Of course, other colonizers (France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal etc.) had other dates and years for this abolition. Britain was one of the earliest colonizing states to abolish slavery, and even prides itself with that in hindsight. In that sense it seemed more progressive than other nations in Europe.
It is not a s simple as that, though. Not many may know that during the French Revolution, in 1794, slavery was already abolished in French colonies, yet this was restored again under Napoleon in 1802.
Moreover, one of those French colonies in the Caribbean, Haiti, managed to abolish slavery itself in 1804, during the Haitian Revolution. Enslaved Haitians did not wait for a “benevolent” European state, but fought for their rights to be free themselves. Likewise, the seeming benevolence and sudden humanitarianism of Britain abolishing slavery in 1834 was viewed skeptically, and not without reason.
The many slave rebellions in several British colonies, such as Jamaica, along with changed economic conditions in Britain, simply made slavery overall no longer profitable enough for Britain by 1834. Trinidadian scholar Eric Eustace Williams even argues in his 1944 work ‘Capitalism and slavery’, that slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in Britain, thus having served its function, one might say.
Williams’ line of reasoning is thus that Britain’s abolition of slavery had more economic than humanitarian reasons, for the “powers that be”: it enabled the British Industrial Revolution. This in turn placed Britain in an economically prominent position within Europe and the Western world, as the first industrializing nation, later followed by other parts of Europe, of course, some later than others, some only partly. This first industrialization in the world – in Britain - had thus global economic impact, financed by the blood, sweat, and tears – and many deaths – of enslaved Africans.
In this post I will focus on slavery in British history, compared to slavery in other parts of the world. Precisely because Britain boasts about a relatively early abolition, and because of its contribution to the Industrial Revolution in England. What set slavery in the British Empire apart from those of other colonizing nations around that time, and from slavery throughout history in various civilizations? Comparing (historical) slavery systems is quite common even in academic circles, and can be – I argue – quite educational.
An interesting book I read, besides the mentioned book by Eric Eustace Williams, in this regard is also ‘The intellectual roots of slavery in the British West Indies: slavery in the British West Indies: a study of the intellectual roots, from the Late Classical period to AD 1850”, by Nardia Thomas. She is also a Trinidadian scholar, like Eric Williams. This book is however quite recent, being published in 2010.
Thomas discusses slavery throughout history, pointing at common elements making human beings vulnerable to enslavement. She mentions specifically the crucial roles of the concept of the “cultural other” - a conquered or captured “outsider” - being more vulnerable to become slave in a certain society, and the concept of “alienation”. The latter term also includes people expelled within their own society. That “cultural other” can refer to another culture, geographical area, race, or religion, often several aspects at once. The accents differ throughout time period, though.
“Race” might in the beginning not be the only factor triggering enslavement of “others” – though still a factor - , but in time race became a quite dominant one, as also being of another religion – or infidels -, such as with the conquests of the Islam: non-Muslims were allowed to be enslaved, and were so in large numbers, especially Africans, pointing at a combination with racial and cultural motives. The same applied to Christianity, of course. All this was framed also within economic motivations, as applied to both Arab enslavers, as soon after Christian colonizers like Portugal and Spain, claiming hypocritically to “convert” or “save” the heathen, by enslaving them.
Nardia Thomas in her book departs from a broad, global approach, discussing also historical slavery in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, within India and Hinduism, intertwined within the unequal caste system, and further also discussed forms of slavery known historically in China and Africa. Thomas’s work is in that sense more or less comparative. Along those ”comparative” lines I continue with this post, but with my own accents.
These own accents relate to my own interests in culture and music, definitely also within the African Diaspora, as I discuss regularly within my – this – blog. I am a Reggae fan, am interested in Rastafari, and in related musical genres and movements. I am also a percussionist, and percussion has a strong African and Afro-American influence. Africa is known as the most “percussive continent”.
What differentiated the slavery systems between European and other powers, and how has this impacted upon social and cultural developments? I might have touched aspects of this topic partly in previous posts on this blog. I compared – for instance – the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and Cuba with regard to maintenance of African culture. There were similarities in cultural deracination and destruction, but also differences: such as somewhat greater possibilities in Cuba to maintain original African cultures (Yoruba, Congo etcetera) within own organizations among (free and enlaved) Africans, called “cabildos” in Cuba.
This way musical traditions could be maintained, more and more directly than in Jamaica or other British colonies, where even a total ban on “drumming” for Africans was for a long time upheld. In Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and to a degree also in French ones, enslaved Africans were often under conditions allowed to play the drums, and other limited degrees of cultural expressions. There were occasional also bans on drumming – or strong discouragement – in Spanish colonies, like Cuba, too, by the way, but less total.
Why this difference? The Protestant emphasis on both rigidity and sobriety of British colonizers – versus Catholic flexibility of Spanish or French colonizers - is often cited as explanation, and this might well be partly true. It seems plausible to me as partial explanation, though it could have combined with other reasons (role in communication rebellious messages by these drums among slaves in British colonies, for instance).
SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa (later part of Italy), and having become a Portuguese citizen later, started ironically the colonial history of Spain by pleading with its new monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella, who combined their kingdoms Aragón and Castile) to finance his trips to what would be known as ‘the Americas’, in 1492. The disaster then began. The arrival of Spaniards and other Europeans had genocidal effects in parts of the Americas on the Amerindian population.
Already around 1505 a first shipment of enslaved Africans went to Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). These first Black slaves were then, however, living in Spain. With the aid of the Portuguese, who had gained more grounds in the African continent and already experience with enslaving and trading in Africans, however, Spain could in time also import Africans directly from Africa as slaves for its American colonies.
SYSTEMATIC PLANTATION SLAVERY
Britain and other European nations followed with this dehumanizing practice of transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas not long after that. Countries like Britain and the Netherlands even modernized and intensified this slavery and slave trade, when compared to Portuguese and Spanish slavery systems. Modernizations by the Dutch in Brazil (1630-1654), further influenced in part those followed by the British in Barbados, became models for a more intensive – and more productive - “plantation slavery” in the Caribbean and Americas.
Simply said: (the Dutch and) British made slavery more efficient and could therefore transport more enslaved Africans in less time when compared to the Spanish, by the 18th c. This made plantations and the sugar industry more profitable in British and Dutch colonies, than in Spanish colonies, where Africans had more varied roles. Some historians describe the difference as such: Cuba was mostly a “colony with slaves”, while Jamaica, Haiti, St Lucia, Barbados, and other colonies, were rather “slave colonies”.
A cynical modernization, as it resulted in the enslavement of more (millions of) Africans, under harsher work conditions, even worse than the earlier enslavement under the Spanish and Portuguese. It increased the dehumanization, as with this plantation slavery, slaves became treated like “animals” and “things” (with no rights), with even less regard for their lives than under the Spanish. Enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, especially on sugar plantations, generally died young, at an average of within 8 years after arrival from Africa (as was the case in Jamaica). The dehumanization was of course there also with the earlier Portuguese and Spanish slave trade and slavery, but this increased it.
In tandem with this dehumanization, the racialization of slavery also became the norm in American colonies. The cynical fact in most colonies was: if you were Black/African, you are supposed to be slave, unless you were freed, or could buy your freedom. In some colonies, the possibilities of becoming free, were bigger than in others. French St Domingue – later Haiti - had, especially in urban areas, at one point quite some free Africans living, as also Cuban cities like Havana, alongside enslaved populations. This made racial relations a bit more flexible in these “Latin” colonies. The lesser and later focus on plantation slavery in Cuba, and a larger white population, also attributed to social and cultural differences with British Caribbean colonies, like Jamaica.
When Spain began its colonial adventure, it did not have much access to the African continent. Its neighbour Portugal already had, though, having established trade relations in various parts of Africa, including in what is now the areas of Guinea, in Congo, Angola, and Cameroon. It was setting up several trading posts in Angola. The Spanish therefore at first depended on those Portuguese, when they brought enslaved Africans to the West.
The Dutch, French, and British (and even Danes, Brandenburg Germans, and Swedes) were more assertive, and established trading posts along the African coasts, when they also engaged in colonialism and slave trade. These were set up in various parts, partly in areas where the Portuguese were less present, but also close to them. Ghana is one such place where the North Europeans could establish posts, explaining why many slaves from the Ghana area ended up in British and Dutch colonies. The Dutch also had a trading post in what is now Angola, however.
It is too simple to conclude, therefore, that the different European colonizers obtained their slaves from different parts of Africa. All these European colonizers obtained slaves where they could, in various parts of Africa, often collaborating temporarily with other nations. Spain – still with relatively limited access to Africa – worked for its slave trade mostly with Asientos – trade contracts – with British, Dutch, and Portuguese slavers. These latter had more of a maritime tradition and industry than Spain. Britain could get and transport the enslaved Africans with their own ships, while the Spanish were mostly dependent for the shipping on other nations, also because it had not many African territories and footholds, unlike Portugal, Britain, France etcetera.
This is historically significant, as it formed the basis for the later colonies of Portugal, France, and Britain in the African continent, in fact consisting of most of the continent , while Spain at the end only had one small colony in sub-Saharan Africa, namely Equatorial Guinea. It contributed to the current fact – perhaps ironic – that in this day and age most “Francophone” speakers live in Africa, even more than in France and Eastern Canada combined. Studying this is educational, as it shows how industrialization, slave trade, and colonialism in Africa all interrelate.
Spain never industrialized as much as Britain, only much later and mainly in certain regions (Catalonia and the Basque country). The “blood money” that Spain obtained from its colonialism and slavery, just like Britain and the Netherlands had, therefore fed less into a burgeoning industry benefiting the whole Spanish economy, unlike in Britain. It mostly stayed within a few elite families. Only when more systematic plantation slavery had increased in Cuba (later than in British colonies), in the 19th c., its gains went into an industry in Spain, notably in the Barcelona and Catalonia area, where an industry by then had developed.
Many Catalans also invested in the African slave trade and slavery, despite it not bordering the Atlantic. Quite some Catalans (and Basques) migrated to Cuba then, and there were well-known affluent slave owners among them. A large slave owner in Cuba, Julián Zulueta, was a Basque from Northern Spain. Today, many Afro-Cubans therefore have that formal surname (Zulueta), having been owned by that family. I also met some Black Cubans with that surname, when I was in Cuba, as well as with Catalan surnames (and of course also other Spanish surnames).
The Bacardí family was Catalan (later active in the sugar-derived rum industry), and there were also other several Catalan slave owners. Present-day surnames by Afro-Cubans of Catalan origins, like Ferrer, Más etcera, remind of this.
Unfortunately for those who sympathize more with Catalans than with the Spanish, in relation to the recent Catalan independence demands, also what is now Catalonia profited from Spain’s colonial and slavery pasts, even if the first Spanish colonization started from ports like Seville, belonging to Castile (now Andalusia). Studies show several Barcelonese and Catalan elite, industrial families were involved in the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, as well as in Caribbean plantations, up to the later 19th c..
An interesting fact in this regard: the pro-independence Catalonian politician Artur Más – a precursor in this sense to Carles Puigdemont – had among his forefathers Catalans involved in the African slave trade. I can only hope that he does not consider this something to be proud of.
In summary, the British made the slave trade and plantation slavery more efficient and used its gains more effectively economically and strategically than the Spanish, toward industrialization. When Spain lost its final colonies in the Americas, by 1900, Spain therefore soon impoverished again, certainly when compared to Britain or Northern Europe.
This also makes the claim that Britain was more “humanitarian” in abolishing slavery and the slave trade in abolishing them much earlier than the Spanish and others, at the very least a morally “dubious” claim. The official abolition date was indeed earlier than the ones by the Netherlands, France, or Spain. Yet, history also shows that around and after this abolition in the 1830s, Britain secured and expanded its hold on the African continent into several large colonies, remaining colonies up to the late 20th c.
For all these reasons, Britain and the British influenced Africans at home and abroad much more strongly, overall, than the Spanish. This is however due to a dehumanizing past.
This influence is also cultural, although shared African cultural characteristics can be found throughout the African Diaspora. I find that a very fascinating theme, as shows on my (this) blog. Especially enslaved Africans from the Congo area, ended up relatively evenly in colonies of different European colonizers. Later studies calculated that probably a bit over 20% of the African slaves brought to Jamaica were from the Congo/Angola area, with a similar percentage applicable to Haiti or the US. Still less than about 40% from Congo/Angola, for Cuba, but still numerous.
There is a specific Congo/Bantu influence among Afro-Jamaicans, as well as among black Americans, and in Haitian Vodou, in Guadeloupe, and also in former Dutch colonies like Suriname and Curaçao, discernible in music and other cultural expressions, mixed or not. This is more prominently present in the African retentions in Cuba and Brazil, but certainly also present in former British, French, or Dutch colonies. Some trace for instance the “heart beat” drumming in Rastafari Nyahbingi drumming to Congo influences, even if played with Kete drums, originating in the Ghana area, where relatively more Africans (about 45%) in Jamaica were taken from.
Despite this, there are several shared African cultural continuities and values among Africans from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, such as polyrhythmic music, musical-spiritual connections, social structures, call-and-response etcetera. These values are mostly shared throughout sub-Saharan Africa, to differing degrees, and came with slaves to the West.
I have studied such differences and historical comparisons in slavery in the Americas before.
The similarities – and differences -within the African Diaspora regarding the African part are very interesting; its variety as well. How did the fact that the enslavers were British impact these differences?
Well, certain parts of Africa were more easily accessible for the British than for other Europeans, for instance Ghana. This became therefore an important source for Britain for slave workers. The British also got slaves from other parts, having relatively more access to other parts too, notably Southeast Nigeria, and the Igbo area, parts of Cameroun, and in Gambia and the Sierra Leone area. The British had posts elsewhere too, such as the Congo region, but this “relative access” shows in part in the slave populations in the Americas.
As said, almost 50% of the Africans brought as slaves to Jamaica probably came from the Ghana region, while to Barbados, relatively many (also about 50%) came from the Igbo area. Igboes were also quite present among the enslaved population in Jamaica (a bit over 20%).
Afro-Trinidadian culture has a strong Yoruba influence (just like in Cuba and parts of Brazil). The Yoruba lands, in Southwest Nigeria and Benin, were at first less accessible for the British, but more to the Spanish, and Portuguese. Trinidad only became later a British colony, in 1797, and before that was a Spanish colony, with many slave owners being French. This also explains cultural differences with other British Caribbean islands.
A main legacy – on the European side – is of course British, Anglo-Saxon culture, including Protestantism. Noted should be also that about 30% of all slave-owners in the British Caribbean were Scottish, though also Protestant, and most of the rest from various parts of England, Anglicized Irishmen, or Wales. Jamaican surnames nowadays (former slave names after slave-owners as is well-known) like Barrett, Smith, Rodney, Henry, McGregor, Llewellyn, Hylton, Matthews, Johnson, Shaw, Holt, and so forth, say enough.
Reggae artist Peter Tosh (from McIntosh) once stated that his European name is just a “handle”, and does not define him. This is of course true.
There is also a British cultural legacy, that affecting and influenced Afro-Jamaicans. The English language, but deeper than that also Protestantism. Various Protestant churches set up base in the British Caribbean, converting many former slaves. These had at points different interpretations of Protestantism from each other and the more elite (and White) Anglican state church of England. Some were more Evangelical, others influenced by Calvinism. They however all shared a focus on Bible texts, combined with a puritan rigidity. Despite this rigidity, among Afro-Caribbean followers, African cultural traits were mixed with this, in religious practice.
At the end of the day, nonetheless, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon interpretations of the Bible became quite normative and culturally influential in, for instance, Jamaica and among Black Jamaicans. This has remained so up to today.
As the African consciousness increase, resulting mainly in the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, in the 1930s, this “White” interpretation of the Bible became questioned. The starting point was still the Bible, though, but with that also certain implicit values from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, that still shaped opinions., even when the Rastafari wanted to abandon and refute the British, colonial legacy.
An example? Well the views on African spirit religions (comparable to Vodou, Santería, Winti etcetera) that survived here and there in Jamaica. Also the early Rastas criticized this as “backward” and ‘devellish”, though a few of the early Rastas, such as Archibald Dunkley, seemed a bit more open to such African Spirit influences. Vodou and Obeah (an Afro-Jamaican magic/spirit cult) became words with negative connotations for many Rastafari, even noticeable in some current-day reggae lyrics.
The irony is that the White, “colonial” and slave-owning Protestants before them, had a similar disdain and rejection of such Vodou-like faiths.
The own African interpretation of the Bible that Rastafari also upholds, makes more sense, as the Bible is no more European than African, and has been certainly misused for own gain by Europeans.
More recently, however, there is also a movement within Rastafari – with artist, presenter, and intellectual Mutabaruka as a spokesperson – that is more critical of the – in the end - European-shaped - Bible and Christian derivative dominance within Rastafari, preferring more attention to Africa itself, and nature.
Jamaica has a rich musical history, as do certain other British Caribbean islands. England not so much, haha. Of course, there were British musical traditions, like the Quadrille (French-influenced, though), and seaman chants that British colonizers brough with them. Also, Irish immigrants to Jamaica (often closer to the slave population in social position, than the British) brought their Celtic musical traditions. Some attribute the early use of the “fiddle” in Jamaican folk music (also by Afro-Jamaicans) to the Irish. British song and chord structures influenced several Jamaican genres, whereas on the rhythmic part the influences were mostly African.
African music traditionally has no “chords” as such, so that part was based on European models. Also this was given a strong African interpretation, such as with call-and-response, and flexible vocal styles. The meager rhythms of English folk songs were soon expanded with several rhythmic additions, and sang with own lyrics and own singing style. This gave birth to the Mento genre in rural Jamaica in the early 20th c.
An interesting difference with, e.g., Cuba: the Spanish guitar or variants thereof were found less in Jamaica. Exactly because it is, well, originally a Spanish guitar from Southern Spain, commonly used in Spanish music genres that Spanish colonizers brought with them to the West. Spanish guitars were however sometimes used in Jamaica Mento, by the early 20th c, however.
Another Spanish musical and cultural influence found in Latin America, is also hardly found in former British colonies. These stem mostly from Spain’s particular Moorish/Islamic past, which left also certain vocal and instrumental traditions. Vocally , the high-pitched, “tense” singing as common in Arabic and North African music, clearly left its mark in several Spanish folk music genres, notably Flamenco, and other genres in Central and Southern Spain (and Portugal).
This influenced genres that developed in Latin America as well, even if it mixed with Amerindian and African influences. The singing style in Mexican, Cuban and other areas – high-pitched, among other characteristics – relates to this. This is found e.g. in both much Salsa, rural Cuban styles like Punto, and in Mexican genres like Son and Mariachi music. Also, the Arab-influenced “melismatic” singing – simply said: syllables spread over several tones – aimed at hypnotizing effect, also reached Latin America.
It must be said – though – that the melismatic singing also influenced Arab-influenced parts of Africa, notably the Guinee, Senegambia and Mali area, where also slaves came from, although these ended up relatively more in what is now the US. It influenced the “swing” characteristic in jazz and blues, by the way. High-pitched, melismatic singing –however – was more associated with Spanish colonies. It is less found in British Caribbean folk music, where Mento or calypso tend to have “relaxed”, or at least ‘syllabic” (one note per syllable) singing styles, more related to other, “forest” parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps some British and Irish Celtic influences.
This all impacted to degrees on how Jamaican and other British Caribbean music developed. Spanish influences still came indirectly (later Cuban music, for instance) to Ska in Jamaica and Calypso for instance, but the first European music heard by slaves in Jamaica mostly came from Britain.
It is probably further already known, that also popular “cricket” in the British Caribbean is an evident British legacy, as certain other traditions and activities still found in the British Caribbean, including the “sober” architecture.
That is one thing I noticed when I visited both Cuba and Jamaica in 2006 and 2008: the grand, ornamental, “baroque” architecture and building style in much of Cuba, is largely absent in Jamaica. Stern, linear “White House”-style grandeur is what at most can be found, or otherwise small, “industrial” practical “row” houses for the poorer classes, with only occasional pastel colours as extra decoration.
BACK TO NARDIA THOMAS
In the final, concluding chapter of the aforementioned book by Trinidadian scholar Nardia Thomas – on the intellectual history of slavery -, Thomas locates British slavery within wider history. She points at shared, universal aspects throughout time and cultures, like the enslavement of “cultural others”, dehumanization and lacking rights of slaves, and that the slaves were “property” of masters. She also, however, discusses differences, and peculiarities of British slavery in the Americas.
One of these is the “racialization”, as the “cultural” other became almost synonymous to the “racial” other, in this case of course enslaved Africans. Racism underpinned British slavery systems, that further expanded racism also after slavery. Culture, race and “colour”, and religion thus became intertwined in treating Africans as inferior.
This structural racism, along with the systematic, “industrial” nature of plantation slavery in several British Caribbean colonies, and Protestant values, helps explain why the repression and destruction of African culture was stronger in British than in Spanish colonies.
It is true, that this racism and repression was also found among the Portuguese and Spanish, although most historians conclude that “race relations” were more flexible in “Latin” colonies, and African cultural expressions a bit more allowed or tolerated (under conditions). Less rigid and separated, perhaps due to Portugal’s and Spain’s multicultural past just prior to 1492 (when Columbus set sail to the Americas).
Racist views on Black Africans certainly also shaped the Arab slave trade and slavery of Africans, also combined with religious and cultural prejudices. Certain derogatory views on “dark-skinned” people are still quite common throughout North Africa and the Middle East, among self-proclaimed Arabs, even more so for non-Muslim Black Africans.
After the Portuguese, the British were the European colonizers who enslaved the highest number (millions of) Africans and brought them forcibly to the West. This was in a more economic and systematic way than the Iberian colonizers overall did, enabling at the end the first industrialization in Britain, and British colonialism in Africa.
This history of African enslavement by Britain in the centuries up to 1838, thus interrelates with the industrializaton of economies, shaping the present-day dominance of what is called the First World (the industrialized world) today, still dominating and exploiting the Third World (including Africa).
It is cynical but true that that is a main legacy of the British Atlantic slave trade, and slavery in the Americas.
In this light, the emphasis of Britain’s later role in championing the ending of the slave trade by other nations, European ones and others, and congratulating itself as helping the end of the slave trade and slavery, in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere – notably after 1806, when Britain officially ended the slave trade (illegal practices continued), is not without hypocrisy. There is some merit to it, but also hypocrisy. Britain clearly profited from the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, even if it abolished it relatively early.