How Britain buried its history of slavery
Slavery is a central and indisputable fact of the nation’s past. But our failure to remember what really happened is more than mere forgetfulness
Slightly tucked away from Manchester’s main thoroughfares, in a quiet square that bears his name, there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln – as it happens, just outside the windows of the Guardian’s offices in the city where the newspaper was founded nearly 202 years ago.
Manchester acquired the sculpture by chance. It was meant to appear outside the Houses of Parliament in London, as a symbol of Anglo-American cooperation – until the American donors were riven by fighting over its “weird and deformed” depiction of the famously homely president, and a more “heroic” statue was sent in its stead.
Manchester was keen to have it for a reason. Lincoln developed a deep affection for the city during the American civil war after Lancashire cotton mill workers resolved to back him at considerable cost to themselves. Manchester was the largest processor of cotton in the world at the time; the American slave-holding south was the largest producer. Lincoln, seeking to isolate and economically cripple the south, implemented a naval blockade of its cotton, which wrought great hardship on the mill workers in the north of England.
The British government was officially neutral. Many merchants in Liverpool, prioritising wealth at home over freedom abroad, backed the Confederate south and organised warships to support the enslavers. But in Manchester, a coalition of liberals, cotton workers and abolitionists came together to back the north. After a famous public meeting at the Free Trade Hall on 31 December 1862, Manchester’s workers resolved to endure the privations of the blockade and lend their weight to the fight against slavery. (The Guardian did not support them: its leader on that day warned that “English working men” should “know better than to allow the organised expression of their opinion as a class to be thrown into one scale or the other in a foreign civil war”.)
Months later, Lincoln wrote a letter of thanks to the “working-men of Manchester”, part of which is inscribed on his statue. “I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester, and in all Europe, are called to endure in this crisis,” he wrote. “Under the circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”
Manchester is understandably proud of this moment in its history, an act of international, antiracist solidarity between workers and enslaved African Americans. While in other cities statues of enslavers, slave traders and genocidal settlers have been defaced, dismantled or otherwise challenged, here was one statue that not only celebrated popular resistance to slavery but demonstrated a collective material sacrifice for the very principle.
Over time, the plaque on the statue featuring the words of Lincoln’s letter was faded by pollution and weather, and became impossible to read. When the local government minister Phil Woolas, then the Labour MP for nearby Oldham East and Saddleworth, was alerted to the problem, he resolved to pay “whatever it takes” to ensure its restoration. “It’s shameful, especially as we mark the 200th anniversary [of Britain abolishing the slave trade in 1807] that people cannot read this plaque,” Woolas said. The plaque was subsequently cleaned up. A few years later, Woolas was ousted from his seat by an electoral court after accusations of stirring up racial tensions to win votes.
But even as the workers’ support for the blockade showcased Manchester’s much-lauded liberal tradition, it also laid bare an essential feature of the city’s history that is rarely acknowledged: its economic dependence on the proceeds of slavery. For the reason the blockade affected Manchester so heavily was precisely because the labour of enslaved people was so deeply embedded in the wealth production that made Manchester and its surrounding areas what it was. It did not just put profits in the coffers of the merchants, it put food on the table of the labourers.
Slavery was so intimately woven into the economic fabric of the northern economy that any attempt to unpick it would cause the entire edifice to unravel.
This uncomfortable truth does not detract one iota from the bravery of the labourers who put the principle of abolition before their immediate wellbeing. But it does contextualise it. Britain’s racial history isn’t only a racist history. It includes a long line of antiracism struggles, from the abolitionists through to the 43 Group, a group of Jewish former servicemen and women who broke up fascist meetings in the 1940s, the Black Parents Movement and Race Today Collective, the Southall Monitoring Group, the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism and beyond. And that context illustrates how a history of collusion with racism can find itself erased within a more noble story of collective sacrifice to produce a more comforting memory of our past.
“Almost 90% of all our cotton came from the southern states of the American Union, and was, at least nine-tenths of it, the produce of the uncompensated labour of the negro,” John Bright, a liberal Quaker MP whose statue stands just around the corner from Lincoln in Albert Square, told a gathering at the London Tavern six months after the meeting at Manchester Free Trade Hall. “Everybody knew that we were carrying on a prodigious industry upon a most insecure foundation.”
Bright clearly understood that he was personally implicated in this: “I come from the midst of the great cotton industry of Lancashire; much of the largest proportion of anything I have depends on it.”
Mud huts and Mary Poppins
The question of how a central and undeniable fact of history – such as Manchester’s position as a commercial hub within the slavery economy – is buried under nostalgia for a more wholesome, moral, righteous past is not, of course, limited to either Manchester or slavery. The tendency to hail moments of occasional progress as though they discounted the decades of oppression that made such moments necessary is an all too common trait among powerful countries.
As the Caribbean historian Eric Williams observed, “the British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. In his landmark 1944 study, Capitalism and Slavery, Williams – later to become the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago – saw how quickly Britain’s identity as the world’s pre-eminent slave-trading power had been eclipsed by a moral and humanitarian story centred on abolition. It defined itself not by the immoral ways it had enriched itself for centuries but by its decision to stop doing the worst of those things, even as it kept the riches.
Britain makes little to no sense without its racial history. It is there in our literature, from Rhoda Swartz, the “rich wolly-haired mulatto” heiress from St Kitts in Vanity Fair, to Bertha Mason, the “discoloured” creole wife of Edward Rochester, with her “blackened” face from Jamaica, who is hidden in the attic in Jane Eyre. It is there in the turn-of-the-century world’s fairs where colonial subjects were shipped to Europe as exhibits, complete with grass skirts and mud huts.
You can even see it in the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins, where Admiral Boom, seeing Dick Van Dyke and the other chimney sweeps with sooty faces dancing on rooftops, bellows: “We’re being attacked by Hottentots,” and then fires at them; and when the bankers Fidelity Fiduciary serenade the children with the promise that if they invest their money with them they will help build: “Railways through Africa / Dams across the Nile … / Majestic, self-amortizing canals / Plantations of ripening tea.”
But Britain struggles to see itself as so many others see it. It has studiously eschewed an honest, accurate reckoning with what it has done, where it has been, and what that means for what it is and where we are. Indeed our determined avoidance of this history tells us almost as much about who we are as the history itself. “The essential characteristic of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common,” wrote the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan. “And must have forgotten many things as well.”
But is this really mere forgetfulness? Or something more deliberate? This is not the accidental, absent-minded misplacement of a fact. The transatlantic trade in human beings for profit doesn’t slip one’s mind, momentarily, like an elusive name or date. A nation does not forget centuries of slavery as a person might forget an umbrella. The nation sets about the task with great prejudice. After all, there are a good many things that predated this particular racial journey, from 1066 to the Wars of the Roses, that we do remember well.
Even the British empire – for all that its history has been contested and concealed – is far more visible in our cultural memory than slavery. The late Black British novelist Andrea Levy, whose most celebrated work, Small Island, is an exploration of the lived experience of empire during the second world war, once told me that she had avoided writing about slavery for most of her career, largely because she feared she would not find an audience.
“I want my books to be read,” she said, “but people don’t want to engage with [slavery]. There are lots who do – but there are many who will say that it was a very long time ago, and a lot who just don’t want you to mention it because it will make them feel bad. It’s painful, both for Black and white people. But it’s 300 years. You can’t just ignore it.” (Her final novel, The Long Song, was set on a plantation in Jamaica.)
As Levy intimated, it is not that we cannot “remember” slavery, or even Britain’s role. We are not so deluded as to believe it didn’t happen. The recollection does not elude us any more than the corpse of a victim eludes the murderer. It’s just that we would also like to bury it and hope it is never found, while we work on our alibi.
The principal issue here is not facts or a lack of knowledge. The most salient facts about slavery and colonialism are not seriously in dispute. What we conventionally call “forgetting”, or even “amnesia”, is really nothing of the sort. Nations are not individuals; they do not suffer from memory loss as they age. This is not a medical condition, but a political one: the wilful and selective process of sifting and filtering to find the memories that fit the narrative you are committed to, and excising, negating and delegitimising those that contradict it.
This is how nations construct their own histories. They are made more than they are “remembered”.
Amnesia implies a passivity, a condition subconsciously visited upon the unwilling forgetter. With Britain’s racial past we witness something far more active, conscious and deliberate. The forgetting doesn’t simply happen to us; we are at great pains to make it happen for everybody.
This process is by no means unique to Britain. The powerful in every society and culture craft their stories in their own image. “Until lions have historians,” goes the African proverb, “tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” But Britain has done more hunting than most.
The American prism
In all of this, the belated veneration of Lincoln is important because the US is central to Britain’s alibi, for racism in general and slavery in particular. A fantasy of America as the repository of all the world’s racism has allowed Britain – and indeed much of Europe – to enjoy a misplaced sense of superiority on issues of racial justice, to claim over and over again that whatever else we may do, at least it’s not as bad as the Americans.
This is actually an old habit. Here the speeches of Bright, a fervent antislavery campaigner who backed the blockade and championed the north against the Confederacy, are quite instructive.
Bright had never been to America but clearly held a great affection for the opportunities and freedoms it offered new immigrants. However, even as he campaigned against slavery, Bright appeared unable to trace its historical roots back to Britain – or to see the parallels in his own time across the British empire.
“The people of England, if they are true to their own sympathies, to their own history and to their own great act of 1834,” he told a crowd in Rochdale in 1861, referring to the year abolition took effect, “will have no sympathy with those [in the Confederacy] who wish to build up a great empire on the perpetual bondage of millions of their fellow men,” as though Britain was not, at that very time, building an empire on precisely that.
“Privilege has shuddered at what might happen to old Europe if [America’s] grand experiment should succeed,” Bright warned in 1863, at a mass meeting of trade unionists in London – as though transatlantic slavery was not, in fact, primarily the grand experiment of the British, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and Danes.
This use of the US as a prism, through which American racial failings could be seen all too clearly while Britain’s own shortcomings were at best obscured and at worst obliterated, has continued virtually uninterrupted.
Britain is by no means alone in this. In the 21st century, attention to racism has become a means through which Europe manages to offshore its resentment at American economic and military power, which it both covets and resents, by championing African Americans as a redemptive force in a country that does not live up to its own rhetoric. France, for example, embraced African American writers in exile, such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, even as it waged a vicious war in Algeria.
But it was in England that the discrepancy was most acute. When the US joined the second world war, some British ministers asked if it could not bring Black troops because hosting America’s segregated army would violate British sensibilities; the UK government could not abide a colour bar on British soil. On 29 September 1942, Tom Driberg MP asked Winston Churchill directly in the House of Commons “to make friendly representations to the American military authorities, asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country and that its non-observance by British troops or civilians should be regarded with equanimity”.
In his war diaries, Oliver Harvey, the private secretary of the leader of the Commons and future prime minister Anthony Eden, wrote: “It is rather a scandal that the Americans should export their internal [racial] problem. We don’t want to see lynching begin in England. I can’t bear the typical southern attitude towards the negroes. It is a great ulcer on the American civilisation and makes nonsense of half their claims.”
But surely these men had not forgotten that Britain practised the colour bar throughout most of the world at this time? This was merely one of the many systems of racial control, backed by state violence, that kept the sugar, tea, cotton and coal coming from all four corners of the globe.
This ability to unsee what is before our eyes is not confined to the past. The latter-day version of this selective myopia is the repeated insistence that Britain must not “import American race politics” – as if racism is an artisanal product of the US, like French champagne or Italian parmigiano reggiano. When protests erupted on the streets of British cities in 2020 under the banner of Black Lives Matter, many commentators smugly declared that this was an imitation of American fashions – even as the statue of a very English slave trader, Edward Colston, was dumped into Bristol’s harbour.
'Our liberty-loving empire'
One of the reasons European countries have been able to maintain and sustain these contradictions for so long is that while the US practised its most egregious acts of anti-Black racism at home, in Europe they took place outside the continent. They were, in effect, always exported.
It was easier to deny the brutality, and even existence, of European colour bars, lynchings and exploitation because the physical distance between the metropole and the colonies meant most did not personally witness the atrocities and rules that made them possible.
There are myriad ways a culture can claim to forget inconvenient parts of its history, even if precious few of them are plausible. One, as we witnessed earlier with Bright, is the strange capacity to “forget” in real time – even as something is happening, many claim to have already forgotten that it is taking place. “It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their empire,” wrote George Orwell in England Your England. “In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the empire exists.” In 1951, 10 years after that essay was published, the UK government’s social survey revealed that 59% of people could not name a single colony – this at a time when Britain still ruled over its many African possessions and Caribbean territories.
After witnessing an incident at a dance in Southend-on-Sea in Essex during the war, where six white American soldiers ejected a Black soldier after he danced with a local white woman, a man from Westcliff-on-Sea wrote an outraged letter to the Foreign Office. “I am particularly disgusted that at this point in the war, when so many men are dying in the fight for the rights of mankind, this sort of persecution should be allowed free hand in our liberty-loving empire.”
This cannot be “amnesia” because the knowledge has not been lost so much as obstructed; you cannot forget what you refuse to know to begin with. The American anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler has suggested we should call this phenomenon “colonial aphasia” – after the condition in which a person has difficulty with their language or speech, usually after a stroke.
“It is not a matter of ignorance or absence,” writes Stoler. “Aphasia is a dismembering, a difficulty speaking, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things.”
A few years before the second world war, Orwell delivered a rebuke to those who failed to see Britain’s role in the world in the way that so many others experienced it, in an article with the pointed title Not Counting Niggers, published in the literary review Adelphi in 1939.
“What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa … It is quite common for an Indian coolie’s leg to be thinner than the average Englishman’s arm,” he wrote. “And there is nothing racial in this, for well-fed members of the same races are of normal physique; it is due to simple starvation. This is the system which we all live on and which we denounce when there seems to be no danger of its being altered.”
While this denial was widespread, it was hardly plausible. Most people may not have seen it up close but they knew it was there. Britons of a certain generation were raised with the globe covered in pink to mark the territories of the empire – on which, they recited with pride, “the sun never set”. Those who sang Rule Britannia could not have imagined that “the waves” were “ruled” by consent; the notion that Britons “never, never, never shall be slaves” suggests someone else must have been.
When heroic myths about slavery or empire have become thoroughly embedded into a culture, they do not simply evaporate on impact with reality. “Awareness” cannot be the cure for a disease that is not about forgetting, which is why the publication of hundreds of new books about British colonialism every year cannot, in itself, repair our collective memory.
“You already know enough. So do I,” writes Sven Lindqvist on the first page of Exterminate All the Brutes, his exploration of the consequences of European imperialism. “It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.”
It is possible to claim that just because you knew slavery and the empire existed does not mean you know how it worked or what went on. But such a claim has its roots not in geography but politics. People choose not to know.
Such a choice is not only particular to histories of slavery and empire. In the early 1980s an American historian, Gordon Horwitz, interviewed Austrian villagers who lived near a Nazi concentration camp. Many said they saw smoke billowing from the furnaces and were aware of the rumours about the camp, but did not know for sure what was happening in there and could not “put together” what they did know.
“They never sought to inform themselves of what happened,” Horwitz wrote in his book In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen. “One encounters not a flat denial of the existence of the camps, only an indifference to their presence so long ago. In some instances one may talk not of forgetfulness, for one cannot forget what one has never attempted to know.”
Another way to “forget” is to make sure the historical record has been deliberately altered too, so that future generations will not even have to “forget”. It was only in 2010 that a court case confirmed the existence of more than 1,500 files detailing the British torture of Kenyans during the Mau Mau rebellion, files that had been secretly flown from Kenya to London in 1963 to prevent their discovery.
As a result of that case, thousands more documents came to light detailing Britain’s colonial crimes across the empire. It emerged that other papers had been systematically destroyed, including those documenting the Batang Kali massacre in which 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya were gunned down by Scots Guards in 1948.
In time these erasures and evasions, of course, have an impact. Not knowing simply becomes a straightforward consequence of either the active denial or the more passive choice not to know what came before. If no one talks about something, it isn’t in the books, and that absence becomes pervasive in the culture, then how are future generations going to know about it?
One of the conclusions of the lessons learned review of the Windrush scandal in Britain – during which older British citizens were deprived of their citizenship and many were deported to their country of birth – was that employees of the Home Office simply did not know that when these people arrived in Britain they were, in fact, British citizens.
“Historical denial is [often] less the result of a planned campaign than a gradual seepage of knowledge down some collective black hole,” the sociologist Stanley Cohen writes in States of Denial. “Historical memories about suffering in distant places are even more prone to speedy and thorough deletion through the ‘politics of ethnic amnesia’ … Some people make more suitable and memorable victims than others.”
The luxury of forgetting
The most common expression of denial at this juncture, by those who wish to be taken seriously but do not wish to take the legacy of Britain’s past seriously, is to concede that something happened, but to deny it was as bad (or as pervasive) as it was – and to insist that this is all ancient history, with no relevance to the present.
“Historical denial now is ‘coming to terms’ with a past episode by denying its continuity with what came before or what exists now,” writes Cohen. “History was ruptured; something happened; it no longer happens; so there is no point in talking about it too much.” In other words: slavery is over. It has no legacy. Stop dwelling on the past.
However people come about their ignorance – be it deliberate, subconsciously, selectively or otherwise – it’s still ignorance. However they find their way to not knowing what has happened, it does not mean it didn’t happen. “Without being told what to think about (or what not to think about) and without being punished for ‘knowing’ the wrong things,” writes Cohen, “societies arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.”
But the more pluralistic a society, the greater the likelihood that not everyone will subscribe to the same agreement. This “forgetting” about the people who were massacred, enslaved, subjugated, tortured or otherwise oppressed is a privilege of the powerful. Those from the communities who were massacred, enslaved, subjugated and tortured simply don’t have that luxury.
“How come England did not know me?” asks Gilbert in Andrea Levy’s Small Island, pondering Britons’ apparent ignorance of his native land after he arrived in Britain to fight in the second world war. “It was inconceivable that we Jamaicans, we West Indians, we members of the British empire would not fly to the Mother Country’s defence when there was threat. But tell me, if Jamaica was in trouble, is there any major, any general, any sergeant who would have been able to find that dear island?”
These incompatible accounts of how we got here and who was left behind or trampled underfoot on the way are the source of the rage, incomprehension and defensiveness that emerges every time a statue is toppled, a curriculum challenged or a monument defaced.
This discrepancy between how Britain understands itself and how others see it was highlighted after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. BBC News Africa received so much pushback after a hagiographic tweet detailing the former monarch’s relationship with Africa that it had to ask its followers “to be respectful”.
And so it is that the “forgetful” wonder “where did that come from?” – to which those who have no choice but to remember declare: “It was a long time coming, you just chose not to see it.”
Brutality is an orphan
This refusal to engage with our full racial history matters not primarily because it impedes our capacity to understand what happened, but because it thwarts our ability to understand what is going on now. “I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships,” the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue. “The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”
Since we did not get to this place through accident or ignorance, we will not get out of it by luck or learning either. The issue is not simply remembering better, rewriting the history books, removing some statues or even making reparations to those we have harmed – though all of those things would be welcome – but whether we can make the political progress to accept, understand and process what we already know.
The aim is not simply to be more aware of our past but more relevant in the present and, therefore, more capable of building a future from reality rather than self-delusion. As Paul Gilroy explains in his 2004 book After Empire: “That memory of the country at war against foes who are simply, tidily and uncomplicatedly evil has recently acquired the status of an ethnic myth. It explains how the country remade itself through war and victory but can also be understood as a rejection or deferral of its present problems.”
Today people will say “we won the war”, even if they didn’t fight and even if they weren’t born. They will say “we won the World Cup”, even if they didn’t play or weren’t born. Nobody takes the “we” literally. It signifies a collective identity that can span centuries and experiences. But when you mention slavery or colonialism, the same people will say: “I am not responsible. I wasn’t alive. I wasn’t there.” The collective, historical British identity that people would otherwise embody in moments of victory and national pride becomes suddenly and urgently estranged and elusive when it comes to less flattering periods in our history. This contradiction is clearly unsustainable.
But power has many parents, while the brutality it took to acquire it is all too often an orphan. As such, Britain is not nostalgic for “empire” per se but for a period when it felt better about its past. The ailment here is not amnesia or aphasia but addiction. Britain is hooked on its status as a world power and anxious about the unrelenting decline in that status. Looking to a future in which it is smaller and less influential, it finds more comfort in nostalgia. But in order to remember that it was powerful it must first forget how it became powerful.