Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by lpm » Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:50 pm

Of course the poor and working classes of Britain are exonerated from exploiting people in the slave trade. They were being exploited themselves by the slave trade.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by monkey » Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:53 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever. It sounds too much like passing the buck. People who worked on the land or in mines may well have been employed by slave owners or investors who paid their wages, for example. I'm not suggesting we all indulge in a white mea culpa here but I am a bit uneasy. That may just be me.
Yeah, but how much choice did the poor/working class really have about where they worked? If your choice is make chains for slavers or starve, do you really have a choice? I'm not saying they didn't benefit - everyone in Britain did through economics*, even if not directly employed by the trade/its suppliers. But there's a difference in getting rich directly from slavery and essentially being forced to work for those that got rich from slavery.


*Some more than others, of course.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Tessa K » Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:59 pm

monkey wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:53 pm
Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever. It sounds too much like passing the buck. People who worked on the land or in mines may well have been employed by slave owners or investors who paid their wages, for example. I'm not suggesting we all indulge in a white mea culpa here but I am a bit uneasy. That may just be me.
Yeah, but how much choice did the poor/working class really have about where they worked? If your choice is make chains for slavers or starve, do you really have a choice? I'm not saying they didn't benefit - everyone in Britain did through economics*, even if not directly employed by the trade/its suppliers. But there's a difference in getting rich directly from slavery and essentially being forced to work for those that got rich from slavery.


*Some more than others, of course.
Absolutely the poor and working class had an entirely different relationship to the slave trade. It was more the way people are posting now that made me hesitate. As it was pointed out, the OP was about who did have connections, not who was keen to make it clear they didn't.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by bagpuss » Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:08 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever. It sounds too much like passing the buck. People who worked on the land or in mines may well have been employed by slave owners or investors who paid their wages, for example. I'm not suggesting we all indulge in a white mea culpa here but I am a bit uneasy. That may just be me.
I suspect my post may have contributed to this but that wasn't how I meant it. I genuinely made an effort to find a link, and would be honestly interested if I've missed something so please anyone do point it out, but I truly don't think there is one. It seems pretty unlikely that an ag lab working on what would almost certainly have been a small farm in the Weald of Kent, for example, would have had any direct link to anyone owning slaves. It may be that they'd have invested in slave-owning companies - that I didn't think of - but even then I'd doubt it. From what I've been able to understand from my genealogy research, we're mainly not talking about wealthy major landowners here, but small farmers and hop-growers (for the Weald lot). The most I can come up with is that one of my ancestors was a cabinet-maker in a small town in Cumberland, so just perhaps may have sold some furniture to a wealthy person with slave-trade links. But we still have some of his furniture in the family and when I say cabinet-maker, don't be thinking Chippendale. It's fairly nicely carved but definitely heavy on the rustic charm, not the sort of thing a properly wealthy family would even consider having in their home.

Often, the poorest of the poor were employed by those who weren't terribly wealthy themselves. Labour was cheap, I have female ancestors working as live-in servants in the houses of people who are fairly lowly white collar workers. I've even seen servants in houses where the head of household is an ag lab themselves. These are poor villages in poor rural areas. Yes, there are always big houses and wealthy people, but I don't think (am happy to be corrected if wrong) that most people directly involved in the slave trade lived in the middle of nowhere, far from any major port. If my ag labs were closer to Liverpool or Bristol or other major ports - Edit: or lived near properties owned by massively wealthy landowners who probably owned houses and land in a number of places - then it would be more likely.

Now I'm sounding all defensive and buck passing again but I really don't mean to. I genuinely think that, at least from my relatively limited understanding of history, my lot just didn't happen to live in places where they were likely to come into even pretty indirect contact with anyone involved in the slave trade. For example, the only place I've been able to see in any lists of big houses that had slave trade links that were anywhere near where any of them lived, was Bodiam Castle, as I already acknowledged. I'm definitely not trying to defend my ancestors and whitewash them, I just can't see any connections anywhere, beyond those very tenuous and unlikely ones already mentioned. I would be interested to know if there's anything I've missed, though.

I did also acknowledge that everyone in the country will have benefitted from the wealth brought into the country by those more directly involved, however, so I don't think anyone can truly say there has been no benefit to any of their ancestors, if any of those ancestors lived in the UK or other significant slave-trading nation in the last few hundred years.
Last edited by bagpuss on Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by bagpuss » Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:11 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:59 pm
monkey wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:53 pm
Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever. It sounds too much like passing the buck. People who worked on the land or in mines may well have been employed by slave owners or investors who paid their wages, for example. I'm not suggesting we all indulge in a white mea culpa here but I am a bit uneasy. That may just be me.
Yeah, but how much choice did the poor/working class really have about where they worked? If your choice is make chains for slavers or starve, do you really have a choice? I'm not saying they didn't benefit - everyone in Britain did through economics*, even if not directly employed by the trade/its suppliers. But there's a difference in getting rich directly from slavery and essentially being forced to work for those that got rich from slavery.


*Some more than others, of course.
Absolutely the poor and working class had an entirely different relationship to the slave trade. It was more the way people are posting now that made me hesitate. As it was pointed out, the OP was about who did have connections, not who was keen to make it clear they didn't.
I don't think the bolded bit is fair.

Perhaps it's wrong to post without a specific contribution of a connection but I don't think anyone here is "keen to make it clear" they have no connections, more just musing on their own background and saying that despite properly considering it, they can't see a link.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:30 pm

I'm pretty sure all of us own fabrics stitched by slaves, electronics containing minerals mined by slaves, and bank with institutions that handle wealth generated by modern-day slavery.

So if anyone is feeling left out by a lack of connection to historical slavery, don't worry! We can console ourselves with the knowledge that it's all still going on, and our lifestyles would be impossible without it.

ETA for instance, RBS, HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds Banks. https://www.theguardian.com/business/20 ... to-slavery
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:32 pm

Woodchopper wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 9:37 am
lpm wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 9:26 am
The one advantage over the New World chattel slavery was that families weren't separated and worked together, so a father would see his children when they came to carry off baskets of the coal he'd just hewn. They were pretty much worked to death, having plenty of children to replenish the supply (birth of a child was good news because the parents got a lump sum at baptism and the mother was traditionally entitled to three days off work). Women and children worked 15 hour shifts, men 10 hours because even miners couldn't swing pick axes for longer. Alcohol was readily available, unlike on the plantations, and drinking yourself to an early death was probably a sensible thing to do.
I don't doubt that, but still, the main reason tens of thousands of enslaved people were transported to the New World each year is because numbers couldn't be replenished through childbirth (which in general they were in the US cotton industry). Conditions were very bad in the coal mines of Scotland, and catastrophic in the sugar plantations in the New World.
Yes. The Spanish and Portuguese started importing slaves from Africa after they'd exterminated 99% of indigenous people, including by working them to death as slaves.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Boustrophedon » Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:13 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:30 pm
I'm pretty sure all of us own fabrics stitched by slaves, electronics containing minerals mined by slaves, and bank with institutions that handle wealth generated by modern-day slavery.

So if anyone is feeling left out by a lack of connection to historical slavery, don't worry! We can console ourselves with the knowledge that it's all still going on, and our lifestyles would be impossible without it.

ETA for instance, RBS, HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds Banks. https://www.theguardian.com/business/20 ... to-slavery
That's why I bank with the Coop, despite their occasional incompetence.
By "ETA" I am assuming that you mean "edited to add" and not the Swiss watch company that is part of the SWATCH group who part owns SMART ? I mean I wouldn't be surprised.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:18 pm

Heh - no idea about the watch company I'm afraid ;)

They probably have dealings with intuitions that stole gold from Jewish people killed by the Nazis, though.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by lpm » Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:38 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:32 pm
Yes. The Spanish and Portuguese started importing slaves from Africa after they'd exterminated 99% of indigenous people, including by working them to death as slaves.
It's a lot more complicated than that. The first African slaves were transported to the New World in 1502, just a decade after Columbus. The indigenous populations of the West Indies crashed due to disease more than warfare and slavery. The 16th C saw a lot of slave revolts, leading to unique cultures being formed of freed Africans uniting with indigenous people, particularly in the north of South America. Then there's the era of white indentured workers.

1493 by Charles C. Mann is an amazing read, highly recommended.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:48 pm

Yes fair enough - I was thinking of the mining of precious metals in southern South America, rather than sugar production further north.

1493 has been on my reading list for a while. Unfortunately it's a very long list.

I strongly recommend Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano for an overview of the many forms colonialism and slavery have taken on the continent since European arrival.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by lpm » Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:58 pm

monkey wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:53 pm
I'm not saying they didn't benefit - everyone in Britain did through economics*, even if not directly employed by the trade/its suppliers.
bagpuss wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 4:08 pm
I did also acknowledge that everyone in the country will have benefitted from the wealth brought into the country by those more directly involved, however, so I don't think anyone can truly say there has been no benefit to any of their ancestors, if any of those ancestors lived in the UK or other significant slave-trading nation in the last few hundred years.
It's a lot more complicated than that.

As outlined at length previously, it's actually a controversial claim to state that in Britain "the country" or "the general population" benefited from slavery. Just as it's controversial to say today that the 1% is getting fabulously wealthy, therefore the country is benefiting and people working for the 1% are prospering.

Call it 75% of the population at the time were working class, labouring in fields, factories, mines, glass works, herring fleets and the rest. For the 75%, the balancing act is:

1) Did slavery in the New World have an impact on real wages for the British working class?
2) Did slavery improve employment levels for the working class?
3) Did slavery in the New World reduce the costs of essential goods like food and clothing for the British working class?
4) Did slavery in the New World permit the seizure of government by the 1%, allowing them to exploit the British public through monopolies and tariffs and taxes to pay for slavers' externalities

1) is highly uncertain, with arguments for and against
2) is highly uncertain, with arguments for and against
3) is definitely a positive, clothing in particular was made much cheaper although it's not clear what the impact on food prices was
4) is definitely a negative, with the 1% setting up systems that allowed them to rip off the general public (including the middle classes) with inflated prices and making the government fund military protection. This was before the Reform Act and purchasing political power was straightforward.

For the people mentioned in the opening post - miners, fishermen, glass makers - the impact might well have been longer hours for lower pay, but with lower costs for basic essentials, but also with a delay to the fight for political power or more equality due to the increased control of the 1%. In the counterfactual of no trans-Atlantic slavery, a more prosperous and equitable 1850 is a distinct possibility.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 6:13 pm

Hmm. I suppose we could say that there were benefits and costs. "Everybody benefitted" doesn't necessarily imply a net benefit.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Apr 12, 2021 6:19 pm

Stuff like Enclosure and the Highland clearances suggest that the British ruling classes were totally happy to screw over workers and seize power from the masses domestically - were those things massively helped by slavery? (Genuine question)

Otherwise the Brits could well have ended up just as f.cked over, but with more expensive commodities and slower industrialisation.

Note too how Spain and Portugal didn't manage to translate slavery-derived wealth into industrialisation, and both had nasty fascist dictatorships through the 20th century and are both now the poorest countries in Western Europe.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by monkey » Mon Apr 12, 2021 6:43 pm

lpm wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 5:58 pm
snip.
I read your posts, and thought they were interesting. Of course it's more complicated than my two or three sentences.

But "ordinary people could have been better off" does not necessarily mean that their lives got worse, which you seem to be implying. If something *could* have grown 20%, but it only grew 10%, it didn't shrink. So sure, their lives could have been better without slavery*, but that doesn't mean their lives weren't improved off of the labour of slaves.


*But would probably still have been pretty sh.t.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Fishnut » Mon Apr 12, 2021 8:13 pm

My intention wasn't for this to be about naming and shaming families who benefited from the slave trade, or to see who could link themselves to people who owned slaves (or for people to feel the need to distance themselves from either). I was quite careful in choosing the word 'connected' because I wanted to explore the ways that the slave trade was a fundamental part of our economy for several centuries.

I think that as a country we have a tendency to try and separate the slave trade off into its own little ghetto and act like it wasn't really that important to most people, rather than recognise that it had tendrils that reached into almost every part of the UK and into almost every industry. There seems to be a need to downplay its significance as much as possible and I thought it would be interesting to reverse the trend of trying to minimise connections with the trade and instead see what ways people could connect themselves to it. The examples I gave weren't anything to do with my ancestors - I have no idea who they were - but ways I can connect myself to it. My house and town played a small role in creating trading goods to exchange for slaves, my school was built with profits from the trade. I had no idea about any of this before reading the Historic England report despite thinking I had a fairly decent understanding of the history of both my town and my school. This information was hiding in plain sight which I found quite fascinating.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by bagpuss » Mon Apr 12, 2021 8:59 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 8:13 pm
My intention wasn't for this to be about naming and shaming families who benefited from the slave trade, or to see who could link themselves to people who owned slaves (or for people to feel the need to distance themselves from either). I was quite careful in choosing the word 'connected' because I wanted to explore the ways that the slave trade was a fundamental part of our economy for several centuries.

I think that as a country we have a tendency to try and separate the slave trade off into its own little ghetto and act like it wasn't really that important to most people, rather than recognise that it had tendrils that reached into almost every part of the UK and into almost every industry. There seems to be a need to downplay its significance as much as possible and I thought it would be interesting to reverse the trend of trying to minimise connections with the trade and instead see what ways people could connect themselves to it. The examples I gave weren't anything to do with my ancestors - I have no idea who they were - but ways I can connect myself to it. My house and town played a small role in creating trading goods to exchange for slaves, my school was built with profits from the trade. I had no idea about any of this before reading the Historic England report despite thinking I had a fairly decent understanding of the history of both my town and my school. This information was hiding in plain sight which I found quite fascinating.
And thank you, because it's made me think about those tendrils much more than I had before.

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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by lpm » Mon Apr 12, 2021 10:01 pm

Yes, the OP is a dramatic way of showing how intertwined everything was with the slave trade and how close it was to us today. These links hide in plain sight as Fishnut says.

Exploring the economics shows how slavery was even worse than the traditional view presents. When slavery was being defended from the abolitionists, at the end of the 18th C and start of the 19th C, there was constant reference to how it made the country prosperous and made Britain great. The concept of individual welfare was considered lesser to the patriotic benefit for the country as a whole, and the working class was obviously barely considered at all. The decision-makers and upper class generally were benefiting and this was assumed to automatically translate into a strong country. The economic benefits were celebrated even while the practice was condemned.

This view held for 150 years. Slavery was bad, how wonderful the British were to abolish it, but at least slavery made the country prosper and funded the transition to modern capitalism and its global benefits.

Only in the last 50 years has this complacency been challenged. Not only was slavery bad, but it could even have damaged the economy of Britain. The 1% reaped huge profits and had the power to send its tendrils into every part of Britain, but was this an exploitation grab that didn't even support the country? Did it give the few the ability to capture even more of the value produced by the labour of the poor? Instead of downplaying slavery, this more recent reevaluation brings in a new facet: that it could have damaged the exploited British poor alongside its destruction of African lives, and that it could have weakened Britain as a nation while ripping apart African nations.

The parallels to today are obvious. We are also going through a surge of wealth creation for the 1% and seeing their power to manipulate governments and exploit the poor. Jeff Bezos gets incredibly rich. He also creates a lot of jobs. He also gives every one of us significantly cheaper goods and services. But he also destroys a lot of jobs. And he has the power to crush workers' wages and conditions. And he can buy influential media and spend vast sums on lobbying.

It's not an easy task to disentangle all the pluses and minuses for Bezos. But economists are pretty sure that huge levels of over-consumption by an elite few are destructive of economic productivity and don't trickle down in simplistic ways. Simply put, the very rich don't get any benefit from another 20 bedrooms in their country estate, whereas if those resources went to 20 new homes then the working classes in slums would get huge benefits. The incredible wealth of the few who cashed in on slavery was typically wasted on non-productive investments and consumption; unlike, say, 1945-70 when the post-war economic boom created wealth that was redirected to highly productive investments like schools, hospitals, housing and national infrastructure.

And how ever the pluses and minuses balance out, it's pretty important to exonerate the poor from all of this. The elite slave traders of the time wanted to present slavery as a national endeavour for the benefit of a nation. This was a lie. They were just raking in all the profits privately while attempting to reallocate the cruelty and immorality to the public in general. Just as bankers today like to rake in their huge bonuses while spreading the cost of their crashes to the entire country.
Last edited by lpm on Mon Apr 12, 2021 10:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by JQH » Mon Apr 12, 2021 10:04 pm

lpm wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 10:23 am
tom p wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 9:57 am
Crumbs. I had no idea about any of this. Do you have any recommendations for good books about this?
I'm not sure there are any books, it's something that is ignored by history. Serfdom in Britain is supposed to have ended along with feudalism, firstly dealt a set back during the Black Death in 1350, effectively over by Elizabeth I, and officially ended in 1660 as part of the new constitution following the restoration on Charles II. But in Scotland it carried on with slave miners - hidden away in the glens far from the chattering classes in Edinburgh or London.

Walter Scott has stuff about the underclass of Scottish miners in his novels - they were seen as a sub-human race by "ordinary" Scottish citizens.
It featured in one of Ken Follett's novels

https://ken-follett.com/books/a-place-called-freedom/
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Millennie Al » Tue Apr 13, 2021 1:44 am

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever.
That inspires me to ask, which would you prefer to have happened:
  • The profits of slavery accrued to a few wealthy slave owners, increasing inequality
  • The profits of slavery spread across many ordinary people of the time, decreasing inequality
(Note that this is not saying that either actually happened).
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Re: Six degrees of separation - slave trade edition

Post by Tessa K » Tue Apr 13, 2021 11:07 am

Millennie Al wrote:
Tue Apr 13, 2021 1:44 am
Tessa K wrote:
Mon Apr 12, 2021 2:57 pm
I feel a bit uncomfortable with people saying their families didn't benefit directly from slavery because they were working class or poor or rural or whatever.
That inspires me to ask, which would you prefer to have happened:
  • The profits of slavery accrued to a few wealthy slave owners, increasing inequality
  • The profits of slavery spread across many ordinary people of the time, decreasing inequality
(Note that this is not saying that either actually happened).
You've entirely misread me. It's not about what I would have preferred to have happened in the past, it's about what is happening in this thread. But we've pretty much moved beyond that now anyway.

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