Slavery is old. It has been a common practice for centuries, with mentions of slavery even in the Old Testament of the Bible, especially ‘virgin girls’ of tribes that had been defeated (for instance Numbers 31, Deuteronimic Code, Exodus 21). The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans were known for having slaves, China has a long history of slavery and there is no reason to think other civilisations didn’t enslave conquered enemies. It took a long time for people to realise that we have no right to treat others as slaves, withhold their freedom or see them as property.
In Britain slave journeys started in 1562, with John Hawkins the first ‘slave-trader’. The British slave trade was at its peak between 1640 and 1807. Altogether it is estimated that Britain removed 3.1 million African people from their continent, of whom 2.7 million reached their destinations, mainly the West Indies or America. Some 400,000 died on the initial journey.
The North West in the 17th century
Sunderland Point was an important mooring area for ships to and from Africa, until a harbour for this trade was opened in Lancaster, to which ships could sail if the tide was high. Between 1700 and 1800 it is estimated that 122 slave ships used Lancaster harbour, so at least one every year. The ships would sail to Africa with ‘merchandise’, buy or collect slaves, sell them in the West Indies or America, and bring back goods such as sugarcane, cotton, spices or coffee (products that slave labour was deemed essential for). Lancaster still has a monument on the family grave of a family that profited from the trade, which has been marked by anti-slavery protesters in the recent past.
In the 1799 Slave Trade Act, the trade became restricted to three ports only (London, Bristol, Liverpool). In 1807 humanity prevailed somewhat, and the Abolition of Slave Trade Act was passed, meaning all British slave trade had to cease by March 1808 (giving ships already on the sea the chance to complete their journeys).
How did the North West benefit from slavery?
Without slavery and the cotton that was plucked by slaves and brought here, there would have been no cotton mills. No industrial revolution. And even when slave trade was abolished, we still bought our cotton from slave plantations. Bolton, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, but also smaller places like Wigan and St Helens had a flourishing cotton and linen industry in the 1700s. This created jobs and wealth (for the owners of the mills especially) and led to the construction of infrastructure (railways and canals).
The whole area benefited from this; even if the towns were not dealing in slaves themselves, they were benefiting from slave labour. And we still have the old mills and other reminders of the slave trade and slave labour around us.
Is slavery in the past?
I wish that were so. Modern slavery is still very much a thing, so much so that the government has made a new law to define the offence and make prosecution easier. This is the Modern Slavery Act 2015. At first the bill only covered human trafficking and slavery in the UK, but later slavery in the supply chain, even if it happens abroad, was mentioned as well (think about the fashion industry and the food supply chain).
The fact that the law has had to cover slavery in the UK is shameful. Unfortunately, it was (and is) very much necessary.
One of the best-known examples is that of the cocklers in Morecambe Bay, but there are numerous other cases, sometimes with one or two victims (often sexual or domestic exploitation), some with many more victims. And we not just talking about sexual or domestic exploitation, also labour in factories or on the fields, and stories about people working in restaurants who have their passports withheld, sleep on the floor and are forced to hand over any wages they might get. It happens all over the world, including all over the UK.
It is hard to understand the mindset of people who think it is okay to force others to do their bidding without remuneration, to abduct people from their homes and their country and hold them hostage to some imagined ‘debt’ they can never pay off. We would like to imagine that nowadays those who want to be rich will work for it themselves rather than exploit others for their own gain.
Sadly, however, although slavery is old, it is definitely not in the past.
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