chattel slavery. And just as the slave trade was a foundation stone of the primitive accumulation of capital from the 16th century onwards, so this new form of sweated labour made 19th century Britain the ‘workshop of the world’, whose Empire was second to none. But as the Chartist writer Ernest Jones wrote of the British Empire in 1851: "On its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries."
No amount of apologies will change the fact that the institutions who are conducting these hypocritical services of reconciliation – church, parliament, army and navy – are marked irretrievably by the system of exploitation which they not only helped to set up, but which they help to preserve to this day. Amos 31/3/7