#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post on why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

In this update I’m covering chapters 3 and 4 which focus on the Georgian period. Much of the wealth in this period is generated from the production and trade of commodities such as tobacco and sugar which were produced by slave labour.

What struck me is that compared to the legalised brutality in British Caribbean colonies, where black slaves had replaced white indentured labourers, were regarded as chattels and afforded no rights, the position of those arriving in Britain was more ambiguous. There was clearly slavery, but also black servants, and others whose status seems unclear. While most of the black population lived in servitude, and the fear of being sold into slavery, some were free and a few achieved considerable status in society.

Attitudes towards black people also varied considerably. While there was some racial abuse and few could aspire to become financially independent, there does not seem to have been widespread animosity. Black and white people worked together, lived together, intermarried and had children.

The legal status of slavery was uncertain and Professor Olusoga points out that slave traders and those whose fortunes rested on slave labour considered that experiences of relative freedom in Britain, compared with the many summary brutal punishments in the colonies might serve to spread dissent if the two groups met – not that this stopped them enslaving black Britons when they could.

At the same time, attempts to settle the legal status of black British residents, by seeking to establish that slavery was illegal (within Britain) represented a threat to those with a financial interest in slavery. Cases such as Granville Sharp’s legal battles to demonstrate the status of individuals such as Jonathan Strong and James Somerset as free men were pivotal in advancing this cause. The latter became what Prof. Olusoga aptly describes as ‘a proxy war between the West India Interest… and humanitarians’ which he covers in a gripping section of chapter 4 that had me on the edge of my seat!

The response of slave traders was to campaign against equal legal status of black people living in Britain by drawing on the worst aspects of myth and fiction about Africa and Africans that had developed in previous centuries. The eventual judgement in favour of Somerset caused reverberations not only in Britain, but across the Atlantic. It seems that here lie the roots of some longstanding prejudices; their basis the desire of slavers, and those profiting from slave labour, to preserve their vested interests by maintaining the status of people as mere property on the basis of the colour of their skin.

You can read the day 4 update here.

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