As Cambridge investigates its past, it’s time we acknowledged that slavery embedded a racial privilege that exists to this day
Cambridge University has announced that it will finally – just two centuries after the abolition of slavery and about 80 years after the end of the British empire – conduct an “in-depth academic study into ways in which it contributed to, benefited from or challenged the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”.
I’m not sure “in-depth” is how I would describe an inquiry which omits all 31 of its colleges, which hold most of the wealth in Cambridge, and some of which already have verified slavery connections. And it is worth pointing out that, while Cambridge has framed this inquiry as part of its “race equality initiatives”, this conversation was forced on it by students, activists and brave academics.
But Oxbridge institutions are not alone in owing a tremendous debt to slaves. The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at UCLhas created a vast database that shows just how profoundly slavery shaped modern Britain – well beyond its two best-known universities. Among the institutions with a history of slavery connections are the Bank of England, high-street banks (RBS, Barclays and Lloyds), railway companies, insurance companies and even the Royal Mail. And as these organisations flourished through their use of forced labour, their owners bequeathed part of their huge wealth to some of the UK’s leading cultural institutions, including the National Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Tate, the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum. Visitors to these galleries today are given little or no indication of their murky histories.
Slave-owning planters, and merchants who dealt in slaves and slave produce, were among the richest people in 18th-century Britain. Profits from these activities helped to endow the industrial revolution, Britain’s naval supremacy, and even British capitalism itself. By the late 1700s, slave-generated profits were large enough to have covered up to a third of Britain’s overall investment needs.
But the privileges accrued from slavery were not only economic: prestige properties were built which would be passed down as generational wealth. If you’ve ever marvelled at some of Britain’s stately homes or listed buildings, you should be aware that many of them were built or bought using money derived from slavery. One example is Dodington Park, a beautiful estate, currently owned by British inventor James Dyson, and which was originally built by Christopher Bethell-Codrington, using sums derived at least in part from plantation profits.
Often this wealth translated into political power. Alderman William Beckford, whose father was one of the most powerful men in 18th-century Jamaica, went on to serve as mayor of London. He even kept enslaved Africans to serve him in England. More recently, former prime minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, were both revealed to have slaveowners in their family background. Inherited wealth matters for generations.
Yet, as historian David Olusoga has pointed out, it would be a mistake to think of slave-ownership in the UK as confined to the upper classes. Many middle-class people, “including clergymen, naval personnel and people who had returned from the colonies were also slave-owners”, regarded an enslaved person as “a sound investment”.
The footprints of slavery, and the profits it bequeathed to generations, still shape the present. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans. Not one of them got a penny. Instead, the British government paid out today’s equivalent of £16bn to former slave owners to “compensate” them for their loss of “property”, a national debt that took until 2015 to be paid off. Yes, that means the descendants of slaves here in the UK were, until just four years ago, paying off slave owners for their ancestors’ freedom.
Britons today aren’t directly responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but we are responsible for making the consequences of their wrongful actions right – starting with recognising how history and a culture rooted in supremacy feed into modern-day injustice.
Today in Britain, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are more than three times more likely than white British people to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Rates of prosecution and sentencing for black people are three times higher than for white people. Unemployment rates are significantly higher for ethnic minorities; from mental health to education, crime to housing, there are enduring inequalities. The question, then, is why?
Could it be that the supremacist beliefs that shaped slavery and colonialism did not simply evaporate in 1833? And that the structures – social, economic, cultural – forged by that period haven’t disappeared? That we are still beholden to hierarchies shaped by racism, such as the idea that the barbarism of some faiths justifies military encroachment, or that white people’s DNA makes them genetically smarter? The structures forged by white supremacy have proved incredibly durable, partly because we refuse to recognise them, and partly because feeling superior to other races justifies actions which would otherwise seem unacceptable.
As the Jamaican-American philosopher Charles W Mills points out, while other political ideologies are acknowledged – socialism, capitalism, fascism – we consistently fail to name the ideology that forged global European imperialism: white supremacy.
Professor Stephen Arata argues that narratives of “colonial reversal”, whereby colonisers and exploiters are treated with sympathy, and their victims dehumanised, were frequent in late-Victorian popular fiction in Britain. But such fiction is just as popular today, with bestselling books about the genetic superiority of Germans being “dumbed down” by migrants; or the “Great Replacement” theory, in which the French author Renaud Camus claims the presence of Muslims in France will lead to the destruction of French culture and civilisation. It’s seen too in media frenzies about white female sexuality being under threat from migrants.
Across Europe, far-right parties are making gains. The mistake is to view these developments as a new phenomenon – this is a resurgence. White supremacy is back with a vengeance because Europeans failed to unpick the dangerous underpinnings that forged its first incarnation.
So, here in Britain – in a country whose modernity was birthed in violence and racial supremacy – what is each and every one of us doing to confront that past and pave the way for a fairer future? Far beyond Cambridge and Britain’s elite institutions, this is a conversation that implicates us all. Because as American author James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”