Black Gold: The trade in human life

Slaves in the family
Cover of Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball

By Russell Bruce

Learning to accept that Scotland had a role in the slave trade has been a positive outcome of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Tobacco Lords and the Sugar Barons owed their wealth to life grinding working conditions of slave labour in distant parts of the British Empire.

When it comes to slavery the British Empire has a particularly bad record. In his book Slaves in the Family Edward Ball faced up to his family’s slave owning heritage through extensive research in the surviving Ball plantation records and by tracking down descendants of slaves owned by his ancestors.

The Balls were from Devon on the English coast. Over generations they built a massive rice plantation business extending over thousands of acres in the low country on the South Carolina coast using hundreds of slaves to create the vast flood fields and irrigation systems on this mosquito infected marsh landscape. Carolina Rice was known as Carolina Gold and vast sums were made on the backs of slaves shipped from Africa.

In 1865 when the American Civil War ended, 842 slaves were freed from plantations held by the Ball family and more from plantations that had passed out of their hands. It is the earlier period that is worthy of special mention because from the time the fist Ball arrived in South Carolina in1698 until the last years of the eighteenth century, South Carolina was a British colony and the Brits made fortunes out of their global trade in black lives.

Slaves were black gold to the slave traders and owners

Reminders of the British legacy survive in the names of two South Carolina towns – Charleston, or Charles Town, references the tail end of the Stuart dynasty and Georgetown, to the north, relates to the Hanoverian succession. Neither were liberal monarchies and had no qualms about the exploitation of colonies and slave labour to generate income and wealth for the Crown and City of London.

Connectivity across the Empire was crucial to its global span. The Royal African Company (RAC) founded by Royal Charter in 1660 by the Stuarts was granted a monopoly of English trade along the West coast of Africa. Gold and ivory were the products sought but the value of slaves soon became a larger income source. Royal African founded nine trading posts along the Gold Coast. Referred to as factories, they were in fact prisons to hold slaves until ships were available for their transportation to the West Indies and Britain’s American colonies. It is estimated that half of all African slaves shipped to America arrived at the British port of Charleston in South Carolina.

Local African tribal leaders brought prisoners from rival tribes or those of their own they wanted rid off. The slave exploitation for money started with Africans dealing in their own people. It was a very lucrative trade despite the desperate conditions and lack of care for the human cargo on the transatlantic voyage. Elias Ball II paid between £200 and £300 for the slaves he bought in the 1760s. £200 was a lot of money then and equivalent to £36,700 in purchasing power today.

The slave auction companies took a 10% cut. Ball bought from Austin and Laurens the largest slave auction house in Charleston at the time. George Austin was English and married to one of Elias Ball’s daughters. Henry Laurens, a French Huguenot, also married into the Ball family so naturally Elias kept the business with his sons-in-law. Records indicate they sold 8700 slaves in their period of operation earning an estimated £156,000 in 10 years. The value today of these earnings translates to over £2.6 million.

British Crown took their cut of the trade

Austin took more of a back seat to the energetic Laurens. George Austin eventually retired back to England taking his considerable wealth with him. The money tree doesn’t stop there. Most of us know of the import duty on tea that signalled the end of Britain’s American colonies. The brazen exploitation of slaves from one colony to another is just a part of the story. Perhaps the most damming is the 10% import duty on the price of slaves sold at auction. Edward Ball estimates Austin and Laurens tax bill for the period at £68,000. Over ten years the Crown raked in the equivalent today of around £12,500,000 from this diabolical trade.

Slavery on an organised scale came to Britain and much of Europe with the Romans. The UK parliament officially abolished slavery in the British Empire with the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The American colonies were by then part of the United States of America where slavery continued until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Britain was not alone in promoting slavery for economic and trade gain but it was by far the most active until the early ninetieth century. Even so it was not until the slavery Abolition Act 1833 that slave owning in Britain and the Empire was finally made illegal and gradually phased out.

Slaves branded by Church of England

These legal changes had economic consequences for the operation of slave owning activities in the Empire and for slaves brought back to Britain. The answer was to pay slave owners for the ‘inconvenience”. Land owners in the West Indies received compensation totalling £20 million for the loss of slaves on the sugar plantations. The Church of England had invested in sugar plantations. The Bishop of Exeter and 3 business colleagues received compensation for 665 slaves. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados where slaves had the word ‘society’ branded on their backs with a red hot iron.

The Church of England’s slave money tree came to an end with a share of the UK government’s pay-off. The £20 million compensation pay-off is equivalent to £2.4 billion today. The Church of England finally apologised in 2006.

We were directly responsible for what happened
Rev Simon Bessant

The other catch for the ‘freed’ slaves was there was a transition period of 3 years more slave labour for domestic slaves and 4 for field slaves. This applied to all slaves over 6 years of age. A slave family could have a child of 5 who was now free but 3 more years for the mother if she was a domestic slave and a further year for the father as a field worker. The Brits love to make these complications with peoples lives, all in the interests of the owners who have time to adjust for this change to their business model. Some freed slaves left, others offered actual wages, stayed on.

Blood money funded the Free Kirk

As far a I can make out Scots were not involved in the Charleston slave trade although Scottish ships and sailors may have taken part in transportation from West Africa to Carolina. Many Scots were deeply involved in the sugar plantations in the West Indies, which until a period of years after 1833, depended on slave labour. Scottish newspapers openly advertised black servants to the wealthy in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the 18th century and it became something of a sordid status symbol among god fearing kirk folk.

Talking of God Fearing Kirk Folk, the Free Church of Scotland received donations from Scottish plantation slave owners in the colonies. They were urged to return the money but held on to the the blood-stained funding that helped finance the Disruption of 1843 so Free Kirk ministers could be paid and churches built.

The law of Scotland did rather better. Joseph Knight, following the Mansefield decision in England that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England, brought a case to the Court of Session in Edinburgh – Knight v Wedderburn (1778). Joseph Knight was a slave brought to Scotland from Jamaica by John Wedderburn.

Wedderburn argued that Knight owed him “perpetual servitude” but the Court of Session ruled against him as chattel slavery was not recognised under the law of Scotland and slaves could seek court protection to leave a master or avoid being forcibly removed from Scotland to be returned to slavery in the colonies.

The US has seen African Americans of slave descent become teachers, lawyers, professors and business people yet the US remains a country uneasy with its racial mix and African Americans are disproportionally targeted by police.

One high flying lawyer, Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate, community activist and former First Lady is Michelle Obama descended from South Carolina slaves. Although raised in Chicago her family came from Georgetown in South Carolina where she still has relatives. Her four grandparents all had a mixed race heritage from the years of slavery. Michelle Obama always suspected she had some white ancestry. DNA analysis uncovered her English, Irish and Indian heritage.

The image of George Floyd kneed for 9 minutes by a policeman intent (allegedly) on crushing his windpipe is a defining moment of 2020. Ten years after the financial crash the wealthy have got wealthier and everybody else has seen their income fail to keep place with reasonable progress.

This is a perfect recipe for large scale discontent. One result has been the White Lives Matters response from others left behind, what some Americans call white trash. This form of extremism has touched these shores with thugs out ‘protecting’ statuary and monuments, most of which were in little danger.

Our ruling cabal here are fond of promoting the view, “We are all in this together” when the reality is it is the 90% who are in for the pain. Facing the 90% as a united force is unthinkable and unsurvivable therefore targeted messages, the simpler and rationally incoherent the better, are required to break down the 90% into manageable groups that can be alternatively praised and lambasted.

So horrified have decent people been at the events in Minneapolis that people of all races have come together to protest peacefully in the US and Europe. They do so because the brutal death of George Floyd was another in a long line of avoidable black deaths at the hands of the police in the US and he is no longer the latest victim.

Most politicians will talk about lessons learned. Not Trump, he doesn’t do lessons. Johnson doesn’t do much in the way of lessons either and shares with Trump a disregard of daily briefings, preferring bumble and word fumble to indicate changes that have yet to actually come into force.

The Church of England, The Bank of England and Lloyds of London are some of those who have apologised for their connections to the slave trade yet working conditions in many parts of the world today are not so far removed from working conditions in the eighteenth century.

END NOTE: The National Library of Scotland has a considerable collection of records on Scotland’s link with the slave trade, including reports of Scots who justified slavery and others who deplored slavery and campaigned for abolition.