15th June 2020
Many people – even those who have studied law and history – know almost nothing about how the law was used to facilitate slavery in English history.
People may have heard of Wilberforce and that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.
They will therefore know a bit about how slavery ended but not how it was kept in place.
Over on Twitter I have recently done a couple of threads on law, history and slavery.
The first is on the Yorke-Talbot Opinion of 1729.
Law and slavery— david allen green (@davidallengreen) June 13, 2020
It is not only the ports that need to look critically at their own history
The law and legal profession need to do so too
Slave owners and traders could only do what they did because they had legal cover
The second is on the Zong case of 1783.
Law and Slavery— david allen green (@davidallengreen) June 14, 2020
The "Zong" case of 1783
One of the most sickening cases in English legal history
But also the case is microcosm of how slavery was treated by law, insurance and business
I also did a thread in response to a former Member of Parliament who had invoked the jurist William Blackstone to suggest slavery had been abolished in 1753.
False in almost every respect— david allen green (@davidallengreen) June 14, 2020
Blackstone was not a judge in 1753 – he was 30
It was not a ruling, but a comment in a book
For the law at the time, see Yorke-Talbot opinion of 1729
Slavery recognised as a form of property in English law until 1833 – 80 years later https://t.co/OdVjvQIkL6
The point of these threads is to show that slavery was, at the time, commonplace and was facilitated by the law, as well as by insurers and so on.
Slavery was not just Edward Colston of Bristol going off on a frolic of his own.
There was an immense legal, commercial and administrative apparatus in place to enable slavery.
Slavery is about property in human beings, and the slave trade is about transactions in respect of that property.
Slavery was managed from afar: few slave merchants and very few domestic owners of slaves ever saw the enslaved face-to-face. Slavery was thereby dealt with by correspondence: with crews, agents and estate managers.
And so, because it was about property and transactions and done from afar, there are lots of records.
Lots and lots of records.
And so like that modern horror, the Holocaust, you can see the dealings with slavery in record after record.
For those involved, it was mundane.
Slaves bought and sold, and managed, by ink and paper, by everyday people on an everyday basis.
Great Britain’s very own banality of evil.
Nowhere has this been shown so well as in the BBC documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.
In this documentary David Olusoga uses the detailed records of the immense compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 to demonstrate just how far and wide slave ownership was in British society.
Slave ownership was like owning a time-share in Spain or a special savings account.
The import of all this should be to correct the skewed cod-history of British nostalgic exceptionalism and to remind us of the extent to which Britain was involved in (and benefitted from) slavery and the slave trade.
And a rounded, more accurate understanding of our past is a good thing in itself.
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