Posts Tagged ‘Cotton’

History of Global Slavery in Maps

July 10, 2020

James Walvin, Atlas of Slavery (Harlow: Pearson Education 2006).

I’ve blogged several times about the importance of putting western, transatlantic slavery in its global context. Slavery was not something that only White Europeans did to Black Africans. It has plagued humanity across history and the globe. It existed in ancient Greece and Rome, in the Arab and Islamic worlds and even in sub-Saharan Africa itself. And it reappeared in the 20th century in the Nazi concentration and death camps, and the gulags of Stalin’s Soviet Union, as well as the Russian dictators deportation of whole ethnic groups and nations to Siberia.

While concentrating very much on European transatlantic slavery, in which Black slaves were transported to the Caribbean and North and South America, Walvin’s book does place it in this global, historical context. James Walvin is a former history lecturer at the University of York, and was the co-editor of the journal Slavery and Abolition. He has also published a series of books on the subject. Walvin’s Atlas of Slavery presents the history of slavery throughout the world in maps. The blurb for it on the book’s back cover runs

The enslavement of Africans and their transportation across the Atlantic has come to occupy a unique place in the public imagination. Despite the wide-ranging atrocities of the twentieth century (including massive slave systems in Nazi Europe and the Russian Gulag), the Atlantic slave system continues to hold a terrible fascination. But slavery in the Atlantic world involved much more than the transportation of human cargo from one country to another, as Professor Walvin clearly explains in the Atlas of Slavery.

In this fascinating new book he looks at slavery in the Americas in the broadest context, taking account of both earlier and later forms of slavery. The relationship between the critical continents, Europe, Africa and the Americas is examined through a collection of maps and related text, which puts the key features of the history of slavery in their defining geographical setting. By foregrounding the historical geography of slavery, Professor Walvin shows how the people of three widely separated continents were brought together into an economic and human system that was characterized both by violence and cruelty to its victims and huge economic advantage to its owners and managers.

Professor Walvin’s synthesis of the complex history of Atlantic slavery provides a fresh perspective from which to view and understand one of the most significant chapters in global history. We may think of slavery as a largely bygone phenomenon, but it is a practice that continues to this day, and the exploitation of vulnerable human beings remains a pressing contemporary issue.

After an introduction, the book has the following chapters:

  1. Slavery in a global setting.
  2. The ancient world.
  3. Overland African slave routes
  4. 4 European slavery and slave trades
  5. Exploration and the spread of sugar
  6. Europeans, slaves and West Africa
  7. Britain, slavery and the slave trade
  8. Africa
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Crossing the Atlantic
  11. Destinations
  12. Arrivals
  13. Brazil
  14. The Caribbean
  15. North America
  16. Cotton and the USA
  17. Slave resistance
  18. Abolition and emancipation
  19. East Africa and the Indian Ocean
  20. Slavery after abolition.

The book concludes with a chronology, further reading list and index.

This is slavery minutely described. The maps and accompanying texts not only discuss the history of slavery itself, but also the general trading systems of which it was a part, the goods and agricultural products, like cotton, it served to produce, and the regions, towns and cities that produced and traded in them and the routes across which they were transported. There is even a map of the currents of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the background to the horrendous Middle Passage – the shipping route across the ocean used to transport slaves from Africa to the New World.

The book’s an excellent resource for people studying or simply interested in the history of slavery. The book is almost totally devoted to transatlantic slavery, as you’d expect. But not totally so, and as I said, this global historical context is needed if an equally racist, anti-White view of the history of slavery is to be avoided.







































































The Young Turks on the Real, Anti-Capitalist Radical Martin Luther King

February 4, 2017

In my last post, I talked about how contemporary scholars were re-examining MLK’s life and political thought to show that far from being a moderate, Dr Luther King was a radical who opposed not just racism, but the capitalist exploitation of the poor, the Developing World and the Vietnam War. These aspects of the man have been airbrushed out of his to make him more palatable to the right-wing mainstream.

In this video from The Young Turks’ ‘Aggressive Progressives’, Jimmy Dore, Steve Oh and Malcolm Fleschner discuss a recent article by Zaid Jilani in the Intercept, in which he tears apart what Dr Cornel West has called ‘the santaclausification’ of MLK. In one of his speeches, Dr Luther King refuted the lie that America was built on the Puritan values of hard work. He said

“Again, we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both Black and White, both here and abroad.”

Steve Oh talks about how Cenk Uygur, himself and others go on trips during MLK weekend. One trip they made was to Charleston, South Carolina. This was the richest city in America in 1850, and its economy was built on slavery – through slave produced cotton, rice farming and the sale of human beings. He makes the point that although chattel slavery has vanished from America, it is in a sense still with us in the form of the economic slavery, which now affects all poor Americans. He mentions one of the White people they interviewed, who talked about the destruction of his community by the anti-working class, anti-welfare policies and the elite. These policies affect Blacks and Latinos disproportionately, but all poor Americans, regardless of their colour, are suffering.

Oh makes the point that while King now is seen as a consensus builder and fighter for racial justice in the Segregated South, he was a radical like Malcolm X, although his approach differed from the other Civil Rights leader. He talks about how MLK’s teachings were beautiful, and for all Americans, and how he spent the last year of his life, before his assassination in 1968 battling against the Democratic party. Other Civil Rights leaders had warned King not to alienate the Democrats with his condemnation of the Vietnam War. MLK responded to this by giving a speech at Riverside Church in New York City, in which he denounced the American government as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, the napalm bombing of cities and its support for the puppet government in South Vietnam. He called for a complete re-examination of American foreign policy, including the capitalist exploitation of the Developing World.

Dore makes the point that the same problems affect American radicals now. Bernie Sanders is also fighting for economic justice for the American working man and woman. But he’s also being opposed by a corporate, Democrat elite, who want to privatise schools, parks, education and definitely the healthcare system, as the state system is so much better.

There’s much more that could be said here. I know many people, who don’t like MLK because they see him as being too much of an ‘Uncle Tom’. This presents the opposite view, and with luck should help encourage more people to rediscover MLK’s legacy of radicalism and anti-capitalist protest.

Roger Williams’ Arguments against Religious Persecution

November 22, 2016

This weekend I put up a piece about the arguments for religious toleration advanced by William Penn, the great Quaker apologist and founder of Pennsylvania. Penn believed passionately in religious toleration, and was himself, along with one of his fellow Quakers, imprisoned and tried for his religious beliefs. His trial, and the way it violated the natural liberties of the English people, were the subject of one of the three pamphlets he wrote attacking religious persecution.

One of the other great champions of religious freedom in the 17th century was Roger Williams. Williams was an English Puritan, who fled persecution in England to make his home in the new colony of Massachusetts in 1630, where he intended to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity. However, his own refusal to become part of the church establishment resulted in his conflict with the authorities there, and he was expelled three years later. He went on to become one of the founders of another colony, Rhode Island. He returned to Blighty in 1643, seeking to acquire a royal charter for the new settlement. Back in England, he became heavily involved in the debate over religious toleration, writing his classic work on it, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Parliament responded by having it burnt by the public hangman in August the following year. Williams left England, but returned to the country of his birth in 1652, leaving once more two years later. During this later sojourn in England, he wrote a sequel to his book, The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody. David Wootton in his comments on Williams and his works states

Williams has long been regarded as one of the first exponents of what were to become central principles of the American constitution: the sovereignty of the people and the separation of church and state.

David Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986) 215.

Wootton’s book contains extracts from The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, including the following passage, where Williams lays out the main themes of his argument.

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed, in a Conference betweene Truth and Peace


First: That the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of protestants and papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Secondly: Pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the work proposed against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Thirdly: Satisfactory answers are given to scriptures and objections produced by Mr Calvin, Beza, Mr Cotton, and the ministers of the New England churches and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Fourthly: The doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.

Fifthly: All civil states, with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship.

Sixthly: It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God’s spirit, the word of God.

Seventhly: The state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any6 kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.

Eighthly: God requires not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced on any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

Ninthly: In holding an enforced uniformity of religion in a civil state, we must necessarily disclaim our desires and hopes of the Jews’ conversion to Christ.

Tenthly: An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.

Eleventhly: The permission of other consciences and worships than a state professes only can, according to God, procure a firm and lasting peace; good assurance being taken, according to the wisdom of the civil state, for uniformity of civil obedience from all sorts.

Twelfthly: Lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile.

I realise some Jews and Muslims may object to the tone of his comments about them, that they are somehow a threat to the Christian community and Christians should endeavour to convert them. Nevertheless, the points Williams is trying to make are good ones: provided that everyone in a community obeys the same laws, it doesn’t matter what their religious opinions are. In the case of the Jews, the underlying point can be stated more generally: no non-Christian will want to convert to that religion, if it offers them and their people nothing but persecution and hate.

It also needs to be pointed out, that Williams was writing at a time when the Turkish Empire did represent a militant threat against the states of Christian Europe, which Williams would have been acutely aware of. It can’t be argued against his demands for religious freedom and pluralism, that he was living in a more peaceful time.

I’ve put this up because this is one of the founding documents of the great American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance, from one of the Puritan divines who also was one of the great pioneers of American democracy. This is now threatened by Trump and his proposed registry for Muslims. As I pointed out yesterday, this violates the argument for freedom of conscience argued on Christian theological and scriptural grounds by William Penn, just as it violates Williams own arguments on the same grounds for religious toleration.

Trump’s claim to be protecting Americans through this registry not only violates due process, as George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr Sulu, made clear, it also violates the essential theological principles on which America as a tolerant, democratic, Christian nation was founded. If the religious Right are supporting his motion for this registry, then they are showing a complete ignorance and contempt for one of the cornerstones of American and British Christianity and liberal democracy.

Corporate Influence and Staffing of Government in Britain and Pre-Revolutionary Russia

April 28, 2014

One of the features of post-Thatcherite British government is the strong influence of big business on government policy and even the staffing of government departments. Government officials are frequently drawn from corporations, where they have directorships or occupy other positions in senior management. The conferences of all three main parties are sponsored by businesses hoping to influence government policy and win contracts or other business concessions from their political clients, once they are in government. The parties increasingly formulate their policies according to think-tanks, formed by and representing the views of particular industrial or corporate interests. Private Eye for years, since as far back as the ‘sleaze’ of John Major’s administration, has documented the way corporations and their employees have permeated government institutions. This has most often been done with the specific intentions of reducing or blunting government regulation of industry. Thus you can find the presence of various senior employees and directors of the big accountancy firms in the Inland Revenue, presenting the government with schemes on how the rich can become even richer by avoiding a tax. Officials drawn from the City have entered the various government bodies regulating the financial sector, to argue that the City should be less regulated. The result of this policy was the massive corruption and trading in toxic debt that created the present international financial crisis. And an extremely large number of the present government have links to private healthcare companies hoping to benefit from the privatisation of the NHS. One of these is Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary, and IDS. I’ve blogged before about how the Nazis had a similar policy of co-opting leaders from business to staff the Reich industrial combines and organisations.

And it was exactly the same in Russia in the decade immediately preceding the Revolution. Big business deliberately set out to influence government policy. Business leaders entered the government, while ministers, senior civil servants and officers of the armed forces moved into posts in private industry. The regime was compromised and ultimately discredited by massive corruption. Kochan describes the situation in Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970).

Industrialists more and more put themselves at the service of the government in the economic development of the empire. An Association of Industry and Commerce, founded in 1906, and its journal Industry and Commerce, devoted themselves specifically to the purpose. The association was a federation of industrial organisations formed along geographic and functional principles, e.g. The mine owners of south Russia or the Baku oil producers. By the beginning of 1914 it embraced thirty-four banks and insurance companies, 251 industrial undertakings, eleven transport companies and nineteen trading concerns.

The association consistently advocated the further economic development of the empire through a policy of high entrepreneurial profits combined with austerity in consumption. It argued against free competition – ‘the anarchy of the market and a chaotic fluctuation of prices’ – and in favour of a five-, a ten- or even a fifteen-year plan, that would overcome Russian backwardness and free it from dependence on agriculture. It proposed cooperation between industry and the government in, for example, the irrigation of Turkestan for the cultivation of cotton, the construction of the Volga-Don canal, and the intensive exploitation of the Magnitogorsk iron deposits in conjunction with Siberian coal. … Planning from above, with the sympathetic stabilizing and regulatory intervention of the vast resources at the disposal of the Treasury would enable trade and industry to take their full share in industrial development, it was hoped. In the last resort, the association envisaged a type of corporate state in which industrial and commercial interests would play a co-determining role vis-à-vis the government in relation to economic policy.

For this reason the association scheduled its own congresses to take place during the Duma sessions – the membership overlapped in many cases – and ‘sometimes its debates were the more interesting and important of the two,’ noted one observer. The association functioned as a vast pressure group: ‘… Russian industry and commerce must, in the interests of self-preservation, ‘ declared an early initiator of the association, ‘express not only its broadly based views but also know how to present these views to those institutions and groups on whom will depend the putting into practice of this or that law or policy … Here lies the whole root and the whole meaning of the All-Empire congresses of the representatives of industry and commerce. (pp. 166-7)

What socio-economic influence was possessed by these conglomerates of power? This is not easy to analyse. It seems likely however, that they had a disintegrating influence in further corrupting and demoralising the Tsarist bureaucracy. An insider, V.I. Gurko, at one time assistant minister of the interior and member of the state council, avers that the integrity of the overwhelming majority of high officials was ‘beyond question’. But he must also admit that private concerns engaged prominent officials at ‘fabulous sums’ with a view to the man’s ‘official connexions and his knowledge of the methods necessary to obtain governmental backing … particularly to secure some state concession. ‘ The line between public and private interest became more and more difficult to draw. This applied particularly to the armament industry. Take Avdakov, for example, for some years the chairman of Produgol, then the Association of Industry and Trade and at the same time councillor in the ministry of industry and trade; or Lieutenant-General Brink, a former head of the department of naval construction and chief inspector of naval artillery, who became a director of the Putilov works; or Vice Admiral Bostrem, a former commander of the Black Sea fleet, who became president of the board of the Nikolaevsk naval construction company; or General Ivanov who joined the board of the same company; or General Miller, former head of the state-owned Obukhovo works, who became director of the Tsarizyn artillery plant.

Civilian official similarly moved between government posts and private industry, especially in they were engaged in the ministries of finance and trade and industry. There was Timryazev, for example, and Bark, Arandarenko, M.M. Fedorov, V.I. Kovalovsky, N.N. Pokrovsky, Langovoi, Litvinov-Falinsky – all these men moved at one time or another between their ministerial arm-chairs and an equally well-padded position in industry or industrial association. (p. 168).

This describes pretty much every government since Maggie Thatcher, including that of Cameron and Clegg today. And the Association’s policy of demanding high profits as well as austerity exactly describes the current government’s policies.

That all ended with the upheaval of the 1917 Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power. We don’t need a revolution with all its horror and bloodshed in Britain. But we do need proper government, where the public interest rules and where corporations are not allowed to corrupt, influence and direct government policy.

Further Observations on Workfare, Slavery and Negro Apprenticeship

November 10, 2013

Yesterday I put up a piece comparing George Osborne’s proposed expansion of workfare to the system of ‘apprenticeship’ imposed on former slaves in the British Caribbean after the official abolition of slavery in 1837. Under this system, the slaves remained tied to their former masters and forced to work on their estates, ostensibly in order to make them self-reliant and industrious, and so able to take their place as responsible members of society. Workfare is similarly supposed to train the unemployed to be self-reliant and industrious, and so prepare them for proper, paid work and their place as responsible members of society. In practice, both of forms of servitude in which nominally free men and women are forced to work as cheap labour for big business – sugar plantations in the 19th century, Sainsbury’s and so on in the 21st.

Now let’s look at some possible objections to this comparison, and see if they invalidate the statement that workfare constitutes a form of slavery.

1. Slaves have no political rights, and cannot hold property. Workfare does not interfere with the individual’s political freedoms, and their property remains theirs. Therefore, workfare cannot be seen as a form of slavery.

This argument does not refute workfare’s status as a form of slavery. The statement that slaves have no political rights and have no property was horrifically true of western chattel slavery, such as transatlantic Black slavery in Britain, the Caribbean and America. It is not true of other forms of slavery and servitude. For example, in the ancient world and in some forms of African slavery, the slave could own property and rise to high office. The viziers in the Ottoman Empire were slaves. Free men are known to have sold themselves into slavery to become public slaves in the Roman Empire, because this gave them power over their cities’ treasuries. In early medieval Germany under the Ottonian dynasty, crown lands were administered by a class of royal servants called ‘ministeriales’. Although their status as slaves has been called into question, they were nevertheless unfree servants held by the Crown. These men held immense power, and when freed, were knighted to join the ranks of Germany chivalry. Similarly, in African slave states such as Calabar, kings frequently found their slaves far more trustworthy than their own sons, and so frequently bequeathed their kingdom to them rather than their sons on their deaths.

2. Slavery is the result of the forcible capture and sale of people against their will, or else of people, who have been born into it through their parents being slaves.

Again, the above describes how historically the majority of people fell into slavery. Not all slaves or serfs were the victims of capture or were born into it, however. In the ancient world, and the early Middle Ages, many people, apparently of their own free will, sold themselves into servitude as a way of saving themselves and their families from starvation. Their land and their lives would no longer be there own, but their lord was obliged to feed and protect them. Similarly, people generally sign on for unemployment benefit and so pass into workfare in order to avoid poverty and starvation.

3. Slavery and related forms of servitude, such as serfdom, were the products of pre-modern, agricultural societies. They therefore cannot and do not exist in developed, industrial nations.

Medieval serfdom and transatlantic slavery certainly were based in agriculture. This does not mean that they were not also linked to what could be described as a capitalist, market economy. The growth of villeinage in medieval Europe and in Europe east of the Elbe in the 16th and 17th century was based on the cultivation of wheat in a market economy, rather than simply to support the villagers themselves. Similarly, transatlantic plantation slavery arose to provide the labour to cultivate the similarly highly profitable cash crops of sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slavery and serfdom could thus certainly be part of a modern, capitalist economy.

It is also manifestly untrue that slavery is purely agricultural, and has not and cannot be used in industrial society. Peter the Great in Russia began his nation’s industrialisation using serf labour. The first industrial metal furnaces were set up when he draft about 200 or so serfs to work in them. In the 20th century, the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia both used slave labour from the concentration camps, gulags and P.O.W. camps to build massive industrial plants and complexes. There’s a chilling passage in the book Black Snow: Russia after the Fall of Communism where the American author interviews a former KGB responsible for running one of the gulags – the political slave labour camps in Siberia. Living in his luxury apartment in Moscow, the man confesses that most of the inmates were completely innocent. He is, however, completely unrepentant, telling the author that they needed to use slave labour in order to industrialise the country. Without it, the great Soviet heavy industrial complexes would simply not be built. Even when the prisoners were released from the gulags and technically free, their freedom was extremely limited. Other employers would not take them on because they were still considered to have been traitors and political criminals. The result was that they remained tied to the towns and working in the same factories and furnaces that the gulags served, long after they were formally free men and women. These cities were themselves closed to outsiders. There were thus cities with populations of hundreds of thousands that were, in origin and in practice, vast prisons. Osborne’s, IDS’ and McVey’s workfare similarly serves as the basis for what remains of British industry, however much they may disguise it.

4. Slavery and serfdom are for life, although in most societies manumission – the freeing of a slave by their masters – was a possibility. Workfare is not intended to last for life, and in fact is deliberately arranged so that the individual on it will eventually leave it for better, paid employment.

Again, this point does not necessarily mean that workfare does not constitute a form of slavery. Most slaves in the ancient world at one time were freed before they were forty, in order for their masters to avoid the cost of paying for their upkeep in their frail old age. When the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, now New York, in the 17th and 18th century, slavery then was only intended to last 25 years. If the slave was able to live that long, then he or she was automatically free.

Workfare and Feudal Forced Labour

There is a closer similarity between workfare and some forms of forced labour, than the state of slavery per se. In many feudal societies in Europe and around the globe, the peasants are forced to provide customary unpaid work on behalf of their masters at certain times in the year. This was a feature of villeinage in Europe. The corvee remained a feature of French peasant servitude until it was abolished during the Revolution. Similar forms of collective, unpaid forced labour were also used in Fijian society, and in ancient Egypt. While not necessarily a form of literal slavery, such forced labour is still now considered an illegal form of servitude and in that sense classed as it.

Workfare and Roman Colliberti

Contemporary workfare could also be compared to the status of the colliberti – the freedmen – in the ancient world. These were men, who had been freed by their masters. They were technically freemen, and were frequently extremely rich, due to their employment and membership of vital industries, like fulling, that were below the dignity of free Roman citizens. They could not, however, hold political office, although this was possible for their children. They were also dependent on their patrons for legal protection, although this relationship did not exist in law. The rank of collibertus in Roman society, with its dependence on the patronage of one’s master, that eventually formed one of the roots of medieval serfdom. Similarly under workfare, the jobseeker is technically free, but in fact reliant and under the direction of the decision makers and clerks in the Job Centre.

5. In slavery, the power of the slave’s master is absolute. Under workfare, however, the jobseeker still possesses full legal protection. Moreover, workfare is in theory contractual. The jobseeker signs a formal agreement at the Job Centre, which binds him and the state into a particular relationship, each with obligations. This is completely unlike slavery.

This argument too is invalid. Many societies had laws limiting and protecting slaves and serfs from abuse. The medieval villeins were protected under feudal law in Britain. Spanish medieval law contains provisions protecting slaves. In the early 19th century prior to abolition, Britain attempted to ameliorate the condition of slaves in its colonies by passing laws stipulating the amount of rations they were to be fed, and limiting the number of lashes masters could inflict on their slaves as punishment. These were based on the Spanish slave code. The British also set up an official, the Guardian and Protector of Slaves, based on the Spanish alcalde, whose job was to protect slaves from abuse by their masters. These had the power to investigate allegations of abuse made by the slaves themselves. Beating and cruelty would result in the slave’s being compulsorily sold to another master. The murder of a slave was punished with the death penalty. The Islamic shariah similarly limits the punishment a slave may receive for particular crimes. Where the punishment for an offence is whipping, the number of lashes is frequently less for a slave than for a free man. He may also wear some kind of shirt instead of his bare back to protect him. These legal protections for slaves do not mean that slavery as an institution did not exist, or prevent it from being degrading.

As for workfare being contractual, and thus not a form of servitude, this is also false. Feudalism was also based on a contract between the lord and peasant. Under the contract, the peasant gave his life, land and labour, while the lord was obliged to protect him. Similarly, modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labour in Brazil, are frequently disguised as legal employment under a long contract.

It is therefore clear that the formal legal freedoms, which still exist at the moment for job seekers under workfare, are nevertheless comparable to other forms of slavery and servitude, which contain some elements of freedom, legal protection and even political power. Workfare can still therefore be reasonably compared with some forms of servitude and force labour, at least in the forms under which George Osborne plans to expand it.

The British American Empire

July 17, 2009

Murray 66, one of the great commentators on this blog, asked the following question, wondering what the British Empire would have looked like if America had never separated and remained a part of it:

‘With your knowledge of history and skill for writing books on it, have you ever done historical fiction? I thought it would be interesting to do a book based on the British colonies not gaining independence. You would still have us and India and Hong Kong, etc. How different would that world be? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.’

I’m afraid I’ve never written a historical novel, though I do know a number of people who’ve found the fictional treatment of various past events and periods actually far better history than many factual accounts. A good novelist can bring a period to life, and explain the way the people involved acted and events progressed, and the results of the actions of various historical figures, indeed, what it was like to live in the time depicted, in a more immediate way than some, more academic accounts. Generally, however, historians tend to avoid counterfactual history – speculating on what may have happened if events had turned out differently, because there are so many different factors working in history that it’s impossible to know how things would have turned out if things had been different, for example, if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, or the Nazis the Second World War. Probably for this reason, such alternative histories have been generally left to Science Fiction. Nevertheless, some historians have speculated on what history would have been like if events had been slightly different. I’ve got a feeling that the British historian and Times columnist Niall Ferguson published just such a book of alternative history, discussing what would have happened if particular events had ended differently, a few years ago.
In the case of America, the British Empire would have been very different. Depending on how Britain managed to retain the colonies in the New World, the political and economic centre of the Empire may have been not London, but America.

Fifty years before the Revolution occurred, some British politicians considered that the immense size and growing wealth of the American colonies would mean that eventually the American colonies would become dissatisfied with their subjection to the imperial government in Britain, and would demand greater freedom and autonomy. I’ve got a feeling they were also aware that the more democratic forms of government that had developed in the British colonies in the New World meant that Americans would also increasing resent the aristocratic nature of British politics and government. Some British politicians did attempt to produce plans for constitutional change, which they hoped would satisfy the American colonists by granting them increasing participation in imperial government. Edmund Burke proposed that as the American economy and society developed and progressed, so parliament and the court should be moved gradually across the Atlantic and relocated in America. If this had occurred, then the centre of British imperial power would not be in Britain, but in America, and Britain itself would have been merely an imperial province. It’s hard to see how this plan would have been accepted by the majority of British people to be practicable. Nevertheless, it was made.

Probably a much more acceptable plan would have been for parliament to have been reformed to include MPs from the colonies, though this would have meant a massive expansion of the number of MPs, or the alteration of electoral districts to keep the number at a manageable size. Before the Great Reform Act of 1832, each British county sent two MPs to parliament, while the various British towns that had been granted a charter also sent two MPs. However, not all British towns had been granted a charter, so that by the time of the Great Reform Act in 1832 there were a number of towns sending MPs that were little more than villages, and whose MPs were nominated by the local landlord, while large, industrial centres such as Birmingham, weren’t represented at all. Moreover, very few British people themselves had the vote, though this varied considerably from borough to borough. There were boroughs that had an extremely restricted franchise, with hardly anyone possessing the necessary property qualifications to vote. There were others, however, where most of the male population had the vote. The unrepresentative nature of the British constitution was recognised, and there were a number of radical MPs during the 18th century who demanded constitutional reform in order to make it more democratic. These radical strongly sympathised with the American colonists and their demands for constitutional reform and representation. The followers of the British radical politician, Wilkes, deliberately called themselves ‘Patriots’ after the American Revolutionaries. If the British constitution and parliament had been reformed to give greater representation to the American colonies, and so succeeded in regaining their loyalty, it would probably have made Britain more democratic, and the process of reform that began in 1832 that eventually ended with most of the male population possessing the vote by 1872 would probably have begun earlier. American politics, on the other hand, may have become rather more aristocratic, as the British House of Lords would still have retained its power despite the considerable reforms to the House of Commons.

However, one of the objections of the colonists to British rule was the established position of the Anglican Church, when the majority of the people in the colonies were members of other churches. It was because of this that the American Constitution established the separation of church and state. It’s therefore possible that, if the American colonies had remained part of the British Empire through constitutional change, the privileged position of the Anglican Church would have been reduced, at least in America.

If, however, the colonies had been retained through military force – if the British had won the War of Independence, then the situation would have been very different. Parliament in London would have been the centre of government, though some constitutional reforms may have been granted to the colonies to retain their loyalties. The immediate result, however, would have been repression. Dangerously independent or subversive members of the state legislatures would have been removed and prosecuted for treason, and local government altered to govern according to the demands of British imperial rule. If this had occurred, then I suspect that American history would have been more like that of Ireland before the creation of the Irish Free State in 1920. America would have been part of the British Empire, but there would have been widespread disaffection and demands for self-government. As time progressed, this may well have resulted in local rebellions and assassination attempts of British governors, imperial administrators and soldiers. It may also have been similar to South Africa in the 19th century, when a number of Afrikaaners, dissatisfied by British government and control, migrated inland to establish the independent Afrikaaner republics of the Orange Free State and Natal. The British then seized control of these colonies on the grounds that their inhabitants were already British citizens, resulting in conflict between the British and Afrikaaners in the Anglo-South African, or Boer War. Something similar may have happened in America, if the British had succeeded in suppressing the Revolution. It’s possible that those Americans who were resolved not to submit to British rule would have, like the Afrikaaners, trekked into the interior – in this case the Mid-West, and the British government would probably have attempted to follow them and force the new states they founded into the British Empire.

On the other hand, it’s possible that if the British had retained the American colonies, then the US would be confined to the original 13 colonies. Another of the major causes of resentment was British refusal to allow the colonies to expand into the Ohio River valley, as they wished to honour the treated they had made with the Iroquois in return for their aid against the French. Many of the senior British officers and governors in America had married into the families of Native American chiefs. If the British had managed to suppress the American Revolution, then America would probably have been confined to the eastern coast. On the other hand, if the America had remained part of the British Empire through constitutional reform, then it’s possible some expansion into Native American land would have occurred through a parliament which contained American MPs, or which represented their interests.

I also suspect that the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself in the British Empire would have occurred much later. It has been argued that Britain was able to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery in 1838, despite opposition from supporters of the slave trade and slavery in the British colonies in the Caribbean, as Britain had lost the American states whose economy depended on slavery. American abolitionists were certainly encouraged in their views that slavery could be abolished without damaging the country or the economy through the success of the British in abolishing slavery in the British Empire. It’s possible that if Britain had retained America, slavery would have been abolished much later. On the other hand, the Founding Fathers had assumed that as the American economy developed, slavery itself would gradually decline without the disruption of government intervention. Furthermore, a number of southern states had also petitioned parliament before the outbreak of the Revolution against the importation of more slaves. I believe that Georgia did so three times, but was overturned by George III. However, many of the leading anti-slavery activists during the 18th century were American, or had personal links to America and the Caribbean, and in the 19th century anti-slavery activists in Britain and America also had strong links.

Before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, parliament, under pressure from Granville Sharpe, William Wilberforce and others, had passed legislation regulating the trade and improving conditions for the slaves transported on British ships, and it did appear that parliament was prepared to abolish the slave trade itself. However, this was rejected with the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when the British authorities feared radical change to society and the possible disruption to the imperial economy through the loss of the slave labour on which the extremely profitable sugar industry depended. In this case, the major obstacle to the abolition of the slave trade was not the American slave states, but concern for the safety of the British imperial economy during the Napoleonic Wars. In this case, it’s possible that even if America had remained part of the British Empire, the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself would still have occurred when they did, or not much later. With the development of the cotton economy in the American South, however, it’s still possible that the southern states would still have been dependent on slavery and so would have rebelled against attempts to abolish it by the British. In this case, the Civil War would have been experienced not just as an American conflict, but as a war in an integral part of the British Empire, a conflict which would have caused conflict and controversy in Britain itself as politicians, industrialists, abolitionists and ordinary people debated it and the methods by which it could be brought to an end.

It’s also possible that the abolitionists would have urged the consumption of Indian cotton, rather than cotton from the American south, as a way of attacking slavery. In the early 19th century British abolitionists launched an ‘anti-saccharist campaign’ attacking the Caribbean sugar industry based on slavery. Rather than purchasing slave produced Caribbean sugar, they instead urged people to buy Indian sugar, which they believed had been grown and produced through free labour. India was one of the major sources for the British cotton industry in the 19th century. It’s therefore possible that if Britain had retained the American colonies, British abolitionists would have recommended that people should stop using southern American cotton, as well as Caribbean sugar, in order to encourage its cultivation by free workers, or damage the corrupt economy that kept people in chains.

After the abolition of slavery in 1838, the British turned instead to using indentured labourers from Asia for work on the plantations. This was the infamous ‘coolie trade’, as the labourers were transported and employed on the plantations in appalling conditions little different from those of the Black African slaves. The British government acted to reform the trade, and passed legislation intended to improve travelling and employment and living conditions for the immigrant workers, providing for them to send money home, and bring along their wives and families, rather than break them up. The British were also concerned about the kidnapping of Asian labourers for use as indentured labourers. To prevent this, it passed a series of acts and engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the imperial Chinese authorities and Portuguese authorities in Macao to gain their co-operation in suppressing the trade, while raiding and prosecuting suspected kidnappers in India and China. The British also negotiated with America and were in contact with American anti-slavery groups to gain their co-operation in suppressing the kidnapping of Chinese labours for work in California. If America had remained part of the British Empire, then, if America had not expanded beyond the eastern coast, California would have remained a Spanish and then a Mexican territory. In this case, Britain would have negotiated with the Spanish and Mexican authorities. If, however, America had expanded across the continent to the west coast, then the British government would have negotiated with the American authorities for California as a British colonial government, rather than as the government of an independent nation. It’s doubtful whether that would have been any easier, as the legislatures of many of the British colonies firmly refused to pass legislation abolishing slavery until forced to do so by the imperial authorities themselves through the promulgation of orders in council.

With the development of coolie trade in the 19th century, it’s possible that America would have had more citizens of Indian descent. During the 19th century many Indians attempted to find work by emigrating to Canada, and it was partly resentment at the treatment of Indian labourers in the coolie trade and attempts to restrict Indian and Asian immigration to Canada in favour of White Europeans that stimulated the development of Indian nationalism. They considered that only if India itself was an independent nation would Indians be able to insist on their better treatment across the world as labourers, and as immigrants to British territories such as Canada. If America had remained part of the British Empire, then it’s possible that Indians would also have emigrated there, as they did to Canada, in search of work and that this would also have resulted in racial friction and been a factor in the rise of the Indian independence movement.

Britain’s continuing possession of the American colonies may also have affected the French Revolution. Although radical resentment of the monarchy and feudalism had been steadily increasing throughout the 18th century, along with demands for constitutional reform, some of the generals and politicians involved in the French Revolution had served aiding the Americans during the American Revolution, and been inspired by its ideals. It could be argued that if the American Revolution had not occurred, or had been suppressed, then the French Revolution would not have broken out. On the other hand, as there were radical and revolutionary movements in France, which had developed from resentment at the French monarchy and influenced by the general Enlightenment philosophical ideas of which the American Revolution was a part, the French Revolution may have occurred anyway. Furthermore, while the French Revolutionaries respected the leaders of the American Revolution, such as Thomas Jefferson, they found their ideas too moderate. The French Revolution would have developed as it did regardless of the American Revolution. It is possible, however, that the French Revolution may have resulted in the further development and encouragement of revolutionary ideas and activity in America. In this case, the American Revolution may have broken out after the French Revolution in the 19th century, and may have taken a more extreme form.

It’s also possible that without the American Revolution, American society may have been much less religious. Historians have noted the vast increase in church membership and attendance in America during the American Revolution, a situation that undoubtedly contributed to the very religious nature of American society compared to European. If the Revolution had been prevented from occurring through constitutional change, then possibly America would have been less religious. On the other hand, if the Americans had lost the War of Independence, then Americans would have remained very religious, and religion would have formed a major part of American national identity. In this respect it may have been similar to the links between the various movements for Irish independence based in Roman Catholicism, and the Catholic democracy that developed in Irish Roman Catholic society. Unlike the Roman Catholic movements for Irish independence, it would not have been based in any single denomination.

Finally, depending on how America remained part of the British Empire, American attitudes towards the rest of the world may have been very different. Although America became active globally after World War II attempting to prevent the spread of Communism, fighting wars in Korea and Vietnam, throughout much of its history America was opposed to interfering in other nations’ internal politics and to imperialist attempts to conquer and subject other, sovereign nations. F.D. Roosevelt, for example, wished that Britain would gradually loosen its control of its colonies, so that they could also benefit from trade with America and eventually gain their independence. He believed that Indo-China should be granted its independence from the French. If America had remained part of the British Empire, and especially if it became the centre of British imperial government, then America would have become much less opposed to imperialism, or involvement in international affairs. On the other hand, if Britain had retained America through force, then the anti-imperial attitude in American politics would have remained, and possibly strengthened, as Americans, resenting their subjection to an imperial power, would object in turn to participating in the conquest and subjection of other peoples and countries.

Thus, it’s impossible to know how history would have progressed if Britain had managed to retain the American colonies. It is possible, however, that there were two, alternative ways in which history would have been different, according to the methods used by the British to deal with American demands for independence and representation in imperial government. If Britain had retained the colonies through constitutional reform, then America would have been a fully integral part of the British Empire. American industry and agriculture would eventually develop to become the dominant, or one of the major economic forces in the Empire. If Americans had succeeded in attacking the mercantilist system, which regulated imperial trade by limiting the goods exported by the colonies in favour of the British economy, then America would have had full access to British ports and markets across the world. American troops, along with English, Irish, Scots and West Indian soldiers would have served in India and Africa, and American politicians and soldiers served along with their British counterparts as governors and administrators of the British colonies across the globe. If Burke’s plan had been adopted, and court and parliament moved across the Atlantic to America, then the British Empire would effectively have become an American Empire, though one in which Americans still considered themselves British citizens. American expansion beyond the initial British colonies would have been limited, however, though its possible that this would have occurred through the British authorities responding to popular demand and in competition with French and Spanish attempts to colonise the continent.

If Britain had, however, succeeded in retaining the American colonies through military force, rather than reform, and had won the War of Independence, many of the constitutional freedoms Americans had developed before Independence would have been abolished or reduced. America would then have been more like Ireland or South Africa in that it formed a part of the British Empire, but there would have been widespread discontent, occasionally erupting into violence. As in South Africa, there may have been independent American republics established in the interior, outside of British rule. It’s possible that Texas would have been founded as one of these.

However, in both of these situations, the British and American political traditions would either not have diverged, or not have diverged quite so much. If America had remained part of the Empire through constitutional reform, then the debate over the American constitution and the development of American politics would have been part of general British politics and constitutional developments. If the British had defeated the Americans during the War of Independence, then America would have been very much a subordinate part of the British Empire with far more limited powers of self-government. However, there would still have been links between American and British radicals demanding constitutional reform and more representative, democratic government.

As for how the world would be today, I suspect that if Britain had retained America simply by military force, then growing pressure for independence from Britain would eventually have resulted in America, like Ireland, eventually rebelling and gaining its independence some time in the 1920s, after the First World War. If America had remained part of the Empire through constitutional reform, then I suspect that America, like Britain, would have suffered economically after the Second World War. The result would have been that many former British colonies across the world would be granted their independence, and America would probably, like Britain, have been forced to fight various nationalist movements. With the expansion of the Communist bloc after the Second World War, it’s possible that as part of the British Empire America would have attempted to prevent its further spread. The Vietnam War may still have happened. However, American politicians may have found such global engagements increasingly difficult to justify to a population that had suffered much more during the Second World War, and who may have wished to see a concentration on domestic economic growth, rather than in maintenance of America’s position as a global superpower. On the other hand, it may be that as Britain became exhausted after World War II, so America would have become the dominant force in British imperial politics through its immense economic and military resources. Eventually, the British Empire would have ended and been replaced by the modern Commonwealth, in which America would have been a major part. The world would have been different, but probably America would eventually have gained self-government and been a major force in global politics, though possibly as a member of the Commonwealth, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, rather than a separate state outside British imperial politics.