We must be honest about our role in slavery

Dr Nick Draper
Sunday 24 February 2013 01:00 GMT

Britain's view of its involvement in slavery is that we abolished the slave trade and we abolished slavery, and that we were the first nation to do either of these things.

If you ask almost anybody for free association around the words Britain and slavery, they'll tell you: "Wilberforce", "abolition" and then perhaps something about the Caribbean or Africa, and it will be in that order because that's what we've been brought up to think about. So what our work is doing is trying to re-inscribe slavery into Britain's history, rather than leaving the only connection between the two as abolition.

We're not saying that Britain as a whole was created by slavery – that is not tenable as an argument. But we are saying that slavery had a material part to play in the formation of modern Britain.

We are arguing that a significant minority of the aristocracy and business drew its wealth reasonably directly from slavery and slave ownership, but the objective of this work is not to point fingers at families or firms. It is instead to establish an empirical basis of knowledge common to all. Public perceptions will change only if pieces of work such as ours are done and then injected into the public domain.

We're not going to transform people's view of British history, but we might contribute to a transformation that could take place over 10 or 15 years. It would be to move to a new consensus, which is that Britain was a major slave-trading and slave-owning power for more than 200 years and that that period significantly contributed, through industrialisation driven in part by the transfer of wealth from expropriation of enslaved people's labour, to the emergence of modern Britain.

Dr Nick Draper is research associate on the 'Legacies of British Slavery Ownership Project' at University College London

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