|The Other Slaves - Part 1|
Get Off My Land
On August 23, 2007, we remembered the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The City of Liverpool, no more than forty miles from here, will have special reason to look back because the prosperity of Liverpool was built on the traffic of slaves from Africa to the Americas, the return of cotton for the Lancashire textile industry and sugar for the sweet toothed British middle classes and the export of guns, and cheap manufactured good that would be traded for young African men and women.In the past half century, since the rise of the civil rights movement in the U.S.A. we have let America's politicians corner the market in outrage and portray African Americans as the sole victims of a purely British injustice.
It is time to present the big picture, There was a lot more going on in the global economy of the eighteenth century that the shipment of slaves from Africa to the colonies of the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch across the Atlantic. While not belittling in any way the injustice and abuses suffered by the Africans, the time has come to show how the portrayal of the slave trade as an atrocity against black people is as much a ploy to divide black from white and thus destroy the solidarity of the poor in the quest for social justice.
The first slaves taken to work on the plantations of The Americas were not African but from India, Indonesia and South-east Asia. These people made poor slaves, though physically equipped to work in the stifling temperatures they had been taken from old and well developed civilisations that had rules about what members of certain castes would and would no do. They were disobedient and often better educated than the white overseers who were responsible for them. Also their religious system was based on stoicism, they were willing to suffer great pain and hardship before they would lose caste or sacrifice their dignity.
Furthermore, the west had been trading with India since the era of the Roman Empire, there were cultural similarities that made it difficult for the liberally minded to stand by and see such people treated in the same way as the animals that pulled the carts or turned the mill.
When the slavers turned their attention to Africa they were able to present the Africans as savage and uncouth, sub-human in fact. This was not true of course, but Africa's tribal system had more in common with the pagan civilisation that held sway in Europe before the rise of Rome. People lived communally, everybody ate from the common store, there was status within tribes but it was earned rather than inherited and people were reckoned by what they did, not what they owned. The African tribes had law, art, education, manners and all the other hallmarks of a civilised culture. To Europeans though it was such an alien culture they did not recognise it as such.
So uprooting Africans from their homes and families and taking them to work in the fields of Virginia or Louisiana did not seem such a crime, especially not when compared to the social upheavals going on in Europe. This article will concentrate on the British Isles otherwise it would fill a library.
At about the time the first slaves were being loaded onto ships off the west coast of Africa, thousands of peasants in Britain and Ireland were being stripped of land their families had farmed for many generations. Thus deprived of their livelihood, these people were forced to seek work in the factories of the newly industrialised towns and this often meant accepting conditions little different to those of slavery. The factory owners would give bad references for employees who quit their jobs although the employers could lay off the workers or reduce wages without notice when trade was slack. And when we speak of wages during the early years of the industrial revolution what we really mean is truck.
Truck was a system in which workers were not paid in currency but in tokens which could only be spent in the a shop owned by the factory owner. Thus the bosses set the price their workers would pay for basic essentials. And they were not into discounts.
This source of cheap, obedient labour for the mills and mines of Britain's industrial towns was made available by a landowners' scam called the Enclosures System. Since before the Norman Conquest in 1066, in fact since the decline of Roman Britain a system of communal farming had gone on in which peasants, or subsistence farmers as we now call them, had a holding of cultivated land to grow crops which they would share with the landlord and from which produce they would feed their families, and they had rights to graze livestock on common land. This activity produced beef and dairy produce from the cattle on pastures, wool and mutton from sheep grazed on the heath and from pigs which foraged in woodland, pork and hides for leather.
An agricultural revolution preceded the industrial revolution. Jethro Tull, taking time out from his prog. rock band, perfected his invention the automatic seed drill around 1720. This horse drawn implement made it possible to sow much larger areas and combined with Tull's other inventions, the horse drawn hoe and a reaping machine plus the theories of Lord Townsend on crop rotation and manuring meant that far more food could be produced with far less labour.
Seeing the prospect for self enrichment the most powerful landowners (who by the way, were usually sponsors of the local Member of Parliament) lobbied the government to reform the system of land ownership so that farming could be made more efficient. Purely for the benefit of the nation of course.
The resulting Enclosures system provided a means for the largest landowners to present a Bill in Parliament permitting the enclosure of common land. Only the largest landowners could apply for a share of the land and the future of those poor families who had depended on the food produced from their grazing rights to supplement what they could grow on their apportioned acre was not a consideration.The Bill would be presented to Parliament by the landowners' tame representative on a quiet day and voted through by that man's friends on the basis of "a favour done is a favour earned."
Once the enclosures bill was passed the landowners would divvy up the fields to be enclosed and build makeshift fences around it. And that was all, job done. Land could be cleared and villages burned. The displaced villagers had no option but to head for the towns.
In all five million acres of prime farmland were enclosed between 1730 and 1800 and the people who had lived on and made their living from that land were displaced.
The towns were not the El Dorado flyers issued by representatives of the new industries claimed. The entrepreneurial spirit of the industrial towns was in every important respect except geography like that of the plantation owners of the colonies. Bosses knew the value of all things is subject to the law of supply and demand. The more slaves in the market place, the lower the price. The more labourers at the hiring fair, the lower the wages they will work for. Similarly they knew how to keep retail prices high, but that belongs to another article. And just as the slaves endured filthy and degrading conditions on the slave ships and in the dormitories of their employers, so the labourers in the new industries lived in squalor in the slum dwellings, built without adequate water supplies or sanitation, often without windows, to be let at exorbitant rents by the employers.
The factory workers depended on their employers whim for a regular wage, they were paid in tokens that could only be spent in the employers shops and they owed the roof over their heads to the employer. And yet the authorities did not consider this a form of slavery. The enclosures had created another form of slavery too. Often the more prosperous peasants had been encouraged to borrow money to improve their business from landlords who had no scruples about foreclosing on the loan having thrown the farmer off his land and left him no means to pay. The only way was for the man to indenture himself or a family member for an agreed term to clear the debt. Slavery as such had ceased to exist in Britain in the thirteenth century. The Industrial Revolution had brought it back in a variety of disguises.
Among the liberal middle classes however the mood was changing. Were the white workers on the plantations not being encouraged to liaisons with female slaves with the objective of securing a supply of free future slaves? And if the overseers and clerks could interbreed with the black women then those women were not beasts but human beings and deserved to be treated as such? And it was wrong was it not, for one human being to own another? Some of the more enlightened owners were thinking on similar lines, educating slaves and freeing them after a number of years service, on condition that they had converted to Christianity.
At the same time there was a new political radicalism in the industrial towns, led mainly by the new non - conformist religions were starting to protest at the way many employers were treating their workers.
Slowly the more astute political campaigners began to realise that there existed between the poor of Europe, Asia and enslaved Africans a bond forged in oppression.
Continue to Part 2
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