Empire, Slavery & Reform; 1783-1858: Black Lives & ‘White’ Colonies.

Britain in the World of 1783 – The Economic Advantages of Empire:

In the course of the eighteenth century, Britain became the most prosperous trading nation in the world. Her most serious commercial rival was France. At the beginning of the century both countries held possessions in North America, the West Indies and controlled trading posts in West Africa and India, seeing these as vital to their prosperity. A bitter struggle developed as each country sought to obtain supremacy in Atlantic trade, leading to the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63. When peace was made at Paris, France not only accepted the loss of Canada, but also abandoned its claims to the lands east and west of the Mississippi. With Spain now her only rival in the area, Britain was clearly the dominant power in North America. Twenty years later, however, she too had lost all her North American colonies.

The colonial possessions of Britain were valuable both as a source of raw materials and food which could not be grown in temperate latitudes and as a secure market for the sale of ‘home’ manufactured goods. The extension of colonial territory had three important results for British industry: Firstly, the overall volume and share of trade increased; Secondly, new inventions were stimulated in order to meet the enlarged demand; Thirdly, the increased demand for manufactured goods provided a strong motivation to introduce methods of mass production into home industries.

The predominant position of British shipping in the commerce of the world and the power of the Navy to protect it gave Britain ‘command of the seas’ and the means to carry her goods safely all over the world. For three centuries after the discovery of the Americas there had been competition among the nations of Western Europe for sea-power and colonial wealth. Britain had struggled successively against Portugal, Spain, Holland and France. By 1783, when the period of competition came to an end, she was supreme on the seas and on the point of becoming the leading colonial and commercial nation in the world. They had all come to regard the the colonies as spheres of trade monopoly, useful sources of tropical products and precious metals, and as distant places to be settled and exploited for the benefit of the mother countries within what has come to be described a ‘mercantilist’ system. This led to friction, not only with their rivals, but also with the colonies themselves, and afterwards to revolution. Britain’s American colonies had already declared their independence; the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch colonies were also ripe for revolt.

Defeat in the American War of Independence in 1783 had been a painful experience for Britain. A prolonged period of peace was deemed essential to allow for economic recovery. The 1780s, however, saw the first real surge of economic growth of the Industrial Revolution and fears for the future of British trade with North America proved unfounded: recovery came much more quickly than had been expected.

The American War of Independence had been a ‘salutory lesson’ for Britain, demonstrating the dangers of becoming isolated in Europe. Former enemies, such as France and Spain, were quick to seize the chance to avenge their recent defeats. Former allies and neutral states had nothing to gain from assisting Britain, but on the contrary, they knew that there were markets and colonial territories that might be won. Britain ended up fighting what was effectively a world war. Naval victories in European waters, the West Indies and India preserved Britain’s empire. For Britain, the foundations of a new empire had already been laid in 1783. The loss of the American colonies was a great blow, but Canada had remained a loyal part of the empire in the twenty years since the war with France, and after the war of 1783 the United Empire Loyalists left the revolting states and set up new homes on the shores of the great lakes and along the St Lawrence valley, thus developing Canada and consolidating British power there.

In addition, Britain still controlled much of the Caribbean. Certain West Indian islands were the most cherished of all British possessions, and in the days when Britain was self-sufficient in grain and meat, sugar, rum, tobacco and mahogany brought from the ‘Indies’ were the staple commodities of its overseas trade. A few coastal settlements which were important because of the slave trade were the only British possessions at the time, but it was from these seaboard holdings that Britain penetrated into the interior of the continent in the following century. The additions to the empire of India, Australia and New Zealand in the second half of the eighteenth century (although New Zealand was not formally ‘colonised’ until 1840) meant that in 1783 there was no habitable continent which did not provide Britain with unrivalled bases and openings for development. For almost a century, no foreign rival became formidable, and British traders and manufacturers were able to take advantage of their unique opportunities.

‘Wey Down Souf’ – Black Voices of America, 1783-1858:

By 1760 there were over a million and a half people living in the Thirteen colonies of North America, of which 230,000 were Africans, brought over the Atlantic to work as slaves in the tobacco, rice and cotton plantations of the southern states. In 1772, there were half a million slaves, half of them in Virginia and South Carolina. In the latter, Africans outnumbered Europeans by three to one. By the time the Civil War began, there were four million Blacks throughout the United States, still mainly in the South. The slaves were called ‘Negroes’ or ‘Blacks’ by their white owners, or later, euphemistically, as ‘servants’. As the nineteenth century unfolded, so-called “Nigger English”, later referred to as the “Negro dialect”, became widely recognised among both Blacks and Whites. Most of the slaves were illiterate, so they have left few written records of their own, but there is a neglected tradition of “Invisible Poets” from George Moses Horton, “the Coloured Bard of North Carolina” (born c. 1797) onwards. Among the Whites, the popular literature of the period made free (and often accurate) use of Black English, for example in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (born 1811, Lichfield, Connecticut), and in the famous Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Chandler Harris (b 1848, Georgia). The entry of Black English into the mainstream of American life began with his ‘Brer Rabbit’ stories. But although he was born after the outbreak of the Civil War, Daniel Webster Davis’ poem ‘Wey Down South is considered the most authentic and typical of early Black English Literature:

O, de birds ar’ sweetly singin’,

Wey down Souf.

An’ de banjer is a-ringin’,

‘Wey down Souf;

An’ my heart it is a-sighin’,

Whil’ de moments am a-flyin’

Fur my hom’ I am a-cryin’,

‘Wey down Souf.

Webster provided a two-page glossary of the terms used in his poem, terms like:

Phar: fair

Ho’oped: helped

Huccum: how come?

Peckin: impose upon

Reggin’: reckon

Shore: sure as.

By way of comparison, here’s an extract from Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories:

One day after Brer Rabit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went tur wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some tupentine, en fix up a contrapshun wat he call a Tar-Baby, en tuck dish yer Tar-Baby, en he sot’er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer te see wat de news wuz gwinter be.

Their author exemplifies the close relationship between plantation owners and slaves: his stories are creole tales from the plantations, but he himself was white which, as Mark Twain records, caused great disappointment among his fans: Undersized, red-haired and somehat freckled … it turned out wrote Twain, that he has never read aloud to people, and was too shy to venture the attempt now. Twain considered this a shame, because Mr Harris ought to be able to read the Negro dialect better than anybody else … in the matter of writing it he is the only master the country has produced. And Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835)), a master of authentic American dialogue, knew what he was talking about. His ‘Nigger Jim’ was always afraid that he would be ‘sold down the river’, as the following extract shows:

Well, you see, it ‘uz dis way. Ole Missus -dat’s Miss Watson – she pecks me on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn’ sell me down to Orleans. But I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun’ de place considerable, lately, so I begin to git oneasy.

In his Introduction to Uncle Remus, Harris drew an interesting distinction between what he called the dialect of the cotton plantations and Sea Islands of the South Atlantic states. He himself paid tribute, in the style of the day, to the rich tradition he was attempting to preserve:

If the language of Uncle Remus fails to give vivid hunts of the really poetic imagination of the Negro; if it fails to embody the quaint and homely humor which was his most prominent characteristic. … then I have reproduced the form of the dialect merely, and not the essence.

The plantations of the deep South became the cradle of a new ingredient in American culture. The English of the slaves was having a decisive effect of their White Anglo-Saxon masters. Its influence was felt in the fields, where slave and overseer would mix, in the house, where master and mistress used Plantation Creole to communicate with their house-slaves, but above all, it was heard in the nursery. Up to the age of about six, the Black and White children grew up together, played together, and learned together. In these crucial years of development, White children were often outnumbered by Black slave children. Furthermore, as any reader of Southern literature knows, was done by Black house-slaves. As early as the mid-eighteenth century it had been reported that the better sort, in this country, paricularly, consign their children to the care of Negroes … As a result, their children grew up ‘bilingual’. On a tour of the United States, Charles Dickens noticed that it was the Southern white women whose speech was most influenced. A closer and better-informed set of observations come from the Journal of Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-39, a fascinating social document kept by the famous British actress Fanny Kemble, after her marriage to a plantation owner. She recorded with some alarm that her daughter was beginning to pick up the local speech, described by Fanny as the thick Negro speech of the Southerners. She wrote that:

The children of the owners, brought up among them (the slaves), acquire their Negro mode of talking – slavish speech surely it is – and it is distinctly perceptible in the utterances of all Southerners, particularly of the women, whose avocations, taking them less from home, are less favourable to their throwing off this ignoble trick of pronunciation than the varied occupation and the more extended and promiscuous business relationsof men.

Southern boys from ‘good families’, in contrast, were usually sent away to White boarding schools, often in the Northern states. From the age of six or seven they were separated from Black talk and educated in racial hostility towards Blacks. The women remained on the plantations, rearing children, managing the servants and mixing with the hose slaves. The reasons for the acquisition of Black English characteristics in Southern speech were many but undoubtedly one of them among children was the natural tendency to imitate and mimic. Fanny Kemble wrote of four-year-old Sally that:

Apparently the Negro jargon has commended itself as euphonius to her infantile ears, and she is now treating me to the most ludicrous and accurate imitations of it every time she opens her mouth. Of course I shall not allow this to become a habit. This is the way the Southern ladies acquire the thick and inelegant pronunciation which distinguishes their utterances from the Northern snuffle, and I have no desire that Sally should adorn her mother tongue with either peculiarity.

In 1849, Sir Charles Lyell noticed how Black and White children on the plantations were being educated together. In his A Second Visit to the United States of North America, he wrote:

Unfortunately, the Whites … often learn from the Negros to speak broken English, and in spite of losing much time in unlearning ungrammatical phrases, well-educated persons retain some of them all their lives.

The mingling of Black and White American culture is illustrated by the story of Du Bose Heyward, the Charleston co-writer of Porgy and Bess (1934). A White southerner, Heyward was descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. In 1915 he had published a novel based on the Black characters of his native town, which became a bestseller, Porgy. In 1926, George Gershwin was looking for a suitable subject for an American folk opera when a friend sent him a copy of Heyward’s book. However, it was already scheduled to be staged as a play, which happened the next year. Finally the way was clear and in 1934, Gershwin and Heyward spent the summer working together at a seaside cottage just outside Charleston, working on the lyrics for the opera. Gershwin immersed himself in the culture of the Gullah-speaking Blacks, especially their spirituals and songs. The opera he composed is therefore full of the sound of Black music, both in its rhythms and its Black English dialects:

Summertime an’ the livin’ is easy,

Fish are jumpin’ an’ the cotton is high.

Oh yo’ Daddy’s rich an yo’ Ma is goodlookin’

So hush little baby don’ yo’ cry.

Perhaps more controversially, Black English was also to sustain its place in maistream American society, both South and North, from the 1830s to today, through minstrel shows, vaudeville, music hall, radio and finally the movies.

The pervasive stereotype of Blacks among Whites was that Blacks had ‘rhythm’; a conviction that Whites had insisted on ever since slaves had danced “Jim Crow jigs” in the 1730s or performed the juba dance for the astonished plantation overseers. Minstrel shows emerged out of these traditions in the 1830s and 1840s, and after the ’emancipation’ a succession of musical styles and their lyrics had their origins on the plantations. Slaves’ lives were were restricted in many ways, but they were free to hold religious gatherings. Spirituals, Black Christian songs, began not only as acts of devotion, but also as coded messages of resistance amongst an oppressed people, as in Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:

I ain’t been to heaben but Ah been told,

Comin’ fuh to carry me home,

Dat de streets in heaben am paved wif gold,

Comin’ fuh to carry me home.

Steal away to Jesus was an invitation to a gathering of slaves; Judgement Day was the day of the slave uprising; Home, Canaan (the promised land) and Heaven were all veiled allusions to Africa. A spritual that talked of a fellow slave “a-gwine to Glory” was actually making a reference to one who had successfully boarded a repatriation ship bound for Africa. Nat Turner, a slave preacher, inspired by a vision of Blacks and Whites in battle, made the greatest use of hymns as covert propaganda. When his famous revolt was crushed in Courtland, Virginia, the place became known among Blacks as ‘Jerusalem’. Nat Turner became one of the first martyrs of Black liberation. After his execution, the Negro spiritual tended to lose its revolutionary associations and become a vehicle for Black Christian devotion and passive resistance. The subversive use of religious songs was just part of an understandably subversive attitude among speakers of Plantation English toward the language of their masters. There were other kinds of codes used on the plantation:

Sometimes while loading corn in the field, which demands loud singing, Josh would call to Alice, a girl he wanted to court on the adjoining plantation, “I’m so hungry want a piece of bread”; and her reply would be “I’se so hungry almost dead.” Then they would try to meet after dark in some secluded spot.

The tradition of employing double meanings in songs had been established and was to flourish in later forms of Black music, especially ‘rap’. Interestingly, the word ‘rap’ has meant ‘a rebuke’ or ‘blame’ in both Britain and America since the mid-eighteenth century. In American English, the word became part of the phrase, “to take the rap” meaning “to take the blame”, dating from the late nineteenth century. By the 1960s, ‘to rap’ was used by Blacks to criticise Whites and to demand Black civil rights. It was then adapted by Black protest poets before being adopted by streetwise White teenagers and finally ‘appropriated’ by commercial recording artists. It eventually lost its associations with angry protest and, by the 1980s became simply synonymous with up-beat conversational songs (‘talkin’ blues’).

Slavery itself continued to worry white Americans, both southern and northern, after the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson had seen that when the slave states of the South and the free states of the North competed to join the Union, there would be trouble: This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. After Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and then ’emancipated’ its West Indian slaves, the United States had to decide whether or not they would do likewise. North and South were at odds. Abraham Lincoln expressed the greatest fear of all in a speech made at Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1858:

When you have succeeded in dehumanising the Negro, when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts in the field … are you not quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?

Linguistically speaking, the effects of the Civil War and the ‘liberation’ of the slaves on the spread of Black English were comparatively slight in the short run. Most Southern Blacks stayed on or near the plantations, and not until the industrialisation of the North and the mass migration to the cities of the twentieth century did Black English enter its ‘modern’ phase. In the South, the original plantation creole continued to flourish and to influence the accent and vocabulary of White Southerners, which would almost certainly have been quite different without the influence of the Blacks.

The Campaign for Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, 1787-1807:

‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ read the inscription on the famous anti-slavery ceramic medallion produced by the Quaker industrialist Josiah Wedwood’s factory at Etruria in Staffordshire in 1787. The ‘new’ Nonconformist Churches – especially the Methodists and Unitarians – had preached the indissoluble bonds of obligation tying the more fortunate to those less so and they now took up the abolitionist cause with evangelical enthusiasm, using every means at their disposal: hymns, anthems, charismatic meetings, lectures, pamphlets and petitions to parliament, and not least, the powerful medium of images, designed by artists who included William Blake and J. M. W. Turner and printed on every available surface, even including drinking goblets. Each cause had its own particular story of infamy, repeated over and over as a rallying cry. The scandal of the slave ship Zong, when over a hundred sick Africans were thrown overboard so that the master could collect on insurance, was used time and time again to mobilise righteous indignation against the triangular trade – cheap manufactured goods from Britain to West Africa, that cargo exchanged for slaves to the West Indies who were replaced on the return leg by sugar and rum.

The fresh converts to the ranks of the abolitionists came from every layer of society in Britain – reform-minded aristocrats, country gentry, lawyers, physicians and ministers of religion, tradesmen – the same ‘broad church’ alliance of the righteous that had made the radical puritanism of a century and a half previously. But now it also included scientists and industrialists, often the next generation of a dynasty like the Darbys or the Wedgwoods, who felt the need to earn their inheritance, or even atone for it. They wanted to distinguish between their money and the profits made from the trade in Africans. Among the congregations of those indignant at the inhumanity of that trade, were those who brought whole new constituencies of educated women, both genteel and middle class, and even domestic servants who sat in the back pews of Dr Richard Price’s meeting house on Newington Green in London.

The Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815:

It was obvious that, in order for the anti-slavery campaign to succeed, parliament itself would first have to be reformed. Demands for reform of the British electoral system became more insistent and widespread from the late eighteenth century onwards. The growing and increasingly self-confident urban middle classes. Many of these ‘reformers’ and ‘radicals’ were inspired by a new religious enthusuiasm not eperienced since the middle decades of the seventeenth century, the period of the ‘Old Dissent’ of puritans from the established Church of England. The ‘Anglican’ Church remained rich in goods, but spiritually poor; the parish priests had become subservient to the squire, the local land-holder. In the rapidly growing towns which grew up around mines and mills, religious influences rarely reached the industrial workers. These conditions were transformed by the ‘New Dissent’ of John Wesley and the Methodists, who devoted themselves to bringing the the Gospel to the working-classes. They changed the spiritual lives of thousands of miners and mill-workers in the coalfields and textile factories of the North, the Midlands and South Wales. Disdained by the Church of England, they eventually broke away to form their own Methodist Church.

Those who remained in the Church, especially the clergy, who were inspired by Wesley’s work, were known as the Evangelicals, and they brought a new spirit into the Church itself. They also set out to improve social conditions among the poor. Prison-reform was advocated by John Howard (1726-1790), Sunday Schools were founded by Robert Raikes to enable the children of town-workers to read the Bible, and the slave trade was attacked by Wilberforce and Clarkson. There were also Unitarians, like Dr Richard Price, who were far more radical in their politics, as were many of the Quakers, providing continuity with the older forms of ‘nonconformity’. All these groups coalesced in the Anti-Slavery campaign in particular and the ‘Reform movement’ in general.

The debates centred on those arguing for a simple extension of the franchise and those who opposed any widening of the franchise as an invitation to ‘mob rule’ but who nevertheless accepted that limited reforms were needed to make government more responsive and effective. The Dissenters wanted more than to be ‘tolerated’ and allowed to worship according to their conscience, as the 1689 Act of Toleration had granted them. They wanted full civil liberties, including an equal franchise. Though they were forced to concede that there were occasions when the Tories could be moved to act on their urgent appeals, especially when the matter was moral rather than political, the the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789 did not warrant intervention, though the British government did not remain indifferent to it. While the revolution thrilled radicals and romantics like Richard Price, conservatives like Wilberforce watched in horror as the traditional order was overthrown. Fearing the spread of revolutionary politics to Britain, the government cracked down on radicalism and, in 1794, suspended ‘habeas corpus’.

Nonetheless, there remained great reluctance in Britain for any involvement in continental affairs. It was only when the French threatened the Netherlands in 1793 that Britain was prepared to enter a conflict that was to embroil the entire continent for more than two decades. Naval power had allowed Britain to dominate the world’s seas in the late eighteenth century. It rested on a sophisticated and well-financed administrative structure, and on a large fleet drawing on the manpower of the world’s leading merchant marine force (which was nonetheless always short of sailors). It also depended on qualities of seamanship and gunnery, a skilled and determined officer corps and the admirable leadership of its admirals. This was true not only of its command at sea, as demonsrated by Admiral Horatio Nelson, but also of the effective organisation of the Navy as an institution.

Britain was able to maintain not only the largest battle fleet in the world, but also the large number of smaller warships needed for blockade, convoying and amphibious operations. Naval power proved crucial in the wars against France through to 1815. The Royal Navy was able to secure a string of crushing victories at sea, keeping Britain free from the threat of invasion, as well as securing the sea lanes for its worldwide trade. After securing the routes into the Medterranean at Trafalgar in 1805, it was also able to support the land campaigns of Sir John Moore and the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War which led to Napoleon’s initial defeat on French empire soil at Toulouse in 1814. British gunners achieved consistently higher rates of fire than their French and Spanish opponents and this combined with Nelson’s innovative tactics and ability to inspire his captains to enable Britain to gain overall command of the seas. It was a time hungry for heroes, and hundreds of thousands turned out in London to pay their last respects to Nelson, a man who had supervised torture and hangings, as he was laid to rest beneath the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Though, as Simon Schama has pointed out,

… the vice-admiral was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, … he still belonged to the streets and taverns, to the ordinary seamen and dockers, and had got their blood up and pulse racing in a way none of the epauletted grand dukes could ever manage.

The same London crowds also also cheered the patrician Sir Francis Burdett, as well as an even more unlikely hero, the naval commander Thomas Cochrane, ane ex-privateer who had been jailed for stock-echange fraud. The pair were the new radical candidates for two Westminster seats, one of which had been held by Charles James Fox until his death in the previous year. Dissent, both political and religious, had not, in fact, gone away. In 1807, a huge petitioning campaign, driven by a Nonconformist multitude mobilised in chapels and meeting houses, had finally succeeded in making the slave trade illegal in the British Empire, though not in freeing the slaves in British plantation colonies of the West Indies. A year later Burdett and Cochrane swept away the official Whig candidates on a programme of patriotic revivalism. They wanted to return to what they saw as a ‘True Britain’, the ‘Free Britain’ that had been stolen by dukes and dandies. Their platform was one of annual parliaments, a secret ballot, and manhood suffrage. When this religious and patriotic revival won what they insisted were the ‘natural rights’ of Africans and Britons alike, they seemed unstoppable, but they had to wait for another twenty-five years to breach the stout defences of the establishment.

In a contemporary cartoon, Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleo carve up the world in the form of a plum pudding.To many satirists, the imperial ambitions of both nations were obviously and entirely similar.

In the early nineteenth century, possible continental rivals were more concerned with wars and internal revolts than with economic progress. While European nations struggled for democracy or fought for freedom, Britain remained neutral, sold them arms, clothes and other manufactures, captured their overseas trade, and carried their goods. British people were free to move about and work where they wished, including overseas, to a degree unknown on the Continent, where feudal restrictions still fettered the peasantry to their landlords and made it difficult for factories to attract labour. In Britain, enclosure caused dispossessed agricultural workers to find employment in the towns and cities, where they provided a ready supply of cheap labour. The profits gained in the increased volume of trade provided an abundance of commercial capital, while the developing banking system provided increased facilities for borrowing money for use in industry and trade. The growth of the power and influence of trading companies, especially the East India Company, and the rapid rise of Liverpool as a port, and the continued but slower growth of Bristol, reflect the extent of the commercial expansion. As a result of the Union with England and Wales, Scottish merchants obtained free trade colonies, and Glasgow also became a great port.

In 1760, the population of Britain had been seven to eight million. By 1820, it had become fifteen million. Compared to the population of Britain in 2020, or even 1920, that may seem quite small, but the doubling of the population meant that there were twice as many mouths to be fed, and many more bodies to be clothed. In spite of the ingenuity of its inventors, Britain could not manufacture enough clothes in its mills and neither was there sufficient money with which to buy them. Both of these problems were being dealt with. For the time being, however, the cure seemed worse than the disease. In the world of farming, enclosure – the main feature of the Agricultural Revolution – had begun. The country was being carved up into patterns of neat, rectangular fields, each surrounded by a hedgerow. Acres of woodland were being cut down to clear a way for the plough, and a sensible system of crop rotation was being introduced. There seemed every reason to believe that a determined, even scientific, effort was being made to feed the etra mouths. The trouble was that, in this new agricultural landscape, there were few places for the peasants. Their smallholdings had no part in the grand design: they had to be erased from the idyllic rural picture. With so much surplus labour available, wages went lower and lower until they were barely enough to keep a family alive.

Nor were the cities doing much to help.The invention of the steam engine offered superb possibilities for transportation and pointed the war to both mass production and and mass unemployment at one and the same time. The steam jenny alone added steeply to the number out of work. Frameworkers, in particular, suddenly found themselves without jobs ad uncertain of where to go. What is more, the great concentrations of mills and workshops in the towns virtually put an end to the cottage industries, first hand-spinning and later handloom weaving.

Britain’s economic base had changed since the American War of Independence. Worldwide exports of British manufactured goods replaced the the re-export of colonial products to Europe as the mainstay of of the economy. This meant that British trade, while it might be hurt by the loss of European markets, would not be crippled by wars on and around the European continent. Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the staple commodities carried in the eighteenth century were no longer the chief cargoes. Iron, wheat, wool, minerals and other raw materials became more important. Britain grew prosperous by exporting her coal, manufactured goods, and machinery. It was also necessary to suppress slavery in the interior of Africa long after the abolition of the transatlantic trade in slaves. Despite the claims about Nelson’s own connections with slavery, the Royal Navy was particularly active in policing the African coast after 1807. Initially, British and American slavers, working together and trading up river, continued to conduct a lucrative trade, spreading the use of English as a lingua franca until the full abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, as seen in the picture below:

In the wider war, detailed in the map below, naval strength enabled Britain to project its power worldwide and seize valuable colonial territories from France and others. But that power was not limitless. There were, for example, embarrassing failures in Argentina. Against the USA, a final defeat at New Orleans obscured considerable successes in raids on the American coastline.

Protest, Reform & Abolition, 1815-1838:

Victory in the Napoleonic Wars left Britain with the leading empire in the world. Within a century, this was to be enhanced both by subsequent expansion and by the collapse of the empire of a comparable size: the Spanish Empire in Latin America. By the end of the century, the concept of empire had become more central to Britain than it had to France or Germany, and Britain ruled a quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of its land surface. So much is clear, but what is less so is why this expansion occurred. Historians and political economists have referred to the term ‘imperialism’ as if it was simply a continuation of eighteenth-century ‘colonialism’, but imperial expansion occurred far more by accident than by design. There was neither a plan nor universal support for it. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars with a foothold in all the continents, but the settlements were merely coastal strips and following the loss of the American colonies, British statesmen were not interested in acquiring colonies elsewhere, which were regarded as being expensive to protect and difficult to retain when fully developed. The British government showed little desire to take on the expensive responsibilities of fresh conquests. They looked forward to the time when all the colonies would become independent.

Supporters of free trade who were opposed to the ‘Corn Laws’ (see the map below) pointed out that the end of British colonial rule in the Thirteen American colonies had not harmed British trade. As long as the British were able to trade freely, and British traders and property protected, there seemed little need actually to conquer more territory. The Red River Colony was the last British venture in North America south of Canada and the first effort to settle on the open prairie in 1811, founded by the Earl of Selkirk for the benefit of dispossessed Highlanders.

However, as the century progressed, vast interior stretches were gradually mapped and settled, and British rule was greatly extended around the world. This was partly due to the great increase in the population of Britain. The industrial changes and the wars caused unemployment and widespread distress. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 made the situation even worse. About half a million ex-soldiers suddenly came on to the labour market; industry, which had enjoyed an artificial wartime boom, slid into a depression; and bad harvests from 1816 to 1818 caused the farmers to prune their labourers still further. These were ‘the Hard Times of Old England’ in the words of a popular ‘broadside’ song:

The fifth verse goes on to refer to the “soldiers and sailors … just come from war” who had “come home to be starved, better stayed where they were”. ‘Surplus’ workers were willing to emigrate to new countries where it was easy to make a livelihood, and the government was prepared to assist them in this process. But it was the need to increase trade which was the chief motive behind the acquisition of new lands. As in the eighteenth century, financial interests in the City, whose investments around the globe might be threatened by local events, could exert influence over the government, arguing that their own interests and the national interest coincided.

Yet imperial expansion took place for many reasons, not all of them economic. There was also a strong sense of responsibility towards the so-called ‘backward races’. New territories were therefore opened up by missionary societies in their zeal to convert ‘the heathen’. Racialism became institutionalised throughout the empire. By the 1830s, the concept of ‘settlement colonies’, especially the ‘white dominions’ dominated by Europeans had become established, whereas colonies dominated by other ‘races’ were not considered ready for self-governance. It was firmly and widely believed that Britain had a civilising mission.

By the 1830s, the changing political circumstances finally pushed constitutional reform to the front of the parliamentary agenda. Popular pressure from the London Radical Association and the Birmingham Political Union was growing, while the death of the arch-conservative monarch, George IV in 1830 and the fall, the same year, of Wellington’s Tory government and its replacement with by the reformist Whig administration of Earl Grey, removed final obstacles to electoral reform. The 1832 Reform Act demonstrated both the extent of and the limitations of the contemporary debates on the nature of the constitution. Ideas of responsible citizenship were accepted, but concepts of natural, universal rights were rejected in favour of the status quo. The reform had to be etensive enough to to satisfy at least a significant proportion of public opinion, but was to be based on property and eisting franchises to appease the vested interests in parliament.

The Act resulted in an increase in the number of electors of about forty-five per cent. In England and Wales, eighteen per cent of agult males now had the vote, but although in Scotland eighteen times as many voters existed after 1832, the proportion of the population who could vote was still lower than in England and Wales. Moreover, factory politics, the aspirations of radical dissenters, the hopes of the middle class and the political ambitions of the labouring classes all found a place in the politics of the West Riding of Yorkshire (above), one of those areas which had been most under-represented in parliament before the 1832 Act. However, the territorial influence of aristocratic landowners remained significant, demonstrating that a simple increase in the number of voters could not, of itself, necessarily challenge the power of the traditional governing élites.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a particularly grim time for the British working classes: the growth of the factory system caused hardship not only for those who lived and worked in the new factory towns, but also for the many domestic workers who found work increasingly difficult to come by. The widespread unemployment caused by periodic slumps in foreign trade made things even worse, especially if bread prices happened to be high following a harvest failure. If working people were represented in Parliament, reformers argued, something would be done about the way they lived and worked. This idea was to be taken up by the Chartists in the later 1830s. Even after the Great Reform Act, five out of every six men in Britain were without the vote and the industrial areas were still under-represented in the House of Commons. In the meantime, however, Parliament did accept the need to regulate the factory system. An act of 1833 prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine, and those under thirteen were not allowed to work more than nine hours a day and were to have at least two hours of schooling a day. ‘Juveniles’, aged thirteeen to eighteen were not to work more than twelve hours. The law was to be enforced by factory inspectors.

Since the end of the French Wars in 1815, when four hundred thousand soldiers and sailors had been demobilised, too many men had been seeking work on the land. The results were unemployment and low wages for those who did find work. William Cobbett saw the conditions in which labourers in Leicestershire were living:

Look at these hovels, made of mud and straw; bits of glass, or of old cast-off windows, without frames or hinges frequently, but merely stuck in the mud wall. Enter them. and look at the bits of chairs or stools; the wretched boards tacked together to serve for a table; rhe floor of pebble, broken brick, and of the bare ground. …

Violence had erupted in 1830, directed mainly at the threshing machine which was increasing the number of farm labourers out of work during the winter months when threshing by hand was traditionally done. The disturbances started in Kent and quickly spread as far west as Dorset and as far north as Northamptonshire and Norfolk.An imaginery leader, ‘Captain Swing’ left ‘by order’ notes on the nearly four hundred machines that were destroyed. Against this background at home, those who attacked slavery in the West Indies were reminded by those who defended it, in popular cartoons like the one below, of the possible economic and social effects of abolition on poverty at ‘home’:

It was a matter of considerable pride to the British that their empire was the first to abolish slavery in 1833. It took place at a time when demand for slave-made products was increasing. Its destruction was seen as proof of Britain’s moral superiority, the result of the overwhelming force of moral argument; the final victory of the view that argued for a common human nature. That the compensation paid saved the owners of sugar plantations from ruination from foreign competition, and that, for the slaves, one form of bondage was replaced by another based on poverty, poor education and racial prejudice, passed unnoticed. Initially, a system of transitional ‘apprenticeship’ created a twilight world between continuing servitude and genuine freedom.

The Chartists sought to petition Parliament to accept the six points listed in ‘the People’s Charter’ which included universal manhood suffrage, secret ballots, equal constituencies and the payment of MPs. It was first published in May 1838. Its adoption by a crowd of 200,000 people at a meeting in Birmingham three months later marked the launching of the Chartist movement. Corn prices were still rising and fifty thousand workers in the Manchester area alone were either out of work or on short time by the middle of 1837. Some supporters, like the handloom weavers, were already starving before the collapse of foreign trade in 1837 led to mass unemployment in the manufacturing districts. In the north of England, support for Chartism was bound up with opposition to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the effects of which will be dealt with in my next ‘chapter’ in this series.

(to be continued… )

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