The history of slavery is long and complex. It involves culture, race, religion, politics and a little bit of economics. Ultimately, it involves every one of us.
How far back into prehistory slavery extends is uncertain, but it is the consensus of historians that slavery was well established by the Iron Age. Slaves formed a lower class of unfree people with no rights and would have been a common element in most settlements. When we look at the farmsteads, villages and fortresses of Iron Age Lincolnshire, we are looking at places where slaves lived and worked. It is also true that the wealth stored in the treasure hordes of the Corieltauvi was derived at least in part from forced labour and a trade in human lives.
Like all other Iron Age societies, the Romans had an entire class of slaves that formed a significant part of their population and economy. There is a popular misconception that the first Africans and Middle Eastern people to come to Lincolnshire would have arrived as Roman slaves. In the first instance, this assumes that there was little or no movement of people in the pre-Roman prehistoric period. Archaeologists have for a long time known of prehistoric trade and contact between Britain and the wider world. Artefactual evidence alone suggests trade extending from Scandinavia, down the Atlantic coast and then as far as the Eastern Mediterranean. With trade comes the movement of people. In fact the Roman empire encoded the principle of free movement as part of “Pax Romanum”. This ensured that travellers were protected by Roman law wherever they went in the Empire. It is therefore likely that Africans and Middle Eastern peoples that came to Lincolnshire as part of the Roman Empire did so as traders, officials and soldiers rather than slaves.
In the post-Roman period, both the Saxons and Vikings were slave-owning societies and it is commonly mentioned in accounts or wars and raids that women and children are taken as slaves and sold. It is said that the Gregorian Mission to covert the Saxons to Christianity was inspired by Pope Gregory seeing Anglo-Saxon boys on sale in the Roman slave markets. Interestingly it appears that Pope Gregory was buying Anglo-Saxon children to educate in the monasteries with a view to sending these slaves to Britain as missionaries. This being the case, it would mean that the state religion of Great Britain was originally founded on slave labour.
The Norman invasion brought about fundamental change to England and English society. Although the Normans were ruthless in their creation of a new social order, there was little place in that structure for a slave class. Serfdom, where peasants provided service to landlords for their tenancy and protection, was sufficient control for the Norman knights and barons. Following the invasion of 1066 a large number of slaves were elevated to the rank of serf, and by the mid 12th Century writers were able to say that slavery was almost unknown in England.
The formal abolition of slavery in England is usually assigned to Magna Carter. Slavery per se is incompatible with the principle of habeous corpus. But serfdom, which limited the freedom of peasants would continue until the 14th century and the peasants revolt, and the legal status finally abolished in the 16th century. The medieval period attempted to re-establish “Pax Romanum”, but with limited success. Movement throughout Christendom was theoretically free, but safety was far from guaranteed. Inhabitants of medieval Lincolnshire could travel for trade or pilgrimage, but there was no guarantee that they would retain their liberty, and no doubt some ended up in Mediterranean slave markets.
From the 15th century onwards there was slave raiding from Mediterranean pirates known as corsairs. This mostly stayed in the Mediterranean Sea, but occasionally ventured as far as Iceland. I haven’t found any named individuals stolen from Lincolnshire, but in the 16th and 17th Centuries, sporadic watches were kept along the coast for fear of slave raiders. However, this was more of a propaganda exercise that a real defence. Most of the unfree labour sent to the new world from Britain in the 17th century were Scots soldiers captured in the Second Civil War and orphaned children. During the Commonwealth we even see “bonded” Scots labourers at work in the Fens as work to improve the land was resumed.
Britain’s involvement in the African slave trade began in quite a haphazard way. As Queen Elizabeth waged her war on Spanish Commerce, captains such as Drake would intercept cargoes of African slaves bound for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and hardwood plantations of South America. But this was no altruistic act, the slaves were regarded as a commodity and were promptly sold on for a profit. In the latter part of the 16th Century, Captain Hawkins cut out the middleman and commissioned a number of ships to go to Africa and take slaves from there for sale in the New World. A small beginning to a huge and ugly business.
There are, in history, watershed moments. The Holocaust is one of them. Anti-Semitism did not begin in the ghettoes and concentration camps of World War Two, but it is recognised as a point where it had gone too far. Something that had been endemic, but relatively low level, suddenly became systematic and ruthlessly violent. The African slave trade is another of those historical watersheds. Like the Holocaust, people tried to justify inhumanity with ideology and even moralising. And like the Holocaust people try to cast off guilt with revisionist stories of complicity or by generalising. It is true that slavery existed before the African slave trade, the numbers sent from Britain to the New World as indentured servants pale into insignificance when compared to the millions taken from Africa in the 18th Century.
So why did it become acceptable for British men to do to Africans, what it would be a crime to do to their native Britons.
Through the 17th Century and into 18th Century, European society underwent a rise in state militarism. Whereas in the past the use of force to gain power had been a temporary exercise focussed around ambitious individuals, and armies were raised and disbanded as needed, the emerging sovereign states of Europe now had national ambitions and maintained large standing armies. The free movement of people of the medieval period was ended and trade tariffs were imposed by force. This required economic expansion, just as a large number of fit men were removed from the employment market. The upshot of this was a massive expansion of far eastern trade, a huge increase in the demand for resources from the New World, and war by proxy in across the whole globe.
And from this, the “Golden Triangle” was born. As new wars broke out in Africa, subsidised by conflicting European powers, slaves would be traded for economic and military resources. The slaves would be taken to the New World and the raw materials brought from the New World to Europe, particularly Britain. And all for profit and an ever-expanding war chest.
It is fashionable to point to certain places in Britain as the centres of the African slave trade, such as London, Bristol and Glasgow, but a quick search of the records collated in the UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership soon reveal how the trade pervaded the whole country. In Lincolnshire some thirty-five people are identified as having either direct slave ownership, or funds from slave worked plantations. The persons named range from commoners to the owners of halls and estates such as Blyborough Hall and Belton House. Amongst the list of slave trade beneficiaries, you will find several clergymen, a slave merchant and a lady born in Jamaica and committed to Lincoln lunatic asylum (Which sounds like it should come from a Charlotte Brontë novel). Overall, Lincolnshire people owned hundreds of slaves in the Caribbean, and the money gained from this went on to fund schools, municipal buildings, churches and to establish numerous businesses that underpin the counties economy. The legacy of slavery lies much closer to us than we would like to believe.
But not everyone was happy. As early as the mid 17th Century writers such as Aphra Behn were deriding the slave trade and in particular slave owners. By the beginning of the 18th Century, formal abolition movements were being formed, often finding their voice through religious dissent. The tactics used by the abolitionists were both laudable and successful. Firstly, they used consumer buying power to effect social change – promoting sugar that was from slave-free plantations, for example. Then, the money made from slave-free goods was used to pay for peace missions that worked in Africa to prevent wars and cut off the supply of new slaves. Once again, it seems we have something to learn from history.
Legal challenges were also made to the trade, and 1706 it was confirmed that the status of the slave did not legally exist in England. However, it was something of a legal fudge as the same judgement also allowed Africans to be kept as indentured servants. African servants were popular in some quarters as a status symbol and it is likely that most, if not all, were unfree because of a legal technicality. So far, I have not found any Lincolnshire portraits that include African servants, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. To find these unfortunates in Lincolnshire, it would be necessary to search parish records.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the process of abolition began to make legal progress with the European states abolishing it domestically and then by international treaty. By the time the trade between Africa and the Americas had ended over 12 million people had been transported into slavery. This was the largest migration in history and it had been imposed by force of arms for the purpose of profit and waging war.
However, that is not the end of our story. Slavery may have been abolished, but indentured servitude remained. Internationally this was in the form of over 2 million Indian indentured servants being transported to the Americas. Domestically, and this includes Lincolnshire, it involved the enforced emigration of the destitute, the imprisonment of the poor in workhouses and the selling of child labour, particularly of orphans. We have all seen the film Oliver, where the Mr Bumble so pleasantly sings his song offering the orphan Oliver for sale, but how many of us questioned its significance. Dickens’ novel was intended to point out the appalling nature of this trade, but it wasn’t until the industrial reform bills of the later Victorian period that these things began to change.
Another form of forced labour was transportation. Convicts transported to Australia were not paid until they had served their sentence, and the system was subject to wholesale abuse. Often long sentences were handed out for petty crimes, and the government also used the process to remove political opponents such as Chartists. In Lincolnshire, a typical convict was John Carratt of Hackthorn who was transported to Australia for ten years. His crime was to steal three tame rabbits, three sheepskins and two sacks.
By 1917 indentured servitude and transportation had both ended, but the world was not yet free of slavery. The rise of Nazi Germany relied heavily on slave labour, as did Soviet Russia. The Western Allies themselves became tainted by slavery when it was agreed that the war reparations from Germany would be extracted in land, goods and forced labour. In Britain that was mostly through bomb disposal, although like the Americans and Russians, we were keen to get our fair share of arrested scientists. Particularly prized by America and Russia were the rocket scientists, and it was with these unfree specialists that the space race began. The journey that planted the American flag on the moon was begun with slavery.
Nor did Britain’s involvement with slavery end there. In 1987 British social worker Margaret Humphreys exposed the Home Children scandal in which thousands of British children were transported to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa and used as forced labour. Once again slavery had preyed upon the most vulnerable in the name of doing good works.
And the sad story continues. Today the papers call it “Human Trafficking”, a diplomatic euphemism for what the police more accurately call modern slavery. Convictions have been made in Lincolnshire as recently as 2019.
How could this happen? How is it that the spectre of slavery is still with us in the 21st Century?
The writer and philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In Lincolnshire you will find monuments and memorials to the war dead in every village, there are statues of local important personages in every town, a few (modest) memorials to civilians killed in war and in Stamford a memorial to the Holocaust (albeit a very small one). Nowhere is there a reminder of the slave trade. We all share the legacy of the slave trade and almost everything around us is tainted by that crime, and yet we cannot be reminded of it. I am put in mind of Siegfried Sasson’s poem “At the Cenotaph” where the Prince of Darkness prays that people will forget what the monument is for. How much easier is the devil’s work if there is no memorial to make us stop and think, and face our past.
And yet I remain an optimist. There are historians telling the story of slavery, difficult and uncomfortable as it is, and people of all ages and walks of life are listening and taking note. Perhaps, if the story can be retold and retold again, we will one day be able to say we have seen Lincolnshire’s last slave freed.