Posts Tagged ‘Indentured labourers’

YouTube Video for My Book on Slavery in the British Empire, ‘The Global Campaign’

February 18, 2019

This is the video I’ve just uploaded on YouTube about my two volume book on slavery, its abolition and the campaign against it in the British Empire, The Global Campaign, which I’ve published with Lulu.

The video explains that it grew out of my work as a volunteer at the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, helping to catalogue the archive of government documents that they had been granted by the Commonwealth Institute. I was busy summarizing these documents for a database on materials on slavery the Museum wanted to compile. Going through them, it became clear that the long process of its abolition in the Caribbean was just part of a wider attempt by the British to suppress it right across our empire, from Canada and the Caribbean across the Cape Colony, now part of South Africa, the Gold Coast, now Ghana, Sierra Leone, founded as a colony for freed slaves, central Africa, and what are now Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda, Egypt, the Sudan and the North African parts of the Turkish Empire, to India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Java and Malaysia, and into the Pacific, in Fiji, Australia and the Pacific Island nations. Legislation in one section of the Empire, for example, the Caribbean, was also passed elsewhere, such as Cape Colony, Mauritius and the Seychelles. The British were aided in their campaign to stamp out slavery in Egypt, the Sudan and Uganda by the Egyptian ruler, the Khedive Ismail. They also signed treaties banning the slave trade from East Africa with the Imam of Muscat, now Oman, the ruler of Zanzibar and Pemba and the suzerain of some of the east African coastal states. There was also an invasion of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, in retaliation for their raiding of the neighbouring British territories for slaves.

As well as trying to suppress the enslavement of Africans, the British were also forced to attack other forms of slavery, such as the forced kidnapping and sale of indentured migrant labourers from India and China in the infamous ‘Coolie Trade’, and the similar enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific for labour on the sugar plantations in Fiji and Queensland.

I also explain how one of the first English-speaking countries to ban slavery was Canada, where enlightened governors and judges twisted the interpretation of Canadian law to show that slavery did not officially exist there.

The video’s about ten minutes long. Unfortunately, I don’t say anything about the role Black resistance to slavery, from simple acts like running away, to full scale rebellions had in ending it, or of colonial governors and legislatures. But the book does mention them.

Here’s the video:

Yay! My Book on Slavery in the British Empire Has Been Published with Lulu

January 30, 2019

On Monday I finally got the proof copies I ordered of my book, The Global Campaign, which I’ve just published with Lulu, the print on demand service. The book’s in two volumes, which have the subtitles on their first pages The British Campaign to Eradicate Slavery in its Colonies. The book’s in two volumes. Volume One has the subtitle The Beginnings to Abolition and the British Caribbean, while Volume Two is subtitled Africa and the Wider World.

My blurb for the book runs

British imperialism created an empire stretching from North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, much of whose population were slaves. Global Campaign tells how slavery in the British Empire arose, the conditions and resistance to it of the peoples they enslaved, and the steps taken to end it by the abolitionists across the Empire and the metropolitan authorities in London.

The first volume of this book, Volume 1: The Beginnings to Abolition and the British Caribbean describes the emergence of this Empire, and the attempts to end slavery within it up to end of apprenticeship in 1838.

Volume 2: Africa and the Wider World describes how the British tried to end it in their expanding Empire after 1838. It describes how abolition became part of the ideology of British imperialism, and spurred British expansion, annexation and conquest.

The two volumes also discuss the persistence of slavery after abolition into the modern world, and its continuing legacy across continents and cultures.

The contents of vol. 1 are an introduction, then the following:

Chapter 1: the British Slave Empire in 1815
Chapter 2: From Amelioration to Abolition
Chapter 3: Abolition, Apprenticeship and Limited Freedom, 1833-1838.

Vol. 2’s chapter are

1: Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Lagos
2: India, Ceylon, Java and Malaya,
3: The Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji
4: West Africa and the Gold Coast, 1874-1891
5: The Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Sudan
6: East and Central Africa
7: Zanzibar and Pemba
8: Legacies and Conclusion

Both volumes also have an index and bibliography. I also drew the cover art.

Volume 1 is 385 pages A5, ISBN 978-0-244-75207-1, price 12.00 pounds.
Volume 2 386 pages A5, ISBN 978-0-244-45228-5, price 12.00 pounds. Both prices exclusive of VAT.

The books are based on the notes and summaries I made for the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum of some of the official documents they’d acquired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on slavery. I also supplemented this with a mass of secondary reading on slavery, the slave trade and the British Empire. It’s a fascinating story. I chose to write about slavery in the British Empire as a whole as I found when I was looking through the documents that slavery certainly wasn’t confined to the Caribbean. It was right across the world, though most of the published books concentrate on slavery in the US and the Caribbean. There has been a recent book on slavery and abolition in British India and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and I remember seeing a book on the British campaign against slavery in the Pacific, published, I believe, from one of the antipodean publishers. I doubt very many people in Britain are aware that it existed in India and Sri Lanka, and that attempts to outlaw it there date from c. 1798, when the British judge of the Bombay (Mumbai) presidency ruled that it was illegal. Similarly, general histories of slavery do mention the infamous ‘coolie trade’ in indentured labourers from India and China. They were imported into the Caribbean and elsewhere around the world in order to supply cheap labour after the abolition of slavery in 1838. However, they were treated so abysmally in conditions often worse than those endured by enslaved Blacks, that it was dubbed by one British politician ‘A new system of slavery’. There’s an excellent book on it, with that as its title, by Hugh Tinker, published by one of the Indian presses.

General books on slavery also discuss the enslavement of indigenous Pacific Islanders, who were kidnapped and forced to work on plantations in Fiji and Queensland in Australia. But again, I doubt if many people in the UK have really heard about it. And there are other episodes in British imperial history and the British attempts to curb and suppress slavery around the world which also isn’t really widely known. For example, abolition provided some much of the ideological impetus for the British conquest of Africa. Sierra Leone was set up in the late 18th century as a colony for freed slaves. But the British were also forced to tackle slavery and slaving in the Gold Coast, after they acquired it in the 19th century. They then moved against and conquered the African kingdoms that refused to give up slaving, such as Ashanti, Dahomey and the chiefdoms around Lagos. It’s a similar story in east Africa, in what is now Tanganyika, Zambia, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Malawi. The British initially wished to conquer the area as part of the general European ‘Scramble for Africa’, and their main rivals in the region where the Portuguese. But the British public were also aware through the missionary work of David Livingstone that the area was part of the Arabic slave trade, and that the indigenous peoples of this region were being raided and enslaved by powerful local African states, such as the Yao and the Swahili as well as Arabs, and exported to work plantations in the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba off the east African coast. At the same time, Indian merchants were also buying and enslaving Africans from that area, particularly Uganda.

The British were also concerned to crush slavery in Egypt after they took control of the country with the French. They encouraged Khedive Ismail, the Egyptian ruler, to attempt to suppress it in Egypt and then the Sudan. It was as part of this anti-slavery campaign that the Khedive employed first Colonel Baker and then General Gordon, who was killed fighting the Mahdi.

At the same time, Stamford Raffles in Singapore and Raja Brooke of Sarawak justified their conquest and acquisition of these states as campaigns to end slavery in those parts of Asia. The British also took over Fiji at the request of the Fijian king, Cakabau. White Americans and Europeans had been entering the country, and Cakabau and his advisors were afraid that unless the country was taken under imperial control, the settlers would enslave the indigenous Fijians. Indeed, Cakabau had been made king of the whole of Fiji by the colonists, though he was acutely aware of how he was being used as a figurehead for effective White control of his people. At the same time, the White planters were also forming a White supremacist group. So he appealed to the British Empire to takeover his country in order to prevent his people’s enslavement.

British imperial slavery started off with the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America. I’ve ignored slavery in the US except for the period when it was part of the British Empire. The Canadians ended slavery nearly two decades before it was formally outlawed throughout the British Empire. It was done through enlightened governors, judges as well as abolitionists outside government. The country’s authorities did so by interpreting the law, often against its spirit, to show that slavery did not legally exist there. There were attempts by slaveowners to repeal the legislation, but this was halfhearted and by the 1820s slavery in Canada had officially died out.

After the British acquired Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa, the very beginning of the modern state of South Africa, they were also faced with the problem of ending the enslavement of its indigenous population. This included the indigenous Khoisan ‘Bushmen’, who were being forced into slavery when they took employment with White farmers. At the same time, the British were trying to do the same in Mauritius and the Seychelles after they conquered them from the French.

The British initially started with a programme of gradual abolition. There was much debate at the time whether the enslaved peoples could support themselves as independent subjects if slavery was abolished. And so the abolitionists urged parliament to pass a series of legislation slowly improving their conditions. These regulated the foods they were given by the planters, the punishments that could be inflicted on them, as well as giving them medical care and support for the aged and disabled. They also tried to improve their legal status by giving them property rights and the right to be tried in ordinary courts. Special officials were set up, the Guardians and Protectors of Slaves, to examine complaints of cruelty.

This gradualist approach was challenged by the female abolitionists, who grew impatient with the cautious approach of the Anti-Slavery Society’s male leadership. They demanded immediate abolition. I’ve also tried to pay tribute to the struggle by the enslaved people themselves to cast off their shackless. In the Caribbean, this took the form of countless slave revolts and rebellions, like Maroons in Jamaica, who were never defeated by us. At the same time a series of slaves came forward to accuse their masters of cruelty, and to demand their freedom. After the Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery did not exist in English law in the late 18th century, slaves taken to Britain from the Caribbean by their masters presented themselves to the Protectors on their return demanding their freedom. They had been on British soil, and so had become free according to English law. They therefore claimed that they were illegally kept in slavery. As you can imagine, this produced outrage, with planters and slaveowners attacking both the anti-slavery legislation and official attempts to free the slaves as interference with the right of private property.

This legislation was introduced across the Empire. The same legislation that regulated and outlawed slavery in the Caribbean was also adopted in the Cape, Mauritius and the Seychelles. And the legislation introduced to ensure that indentured Indian and Chinese labourers were treated decently was also adopted for Pacific Islanders.

Slavery was eventually abolished in 1833, but a form of servitude persisted in the form of apprenticeship until 1838. This compelled the slaves to work unpaid for their masters for a certain number of hours each week. It was supposed to prepare them for true freedom, but was attacked and abandoned as just another form of slavery.

Unfortunately slavery continued to exist through the British Empire in various forms despite official abolition. The British were reluctant to act against it in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Java and Perak in what is now Malaysia because they were afraid of antagonizing the indigenous princes and so causing a rebellion. In Egypt they attempted to solve the problem by encouraging the slaveowners as pious Muslims to manumit their slaves freely as an act of piety, as the Prophet Mohammed urges them in the Qu’ran. In the Caribbean, the freedom the former slaves enjoyed was limited. The British were afraid of the plantation economy collapsing, and so passed legislation designed to make it difficult for the freed people to leave their former masters, often tying them to highly exploitative contracts. The result was that Black West Indians continued to fear re-enslavement long after abolition, and there were further riots and rebellions later in the 19th century. In British Africa, the indigenous African peoples became second class citizens, and were increasingly forced out of governmental and administrative roles in favour of Whites. Some colonies also conscripted African labourers into systems of forced labour, so that many came to believe that they had simply swapped one form of slavery for another. The result has been that slavery has continued to persist. And it’s expanded through people trafficking and other forms of servitude and exploitation.

The book took me on off several years to write. It’s a fascinating subject, and you can’t but be impressed with the moral and physical courage of everyone, Black and White, who struggled to end it. I chose to write about it in the British Empire as while there are many books on slavery across the world, there didn’t seem to be any specifically on the British Empire. Studying it also explains why there is so much bitterness about it by some people of West Indian heritage and how it has shaped modern politics. For example, before South Sudan was given its independence, Sudan under the British was effectively divided into two countries. In the southern part of the country, the British attempted to protect the indigenous peoples from enslavement by banning Arabs. They were also opened up to Christian evangelization. In the Arab north, the British attempted to preserve good relations by prohibiting Christian evangelism.

I also attempt to explain how it is that under the transatlantic slave trade, slavery became associated with Blackness. In the ancient world and during the Middle Ages, Whites were also enslaved. But Europeans started turning to Black Africans in the 14th and 15th centuries when it became impossible for them to buy Slavs from eastern Europe. So common had the trade in Slavs been that the modern English word, slave, and related terms in other languages, like the German Sklave, actually derive from Slav.

It’s been fascinating and horrifying writing the book. And what is also horrifying is that it persists today, and that new legislation has had to be passed against it in the 21st century.

Jeremy Corbyn in Bristol: It Is Important Children Understand the History of the Empire

October 14, 2018

This is a short clip, of just over a minute, of Jeremy Corbyn at Bristol’s City Hall, put on YouTube on Thursday by the Daily Fail. Corbyn speaks on the need to educated children about Britain’s role in the slave trade and the British Empire, and mentions Bristol as one of the cities involved in the trade, like Liverpool, and some of whose merchants became rich from it. He states that it’s important people understand the treatment of Black people across the Empire and the contribution they made to it. He says that Windrush has highlighted this need, and the making sure all our children understand the history of the Empire will make our communities stronger. The video shows him descending the ramp leading up to the Council House’s entrance, and inside standing in a dock watching a video on the Empire, or slavery.

The blurb for the piece runs:

Jeremy Corbyn today unveiled proposals to ensure schoolchildren are taught about the legacy of Britain’s role in slavery and colonialism. The move comes on the same day as Labour faces accusations that it is ‘putting ideology first and children second’ with its plans to impose a new rule book on all schools. The National Curriculum already recommends that children learn about the slave trade, the British Empire and colonies in America. Mr Corbyn said that ‘in the light of the Windrush scandal’ it is ‘more important now than ever’ that children learn ‘the role and legacy of the British Empire, colonisation and slavery’. Pictured top right, a drawing showing a slave ship and bottom right, immigrants arriving on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

Thangam Debonnaire, the Blairite MP for Bristol West, also got into the I on a related issue. She had stated at a council meeting that the statue of Colston in the centre of Bristol should be taken down. Colston was a Bristol slave trader, who spent most of his life actually in Mortlake in the London area. He used some of the profits he made from his slaving to do charities in Bristol, including Colston Girls school. Redcliffe School, an Anglican faith school in Bristol, which Mike and I attended, was also endowed by Colston. Every year there is a Colston Day service at which a select group of pupils are given a Colston bun. The big concert hall in the city centre is also named after him.

He’s obviously a very controversial figure, and the Black community has been demanding since the 1990s to have the statue of him taken down. Debonnaire has added her voice to the campaign, saying that we shouldn’t commemorate those who have oppressed us.

Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at Bristol University, was also on the local news programme for the Bristol area, Points West, on Thursday as well, talking about the statue, the debt Bristol owes to Africa and the need for museums here on slavery or Africa. When asked about Colston’s statue, he made the point that it wasn’t even a very good statue. It’s not actually very old, dating from the late Victorian period. He felt that instead there should be a plaque explaining Colston’s role in the enslavement of Africa’s people, and the statue should be packed in a crate in the City Museum.

He stated that if we wanted our children to be world citizens, we should also have a museum dedicated to slavery and Africa, like Liverpool’s Museum of slavery. David Garmston, the co-host of the news programme, said that Bristol already had a gallery on slavery at the M Shed here in Bristol. Horton agreed, but said that it was a small one. He then referred to the exhibition at the City Museum back in the 1990s, entitled ‘A Respectable Trade’, which went on at the same time as the TV series of the same name, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. This had a huge number of people attending. Mark said that he had worked in Africa, and had seen for himself the damage imperialism had done, and a museum to Africa was the least we could do.

Listening to him, it struck me that what was really needed was for the Empire and Commonwealth Museum to be revived and brought back to Bristol. I did voluntary work in the slavery archives of that museum from the 1990 to the early 2000s. It was a private museum housed in one of the engine sheds in Bristol’s Temple Meads station. And it did a good job of representing the peoples and cultures of the British Commonwealth, including marginalized indigenous peoples like the Australian aborigines. Unfortunately, in the early part of this century the Museum was offered the premises of the Commonwealth Institute in London. They accepted and went off to the capital. The Museum failed, and the last I heard its former director, Dr. Gareth Griffiths, was being investigated for illegally selling off the Museum’s exhibits. He claimed he was only doing so as the trustees hadn’t given him enough money to keep it running. In my opinion, the Museum should never have been moved from Bristol. If it had still remained here, I’m sure it would still have been running, and would have been a major part of Bristol heritage sector.

I’ve got mixed feelings about these proposals. I’ve no objection to a museum of slavery in Bristol. Liverpool has one, and other cities around the world also have them. Roughly at the same time Bristol was mounting its ‘Respectable Trade’ exhibition, Nantes was also mounting a similar one on its history as France’s main slaving port, called ‘Les Annees du Memoir’. The slave fort at Elmina in Ghana, one of the main areas from which western ships collected their human cargo, also has an exhibition on its part in the slave trade. However, I feel that every care needs to be taken to prevent such exhibitions being used to inculcate White guilt, to express the attitude that White Bristolians are somehow indelibly and forever guilty because of what their ancestors did.

And there are grave problems with any museum of slavery which does not include the wider background to the European transatlantic slave trade. Slavery has existed in various forms across the world since antiquity. The Arabs also conducted a trade in Black slaves from Africa. They were driven across the Sahara into the North Africa states, and sometimes beyond. During the Middle Ages, they were imported into Muslim Spain. The Arabs also exported them across the Indian Ocean to what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Arabia. Indigenous African peoples were also involved in the trade. One of the chief slaving states in West Africa was Dahomey. In East Africa, in what is now Kenya, Uganda and Malawi, the slaving peoples included the Swahili and Yao. The Europeans didn’t, as a rule, enslave Africans directly themselves. They bought them off other Africans, who could also make immense profits from them. Duke Ephraim, one of the kings of Dahomey, had an income of 300,000 pounds a year in the 1820s, which was larger than that of many English dukes.

After the British banned the slave trade and then slavery themselves, they launched a campaign against it across the globe. the east African countries that became Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Rhodesia were invaded and conquered as they were centres of the Arab slave trade and the British wanted to prevent them from exporting their human cargo to British India. In some parts of Africa, slavery lingered into the early years of the 20th century because those countries weren’t conquered by the British. Morocco continued importing slaves from Africa south of the Sahara until c. 1911 because the British prevented the other European countries from invading. At the same time, North African Arab pirates preyed on and enslaved White Europeans until Algeria was invaded and conquered by the French. It is estimated that 1 1/2 million Europeans were enslaved over the centuries in this way.

Slavery also existed in Indian society, and the British were responsible for trying to suppress that also in the 19th century. Then Indians, and also the Chinese, were also virtually enslaved too in the infamous ‘Coolie Trade’ in indentured Indian servants, who were imported into the British Caribbean and elsewhere, to replace the Black workers, who had been freed. The Indian and Chinese workers were technically free, but were bound to their masters and worked in appalling conditions that were actually worse than those endured by the former Black slaves.

The history of slavery is complex. It is not simply a case of White westerners preying on people of colour, and I feel strongly that any museum set up to show the history of this infamous trade should show that.

Vox Political: Priti Patel Confirms ‘Leave’ Campaign Wants to Take Away Workers’ Rights

May 23, 2016

Mike on Saturday also posted up another piece commenting on the anti-working class policies of the ‘Brexit’ crowd. Priti Patel, one of its leaders, and the author of the notorious Britannia Unchained, gave a speech to the Institute of Directors claiming that leaving the EU would give Britain an opportunity to abandon its legal obligations to protect workers under current EU legislation. She claimed this would produce another 60,000 jobs.

Frances O’Grady, the head of the TUC, has denounced this attack on workers’ rights by the ‘Leave’ campaign. The TUC has also commissioned a report into which rights would be vulnerable to repeal from Michael Ford, QC. Some of these are listed in this piece reblogged by Mike.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/21/priti-patel-admits-leave-campaign-agenda-to-reduce-workers-rights-tuc/

This latest sputtering from the Brexit crowd doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve said all along that what really annoys the Tories about the EU is the Social Charter, as was shown back in the 1990s when Terry Wogan had on his show a Tory politico, who fully endorsed the Common Market but hated the protection it gave European workers. Patel and the other authors of Britannia Unchained argued in that vile little screed that British workers should accept poor conditions and work harder, so that the country can compete with the sweatshops of the Developing World. The same views were articulated here in the West Country by an ‘Orange’ Book Lib Dem from Taunton Dean. Of course, neither Patel nor the rest of that crew believe in cutting managers’ salaries and shareholder dividends in order to make the companies more competitive by allowing them to free more capital to invest in new machinery and research and development.

As for those 60,000 or so jobs, they wouldn’t appear either if Britain left the EU. The money saved from the EU contributions would be frittered away giving yet more massive tax cuts to the rich. Or else it would be eaten up in the extra expenses that would be incurred by Britain going it alone outside Europe, and having to hammer out trade agreements with each individual EU nation, as Mike has repeatedly pointed out.

As for Patel herself, I have nothing but contempt for her. She first appeared in the 1990s, and was hailed and applauded by the Daily Mail, who produced her as a sign that the Tories were embracing ethnic minorities. She was featured in an article headlined, ‘As Priti as a Picture’. The article naturally claimed that Tory ethnic minorities were better than the Blacks or Asians in Labour, who were, of course, all riddled with post-colonial racial resentment against the Whites.

It struck me the other day that the arguments the Tories and big business use to justify unpaid internships would be wonderful for the apologists for slavery if somehow that vile trade had not been made illegal by Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, John Wedderburn and the rest of the Abolitionists. When Wilberforce and the others were launching their campaign to send the trade and free its victims, the West Indian planters and slavers complained that it was a ‘visonary’ and ‘philanthropic’ attack on private enterprise and private property, and as a result the economy would suffer. You can imagine the same slavers telling the slaves in Africa, and the indentured Indian labourers, who were exploited in the infamous ‘Coolie’ Trade, that they were going to enjoy a wonderful employment opportunity abroad. No, the planters couldn’t afford to pay them, but this would be good experience. Actually, the latter was the argument during the period of unpaid apprenticeship. After slavery itself was formally ended, the slaves were supposed to work unpaid for their masters in order to learn how to be upright, independent, self-reliant citizens. I’ve posted articles before comparing it to workfare.

And just as there was a slave trade from Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the New World, so there was also a slave trade across the Indian Ocean, from Africa, to Arabia, India and Asia. Indeed, the British authorities in the Bengal presidency banned slavery there as early as the 1820s, and in the 1870s the Raj stepped into ban the African slave trade carried out by British Indians, and confiscated their slaves. It struck me that the Indian slave trade was probably carried out by someone very like Priti Patel, just as someone like Gove and Johnson were probably out defending the slave trade in the Atlantic. I am certainly not accusing any of the above of personally supporting the slave trade, or having any connection to it. Just that they’ve got the same nasty exploitative attitudes of those who did.

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.