Bitter Taste of Slavery In 2010 the 18th October was established as Anti-Slavery Day in Britain. Slavery has existed in almost every culture. It pre-dates historical records and, although the last country in the world abolished slavery in 1981, the United Nations estimates there are over 20 million people still living in slavery. Modern slavery tends to be in the form of debt bondage (theoretically service to repay a loan, but in practice the ‘debt’ is never considered repaid and the obligation to serve is passed down from generation to generation), the multi-billion pound industry of human trafficking (often for sexual exploitation). Modern slavery differs from historical chattel slavery, which centred on the notion that people were property and could be bought and sold as commodities. The transatlantic slave trade operated through British-produced goods being transported to the West coast of Africa; slaves were then carried from there on the notorious Middle Passage to the sugar plantations of the West Indies; and the ships returned to the UK with sugar and other slave-produced crops. Archives held at The University of Nottingham relating to the slave trade include records of aristocratic families who either owned plantations, or were politicians and civil servants who oversaw trade and international relations. In Special Collections, we have published reports about the treatment of slaves and children’s books (some factual accounts of the slave trade and others stories promoting the myth of the ‘happy slave’). Both pro- and anti-slavery views are represented in the letters, petitions, diaries, debates and other documents in the collections. Anti-slavery campaigners focussed on the immorality of slavery and the horrific treatment slaves endured. Supporters of slavery argued it was economically necessary and if Britain legislated against trading or owning slaves, other nations would have a competitive advantage. More information about all of our collections, as well as resources explaining how to understand and use historical records can be found on the website of Manuscripts and Special Collections: www.nottingham.ac.uk/mss.
‘Image of A Slave Market’ from Chambers’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts; 1845 On arrival in America or the West Indies, those who had survived the journey at sea would be sold to the highest bidder. Healthy adult men would fetch higher prices than children, adult women or older slaves. Families were often split up. (Chambers’s miscellany of useful and entertaining tracts, Edinburgh 1845. Briggs Collection LT210.A/C4)
Extract from a report of a Parliamentary debate in 1791 regarding the slave trade; 1839 The slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1807, but it took until the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 to end slavery itself in most of the British Empire. By this time slavery had been the subject of Parliamentary debates for about 50 years. This extract from a 1791 debate shows two of the most frequently used arguments. The first was that abolition would damage Britain’s trading prospects and lead to unemployment. Part of Britain’s wealth derived from slavery, directly or indirectly, and the annual value of the West Indies trade is stated here as £6million. The second argument was that slavery was an accepted and established practice in both African and European society, and foreigners were far less humane in their treatment of slaves than the British slave traders and owners. Even if this was true – and British plantation owners varied considerably in their observance of the regulations – it was still an admission that the slave trade was fundamentally deeply unpleasant. (T. Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament, London 1808. Special Collection HT1163.C5)
Copy of the will of Henry, 1st Duke of Portland; 2 July 1726 Henry Bentinck, 1st Duke of Portland (1682-1726), accepted the post of Governor of Jamaica after losing his fortune in the financial scandal known as the South Sea Bubble. He purchased at least one estate there, run using slave labour. When he died there in 1726, his will instructed his wife Elizabeth to sell his estate and slaves, which were considered property, in order to pay off his debts. (Portland Collection Pl/F2/7/25)
Anti-slavery cartoon by James Gillray, 'Barbarities in the West Indies'; 23 Apr. 1791 British politician William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of slavery, and his description of cruel treatment towards slaves described in a Parliamentary debate in April 1791, inspired this cartoon by Gillray. The text at the bottom reads 'Among numberless other acts of cruelty daily practised, an English negro driver, because a young negro through sickness was unable to work, threw him into a copper of boiling sugar juice, and after keeping him steeped over head and ears for above three quarters of an hour in the boiling liquid whipt him with such severity, that it was near six months before he recover'd of his wounds and scalding'. (MS 482/7)
Extracts from a plantation owner’s journal from 1816; 1834 Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818), writer and MP, visited his Jamaican plantations in 1816 to discover his slaves had been ill-treated by the overseer left in charge. Lewis forbade slaves to be whipped as punishment and adopted a paternalistic rather than brutal attitude. Published posthumously, his journal recounts how fellow plantation owners distrusted his methods and productivity (initially) fell as his slaves took advantage of the lack of discipline. This did not trouble Lewis, who prioritised humane treatment over profit and was deeply ambivalent about slavery. (M.G. Lewis, The Journal of a West India Proprietor, London 1834. Special Collection PR4887.J6)
Plan of the hold of slave trade ship; c.1808 Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s (1760-1846) research into slave ships on the journey from Africa across the Atlantic revealed the appalling conditions in which the slaves were transported. Many died of disease in the overcrowded, airless holds. Now an iconic image, this diagram is based on the measurements of the slave ship ‘Brookes’. Records show that in 1783 it was carrying over 600 slaves, yet was designed to carry 450. (T. Clarkson, The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament, London 1808. Special Collection HT1163.C5)
Cartoon entitled 'Slavery. Freedom'; c.1810. Allegedly depicting the life enjoyed by slaves in the West Indies, cavorting in a carefree manner under the coconut palms, compared to the misery of the English working man seated on a broken chair, unable to feed his family and tax demands at his feet. The argument that slaves were fed, clothed and housed by benevolent masters whilst the English, despite their rights and privileges enshrined under law, suffered in poverty, was a common one. (The Fagan Collection of Political Prints and Caricatures Pol P 24) 0