The Enlightenment Philosophers Who Wanted the Enslavement of the British Poor

I found this very interesting snippet in Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Slavery & Islam. Brown’s an American lecturer on Islam and a White convert to the religion. The book is an overview of slavery in the Muslim world and its abolition. Brown was partly moved to write the book from the horror and outrage the vast majority of Muslims around the world feel at the revival of sex slavery by ISIS’ monstrous fanatics. But it also attempts to tackle a series of related problems this raises – how can slavery be effectively condemned when it can differ so immensely across different times and places; and how can ancient religious, philosophical and political authorities still be respected and used for moral guidance when all of them, until very recently, accepted slavery. Slavery was accepted not just by Islam, but also by Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant also believed it was acceptable on rational grounds. The book therefore not only provides a detailed study of slavery in the dar al-Islam, but also western attitudes and arguments concerning slavery and its legitimacy from the ancient world onwards. And one of the interesting facts it discusses regarding western slavery is that during the 18th century three British philosophers argued for the enslavement of the British poor as a way of saving them from poverty.

‘Slavery was a choice made, sometimes by the powerful and sometimes by the vulnerable, because it was the preferred solution to the material, economic challenges at hand. This is how we explain three British Enlightenment thinkers, each an advocate of the natural right of liberty, separately proposing that the problem of widespread and severe poverty in eighteenth century Britain be dealt with by enslaving the poor to save them from ruin. Liberty was of tremendous importance to these philosophers, but it could not be enjoyed by all people all the time. They concluded that, in the case of the very poor in their society, it had to be sacrificed to stabilise what they saw as the bottom rung of that society. (Ironically, their description of this restricted form of slavery was similar to riqq in Islamic law.) (p. 180)

This sound very much like the Tory MP in Blackadder III whose policies included slavery for everyone who didn’t have a knighthood, and Dean Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’ that the poor should eat their children, but made seriously. And I wonder if it’s also the ultimate endpoint of the welfare to work programmes, which send the unemployed out to work for the profit of private companies for their welfare cheques.

Should we expect Boris to include it in the next Tory manifesto, enthusiastically supported by Iain Duncan Smith and embraced by Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves and Jess Philips as true Labour values?

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5 Responses to “The Enlightenment Philosophers Who Wanted the Enslavement of the British Poor”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    Interesting and well-researched. Perceptions of slavery vary in different times and places. I doubt whether Frankie Howerd’s Lurkio in Up Pompeii is that far from reality so far as one class of Roman slaves was concerned. When Jane Austen tells us that one of her characters is “in trade”, implying that this is slightly disreputable, the “trade” in question is almost certainly the slave trade. The best writing on the iniquities of the slave trade and the machinery devised to preserve it comes from the 19th century American abolitionists, who rightly regarded slavery in Western Christian societies as an abomination. I don’t know whether Mark Twain was an active abolitionist, but his novel Puddenhead Wilson is a brilliant exposition of the issues involved and a thoroughly entertaining thriller to boot. It ought to be on school syllabuses, but I suppose the frequent use of the word “nigger” would make it unacceptable to the PC censors. I also strongly recommend you to get onto google and download Longfellow’s poem The Quadroon Girl and John Greenleaf Whittier’s A Sabbath Scene. In the first, a white farmer sells his much-loved mixed-race daughter to slavers to save his failing farm. In the latter an escaped slave seeks sanctuary in a church, but the pastor allows bounty hunters to chain her and drag her away, observing that if you look hard enough you can find biblical texts to justify slavery.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    P.S. Do you remember the rapper Miss Dynamite? A few years ago she featured in a TV programme showing her visiting the West Indian island where her parents were born. During her time there she visited the local white land owner and former slave owner. He entertained her very courteously, and said that slave-owning was all in the past, that it was taken for granted back then, and that his forbears’ slaves were happy and well-treated. In a shed on the estate was a little exhibition of the restraints used to discipline slaves – whips, fetters and so on. One item in particular visibly upset Miss Dynamite. It was a miniature thumb-screw, clearly designed for use on a very small child.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the comments, Brian. I’ve got a copy of Puddenhead Wilson’s Almanac around here, which I bought when I was at school and never got around to reading. I don’t know what Twain’s view on abolition was, but he is a very fine writer and keen observer of humanity.
      I do remember Ms Dynamite, though I never saw that programme. I do remember one edition of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ in which Ainsley Harriot went back to the Caribbean to track down the man who owned his forebears, and who I think interbred with his slaves. It was very much as you described with Ms Dynamite. He didn’t meet the man or his descendants, but he did find the remains of the plantation or its church crumbling away in the forest. On one of the walls was an epitaph and a carving of the man himself. Harriot was understandably upset, and turned his back, as he couldn’t look at it.
      The impression I had of attitudes to the slave trade, at least in Bristol, was that it was widely despised but very few people could see a way to ending it. One of the abolitionists reported that everyone in Bristol hated it, but they couldn’t see how it could be abolished. I’ve also read the same about one of the great French political theorists. He hated it, but could see no way it could be ended, and so concluded that section by stating that he was turning away in disgust.
      And from what I’ve read in Brown’s book, Christian abolitionists were faced with the problem that the text of the Bible does accept and endorse slavery, although contemporary apologists would argue that it regulates it rather than gives it an absolute approval. Even so, when the abolitionists tried to argue that slavery was un-Christian, the pro-slavery lobby replied by asking where in the Bible it was condemned.
      Going back to the horrors of slave punishment, I can remember reading about the various cruelty cases brought before the British government in the 19th century in the blue books and white papers kept in the library at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum. These were really horrific. There was one woman, who managed to kill 199 of her 200 slaves. The only slave she didn’t murder died of the pox. Another concerned a planter who had his slaves flogged to death. He also killed his ‘natural child’ by dipping it in boiling alcohol. I really do wonder at the sheer, unrestrained murderous cruelty of some of them, and how anyone could behave like that.

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