Price of Bri­tain’s Slave Trade re­vealed

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

Letters dis­cussing the value and sale of slaves in the 18th cen­tury, which pro­vide a dis­tress­ing re­minder of the pow­er­ful busi­ness in­ter­ests that sus­tained one of the dark­est chap­ters in Bri­tish history, are to be made avail­able to re­searchers and the public by St John’s Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge.

The col­lec­tion con­tains the busi­ness ex­changes of an 18th cen­tury English landowner, Wil­liam Philip Perrin, who ran a sugar plan­ta­tion near Kingston, Ja­maica. In it, Perrin and his cor­re­spon­dents dis­cussed in cal­lously prac­ti­cal terms the hu­man cargo that was be­ing shipped to the West Indies at the height of the transat­lantic slave trade, a time when the equiv­a­lent of mil­lions of pounds were chang­ing hands as slaves were bought and sold.

The pa­pers have been ac­quired by St John’s Col­lege, which was the un­der­grad­u­ate col­lege of lead­ing an­ti­slav­ery cam­paign­ers Wil­liam Wil­ber­force and Thomas Clark­son, whose com­bined ef­forts helped to bring about the Abo­li­tion Bill of 1807. While the Col­lege al­ready holds a widerang­ing col­lec­tion of ma­te­rial deal­ing with the anti-slav­ery move­ment, these doc­u­ments tell the other, rarely-dis­cussed side of the story, by pro­vid­ing an in­sight into the wealth and in­flu­ence that lay be­hind the pro-slav­ery lobby.

One list, dat­ing from 1797, con­tem­po­rary with Clark­son’s own ev­i­dence-gath­er­ing cam­paign against slav­ery, de­tails the names, ages and prices of slaves to be bought for Perrin’s plan­ta­tion. The note, de­scribed as “a list of Mr John Broom­field’s ne­groes, with their age and val­u­a­tion”, cat­a­logues 35 men and 19 women, as well as chil­dren as young as 14, who had been val­ued for sale as slaves.

En­tries such as “Dick, 25, able field ne­gro, £140” and “Castile, 45, cook and wash­er­woman, £60” pro­vide a stark and shock­ing re­minder of the high fi­nan­cial stakes that Clark­son and his con­tem­po­raries strug­gled to over­throw. The to­tal val­u­a­tion for 54 male and fe­male slaves came to £5,100, a sum equal to around £500,000 to­day.

The col­lec­tion is be­ing added to an ex­ten­sive range of ma­te­rial, al­ready held by the col­lege li­brary, deal­ing with the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial con­flicts faced by the anti-slav­ery cam­paign­ers in the fight for Abo­li­tion. This is made avail­able both to re­searchers study­ing the pe­riod, and also used as part of ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties with schools, en­abling stu­dents to ex­am­ine pri­mary sources and dis­cover the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of the Abo­li­tion­ist move­ment.

Kathryn McKee, Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Li­brar­ian at the col­lege, who ac­quired the pa­pers, which were pre­vi­ously held in Derby County Records Of­fice, said: “These doc­u­ments pro­vide first-hand ev­i­dence of the sale of slaves to Bri­tish plan­ta­tion own­ers. Though ap­palling to mod­ern eyes, for those in­volved these were mat­ter-of-fact busi­ness trans­ac­tions: a rou­tine part of the 18th cen­tury econ­omy in which busi­ness mag­nates made sub­stan­tial prof­its from com­modi­ties pro­duced by slave labour and their cus­tomers ben­e­fit­ted from cheap goods. In op­pos­ing the traf­fic in hu­man cargo, Clark­son, Wil­ber­force and the Abo­li­tion­ists were chal­leng­ing pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests.”

The pa­pers date from be­tween 1772 and 1797, at the time when the transat­lantic slave trade in Bri­tain and Amer­ica was at its peak, and deal with the day-to-day run­ning of Perrin’s plan­ta­tion in Ja­maica. Among letters and bills of sale spec­i­fy­ing prop­erty dis­putes, ship­ping prepa­ra­tions and cus­toms du­ties, are chill­ing de­tails re­veal­ing the ubiq­uity and commercialisation of slav­ery and the vast in­dus­try it sup­ported.

A let­ter from 1796 states that one of Perrin’s es­tate man­agers had been “on the look­out for a gang of up to 60 able-bod­ied Ne­groes” to pur­chase on Perrin’s be­half to work on de­vel­op­ing his Grange Hill es­tate. Another dis­cusses how buy­ing cheap slaves to work the land for sugar cane would “re­lieve the es­tate from the ex­pense of buy­ing cat­tle”, and al­low for more sugar to be sold for rum, which brought in a profit of £4,500 a year, equal to around £400,000 to­day. A later note as­sures the reader that the slaves are “happy and con­tented with their sit­u­a­tion”.

Kathryn said: “What these letters re­veal, apart from a to­tal lack of em­pa­thy for their hu­man com­modi­ties, is the sheer amount of money in­volved. Many anti-slav­ery cam­paigns were grass­roots ef­forts by or­di­nary peo­ple, while the proslav­ery lobby had sig­nif­i­cant wealth and in­flu­ence they could use to ex­ert pres­sure on Par­lia­ment.”

The anti-slav­ery cam­paign­ers faced vi­cious and well-funded op­po­si­tion both in Par­lia­ment and on the streets. On one trip in 1787 to Liver­pool, which along with Bristol was one of the ma­jor hubs of the slave trade in Eng­land, an at­tempt was made to drown Clark­son in the docks for ask­ing too many ques­tions.

De­spite this hos­til­ity, and af­ter a 20 year strug­gle, the Abo­li­tion­ists fi­nally achieved vic­tory on 25 March, 1807 with the pass­ing of a Bill to abol­ish the slave trade, mak­ing the sale and pur­chase of slaves illegal in Bri­tain. Clark­son, re­flect­ing on this mo­men­tous event, wrote in 1808: “Thus ended a con­test, not of bru­tal vi­o­lence, but of rea­son. A con­test be­tween those who felt deeply for the hap­pi­ness and the hon­our of their fel­low-crea­tures, and those who, through vi­cious cus­tom and the im­pulse of avarice, had tram­pled un­der­foot the sa­cred rights of their na­ture”.

The pa­pers are avail­able to view for re­search at St John’s Col­lege Li­brary by ap­point­ment. For more in­for­ma­tion, con­tact li­brary@joh.cam.ac.uk.

The history of Bri­tish slave own­er­ship has been

buried; now its scale can be re­vealed.

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