The World Turned Upside Down

The American Revolution and the Slave Trade

At about ten o’clock in the bright morning of 17 October 1781, a lone drummer boy dressed in shabby bearskin and red coat scrambled on to the ruined earthworks outside Yorktown and beat for a parley. From their trenches, which encircled the little tobacco port like a noose, George Washington’s forces could see him through the smoke of battle. But they could not hear him because of the thunder of their hundred guns. Firing incessantly were 24-pound siege pieces which smashed the fortifications, 8-inch howitzers which dismembered their defenders, lighter cannon whose balls splintered the clapboard houses along the bluff overlooking Chesapeake Bay and sometimes skipped over the water like flat stones, and heavy French mortars whose 200-pound projectiles—black bombshells clearly visible in daylight, blazing meteors after dark—made the whole peninsula shake. Then, behind the boy, a British officer appeared, waving a white handkerchief. He bore a message from Lord Cornwallis, whose battered army had no means of escape, proposing to end the bloodshed. The barrage ceased, the emissary was blindfolded and the terms of the British surrender were negotiated. Washington, unbending in his role as the noblest republican of them all, administered a severe blow to imperial pride. Cornwallis’s 7,200 troops were to become prisoners of war. They were to march, flags furled, between the ranks of their foes drawn up along the road from Yorktown, which passed through fields white with ripe cotton bolls, and lay down their arms.

It was a “humiliating scene,”1 watched in dead silence by the Americans, clad in ragged homespun, some “almost barefoot,”2 and their French allies, plumed and often mustachioed, immaculate in white uniforms and black gaiters, their pastel silk banners decorated with silver fleurs-de-lis. King George III’s German mercenaries marched past steadily but the British “lobsters”3 (as the Americans called them) were less dignified. Some were the worse for rum—the largest single item of expenditure borne by the British Army during the war. Others were disdainful, others defiant. A few flung down their heavy, smooth-bored Brown Bess muskets as though to smash them. Lieutenant-Colonel Abercromby, who had led the only serious sortie from Yorktown, chewed his sword in impotent rage. According to an American witness, the British officers behaved like whipped schoolboys. “Some bit their lips, some pouted, others cried,”4 hiding such emotions beneath their round, broad-brimmed hats. Cornwallis himself remained in Yorktown, pleading indisposition but perhaps unable to face the triumph of revolution. Meanwhile, the bandsmen of his captive army played a “melancholy” tune on drums and fifes. It was the dirge of the British Empire in America, “The World Turned Upside Down.”5

The Old World did regard the New World’s victory as an ominous inversion of the established order. It was an unbeaten revolt of children against parental authority—the first successful rebellion of colonial subjects against sovereign power in modern history. How could a rabble of farmers in thirteen poor appendages, with a population of only 2.5 million, defeat the trained might of the mother country? Americans were divided among themselves and thinly spread along an underdeveloped eastern seaboard which shaded gradually into isolated pioneer settlements and virgin wilderness. They were opposed not only by white loyalists but by black slaves and “Red Indians.” Washington’s recruits, in a spirit of democratic “licentiousness”6 (his word), were disinclined to take orders without discussion: as one senior officer complained, “The privates are all generals.”7Their auxiliaries, until the advent of the French, were wholly undisciplined. The militia consisted of summer foot soldiers on furlough from the plough and, wrote one witness, a cavalry of round-wigged tailors and apothecaries mounted on “bad nags” who looked “like a flock of ducks in cross-belts.”8 These were supported at times by tattooed and buckskinned frontiersmen with tomahawks in their belts, bear grease in their hair and coonskin hats on their heads.

Yet this motley array often proved effective, particularly in guerrilla fighting. After the “shot heard round the world”9 which had opened hostilities at Lexington in 1775, the redcoats made such a “vigorous retreat,” quipped Benjamin Franklin, that the “feeble Americans could scarce keep up with them.”10 On other occasions British generals proved dauntlessly incompetent. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne distinguished himself less as a professional soldier than an amateur dramatist—when his play The Bloodbath of Boston was performed the audience at first thought that American shelling was part of the show—and in 1777 his histrionic recklessness led to the British capitulation at Saratoga. By contrast, George Washington, though by no means a military genius, was a great leader. Tall and stately in his familiar buff and blue uniform, with a long pallid face dominated by a jutting nose, a broad mouth and steely grey-blue eyes, he looked the part. And he played it with courage and canniness. Formidably self-possessed, ruthlessly single-minded, incomparably tenacious, he made small gains and avoided large losses, staving off defeat until he could achieve victory.

Before Yorktown, after six years of war, that outcome still appeared remote, despite the support of Spain and Holland as well as France, which the Earl of Chatham described as a “vulture hovering over the British Empire.”11 Redcoat bayonets dominated the battlefield and Britannia still ruled the waves. General Clinton had an iron grip on New York. From there he wrote to Cornwallis in March 1781:

Discontent runs high in Connecticut. In short, my Lord, there seems little wanting to give a mortal stab to Rebellion but a proper Reinforcement, and a permanent superiority at Sea for the next Campaign without which any Enterprize depending on Water Movements must certainly run great Risk.12

Cornwallis himself was subjugating the south. He was assisted by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who boasted of having “butchered more men and lain with more women than anybody”—he should have said ravished, remarked the playwright Sheridan, since “rapes are the relaxation of murder.”13 Washington’s forces had scarcely recovered from their winter agonies at Valley Forge and Morristown, where, as one soldier wrote, “It has been amazing cold to such a Degree that I who never flinched to old Boreas had t’other day one of my Ears froze as hard as a Pine gnut.”14 In the spring of 1781 Washington wrote,

our Troops are approaching fast to nakedness and…we have nothing to cloath them with…our hospitals are without medicines, and our Sick without Nutriment…all our public works are at a stand…we are at the end of our tether…now or never our deliverance must come.15

It came with French men-of-war.

In August, Washington heard that Admiral de Grasse was sailing with a fleet of twenty-eight ships of the line and bringing three thousand more regular soldiers to reinforce the five thousand commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau. Washington seized his opportunity. In great secrecy he disengaged from Clinton and marched his army south through New Jersey. When he heard that de Grasse had reached Chesapeake Bay, cutting Cornwallis off from outside help, Washington abandoned his usual reserve. He capered about on the quay at Chester, waving his hat and his handkerchief, and embraced Rochambeau as he arrived. The young Marquis de Lafayette was even more effusive when he met Washington at Williamsburg. He leapt off his horse, “caught the General round his body, hugged him as close as it was possible and absolutely kissed him from ear to ear.”16 The news was a tonic to the whole army—it even cured General Steuben’s gout. For everyone except the British believed that Cornwallis would be “completely Burgoyned.”17 “We have got him handsomely in a pudding bag,” wrote General Weedon. “I am all on fire. By the Great God of War, I think we may all hand up our swords by the last of the year in perfect peace and security!”18

Washington personally ensured that his “mouse-trap”19 snapped shut. He made meticulous preparations, even going so far as to pay his troops (with French gold). He surveyed Yorktown’s defences from an exposed position where “shot seemed flying almost as thick as hail.”20 With a pickaxe he broke the ground for the opening trench and he put a match to the first gun in the cannonade. Washington pressed forward fast, puzzled by the sluggishness of the enemy. Although erratic, Cornwallis was an able commander. He was brave, tactically adept and adored by his men, whose hardships he shared. But apart from shooting starving horses and expelling hungry slaves (many of them ill with malaria, smallpox and dysentery), he took few initiatives at Yorktown. This was because, as he told Clinton, his army could only be saved by a successful naval action. However, de Grasse had seen off the British fleet in an indecisive battle on 5 September and Washington persuaded him to remain on guard. By the end of the month Clinton informed Cornwallis: “I am doing everything in my power to relieve you by a direct move and I have reason to hope from the assurance given me this day by Admiral Graves that we may pass the Bar by the 12 October if the winds permit and no unforeseen accident happens.”21 But the Royal Navy was in no state to break the French hold on Chesapeake Bay.

It was ill led by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, who, the philosopher David Hume complained, spent several weeks trout-fishing at Newbury with “two or three Ladies of Pleasure…at a time when the Fate of the British Empire is in dependance, and in dependance on him.”22It lacked necessities: in the West Indies Admiral “Foul-weather Jack” Byron had “a fleet to equip without stores, to victual without provisions, to man without men.”23 It also suffered from less obvious defects. Among them was a hidden canker caused by the new system of sheathing the bottoms of wooden vessels in copper. This eliminated marine growth, crustacea and plants which slowed ships down, and the teredo worm which honeycombed their oaken keels in tropical waters. However, until a technical solution was found to the problem (as it was in time to defeat the French during the 1790s), the copper rapidly corroded underwater iron fastenings. This sometimes led to sudden disasters: merely by firing her seventy-four guns during the action against de Grasse, the Terrible almost shook herself to pieces and the following day she had to be scuttled. So for a time England was evicted from “the throne of Neptune.”24

The naval situation determined both the fate of the thirteen colonies and the shape of the British Empire. If Cornwallis had been evacuated the French and perhaps even the Americans might have sued for peace on George III’s terms. As it was, his First Minister, Lord North, spoke for nearly everyone in Britain, except the contumacious King himself, when he exclaimed on hearing the news of Yorktown: “Oh God! it is all over!” He repeated the words many times, throwing his arms about and pacing his Downing Street room “under emotions of the deepest agitation and distress.”25 In relative terms Yorktown was a small defeat but its significance was great: it threatened to eclipse “the empire on which the sun never set.”26 The famous phrase was apparently first coined by Sir George Macartney in 1773 and down the years endless variations were played on it, often with gloomy emphasis on the final stage of the solar trajectory. Lord Shelburne, long a fierce opponent of coercing the colonies, feared that their independence would end imperial greatness and “the sun of England might be said to have set.”27 In his first comment on Cornwallis’s debacle he adorned the image. Shelburne told parliament that the King had “seen his empire, from a pitch of glory and splendour perfectly astonishing and dazzling, tumbled down to disgrace and ruin which no previous history could parallel.”28

Yet in truth the ramshackle imperial edifice had never been securely based. From the first, when the English began haphazardly planting colonies and setting up trading posts overseas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the mother country’s sway had been challenged. Settlers, traders, conquerors, dissenters, preachers, trappers, explorers, freebooters, treasure-hunters, lawbreakers and others who ventured abroad were obviously wedded to independence. Moreover they carried its seed with them. At least as warmly as their kith and kin at home, they cherished the ideal of “English liberty.”29 And they cited natural law, scriptural authority, ancient precedent and modern philosophy (notably that of James Harrington, John Locke and David Hume) in defence of their freedom. They also worked for it, electing assemblies to control the purse strings and to rival the mother of parliaments in London. These “little Westminsters”30 sought to dominate colonial Governors, who were disparaged as grasping rogues—here a “needy Court-Dangler” or “a hearty, rattling wild young Dog of an officer,”31 there an “excellent buffoon” or a fellow who had distinguished himself “in the profession of pimping.”32 Bad government or no government at all—known as “salutary neglect”—the Americans could endure. But after 1765 the conviction that they had become the victims of tyranny overcame their instinctive feelings of loyalty to the old country and its King, dubbed by Tom Paine in his celebrated pamphlet Common Sense, “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.”33 The Stamp Act, which Boston greeted with flags flown at half mast and muffled peals of bells, was viewed less as a fiscal imposition than as a measure of political oppression. “No taxation without representation” became the rallying cry of Americans determined to enjoy “the rights of Englishmen.”34 Many at Westminster concurred, among them Chatham, Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, who appeared in what looked like an American uniform, toasted Washington’s forces as “our army” and spoke of an English victory as “terrible news.”35 Fox’s quasi-treasonable vehemence reflected his commitment to a “tradition of liberty”36 which led to “the final undoing of the entire colonial project in America.”37Imperium et libertas later became the watchword of British imperialists and the motto of the Primrose League; but as W. E. Gladstone would famously point out, the phrase was a contradiction in terms. In the last resort, liberty was at odds with empire, its ultimate solvent.

There were other reasons for anticipating imperial decline and fall. Like the sunset, it seemed a natural phenomenon. It was part of a process of individual and cosmic decay that had been regarded as inevitable since the fall of Babylon, perhaps since the fall of Adam. Hesiod had even visualised that in the old age of the world babies would be “born with greying temples.”38 The logic of the process was confirmed by the recurring metaphor of maturity: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and many others had said colonies were “children” which, as they grew up, might expect to separate from their parent kingdom.39 In similar vein, the French economist Turgot compared colonies to fruits which detach themselves from a tree when they are ripe, as provinces did from Rome. Both Joseph Addison and James Thomson compared ancient Rome and modern Britain, contrasting their glories with the decadence of contemporary Italy. Empires clearly evolved, vigorous new growth replacing rotten old fabric. What is more, as Bishop Berkeley memorably prophesied, “Westward the Course of Empire takes its way.”40 It advanced from corrupt Europe to pristine America—where, in a reverse version of the conceit, Thomas Jefferson said that a journey eastward from the frontier to the coast was “equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day.”41 The idea that progress followed Apollo’s chariot was heard from “Horace to Horace Greeley.”42 And its transatlantic course was dramatised in a futuristic jeu d’esprit published by Lloyd’s Evening Post in 1774. It was set in 1974 and featured two visitors from “the empire of America” touring the ruins of London. These resembled Piranesi prints of Roman ruins—empty, rubble-strewn streets, a single broken wall where parliament once stood, Whitehall a turnip field, Westminster Abbey a stable, the Inns of Court a pile of stones “possessed by hawks and rooks,” and St. Paul’s, its dome collapsed, open to the sky. The sun had set on British greatness and, thanks to the exodus of merchants, artisans and workers, it had risen over “Imperial America.”43 After the loss of the thirteen colonies, the British did indeed fear that their Empire, however wide its bounds, was vulnerable to expanding America. They looked with apprehension and fascination at the Great Republic, seeing it as the wave of the future. That astute gossip Horace Walpole pronounced that “The next Augustan Age will dawn the other side of the Atlantic.” Casting “horoscopes of empires” in the manner of Rousseau, he forecast that travellers from the New World would “visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s.”44

By far the most authoritative harbinger of imperial doom, though, was Edward Gibbon. According to his famous account, he was inspired to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol and listening to barefoot friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. No stones in history were more eloquent than those of the Eternal City, recalling as they did the melancholy evanescence of imperial power, and no book was more imbued with the genius loci,the spirit of the place. Here, on the seven hills beside the Tiber, lay the sepulchre of Roman greatness. The Palatine, cradle of Rome and imperial precinct, was now a rank wilderness of scattered pillars and crumbled masonry. The monumental Septizonium was an empty graveyard, its bones resurrected in the fabric of St. Peter’s basilica.45 The Forum, where senators had made laws and emperors had become gods, was a dung-filled corral for “swine and buffaloes.”46 The Colosseum, where gladiators had fought and Christians were thrown to lions, was now a stupendous carcass. Other scenes of ancient grandeur, the Temple of Apollo, the Baths of Caracalla, the Theatre of Marcellus, the Tomb of Romulus, were reduced to sublime remnants. A few noble edifices did survive, some utterly transformed: the Pantheon, Hadrian’s Mausoleum, Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Constantine. But Gibbon, reflecting on the disappearance of gold palaces, marble statues, porphyry altars, bronze tablets, jasper pavements and granite obelisks, foresaw the final annihilation of “all the monuments of antiquity.”47 No one projected this Ozymandian vision with such might and majesty.

To be sure, Gibbon did say that Europe had so advanced by the eighteenth century that it was probably secure from the kind of catastrophe visited on Rome. Arnold Toynbee, chronicler of the cyclical rise and fall of civilisations, even depicted Gibbon as a kind of Pangloss who thought that his own age was the fulfilment of history. In an extraordinary waking dream Toynbee saw Gibbon, an ungainly figure in “silver-buckled shoes, knee-breeches, tie-wig, and tricorne,”48 gazing at damned souls swept into hell before the Georgian era of equipoise. But his assault does ill justice to Gibbon, whose work reflects a magisterial breadth of vision. Gibbon himself warned that future foes might appear who would carry desolation to the verges of the Atlantic. After all, when the Prophet breathed the soul of fanaticism into the bodies of the long-despised Arabs they “spread their conquests from India to Spain.”49 More to the point, Gibbon showed remarkably good timing for a man said to believe that time had come to an end. He published the third volume of his magnum opus, which described the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west (and might have concluded the whole work had he not decided to add the thousand-year-long Byzantine epilogue), a few months before Yorktown. There were many passages in the book which implied that the British Empire—overextended, given to luxury, attacked by barbarians, employing mercenaries—would follow suit.

Most piquantly, Gibbon described the revolt of the “Armoricans”—inhabitants of Brittany—against Rome. “Imperial ministers,” he wrote, “pursued with proscriptive laws, and ineffectual arms, the rebels whom they had made.” As a result the Armoricans achieved “a state of disorderly independence,” while the Romans lost freedom, virtue and honour, as well as empire.50 Gibbon could not resist the pun but this probably represented his true view of the American crisis. However, the vain little historian, with his chubby cheeks (which a blind woman literally confused with a baby’s bottom) and his weakness for puce-coloured velvet suits and orange zigzag dimity waistcoats, was no less susceptible to patronage than were most Augustan gentlemen. In return for a sinecure from Lord North, he penned a pamphlet denouncing the colonists’ bid for independence as a “criminal enterprize.”51 It outraged Horace Walpole, who damned Gibbon as a “toad-eater.”52 And it prompted Fox to assert that Gibbon, who had described the corruption which overthrew the Roman Empire, exemplified the corruption which would overthrow the British Empire. The comparison had become a commonplace. When Gibbon had politely refused an invitation to dine with Benjamin Franklin in Paris because he could not consort with the ambassador of an enemy country, the American apparently offered “to furnish materials to so excellent a writer for the Decline and Fall of the British Empire.”53

Franklin had helped to give the British “empire” its new meaning—political and territorial dominion rather than seaborne commercial mastery—but he thought that the structure was as delicate as a “China Vase.”54 And Britons, proud to see themselves as latter-day Romans, were always conscious of imperial fragility. Classical education so reinforced the lesson that every setback suffered by their Empire seemed to augur its ultimate dissolution along Roman lines. Yorktown was especially portentous because it occurred at a time when cracks were everywhere appearing in the veneer. The Crown’s power was under assault at home and its other possessions were menaced abroad. Constitutional reformers were active and only the previous year the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots had inflicted more devastation on London in a week than Paris would suffer (the demolition of the Bastille excepted) during the entire course of the French Revolution. Ireland was in ferment as its people proceeded on the long march towards nationhood. The Mediterranean was unsafe, with Minorca and Gibraltar besieged—the former fell and the latter came so close to falling that its capture was celebrated on the French stage and pictured on the fans of Parisian ladies. In the Caribbean only Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua would remain under the Union Jack. France was sweeping Britain from its forts and trading “factories” in Africa. In India Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore, had invaded the Carnatic, routing British armies and burning villages within sight of Madras. The Empire, wrote one observer, “seemed everywhere to be collapsing by its own weight or yielding to external attack.”55 King George himself subscribed to an early version of the “domino theory”: if Britain lost the thirteen colonies, “the West Indies must follow them,” Ireland would soon become a separate state, and the Empire would be annihilated.56

Many shared his fears when the Americans inflicted such grievous wounds on the imperial body politic. The consequences, some immediate and others long term, were traumatic. Yorktown destroyed the North ministry, tearing apart what Dr. Johnson called that “bundle of imbecility.”57The King’s eventual choice as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, William Pitt the Younger, who remained in power from 1783 until 1801, was obliged to ratify a peace treaty by which the British Empire lost a quarter of its white subjects. To avoid further dismemberment, the remaining parts of the “shattered empire” must be united, Pitt told the House of Commons, “by bonds of affection and reciprocity.”58 But such bonds looked tenuous in the light of the American experience. The measures taken to pacify Ireland—parliamentary independence, trade concessions and the repeal of penal laws against Roman Catholics—whetted the nationalist appetite for complete self-rule on the transatlantic model. Canada, despite British attempts to conciliate its majority French population, seemed set for disintegration—with the United States eager to pick up the pieces. The white inhabitants of the West Indies, though dependent on the mother country in the vital matters of sugar and slaves, were “Americans by connexion and by interest,” observed Captain Horatio Nelson from his Caribbean station in 1785, and “as great rebels as ever were in America.”59

India—“the brightest jewel that now remained in his Majesty’s crown,”60 to quote Fox’s metaphor, later the dullest cliché in the imperial lexicon—should no longer be plundered by “the greatest tyranny that was ever exercised.”61 Once the East India Company’s mercantile despotism was brought to an end, the subcontinent could be governed in the interests of its people. This ideal was advocated with Ciceronian power and Jeffersonian polish by Edmund Burke—whom Gibbon described as “the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew.”62 But it was an ideal that would cut at the root of the British Raj. Even the convict colony of New South Wales—the first fleet arrived at Botany Bay in 1788—would soon produce “a fresh set of Washingtons and Franklins” to wrest their emancipation from the mother country, forecast Sydney Smith in the Edinburgh Review. He gave a darkly comical account of Britain’s future struggle in the Antipodes:

Endless blood and treasure will be exhausted to support a tax on kangaroos’ skins; faithful Commons will go on voting fresh supplies to support a just and necessary war; and Newgate [Prison], then become a quarter of the world, will evince a heroism, not unworthy of the great characters by whom she was originally peopled.63

In short, as Smith further suggested, after the escape of the American tiger Britain was doubtful about breeding colonial cubs which might grow up to be equally savage.

British doubts were reinforced when American trade actually expanded after the loss of the thirteen colonies. Indeed, the astonishing growth in commercial activity called the entire imperial enterprise into question. According to the prevailing economic theory of the time, the purpose of colonies was to supply the mother country with raw materials and to provide a market for her manufactured goods, all on an exclusive basis. The mercantilist system was given legal form by the Navigation Acts, which barred foreign vessels and thus promoted imperial shipping, securing the wooden walls of the sceptr’d isle. Gibbon called these laws “the Palladium of Britain.”64 Yet the United States, which had broken free of the restrictions, now played an increasingly vital role in the mother country’s industrial revolution, providing most of the raw cotton, for example, which enabled Britain to become the loom of the world. And by the 1790s Britain was supplying four-fifths of America’s imports while taking half its exports. The extraordinary boom in transatlantic traffic supported the case which Adam Smith advanced with dazzling cogency in The Wealth of Nations (1776), that protection was altogether less profitable than free trade. Smith asserted that colonies were “a cause rather of weakness than of strength” to Britain. They provided no tax revenue, cost blood and treasure to defend, and diverted investment from more fruitful domestic channels. They were, in fact, a huge cartel set up for the benefit of the mercantile classes, an Empire of customers suited to “a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.” The Empire might have worked if the Americans had sent members of parliament to Westminster. They could thus have put into practice a representative principle which Rome had lacked, to its ultimate ruin. And they could have enjoyed the bonus of winning big “prizes from the wheel of the great state lottery of British politics” instead of “piddling for little prizes in…the paltry raffle of colony faction.”65 In the absence of an imperial elected assembly, said Smith, the old monopolistic order should be replaced by an “obvious and simple system of natural liberty.”66 What he wanted was an open market in which capital and labour would gain their due reward through the unimpeded operation of the competitive mechanism—the fair dealing of Smith’s famous “invisible hand.” Here was a gospel which spread like pentecostal fire and was to form the basis of a new world order.

Pitt venerated Smith’s work and it affected his policies. Fox paid it an even more telling tribute: he quoted from Smith’s “excellent book”67 in the Commons but confessed privately that he had not read it and could never understand the subject. It is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of The Wealth of Nations. The argument that Britain should restrict itself to commercial dominance, cost-effective, humane, immune to rebellion, was to recur again and again. Jeremy Bentham, the champion of utilitarianism, elaborated it with characteristic vigour when urging France to

give up your colonies—because you have no right to govern them, because they had rather not be governed by you, because it is against their interest to be governed by you, because you get nothing by governing them, because you cannot keep them, because the expense of trying to keep them would be ruinous, because your constitution would suffer by your keeping them, because your principles forbid your keeping them, and because you would do good to all the world by parting with them.68

Smith gained a host of converts as Britain became the world’s workshop, with a vested interest in free trade. But from the moment his book appeared it began to sap the theoretical foundations of the colonial Empire, and this was the very time when the structure itself was being shaken by the American cataclysm. Of course, the British Empire did not disintegrate when the thirteen colonies broke away. Nor were the fears of pessimists such as Lord Sandwich justified: “We shall never again figure as a leading power in Europe, but think ourselves happy if we can drag on for some years as a contemptible existence as a commercial state.”69 In fact the American war, reported throughout by the Annual Register under the heading “History of Europe,” was to prove more immediately disastrous to France, which was virtually bankrupted by it. Pitt’s effort to consolidate his country’s position was largely successful and the wars against the French between 1793 and 1815 saw a colossal augmentation of British power and possession.

In the mother country reactions to the American Revolution were by no means uniform. They ranged from liberal to authoritarian, reflecting the huge complexity of the event. The Revolution was conservative as well as radical. It asserted the equality of men but ignored the rights of women. It was magnanimous yet murderous, especially towards native Americans. And nothing about it was more paradoxical than the fact that the land which had fought for freedom was also a land of slavery. Many Americans were profoundly troubled by the inconsistency between the exalted ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the cruel realities of the “peculiar institution.” Quizzed about it in France, the slave-owning champion of liberty Thomas Jefferson could only exclaim: “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man.”70 Less stupendous men were less equivocal. “Blush ye pretended votaries for freedom!” cried one, excoriating the “trifling patriots” who trampled on “the sacred natural rights of Africans.”71 The white monopoly of rights, it was said, meant that American blacks got less protection from the magistrate than Roman slaves got from the emperor. Adam Smith himself noted:

When Vedius Pollio, in the presence of Augustus, ordered one of his slaves, who had committed a slight fault, to be cut into pieces and thrown into his fish pond to feed his fishes, the emperor commanded him, with indignation, to emancipate immediately, not only that slave, but all others that belonged to him.72

In the matter of slavery even the British could claim to be more enlightened than the Americans. Whereas the colonists’ wartime banners had borne Patrick Henry’s famous slogan “Liberty or Death,” Lord Dunmore had dressed his “Ethiopian Regiment” in uniforms emblazoned with the motto “Liberty to Slaves.”73 And when the British departed they took thirty thousand slaves, about 5 per cent of the colonies’ black population, out of bondage.

As the Americans were quick to point out, all this was brazen hypocrisy. The British West Indies, which relied on slave labour to fill their argosies with muscovado, the raw brown sugar that fed the European sweet tooth, were the most prized of all imperial possessions—in 1763 George III’s government had almost swapped the whole of Canada for Guadeloupe. Moreover, Britain had been chiefly responsible for making African-Americans slaves in the first place. It dominated the slave trade, carrying more “black ivory,” so-called, than all other countries combined. In 1781, indeed, the captain of the English slave ship Zong had perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in the annals of this human traffic. Bound from West Africa to Jamaica, he ran short of water and threw 132 slaves overboard so that their insurance value could be claimed, as it could not if they had died a “natural death.”74 At the time this instance of mass murder caused no outcry. When the insurers took their case to court (they lost) it turned entirely on the subject of property and Chief Justice Mansfield said that, although the case was a shocking one, in law killing slaves was no different from killing horses. However, the episode—its horror is memorably evoked in Turner’s painting Slave Ship—nagged at the national conscience. It helped give the mother country a new will “to convince the world that the throne of the British empire is established in righteousness.”75Faced with republicans and democrats, George III’s realm needed to occupy the moral high ground. Surely Britain, with its well-established social hierarchy, its constitution dating back to Magna Carta, its Christian polity embracing the globe, was the country best fitted to preserve human rights in the age of the American (and, still more, the French) Revolution. Now was the time for Britain to show that, despite its huge vested interest in slavery and the slave trade, Burke’s professions were worth more than Jefferson’s. The Irishman had famously proclaimed, “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other.”76

It was governed by no plan, of course, but at its heart lay the “trade in human blood.”77 As soon as the American war ended slave trafficking revived and by the time of its abolition in 1807 half Britain’s long-distance shipping was engaged in it. The human freight borne across the Atlantic was a vital component in a commercial network that stretched around the planet. For not only did English captains buy slaves with home-made manufactures—cloth, guns, metal-ware, glass, paper—they also traded in foreign merchandise—Indian silks, French wines, Virginia tobacco, gold from Brazil, cowrie shells from the Maldives. Furthermore, slaves in the West Indies (whose native populations had been virtually wiped out by Europeans and their diseases) produced what was until the 1820s Britain’s largest import, sugar. A spicy luxury in 1700, this addictive substance had become a sweet necessity by 1800. During the century consumption increased five-fold, to nearly twenty pounds a head—compared to two pounds a head in France. Sugar was an essential complement to the imported tea, coffee and chocolate, drunk from imported porcelain. It transformed puddings, converting them from savoury dishes to sweets and justifying their promotion to a separate course at the climax of a meal. “Hot puddings, cold puddings, steamed puddings, baked puddings, pies, tarts, creams, moulds, charlottes and bettys, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys, junkets and ices, milk puddings, suet puddings”78—John Bull ate them all, distending his belly and rotting his teeth. Sugar changed patterns of behaviour in other ways, making porridge more palatable and encouraging a taste for confectionery. Sugar gave energy to workers and its profits helped to fuel Britain’s phenomenal economic growth.

This is not to say that the industrial revolution relied crucially on slavery. But Liverpool did become the pre-eminent slaving port, adorning its Nelson monument with the figures of chained Africans and its town hall with “busts of blackamoors and elephants,”79because it was close to Britain’s manufacturing hub. And the exploitation of the West Indies, by means of the slave trade, amounted to “a massive injection of resources into the British economy.”80 It is difficult to grasp the scale of what one former slave captain, John Newton, called this “disgraceful branch of commerce.”81 Between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth some twelve million Africans (of whom about 20 per cent died en route)82 were forcibly taken to the Americas; it was the greatest involuntary migration in history and it established the largest slave empire since Roman times. In the decade after the American war, the British alone carried nearly forty thousand slaves annually to the West Indies, where perhaps a quarter died within eighteen months of arrival. By the end of the century two tons of Caribbean sugar cost the life of one slave. Each sweet teaspoonful dissolved was a bitter portion of African existence, each white grain spilled was a measure of black mortality. Furthermore, overseers who admitted to having “killed 30 or 40 Negroes per year” to increase their output of sugar by about the same number of hogsheads, were apt to claim that “the produce has been more than adequate to that loss.”83 No wonder that the artist Henry Fuseli, when invited to admire Liverpool’s superb buildings, imagined seeing “the blood of negroes oozing through the joints of the stones.”84 No wonder that Dr. Johnson pronounced Jamaica “a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves,” and that he drank to “the next insurrection of Negroes in the West Indies.”85

The horrors of the slave trade were naturally emphasised by those bent on its destruction. And modern popular accounts have drawn on eighteenth-century propaganda, augmented by twentieth-century anti-racist rhetoric, to liken the Middle Passage (from Africa to the Americas, the central stage on the triangular voyage which English ships made) to the transport of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Recent scholars, though, reacting against narratives “filled with violence and exploitation,”86 have concentrated on the commercial aspects of the story, presenting the slave trade as a “business venture, as an economic phenomenon.”87 They have pointed out that slaves were an increasingly expensive commodity, purchased from experienced dealers in well-organised African states. Africans were carried across the Atlantic (latterly) in purpose-built vessels. And being worth more, they generally suffered a lower death rate than the brutalised white crew, a fifth to a quarter of whom perished on each slaving voyage. Doubtless the academic case is sound. But mercantile statistics often discount morality. To focus on the price of slaves rather than the value of humans is to obscure the true cost of the trade. This is to be found in its devilish detail.

The typical late eighteenth-century “Guineaman” was a fast, lightly armed, copper-bottomed, square-rigged ship of about two hundred tons, sixty-eight feet long, twenty-four feet abeam, twelve feet deep. She was manned by about forty sailors, many sporting pigtails, “white slaves kidnapped in the slums of Liverpool and Bristol,” where they fell victim to “painted girls” and grog.88 They embarked on a voyage, lasting several weeks, to the Guinea Coast of West Africa. It stretched from Senegal to Angola and was arbitrarily divided into segments whose exotic names conjured up visions of El Dorado and Prester John. At its core lay the Slave Coast, the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast and the Grain Coast, so called because it exported malaguetta pepper, the “grains of paradise.” But Europeans found this steamy, low-lying littoral, fringed by jungle, swamp and savannah, an infernal region. The shore was beaten by huge waves and there were few safe havens, only occasional, shoal-choked streams into the heart of darkness. This was an alien wilderness filled with the scent of spices, the cries of animals and the sound of drums, “a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild,” Conrad memorably wrote, “and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.”89 The primeval vegetation was dominated by huge trees—mangrove, plantain, banana, fig, palm, pine—which seemed to float upon the water like a fleet of ships. White men hardly ever ventured into the interior: before Mungo Park’s expedition in 1793 the Africa Association’s geographer, when attempting to map the continent, “found himself relying heavily on Herodotus.”90

The gaps in antique maps, to paraphrase Swift’s famous quatrain, were filled with imagination and hearsay. Terrible stories were told of fierce tribes who practised cannibalism and human sacrifice, piling up human heads outside their village gates like pyramids of shot in an arsenal. Doubtless because they were once grist to the racist mill, these propitiatory practices have now been obscured by a “conspiracy of silence.” Recent historians have also argued that they were relatively benign, limited in scale, expressive of religious zeal or filial piety, often voluntary and, where incontestably barbaric, a result of European contact. In fact, “enormous” and increasing numbers of Africans were ritually sacrificed in places such as Benin and Dahomey.91 Each subject was “brought up in the idea that his head belongs to the king.”92 Nevertheless the tales from Africa did become hugely exaggerated in the telling—at a time when punishments such as disembowelling and burning alive were still on the British statute book, and a human sacrifice was the cynosure of the established Church. The white man’s grave was represented as the black man’s hecatomb. And Africa was deemed to live up to her ancient personification—a woman holding a cornucopia and a scorpion.

So the early slavers had clung to the shore like barnacles, building fortified trading posts. These were guarded by heavy guns and equipped with slave pens (barracoons). At Cape Coast Castle (their headquarters in what is now Ghana) the English, for example, cut from the rock an enormous underground dungeon which would “conveniently contain a thousand Blacks.”93 But such forts were not only hotbeds of corruption and debauchery, they were incubators of disease. Dysentery, sleeping sickness, malaria and yellow fever (often known as “black vomit”) took an incredible toll. Whites were exterminated like brutes and, like other tropical empire-builders, they had no recourse but to treat the tragedy as a comedy—“very improperly,” wrote a shocked visitor, they called their burial ground at Whydah “the hog-yard.”94 As late as the 1830s six successive Governors of Denmark’s Christiansborg Castle outside Accra died within the space of ten years. Not until mid-Victorian times did health matters improve, though in 1894 Frederick Lugard noticed piles of coffins in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle “ready for the poor devils of white men who die like flies in these parts.”95 Thus slaving vessels from the Mersey and Severn estuaries hovered off the deltas of the Niger and the Volta, doing business with coastal communities whose caravan links with the Mediterranean dated back to Roman times. The local ruler might be a genial figure such as one mariner encountered in Sierra Leone, a fat monarch sitting on the beach “dressed in a suit of blue silk, trimmed with silver lace, with a laced hat and ruffled shirt, and shoes and stockings.”96 Or he might be an Ashanti king with filed teeth and scarred cheeks, enthroned under brass-handled velvet umbrellas and surrounded by attendants “carrying gold swords, silver and gold dishes, tobacco pipes and silk flags.”97 But African chiefs were masters of the slave trade and ships’ captains had to pay them or their agents tribute. This might include a seven-gun salute, “washmouth” of rum and a present (dashee)—silk cloaks, firelocks, bracelets, brandy, gunpowder. There was also a customs duty (comey) on each transaction to make it all correct.

Those conducting a business that officially designated people as things (the Royal African Company’s charter of 1672 bracketed slaves with commodities like gold, ivory and beeswax) were themselves dehumanised by it. Britons involved in the slave trade, which might be viewed as an obscene caricature of the imperial enterprise as a whole, convinced themselves that Africans were “a species of inferior beings.”98 They did not “have souls”99 and were “much on a level with beasts.”100 They were a “brutish, ignorant, idle, crafty, treacherous, bloody, thievish, mistrustful, and superstitious people.” They had “a covering of wool, like a bestial fleece, instead of hair” and a “noxious odour” appropriate to a race “very nearly allied” to the orangutan.101 Even their vermin were distinctive, large black lice instead of the smaller white variety found on Europeans. Since slaves were subhumans, the argument went, they could be treated as such. Yet African rulers engaged in the trade were themselves shocked by the foul antics of their European counterparts. Before purchase they would appraise slaves like cattle, prodding their bodies, inspecting their teeth, making them jump or stretch, and to ensure that none were “pox’d” (as one ingenuous account had it) examining “the privities of both men and women with the nicest scrutiny, which is a great slavery.”102 The King of Congo thought this a great indignity and desired one trader, “for decency’s sake, to do it in a more private manner.”

Slaves, many of whom had been captured in wars or kidnapped in raids and transported for long distances in coffles (fettered gangs), were now bought, often torn from loved ones and branded, thrown naked and manacled into small boats, and taken to the vessels that would cross the Atlantic. A number made desperate last-ditch attempts to escape. They incurred fearsome retribution: traders might “cut off the legs and arms of some [slaves] to terrify the rest.”103 Most (particularly the children) were already terrified, reduced to a state of “torpid insensibility”104 or psychic shock. They had never seen the sea; they thought they had been “seized on by a herd of cannibals”105 they expected to be sacrificed to the whites’ fetish and eaten as holy food. Olaudah Equiano, one of the few slaves to record his experience, was “quite overpowered with horror and anguish.” Once embarked he felt imprisoned in a “world of bad spirits” and would have given ten thousand worlds of his own, had he possessed them, to exchange his condition with that of the meanest slave in his own country.106 Equiano was lucky in being so young and ill that he was kept on deck with the crew. Most slaves were shackled below in tiers, packed like herrings in a barrel, so tightly that they often had to lie spoonways on their sides. According to one witness, they “had not as much room as a man in his coffin.107

During the two-month voyage, particularly when it was extended by storms or calms, the slaves endured a kind of living death. They were stifled by the confinement, “breathing of a putrid atmosphere, and wallowing in their own excrement.” The irons ate into their flesh, which was wasted by malnutrition and disease. The worst killer was dysentery. It was spread by the distribution of food in communal buckets, including such delicacies as dabbadabb (ground Indian corn), slabber sauce (palm oil, flour, water and pepper) and boiled horse beans, which were supposed to induce constipation. In bad weather a slave might find himself chained to a decomposing corpse, which would eventually be thrown to the sharks, the constant escort of slave ships. In good weather attempts were made to cleanse the lower decks, to scour them with vinegar and lime juice, to fumigate them with burning tar or brimstone in fire pans. Moreover, the slaves were sometimes given comforts—rum and tobacco—and exercised on deck where, if they proved sluggish, the cat-o’-nine-tails was applied. As one witness noted, “a delight in giving torture to a fellow creature, is the natural tendency of this unwarrantable traffick.”108

Even the most “respectable” captains succumbed. John Newton, later the author of “Amazing Grace” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” thought nothing of employing thumbscrews. But he did condemn the “licence” permitted towards unchained female slaves (about a third of each cargo), who were often “exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages.”109 A minority of vessels were “half bedlam and half brothel,”110 the scene of brutal violence and drunken orgy worthy of the Marquis de Sade, whose disciples found West Indian slave society “an ideal testing ground.”111 The slaves frequently resisted. Sometimes they tried to starve themselves and were forcibly fed—“coals of fire, glowing hot, [were] put on a shovel, and placed so near to their lips as to scorch and burn them.”112 One voyage in eight saw a mutiny, almost always hideously punished. Often a slave would climb over the netting rigged up to prevent suicide and throw himself overboard, raising his hands as he sank “as if exulting that he had got away.”113 Europeans liked to say that Africans had no knowledge of freedom and therefore no passion for it, but the evidence is all to the contrary. In the words of Ottobah Cugoano, who escaped to England and acquired an education, the ideal “burns with as much zeal and fervour in the breast of an Ethiopian, as in the breast of any inhabitant of the globe.”114 One woman ate the dirt off an African yam, “seeming to rejoice at the opportunity of possessing some of her native earth.” Slaves howled with anguish at their “loss of liberty.”115 None saw more clearly that servitude was the greatest form of evil because it fostered evil in all its other forms.

Jamaica, Britain’s largest sugar bowl and slave depot, looked from the sea a kind of Eden. Its high purple mountains, capped with a sapphire haze and clad in an immense cloak of green, had the “appearance of a new creation.”116 In the Arawak language Jamaica meant a country abounding in springs; and every valley had its stream, every crag its cascade. Christopher Columbus hailed it as “the most beautiful island of any he had seen in the Indies.”117 The rolling hills were crowned with groves of pimento and tamarind, cocoa-nut and palmetto, orange and mountain cabbage. And these, as one visitor recorded,

commixed with the waving plumes of bamboo-cane, the singular appearance of the Jerusalem thorn, the bushy richness of oleander and African rose, the glowing red of scarlet cordium, the verdant bowers of jessamine and grenadilla vines, the tufted plumes of the lilac, the silver-white and silky leaves of the portlandia…all together compose an embroidery of colours which few regions can rival, and which none perhaps can surpass.118

The sultry coastal plains sustained a host of crops, the king of which was sugar cane—a freshly planted field was said to be “one of the most glorious sights of the vegetable world.”119 Kingston Harbour, a vast landlocked expanse on which the entire Royal Navy could have ridden at anchor, was equally picturesque. The town itself, an oblong grid of streets laid out with geometric precision, consisted of about three thousand buildings. Many of them, higher up the hill, were elegant, two-or three-storey mansions, with green and white verandahs and first-floor balconies protected by “jalousies,” moveable, large-bladed Venetian blinds. But appearances were deceptive.

Jamaica’s principal port was surrounded by swamps and lagoons, and it was so unhealthy that European galleons seldom stayed long without burying half their crews. Other fertile areas were equally pestilential. The reek of stagnant pools tainted the atmosphere. The velvet night, spangled with fire-flies, resounded to a tropical cacophony: “a loud humming noise, a compound of buzzing, and chirping, and whistling, and croaking of numberless reptiles and insects on the earth, in the air, and in the water.”120 Moreover, the island was subject to appalling natural disasters: thunderstorms, conflagrations, earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions. So inhospitable was the colony that many whites aimed not just to get rich quick but to get out quick. Women, said one Governor of Jamaica, had to “marry and bury.121 Men had to harry and hurry. Kingston, with a population of 28,000, most of it black, some mulatto, was a hive of furious energy. The broad, sandy streets, their potholes packed with offal and ordure, resounded to the creak of ox carts and horse drays. On the wharfs, where the town’s sewage tubs were daily emptied, slaves manhandled boxes and bales. Straw-hatted, saffron-faced merchants did business with “gingham-coated, Moorish-looking Dons,”122 all puffing cigars. Sweating planters in square, blue, brass-buttoned coats, white jean trousers and long Hessian boots waited to buy slaves. After the rigours of the Middle Passage, Africans who reached the West Indies looked more like shadows than men.123 Most were skeletal, many were ill and a few had gone mad. So they were prepared for market, fed, washed, rubbed with palm oil until they gleamed, calmed with drams and pipes. Grey hair was shaved or dyed. To conceal signs of the “bloody flux” some ships’ doctors plugged the anuses of slaves with oakum, causing excruciating pain. They also used a mixture of iron rust, lime juice and gunpowder to remove the external symptoms of yaws. Slaves were then subjected to further humiliating scrutiny and sold once again, sometimes individually, sometimes by auction, sometimes in a “scramble.” The last was a ferocious melee in which purchasers seized what slaves they could, all at a fixed price. For Africans it was an apt introduction to an island that was pilloried as “the Dunghill of the Universe.”124

Outnumbered by about 200,000 to 20,000, the whites dreaded the prospect of slave revolts, which occurred more often in Jamaica than elsewhere. So as far as possible Africans were separated from those who spoke the same language. They were given new names, often classical ones such as Pompey, Caesar, Cupid and Juno, which seemed to mock their servile condition. Then they were placed under a harsh regime of toil and punishment. Woken before dawn by the blast of a conch shell and the crack of whips, gangs of semi-naked slaves were driven from their thatched, wattle-and-daub huts and set to work, with breaks for breakfast and lunch, until dusk. Producing sugar was a physically exhausting and technically demanding task, partly agricultural, partly industrial. Slaves were forced to dig the clay soil, then plant, manure, cut and carry the cane. Within forty-eight hours of cropping it had to be crushed, whereupon the juice was boiled (in a rural factory that became as hot as an oven), clarified, cooled into crystals and potted into hogsheads. Watching their “busy slaves…bring the treasure home,” often to the accompaniment of a “wild chorus” of “unpolished melody,” planters were apt to hail Jamaica as Utopia.125 It is true that slaves, who were anything but passive, frequently did much to improve their lot: they formed new relationships, acquired fresh skills, cultivated their gardens, went to Sunday market in their best Osnaburg (coarse linen) clothes, and even lent money to their masters. Nevertheless their state was lamentable and their numbers were in permanent decline, only topped up by new imports from Africa. Matters got worse during and after the American war. It so disrupted trade, halting supplies of grain, rice, fish and meat to the West Indies, that famine prevailed. Attempts were made to alleviate it, notably through the introduction of alien “economic plants”126—the scarlet-flowered ackee tree from West Africa, the mango from Mauritius, the breadfruit from Tahiti—instances of a botanical diaspora that was one of the great works of empire, though it was accompanied by the spread of pests. But slaves had to keep hunger at bay by eating “cane-roots, cats, putrid fish and even reptiles and animals in a state of decomposition.”127 By the end of the eighteenth century 10 per cent of the slave population had starved to death.

At the same time the “plantocracy” was living more extravagantly than ever. In the words of Lady Nugent, wife of a Governor of Jamaica, “they really eat like cormorants and drink like porpoises.”128 Witness the dinner given by a small landowner, Thomas Thistlewood, for a couple of friends on 22 August 1786:

stewed & fried mudfish, stewed crabs & boiled crabs, a plate of shrimps, a leg of boiled mutton & caper sauce, turnips, broccoli, asparagus, a roast whistling duck, a semolina pudding, cheese, water melon, pine[apple], shaddock [a kind of grapefruit], punch, brandy, gin, Madeira wine, porter, Taunton ale.129

Thistlewood also had a voracious sexual appetite and other entries in his extensive diary reveal that he satisfied it by turning his estate into a private bordello. Preying on the bodies of African women was just another form of exploitation and the practice was almost universal. In the words of a disapproving contemporary, planters rioted in the “goatish embraces” of their slaves, preferring them to the “pure and lawful bliss” of married love and ushering into the world a train of “adulterated beings.” Miscegenation might have assuaged the most extreme rigours of imperialism and some black women did find that copulation resulted in manumission. But it is clear that brutality was an integral part of West Indian life. This was often attributed to the inveterate viciousness of the “lower order of whites,” offspring of indentured servants kidnapped by Glasgow “man-traders,” refugees from Kilmainham Gaol or the Tyburn tree, the “dregs of the three kingdoms.”130 Thistlewood was typical in being quite willing to flog those with whom he had fornicated. Indeed, his diary is a tattoo of flagellation.

Of course, the rod was seldom spared anywhere at the time. Redcoats were known as “Bloodybacks.” British sailors were sometimes sentenced to “several hundred lashes,” while the American Navy “flogged at least twice as much”131 as the Royal Navy. Admiral Rodney, a supporter of slavery whose elaborate classical monument celebrating the victorious battle of the Saintes still dominates the square of Spanish Town, said that “he never saw any Negro flogged with half the severity that he had seen an English schoolboy.”132 But according to one of William Wilberforce’s investigators, if English workers had been punished on the same scale as West Indian slaves they would have received between six and seven million lashings a year. Certainly Thistlewood beat his slaves incessantly and mercilessly; and he employed disgusting refinements of cruelty to boot. Having whipped one runaway, he “made Hector shit in his mouth.” Another was put in the bilboes with locked hands, rubbed with molasses and exposed “naked to the flies all day, and to the mosquitoes all night, without fire.”133 Penalties could be still more severe—slit noses, cropped ears, castration. Rebels might expect an auto-dafé. In the face of it Africans from the Gold Coast were especially courageous, displaying “what an ancient Roman would have deemed an elevation of soul.” One of them, burned alive while staked to the ground, “uttered not a groan, and saw his legs reduced to ashes with the utmost firmness,” even managing to throw a brand from the fire in the face of his executioner.134 Yet perhaps more agonising than such physical torments were the psychological traumas of slavery. Deprived of humanity, robbed of identity, separated from family, perpetually exiled, their finer feelings constantly violated, slaves fell victim to a malady which, according to a medical report drawn up for the Colonial Office in 1833, was unique in “the annals of physic.”135 Unlike the slaves of Rome, they had almost no chance of attaining freedom; they were denied hope, which Gibbon called “the best comfort of our imperfect condition.”136 Many gave way to despair. Some tried to infect themselves with diseases such as leprosy “to avoid the general circumstances of their situation.”137 Thomas Thistlewood found his slave Jimmy “throwing the fire about the cookroom…saying if this be living he did not care whether he lived or died.”138

After the American war, which had inspired such libertarian rhetoric in Britain, the slave trade was increasingly damned as an epic of cruelty. Its defenders sought to justify it in traditional terms, as “the foundation of our commerce, the support of our colonies, the life of our navigation, and first cause of our national industry and riches.” Abolition would precipitate the loss of the West Indies, the collapse of the British Empire and the ruin of the mother country. A parliamentary opponent of abolition put the matter bluntly: if the slave trade was not an amiable trade nor was that of the butcher, “yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a very good thing.”139 But the argument of naked self-interest merely incensed the moralists and, under mounting pressure from them, supporters of the trade also tried to make out an ethical case. Slavery was sanctioned by Holy Writ and by classical civilisation. Profit and principle were two sides of the same coin, like the elephant and castle embossed on a golden guinea. Having rescued Africans from savagery and barbarism, those engaged in the traffic naturally wanted them to reach market in prime condition. So they took pains to ensure that the Middle Passage “was one of the happiest periods of a negro’s life.”140 Similarly, owners treated their slaves—called “negroes,” “assistant planters,” even “the working class”141—with paternal benevolence in order to get the best out of them. Their condition was improving and would be the envy of “half the peasantry in Europe.”142 Though specious, the pleas of planters were not entirely spurious for the black and white communities, like servants and masters everywhere, were subtly symbiotic. They were “so intimately connected and blended together” that one visitor found it “almost impossible to divide them.”143 But the planters’ protestations were increasingly drowned by the cries of slaves themselves.

This was because of the moral revolution that occurred during the latter part of the eighteenth century. John Newton was its embodiment: in the 1760s he had thought the slave trade a genteel and “creditable way of life”144 in the 1770s he was haunted by doubts; by the 1780s he shuddered at the hellish enterprise, wished to wipe out the stain it had left on “our national character”145 and converted William Wilberforce to the abolitionist cause. Potent forces brought about the change. Chief among them perhaps was the evangelical revival, whose preachers declared the saving power of a religion of the heart (thus implicating themselves, according to many moderate Anglicans, in a “conspiracy against common sense”).146 Convinced that Africans were original sinners with souls ripe for redemption, Quakers and Baptists had long been opposed to the slave trade; but no one was more influential in denouncing its “complicated villainy”147 than the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. The French philosophes also attacked it. Candide remarked, when a slave had an arm and a leg cut off, that it was the price demanded for sugar sent to Europe (though Voltaire, the epitome of Enlightenment, apparently speculated in the slave trade and certainly agreed to have a slave ship named after him). Romantics idealised the “noble savage.” Patriotism fortified humanitarianism, as Britain’s national identity crystallised around the ideal of liberty.

In his account of the abolition of the slave trade, for which he fought so valiantly, Thomas Clarkson quoted a striking piece of verse by Richard Savage which prophesied a ruination of Roman proportions if the British Empire betrayed its principles. Conjuring up the prospect of retribution for anything less than a reign of justice and a charter of freedom, the personification of Public Spirit warns:

Let by my specious name no tyrants rise,

And cry, while they enslave, they civilize!

Know, Liberty and I are still the same

Congenial—ever mingling flame with flame!

Why must I Afric’s sable children see

Vended for slaves, though born by nature free,

The nameless tortures cruel minds invent

Those to subject whom Nature equal meant?

If these you dare (although unjust success

Empow’rs you now unpunish’d to oppress),

Revolving empire you and yours may doom—

(Rome all subdu’d—yet Vandals vanquish’d Rome)

Yes—Empire may revolt—give them the day,

And yoke may yoke, and blood may blood repay.148

The lines were little less than a proleptic elegy for the British Empire.

The campaign against slavery, which formally began in 1787 when the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, became the first and most sustained popular movement in British history. Activated by the American Revolution, it was further stimulated by the outbreak of the French Revolution. This appeared to be a momentous victory for the sovereign people over hereditary despotism. It opened up a new world to the imagination, a millennium of freedom and justice in which the most extravagant Enlightenment dreams would be realised. More specifically, French revolutionaries denounced “aristocrats of the skin”149 and in 1794 they abolished slavery. Across the Channel reformers made fresh efforts. Reports, meetings, petitions, appeals, sugar boycotts, speeches in and out of parliament, all helped to muster support. The self-styled “Vase-maker General to the Universe,” Josiah Wedgwood, whose neo-classical designs were inspired by antiquities found during excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, devised the most celebrated form of propaganda. His own strictly regulated workforce produced thousands of cameos in black jasper on a white ground, modelled on the seal of the Abolition Society, depicting a kneeling slave in chains, the outer edge moulded with the legend “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?”150 The heart-rending appeal combined with the submissive posture proved irresistible to Britons of all sorts. The image decorated brooches, bracelets, snuffboxes and other ornaments of fashion. It also appeared on mass-produced chinaware, accompanied by simple verses reminding tea drinkers that their sugar was “bathed with Negr’es Tears.”151

In the long run the gospel of emancipation, with its echoes of the revolutionary mantra “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” would fatally erode Britain’s faith in its Empire. No one preached that gospel with more fervour than Wilberforce, leader of the abolitionist “Saints,” as they were dubbed, in parliament. It is true that he was deeply conservative as well as genuinely philanthropic. He was keen on suppressing vice, especially among persons whose income, as Sydney Smith said, “does not exceed £500 per annum.152He was eager to enforce virtue, particularly among the lower orders—he might easily have supported the organisation invented by Wilkie Collins to lampoon excesses of puritan social discipline, “the British Ladies’ Servants’ Sunday Sweethearts Supervision Society.”153 In consequence radicals such as William Hazlitt thought Wilberforce morally slippery: “he trims, he shifts, he glides on the silvery sounds of his undulating, flexible, cautiously modulated voice, winding his way betwixt heaven and earth.”154Friends considered Wilberforce to be seraphic, a “winged being in airy flight.”155 Certainly his combination of pragmatism and magnanimity, of polished charm and unaffected zeal, captivated the Prime Minister.

William Pitt was seldom governed by emotion, even under the influence of two bottles of port: it was said to be one of the duties of the Secretary of the Treasury to hold out his hat so that the First Lord could clear himself before making a speech. In fact, the Prime Minister was formidably aloof and unbending—stiff, according to contemporary jokes implying his misogyny or homosexuality, towards all except women. Especially stiff was his “long obstinate upper lip”156 (George III’s description), while his turned-up nose gave him a supercilious air. He was notably unsympathetic to evangelicalism, having an Augustan distaste for “enthusiasm” or fanaticism. But he succumbed to the vehement eloquence of Wilberforce, a shrimp who (as James Boswell observed) could talk like a whale. Pitt agreed with Wilberforce that the slave trade, which had turned Africa into a “ravaged wilderness,” was the “curse of mankind.” It was “the greatest stigma on our national character which ever existed.”157 So on 2 April 1792, Pitt called for its immediate end. Fox and others considered his speech, delivered during an all-night sitting of the Commons, “one of the most extraordinary displays of eloquence ever heard in parliament.”158 And his peroration seemed inspired. Pitt said that modern Africans were no less capable of becoming civilised than ancient Britons, who had also been sold as slaves and had practised human sacrifice. Indeed, a Roman senator might have deemed Britons incurably barbarian, “a people destined never to be free…depressed by the hand of nature below the level of the human species.” Now civilisation could redeem savagery. Restoring Africans to “the rank of human beings” would bring light to the “Dark Continent.” According to a dramatic but perhaps apocryphal story, as the sun’s first rays pierced the three round-topped windows behind the Speaker’s chair, Pitt looked up and quoted Virgil: “Nos primus equis oriens afflavit anhelis”159—With the breath of his panting horses Apollo has first inspired us. It surely heralded a new dawn for Africa.

That dawn was postponed. The Commons would only move towards abolition via regulation of the slave trade and the Lords proved more cautious still. Then reform of any kind became almost impossible as the French Revolution took a fateful turn and “the gale of the world” began to blow with a vengeance. What had at first seemed to many of George III’s subjects as an enlightened attack on autocracy, a Gallic version of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, now unfurled its piratical colours. The September Massacres occurred in 1792. In January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined. The next month Britain was at war with France. It was a struggle against a creed as well as a country, for the Jacobins were the Communists of their day. They threatened the world with political and social upheaval, with red terror and beggars on horseback. The British response was fierce, particularly among those whose early illusions had been shattered. “I will tell you what the French have done,” wrote William Cowper, the poet and friend of John Newton:

They have made me weep for a King of France, which I never thought to do, and they have made me sick of the very name of liberty, which I never thought to be. Oh, how I detest them!…Apes of the Spartan and the Roman character, with neither the virtue nor the good sense that belonged to it.160

The revulsion grew after a successful slave revolt in the precious French sugar casket of St. Domingue (named Haiti in 1804) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a latter-day Spartacus.

Mirabeau had warned that the colonists “slept on the edge of Vesuvius”161 and when the eruption took place British planters in the West Indies quickly spread stories of the black (but not the white) terror. Theirs was a catalogue of horrors from hell: infants impaled on pikes, wives raped on the corpses of their husbands or fathers, and, amid an orgy of torture, “Madame Sejourné having a babe cut from her womb and fed to pigs in her own sight, and then her husband’s head sewed up in the bloody cavity.”162 It was easy to believe those who blamed such depravity on a fiendish alliance of Jacobins and abolitionists, and called for a ruthless exercise of power to prevent its spread. As well as being more aggressive abroad, Pitt’s government grew more repressive at home over the next few years. It prosecuted radicals, imposed censorship, suspended Habeas Corpus, suppressed trade unions, even ranked lecture rooms where an admission fee was charged with brothels. Talk of “the rights of man” became tantamount to treason and Tom Paine’s best-selling book of that title (dedicated to George Washington) was banned. Its author, who admittedly did much to provoke the authorities, calling the unstable George III His “Madjesty,”163 was accused of corresponding with Satan, burned in effigy and forced into exile. The King himself now favoured the slave trade, whereas he had formerly been wont to whisper at levees: “How go your black clients, Mr Wilberforce?”164 Pitt’s interest in getting rid of the trade waned, though Wilberforce tried to galvanise him and to make abolition respectable. It must be distanced, he insisted, from the schemes of “mad-headed professors of liberty and equality.”165 Any reference to revolutionary ideals, Wilberforce told Clarkson, would be “ruin to our cause.”166

Pitt’s government naturally gave priority to its own great cause, the titanic conflict with a reinvigorated France. What amounted to a “second hundred years’ war”167 between the traditional foes now approached its climax. This was essentially a struggle for power, fought on a global stage. But it was also an economic contest which Britain, financially, commercially and industrially strong, was well placed to win. However, the new republic was infused with a fresh spirit. It was animated by millenarian zeal and inspired by the example of antiquity. France developed its own Roman pretensions, with legions and tribunes, fasces and axes, victory columns and triumphal arches, and a wealth of classical iconography best represented by David’s “martial and patriotic epics.”168 Napoleon, first Consul and then Emperor, even ordered that the Paris sewers should be modelled on those of Rome. As Britons ruefully acknowledged, his compact European empire much more resembled that of Augustus than did their own sprawl of territories. Yet George III’s realm responded to the challenge of a resurgent France with an astonishing imperial revival of its own. The liberal concerns, the fears about decadence, the doubts about colonial coercion, which had all been in the ascendant since the American Revolution, were eclipsed by the French Revolution.

In their place emerged a pugnacious nationalism. It was heard in the slogan shouted by loyalist mobs, “Church and King.” Titles of undergraduate essays were militantly patriotic: “The Probable Design of the Divine Providence in subjecting so large a portion of Asia to the British Dominion.”169 Satirical prints showed John Bull feasting on plum pudding and the roast beef of old England, while clog-shod, Phrygian-capped sans-culottes scavenged for scraps in the blood-stained gutters of Paris. Cowper’s Druid chief prophesied that “other Romans,” the posterity of Queen Boadicea, would arise to hold sway over “regions Caesar never knew.”170 A bellicose Britain, employing its time-honoured strategy of encouraging allies to fight on the Continent while using naval power to defeat France overseas, stamped its mark or raised its flag all round the globe. It made huge gains in India and smaller, more costly ones in the West Indies. It quelled Ireland. The British swept up bits of the Dutch Empire, in the Cape, Ceylon and Java. They advanced in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Antipodes. British missionaries penetrated the Pacific and British traders beat at the doors of China and South America. Where there had been twenty-three British colonies in 1792, there were forty-three by 1816. The Empire had contained 12.5 million people in 1750: seventy years later it was 200 million strong.

Thus if the American Revolution had foreshadowed the decline of the British Empire, the French Revolution occasioned its rise to new heights. Napoleon’s attempt to dominate Europe seemed to justify Britain’s yet more ambitious self-aggrandisement. Gibbon’s gloomy forebodings about eventual collapse were not forgotten. Indeed, there were constant fears that Britain was too small to sustain a mighty overseas growth—the Empire was “an oak planted in a flower-pot.”171 But a new mood of militant expansionism prevailed. The “dreadful example” of Rome was now cited to show that “it is more difficult to preserve than to acquire: that whatever is won, may be lost: and that to cease to acquire is to begin to lose.”172 Only through combat could imperial decline be averted. Only by conquest could Britain match other empires—French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Austrian, Ottoman, Mughal, Chinese, even American.

Of course, dawn was only just breaking over America. When “the assembly of demigods”173 signed the constitution at Philadelphia in 1787, Franklin declared himself happy to know that the painting on the back of the President’s chair represented the rising—not the setting—sun. Washington saw a “New Constellation”174 appearing in the western hemisphere. And the city named after him, when still an “Indian swamp in the wilderness,”175 took Rome as its model because it aspired to be the “capital of a powerful Empire.”176 But whatever greatness lay in store for America it set Britain an early example of how diverse elements could be combined into a unified power, how antithetical principles could be embraced by a single constitution.

Naturally the British asserted that rival empires were despotisms, whereas their own colonies were founded on freedom. As Burke had said, the government of those unable to rule themselves, for whatever reason, was a “trust,” to be “exercised ultimately for their benefit.”177 Ultimately, too, these moral obligations would undermine an Empire gained and held by force. But in the crucible of the French wars Britain fused together its commitment to liberty and its will to power. A notable product of this was the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the year after Pitt’s death, accomplished by the “Ministry of All Talents.” Parliamentarians were inspired by the humanitarian rhetoric of Fox and Wilberforce; they were convinced that, since Napoleon had reintroduced slavery, abolition was a patriotic act; for various reasons they believed it would no longer be economically damaging, particularly as America was also outlawing the trade and other countries were expected to follow suit. Above all, abolition was accepted because it established Britain’s leadership of the civilised world, the champion of righteousness. It put the nation’s fundamental principle of liberty into practice and realised “the idea of ‘imperial trusteeship’ for the betterment of native societies.”178 In the same year, moreover, the faltering settlement of Sierra Leone was established as a colony for liberated slaves—some of whom were unwilling to go there and had to be forced to be free. So, as Rousseau had seen, liberty could be compulsory. Britain would subjugate many lands in its name.

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