How Britain is facing up to its hidden slavery history

Published in BBC Culture February 3, 2020

If we hear at all about Britain’s involvement in slavery, there’s often a slight whiff of self-congratulation – for abolishing it in 1833, 32 years ahead of the US, where the legacy of slavery is still more of an open wound. Less well known, however, is the enormous cost of this decision for the taxpayer – the British government spent £20 million, a staggering 40% of its budget in 1833, to buy freedom for slaves.

That’s equivalent to approximately £20bn today, making it one of the biggest ever government bailouts. The cost was so high, the vast loans the government took out to fund it were only just paid off in 2015.

Which is mind-boggling stuff, but if you’re thinking you can’t put a price on freedom, brace yourself for bad news – the money didn’t go to the slaves, but to their owners. That’s right: the British taxpayer, until five years ago, was paying off debts that the government racked up in order to compensate British slave owners for their loss of ‘property’. Records show that ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron and authors George Orwell and Graham Greene all profited at the time from these massive pay-outs, as did Prime Minister William Gladstone, who helped his father claim for £106,769. That’s a payment of around £83 million in today’s money, to just a single family.

And what’s even more shocking is that supposedly freed slaves were in fact committed to six to 12 years of further service as unpaid ‘apprentices’, meaning slave owners were compensated to the tunes of millions – and continued to get free labour. It wasn’t until 1838 that these admittedly wildly contentious apprenticeships were abolished too, and slaves in the British Empire were truly emancipated.

When journalist-turned-playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero read about this bailout, she was so stunned, she knew she had to write a play about it – and help put the story in the public consciousness. “What blew me away was here I was, a working woman, a descendent of the transatlantic slave trade, and I helped pay off this massive loan,” says Romero, whose parents came to the UK from Trinidad and Barbados in the 1960s. “That added urgency to what I wanted to write – I just thought I’ve got to get this out there.”

Her play, The Whip, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and opens in Stratford-upon-Avon this week. Romero fictionalises various real-life characters from the battle to get the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 through the House of Commons, the deals and compromises that had to be made, as well as the role that women, working people, and runaway slaves played in the campaign. It includes a character inspired by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and another based on Mary Prince, a former slave who became the first black woman in Britain to petition Parliament, and to write a memoir.

“I’m trying to bring in many elements of our history – it’s not a single-issue play,” Romero tells BBC Culture. And even if she was horrified by the realisation that she’d been paying off this compensation, Romero also appreciates that hard decisions did have to be made in an incredibly volatile period of history.

“It is complex – [Parliament] knew that the empire’s economy couldn’t continue to draw its wealth off the back of slavery, and I admire that. But it was cold-eyed and pragmatic. And because slaves were property, owners had to be compensated,” she says, pointing out that if they hadn’t been, blood might have been shed over the huge loss of profit for slave owners – as happened in the US. “In the United States this [issue] kept going to Congress, and they couldn’t come to an agreement and as a result had a civil war and about 600,000 people lost their lives. So while what Parliament managed was flawed, I also look at it in the context of what happened in America.”

Romero was commissioned to write the work in 2015 – but the subject gained traction when, in 2018, HM Treasury tweeted: “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you have helped end the slave trade through your taxes… 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.”

Unsurprisingly, once the reality of the situation – that the tax money was used to compensate owners, not slaves – was revealed, it caused quite an outcry, and brought the situation to much wider attention, making Romero’s play feel newly topical. The Whip offers a critical lens on a period of British history that typically has a more positive spin on it. “I think a narrative won through – ‘these slaves were freed by us!’” points out Romero.

Stories rarely told

Still, previous works about Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade are relatively few and far between – especially compared to the preponderance of stories about the US. There’s Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, a 2006 film about abolitionist William Wilberforce – although Romero points out it doesn’t include the participation of black abolitionists and runaway slaves in the movement, and the film was accused of “prettifying” the subject at the time of its release. There’s Amma Asante’s 2013 movie Belle, which features the Zong insurance case, where the owner of a British slave ship tried to claim for lost ‘cargo’ – read human lives – after ill slaves were thrown overboard. The case helped publicise the horrors of the middle passage, the transporting of slaves from Africa to the Americas, and became a spur for the abolitionist movement (the slave trade – the profiting from transporting and selling of slaves – was abolished in the UK in 1807, even if the use of slave labour in British colonies was not outlawed until 1833).

But any uncomplicatedly celebratory narrative of ‘we freed slaves’ is one that deserves challenging. Like many on Twitter, Romero feels frustrated that the British public too often simply don’t know the real stories about our own shameful past – that, historically, we haven’t been told by our politicians, through our education systems, or through our art.

The story behind The Whip “speaks to me as a journalist because I like to investigate, to uncover what has been buried for political expediency,” Romero says; she used to work for the BBC, and has reported from Ethiopia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “You have to wonder how much it was supressed. You have to ask, how come your tax money was paying off this compensation, and you didn’t know about it, never learned about it in school…”

An estimated 2.3 million African slaves were sent to the British Caribbean, but compared to narratives about the US, these stories have been rarely told. There are some obvious historical reasons for that: US slavery took place on home turf, and therefore has a more visible ongoing legacy, whereas for Britons it happened thousands of miles away.

But Romero believes it’s also, in more recent times, to do with who gets to tell what stories on the global stage. “We hear about black Americans, but we don’t hear the British stories. About 30 million slaves were uprooted from Africa and sold in the new world, the Caribbean and the Americas, but what a lot of people don’t know is that only something like 5% of those slaves went to America,” she points out; 55% were sold to Brazil and Spanish South America and 35% were sold in the West Indies. “And yet the American narrative is first and foremost. That’s because of Hollywood – unless we’re telling these stories, people don’t know.”

There is a much more high-profile body of work exploring slavery in the US – and its ongoing after-effects, from globally best-selling novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved to seminal TV shows such as Roots to Oscar-winning movies like 12 Years a Slave. Then there are more recent works such as Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad and the just-released The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to Harriet in cinemas and even Slave Play on Broadway.

A dialogue with the past

But Britain’s involvement is now starting to be subject to greater attention: these stories are beginning to nudge their way into the public consciousness too. The Whip is, in fact, one of several British slavery narratives to get a high-profile airing. 

Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel The Long Song was made into a BBC drama at the end of 2018; it looked at the final years of slavery in Jamaica and life there after abolition. Meanwhile Sara Collins’s The Confessions of Frannie Langton – a gothic novel about a slave on a Jamaica plantation who’s later sent to London – just won the Costa first novel award.

The Whip is far from the only story making it to the stage either – in fact, there’s a welcome wave of work by black British creatives looking at Britain’s colonial legacy. Selina Thompson’s fantastic play salt., in which she recounts a journey she took in a cargo ship, retracing one of the routes of the transatlantic slave triangle, was seen at Edinburgh and then the Royal Court last year and has recently toured Canada and New York.

Renowned British playwright Winsome Pinnock’s new play, Rockets and Blue Lights, is at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre from March, and takes another look at the Zong massacre – offering a contemporary take on it too. It was the subject of a painting by JMW Turner in 1840, entitled The Slave Ship. In Pinnock’s play, the action moves between the Victorian era and the present day, and features Turner, a black sailor, and a frustrated 21st-Century actress, promising to “ask what is chosen to be represented and what is denied”. And the same incident is the partial inspiration, too, for Phoenix Dance Theatre’s new show, Black Waters, at Sadler’s Wells in March, exploring the same disgraceful event through contemporary dance.

Later in the year, National Theatre of Scotland tells the astonishing true story of Joseph Knight in May Sumbwanyambe’s Enough of Him. An African slave, taken to Jamaica and then to Edinburgh, Knight challenged his status at a court in Perth in 1774 – and not only won his freedom but also helped make slavery illegal in Scotland.

These narratives are often grounded in facts and real-life events and accounts. As such, they will no doubt be uncomfortable – but they’re also remarkable stories. The sorts of stories that you might expect to feature more prominently in our account of ourselves as a country. But at a time when ideas of Britain as an island, and as a nation, feel so unstable, there’s never been a better moment to reconsider the forgotten abuses of the British Empire. 

For Romero, this is one of the points of art: to help us face up to our own part in slavery and its legacy, and a powerful way to reveal, and explore, our past. “With this story, we wanted to tell the British angle – this is British history,” says Romero of The Whip. “We’re in constant dialogue with our past: we have to be.”

Where next?