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The bitter aftertaste of Slavery

This week marked 185 years since the abolition of slavery by an Act of Parliament, in 1833.  22 years earlier, in March 1807, the Slave trade had been abolished but had not prevented the use of slaves and the practice of slavery.

To modern ears the trade of humans as if property should sound abhorrent and yet in the late 19th century in Britain many, many powerful people argued for it to remain. Of course they did! You don't amass huge wealth by paying your workers fairly do you? Not only were these arguments made but they sought to articulate justifications for its continuance using, believe it or not, Magna Carta.

Magna Carta, the medieval English document which has come to stand for liberty, freedom and justice was used to argue for the liberty and freedom of all slaves and justice for their bodies and lands. 

"No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or in any way harmed….save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."¹

 This may not come as a surprise to you if this is how you understood Magna Carta but what about the 'disseized' part of that clause? If a slave is a piece of property, which had been confirmed in case law, then surely the owners were being disseized?

Slavery is not a topic purely of history. The consequences of this barbaric practice of treating other humans as inferior for the gain of others leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the descendants of both sides and has obvious consequences in race relations in the modern day.

And what of the wealth accumulated literally on the backs of slaves? The abolition of slavery did not mean an end to the wealth built on free labour and that wealth has been passed down through the generations since. In addition to the wealth already accumulated, slave owners were compensated millions for 'loss of property'. The total bill for the compensation, paid for by the taxpayers of Britain was £20million. A debt so large that even HM Treasury itself claimed was only paid off in 2015. Leading to the very uncomfortable realisation that anyone paying tax within the UK up to that point was helping pay this debt.

The slaves themselves received nothing.

'O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you,

learned you this from your God?'

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1814 edition), pp. 63-6, 69-70


If you have enjoyed this blog you may also like to read 'A Day In Liverpool' in which I cover the International Slavery Museum in the Albert Dock which highlights not only Liverpool's direct links to the slave trade and the wealth built from it but also modern day slavery.

- Philippa Brewell

History Writer and History Tour Creator


¹ "Magna Carta Transcript". 2014. Web

A short Vlog you may also enjoy - what is so interesting about the Apple Store on Regent Street? 

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