Ian Thorpe

Social History:
The Other Slaves

. Continuing Ian Thorpe's look at the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the bond that developed by the nominally free but horriffically oppressed British industrial workers and the enslaved and brutalised Africans working on the plantations of America.

The Other Slaves - 1
The Other Slaves - 2
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The Other Slaves (part 2)
Black And White

Back To Part 1 The British Empire, built through the eighteenth century, was very big on freedom. Politicians loved to cite the Magna Carta in support of an Englishman's rights. Another context in which freedom was celebrated was religion. After the upheavals and bloody civil war of the seventeenth century, the Protestant ascendancy was legally established and while the Anglican Church was established as the official religion whose bishops were granted seats in Parliament, the non conformists were guaranteed freedom of worship too. People were free to worship their God in whatever way they chose. Unless they were Catholics, that was banned.

The other great freedom enjoyed by the empire builders was free market economics. Free market is a very imprecise phrase of course. Then as now it was usually interpreted as granting free movement of goods in one direction and free movement of money in the other. Britain's trading empire was as dominant as that of America today. British businessmen were free to buy and sell whatever they wished in the world market, including human beings.

Often though, it was the case that the plantation slaves were given marginally better treatment than the factory workers of the new industrial towns. The wealthy were educated in the classics and easily recalled what the Roman philosopher Cicero had ironically observed, that slaves had cost money and therefore had value, while free men's labour could be had for the cost of a day's wage. No decent businessman would maltreat a valuable asset.

Such callous attitudes alienated the urban middle class, many of whom were followers of the new non - conformist faiths, the Quakers, Methodists (Wesleyans) Baptists and Unitarians. These faiths were not so big on gold candlesticks; they liked their Christianity with a conscience and to their way of thinking God had created us all equal and neither colour nor social class disqualified one from being accorded respect.

Amid a lot of unrest, machine burning (the Luddite riots,) strikes, protests "The Peterloo Massacre" in which a crowd gathered in St.Peter's Fields, Manchester to protest peacefully at price fixing which protected farmers by making bread intolerably expensive in the towns, was charged by mounted militia men after the protesters ignored an (illegal) order to disperse it became obvious that things could not remain the same.

At that time not only were labour organisations forbidden to the extent even that Friendly Societies which enabled poor people to save a penny a week for a decent funeral were closed down and prohibited, but in the wake of Peterloo, unauthorised meetings of more than three people were outlawed.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 began an era of change. The reforms were to the voting system and doubled the size of the electorate. Additionally it swung the balance of power in favour of the new industrial towns. Before the act things had been stagnant for so long that while the northern industrial town of Oldham with 50,000 inhabitants was not represented, Old Sarum, which was really nothing more than an iron age relic returned two members, elected by a grand total of four voters, to the assembly.

Following the reform a new political force emerged, the Liberal Party. Unlike the liberals that had preceded them, wealthy aristocrats whose idea of liberalism was the right of the rich to do just as they pleased, much as the economic liberalism of the neo-cons campaign for today, the new political Liberals were influenced by thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham who had influenced the leaders of the American rebellion and who proposed a society in which all were equal under the law, while the rich had embraced the religious philosophies of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli whose brand of Protestantism allowed the belief that wealth and privilege were bestowed by God on worthy souls.

The Liberal Party driven by reforming zeal set about the cherished institutions that had protected the status quo, the oppressive Corn Laws, the cause of Peterloo, were repealed, obstacles to labour organisations were removed, changes to legislation governing the treatment of the poor shifted responsibility from the church to the state and the emancipation of Catholics gave freedom of worship to all. One of the first acts of the reformed Parliament though was to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. In 1833 a petition bearing 187,000 signatures needed four men to carry it to the floor of the House of Commons. Not long after, The British Empire became a slave free zone.

The Other Slaves still had some way to go before they lost their chains entirely, but they were well on the way. The plight of Negro workers on American plantations had not changed though. Through pressure from abroad and from the more liberal northern states a mood for change was growing. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many migrants who landed in New York hoping to make a new life were from Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere in Northern Europe. They brought with them the enlightened ideas of the Moravian, Arian and Lutheran churches, and like the philosophers who influenced Britain's push for abolition they believed all humans are born equal.

The slave owners of the south were stubborn though. The economy of the southern states was built on slave labour and while the the northern abolitionists could find plenty of passages in The Bible to support their case, the rich plantation owners and their tame preachers could find just as much justification for theirs. Its a funny old book, The Bible. Between the abolition of the slavery in the European colonies and the American Civil War, the U.S.A. virtually divided itself into two economic entities, the abolitionist states and the slave states.

A lot of trouble could have been avoided had the plantation owners learned from their British counterparts a century earlier. Whereas the British peasants had been forced off the land and into a state in which they enjoyed all the rights and liberties of a slave while having all the securities and protections of the free, in other words they were free to starve but had no way of exercising their freedom to improve their lot, all the American slave owners had to do was free the slaves, who would have had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living other than by becoming "free" labourers on the plantations of their former owners. The slave owners did not see it that way however and the U.S.A. became more polarised until conflict was inevitable.

Meanwhile back in the old country the reformers had been making steady progress. Increased prosperity has further widened the electorate and the balance between urban and rural society had tilted further towards the urban liberals.

By the time America plunged into internecine conflict the British bourgeoisie had sufficient influence over the makeup of Parliament for a popular movement to ensure support for the abolishionist side.

War in America was bad news for Britain though, particularly for the burgeoning cotton industry in the North West county, Lancashire. Supplies of the raw material that fed the mills dried up. The cotton famine of 1863 to 5 caused widespread hardship in the cotton towns. Workers were laid off or put on short time as efforts to find alternative sources in Egypt and India failed in the short term. Lancastrians are made of stern stuff however, did you know Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid were from this area? Don't mess with us. The spinners, weavers and dyers knew The Confederacy had the economic strength so long as the cotton trade prospered and that without a Liberal government in London the Union could easily lose the war and the cause. And so, thanks to an overwhelming Liberal vote in Lancashire, the election of 1863 returned a Liberal government pledged to support The Union and the Abolitionist cause.

The bond forged in poverty and oppression had worked again. Even if many voters in that election had not experienced the hardships workers endured fifty years earlier they still empathised with the plantation workers of America's Deep South.

After emancipation things changed but not rapidly. In Britain a new political movement, socialism, began to push aside the Liberal Party. It was the Liberals that laid the foundations of the modern social security system but the socialist Labour Party that founded the National Health Service. Across the pond, race continued to divide people and the Calvinist thinking of Bible fundamentalists continued to resist social progress.

The reforms introduced in Roosevelt's New Deal owed a lot to the work of Labour and Liberal politicians in Britain but in both our nations that drive to social progress seems to have petered out and socialism became a dirty word. By making the sentiment that in a free society everyone can be rich sound like a promise that everyone WILL be rich, in the last thirty years the dark forces of Conservatism have managed to divide us socially, educationally, religiously, politically and economically. They have at last broken the bond of humanity that made people of different races and cultures able to understand each other and look as if, at the end of a long road and within sight of our goal of fair and just societies, they are turning us back to the brutish and brutal world that existed before.

Is consumerism really the new opium of the masses?

Alchemy For Beginners - Part 1: A Condensed history Of Alchemy
Religion and Science have in recent times not been comfortable bedfellows. Strange then that the earliest scientists were priests, people who chose todevote their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. One early science much derided by modern scientists was Alchemy, the quest to turn base metals like lead into Gold. But was the althemists idea reeally daft?

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