Britain’s role in keeping the slave trade alive | Letters

Simon Kennedy, Paul Roper and Mona Williams respond to an article by Michael Taylor. Plus Gillian Corcoran on the slavery links of National Trust properties

Michael Taylor somewhat truncates the facts regarding the abolition of slavery (Britain’s role in the slave trade was not to end it, but to thwart abolition at every turn, 20 June). Yes, the newly formed French republic did indeed abolish slavery in 1794, but Napoleon’s law of 20 May 1802 restored slavery in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. When the emperor returned from Elba, he outlawed the slave trade in March 1815.

Many interpret this as a concession to the British, which shows just what a force that abolitionist movement was across Europe. Once Napoleon was again removed, it took the restored Bourbons until 1848 to ban it in their colonies. In the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba, slavery was still effectively practised until 1873 and 1886 respectively.

While we need to acknowledge this isn’t a contest in national virtue, nor does it excuse this vile exploitation, seen against these facts perhaps Britain’s own efforts were not as tardy as Taylor suggests.
Simon Kennedy

• Michael Taylor rightly points to the fierce resistance on the part of the “West India interest” to abolition and the specious arguments they conjured up in support of their cause. One frequently cited was the claim that following the abolition of the slave trade, the consequent cutting off of a fresh supply of slaves would ensure that plantation managers had a vested interest in providing the best possible working and living conditions for the slave population, to make plantation life the envy of every British factory worker. Abolition was by no means a foregone conclusion and was only finally pushed through parliament following the guarantee of compensation, which was not based on the land value of the plantations themselves, but on the number of slaves attached to them.
Paul Roper
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

• Are readers aware of the slave rebellion that took place in 1823 on the Gladstone sugar estate in Demerara county, British Guiana? It was led by African slaves who had to wear the names of their slave owner. They were father and son, Quamina and Jackie Gladstone, and there is a monument to them in present-day Guyana, which was the former colony of British Guiana. A British prime minister four times, William Gladstone’s wealth was built on slavery. It is beneath contempt that he gained a reputation for kindness by bringing into his home the child prostitutes of London to have a meal and a rest for one night, while his father Sir John Gladstone’s plantations were run with brutality and the rebellion was put down with the utmost savagery.
Mona Williams
(Descendant of slavery survivors of Guiana), Wellington, New Zealand

• It is good to hear that the National Trust is to do more to highlight the links between many of its country houses and the transantlantic slave trade (National Trust hastens project exposing links of country houses to slavery, 22 June). While some National Trust visitors may associate country houses with “scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy”, as Dr Katie Donington says, I’m not sure Jane Austen herself saw it that way.

It’s made clear in Mansfield Park that the house’s fortunes are based on the Bertram family plantations in Antigua, and Fanny Price makes a point of asking her uncle about the slave trade on his return from a visit to his plantations. Then, as so often on this subject, “there was such a dead silence”.
Gillian Corcoran
Oxton, Wirral

• The letter from Mona Williams was amended on 26 June 2020 to clarify that it was not William Gladstone but his father, Sir John Gladstone, who ran plantations including the one where the rebellion of 1823 began.


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