The Scottish investigative journalist Alex Renton has written a book that details his family's slave-based fortune. That fortune formed the foundation of his family's current wealth, and stretches back to the British plantations of the 18th century Caribbean, and the rise and rise of Big Sugar.
Their slaving habit continued until the Renton's were compelled to surrender this barbaric business model, and its pitiless accretion of wealth through another's blood, by an act of Parliament in 1833 that emancipated all slaves in the British Empire (the Atlantic trade in slaves had been outlawed by Britain in 1807).
Of course the Rentons were not alone, and are not alone now.
To compensate slave owners for their loss, the British government paid out the equivalent today of almost £17 billion to 3,000 families. It was a bail-out every bit as rancid as the bail-out of the too-big-to-fail banks after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage collapse, and it was a debt not fully paid by the British taxpayer until 2015 (just as distant descendants will be paying off the sub-prime debt for two hundred years).
As recent scholarship has disclosed for the the first time, tens of thousands of British families profited down the generations from this compensatory blood money, across all classes and political stripes. Luminaries like David Cameron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Orwell, and William Gladstone (who helped his father formulate their family's claim for compensation), are just a few.
It's safe to say that slavery saturates modern British business, artistic, and political life at some level. It's in the bones.
The markings of civilisation
Renton's scholarship emerged from his discovery of papers at his ancestral home going back to a particularly grim 18th century forebear. His indictment of the hypocrisy, cruelty, and mendacity of his High Church, Whig (liberal parliamentarian), and aristocratic ancestor is a delight to absorb.
As Renton describes, on one occasion, an extraordinarily resourceful, imaginative, and courageous slave escaped from a particularly malevolent overseer managing one of the Renton estates in Jamaica. Somehow he got on a ship to England, and made his way to Scotland to present his case for mercy to his legal owner.
The astonished parliamentarian listened with feigned sympathy. He then convinced the heroic man that he had been heard and that he should return to the estate - then promptly wrote (the letter still exists in the Renton papers) to the overseer, giving him free reign to discipline this black Ulysses as he saw fit (almost certainly committing him to an early death).
"Poor things, they can't take care of themselves..." The Exxon Valzdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 killed millions of
animals, fowl, and fish, and continues to kill them to this day because of the remaining oil and toxins...
What struck me as I listened to this podcast was that, as the Renton archive makes clear, these people knew that what they were doing was morally repugnant. Then, driven by greed as surely as the lash, they went ahead anyway.
Britain was not a moral vacuum. Hundreds of thousands of people had campaigned against slavery since Britain entered the trade with gusto in the mid-17th century (eventually transporting 3.1 million Africans to the colonies, of whom 400,000 died en route).
As Renton says, slave-owning was considered repugnant then, perhaps now the equivalent of owning stocks in tobacco companies. On-the-nose, and not the sort of thing you'd raise at a dinner party for fear that you would appear a greedy, smug, amoral bottom-feeding parasite living like a bedbug on the wellbeing and souls of fellow human beings.
The wickedness of the trade, of ownership, and of the building of profit at the direct expense of human happiness was well documented by abolitionist activists and politicians, who made speeches and distributed leaflets in the that grand age of leafletting, the Age of Enlightenment. Indeed the Renton forebear belonged to the political party that was moving fastest to abolish slavery.
Of course, slave-owning and trafficking was not, as Dominic Lawson notes, a British thing. There are few good guys in this story. Apart from slavery, the British treated their own white convicts, urchins, whores, and ordinary people in search of a better life as virtual slaves in all but name.
Almost every culture across the world has practised slavery, drawing from white, black, and asiatic human pools. In more barbarous times, slavery was elemental to conquest, territorial cleansing, punishment, revenue, and monumental imperial building. It was a source of wealth and women.
George Grosz (1920) Die Kommunisten fallen - und die Devisen Steigen
(The Communists fall - and the Exchange Rate Rises.)
Ultimately, the British opposed slavery and then militarised their anti-slavery position for geopolitical reasons (the fencing-in of the French under Napoleon, a part of the Continental Blockade to spoil French trade with colonies such as Haiti), rather than for moral imperatives, however rousing and tearful the scenes in parliament when anti-slavery bills were finally passed.
An 18th century English anti-slavery sugar bowl... baked-in anti-slavery social messaging in the rising middle classes...
When the British turned their armed forces and diplomats on the slave trade, they asphyxiated the trans-Atlantic trade, and eventually compelled 50 of their African partner-chiefs to adopt anti-slavery treaties (as well as the King of Ethiopia a little later on).
But what struck me most forcefully was that the mendacious, gluttonous and wilful acts of slave owners, driven by nothing less than sheer greed high on Big Sugar, was later so faithfully replicated by Big Tobacco, Big Finance, and Big Oil, all similarly underwritten by Big Lies.
Apart from the direct and very obvious impact on human health from toxic particulates and the impact of lead in infant brain development, they knew that greenhouse gases must logically alter the climate, because there is a limit to all things. They knew enough to establish think tanks and pay-off scientists to sow doubt and confusion about the inevitability of man-made global warming, largely driven by the carbon industry since the 1750's.
Lehman Brothers... turns out they were next...
This is the month in which the IPCC has handed down the agreed bullet points of how, why, and at what pace our species will be cooked, taking along with us all as side dishes the other species which are bound to perish before us because we are so adept at adapting (the Australian writer Julian Cribb argues that the human jawbone, now consuming 26 billion meals each day, is the single most destructive mechanism on earth).
When I walk through the country lanes of the old White Highlands above Nairobi, I ask myself, "What should I say to my child about the disappearance of the Seasons, as we knew them?" Moreover, how can one possibly understand the psychology of people who knew this, who promoted an opposite version of the truth, and who presumably had their own families whose futures concerned them?
The blessings of an oil economy, Nigeria.