Author Archives: Nan Sloane

There Was Always a Choice

In April 1791, a Bill was presented to Parliament to end the British transatlantic slave trade. For the previous two years a Parliamentary committee had been hearing evidence from all sides, much of it grim beyond expression. Tens of thousands of people had signed petitions supporting abolition, and the former slave Olaudah Equiano, the best known voice of the African community in London, had led a deputation to make representations. His autobiography, published in 1789, was a continuous best-seller. By the time the Bill was debated it was, as its proponents pointed out, impossible for MPs to be under any illusion about what they were voting for or against. And yet the Bill failed. Even after the largest public campaign ever seen, the British legislature consciously chose by a margin of almost two to one to do evil. The shock to the system for the ‘do-gooders’ of the abolition campaign was visceral, and struck at the roots of their faith in what it meant to be British.

Then as now, most Britons thought of themselves as a force for good in the world, and large numbers of people saw slavery as a foul stain on their country’s reputation, both at home and abroad. This did not necessarily mean that all of their views would be acceptable now, but on the fundamentals of most moral and ethical issues there was always a choice, and many people, including large numbers of those in the emerging working-classes, made the right one.

Thus anti-slavery campaigners in 1791 had hoped that, presented with incontrovertible facts about the slave trade – not to mention slavery itself – the political establishment would do the right thing. Anti-slavery organisations went to great lengths to produce detailed evidence about what the slave trade involved. Huge efforts were made to engage public opinion and support. There were petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and people were encouraged not to buy slave-produced sugar, sales of which dropped by well over a third. One petition was signed by over a fifth of the population of Manchester. Newspapers published campaigning articles and public meetings passed resolutions opposing the trade. Nowadays, we see the anti-slavery campaign mainly in terms of white middle-class individuals – William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and others – but in fact it was one of the first campaigns to engage the ordinary public in ways which are recognisable still. Hopes for success were high.

Unfortunately, the forces ranged against the Bill were very powerful and perfectly happy to push out as much fake news as possible. The closest equivalent to the West Indian lobby two hundred years ago is the gun lobby in the United States today. Plantation owners, sugar merchants and slave traders were well represented in Parliament, and could bring vast amounts of money to bear on the debate. Many small investors had funds in slave-owning companies, and they were more than willing to believe the stories about happy slaves working in idyllic circumstances on paternalistic plantations. Many simply could not bring themselves to believe the horror stories, particularly if they themselves were involved as beneficiaries of the system. Most small-scale slave-owners had never been to the West Indies and chose to accept what they were told, or at least not to question it too closely. Some simply didn’t care.

It was this attitude that the abolition campaign set out to demolish, but it was much more easily said than done. People who thought of themselves as ‘good’ often chose to look the other way, or thought that the many cases of murder, torture and daily brutality put before them were invented. People believed fake news as easily then as now. But parliamentarians were in a different category; they had heard two years-worth of evidence given and recorded in all its dreadful detail. Many abolitionists just could not believe that anyone could know the full hideous truth about the trade and deliberately choose not to act to end it. As the radical poet and polemicist Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote of Britain: ‘She stamps her infamy to future time/And on her harden’d forehead seals the crime.’ History, she believed, would judge harshly a nation which, in full knowledge of the evil it did, still chose to persist.

Of course, there is a great deal more to black history than slavery, and a great deal more to the history of slavery and its abolition than the white European campaigns. But the mythology around Britain’s attitude to slavery – that we abolished both the trade and the institution, and that these actions were a credit to us – often prevents us from seeing the truth of our history. People objected to slavery from the very beginning, but it still took over two centuries to get the British economic and political establishments to do the right thing. Although Wilberforce put a Bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade to Parliament every year for nearly twenty years, it was not finally abolished until 1807, whilst slavery itself had to wait until 1833. Britain regarded – and sometimes still regards – itself with delusional pride as the fount of liberty, but it had to be dragged kicking and screaming into freeing to its slaves, and even then it ultimately did so on terms which, though generous to slave-owners, were so punitive for the slaves themselves that they ensured that the West Indies and its black inhabitants were kept in poverty for generations.

The failure of the 1791 Bill is now a little-known episode in our history, not least because it is obscured by a certain smugness about the success of 1807. But the campaign fought for that early attempt, and the huge numbers of ordinary women and men involved in it, demonstrates that there was, then as now, always a choice, and always people willing to make the right one despite the odds.

Margaret Bondfield: First (but not Last) in the Field

Margaret Bondfield

If Margaret Bondfield, who, in her day, was the most senior and recognisable woman in the Labour and trade union movements, could see this year’s version of Labour Conference she would be amazed, and not just by the technology. But she might also have felt real pride as Angela Rayner, the new Deputy Leader of the Party took to the virtual stage.

Margaret Bondfield – ‘Our Maggie’, as she was known – was one of the first examples of a female working-class political activist who was made in her trade union. Born in 1871 into a poor and numerous family in the West Country, she was sent at the age of fourteen to be apprenticed as a shopworker in Brighton, where an older sister lived. Continue reading

Isabella Ford: Yorkshire’s forgotten leader

Isabella Ford, socialist, trade unionist, suffragist and pacifist.

Isabella Ford is one of the most remakable and interesting individuals Yorkshire has ever produced. For much of her life she was a well-known public figure who could draw large audiences for her speeches and command the respect of women and men across the political spectrum. Yet today her contribution to the social, economic and political changes that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is largely forgotten, even in her Yorkshire home.

Isabella had a national and international profile, but she lived all her life in Leeds, sharing the house at Adel Grange with her sisters Bessie and Emily. Everyone who was anyone came to Leeds sooner or later to visit them, and they hosted guests as disparate as the American suffragist Susan B Anthony, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the early gay rights activist Edward Carpenter, who became a close personal friend. Continue reading

Three Women: Edith Nesbit, Edith Lanchester and Eleanor Marx

Edith Nesbit

The announcement this week that civil partnerships would be made available to heterosexual couples reminded me of the lives (and in one case, death) of three women I read about whilst researching my book, The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History.

The first, Edith Nesbit, is by far the best known nowadays, at least outside Labour circles. In later life she wrote some of the best-loved children’s books ever published, including The Railway Children, but her private life was not at all what might have been expected of an Edwardian children’s author. Continue reading