Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Black Loyalists Part 5

It has been some time since I wrote an installment in the saga of the Black Loyalists. When last we left them, Thomas Peters had gone to London to petition for an equitable settlement for the Black Loyalists. Their grievances were plentiful and well based. In response to his presentation to Secretary of State for the Home Department, Henry Dundas, a decision was made that the British government would pay to transport the Black Loyalists to Sierra Leone in Africa. To understand how the Black Loyalists came to this point, a bit of understanding of the background of the British abolitionist movement is needed. Since this is a long story within the framework of another long story, I will break it into a couple of posts.

The British Empire was built on a number of pillars. Among these pillars are the Royal Navy, ambitious merchants, international trade and, until 1807, slavery (slavery ended in England itself in 1772). During the expansion of the British Empire in the late 18th century, many fortunes were made by European colonial forces. One of the principal products which created and sustained these fortunes was sugar (along with its more potent by-product rum). At this time, sugar was a very labour intensive product. To keep profit margins high, an inexpensive source of labour was needed. The most inexpensive form of labour to be found was slavery. This is how economic imperatives drove slavery to become common in the sugar industry. Slaves would be collected in Africa, crammed into ships and transported to sugar plantations in the New World.

As sugar fortunes grew in Britain, the holders of these fortunes grew in political power and influence. Knowing that keeping costs low was essential to maintaining their fortunes, there was a great deal of political support to keep slavery in place. This was not a universally held belief. In response to slavery, an abolitionist movement developed in England. The abolitionists felt that slavery was a moral crime and a pox on humanity. Unfortunately, the abolitionists were largely considered a radical fringe that would cause harm to the economic survival of the Empire. The French or Spanish, it was argued, would simply move in to fill the void in British sugar production if slavery were abolished.

The abolitionist forces, led by men like Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson (the brother of John Clarkson who would figure so prominently in the story of the Black Loyalists), slowly began to draw attention to their cause. Their tactics included publishing slave narratives to show the horrors of slavery. The most famous of these narratives is perhaps the story of Olaudah Equiano whose 1798 autobiography became the first bestseller published by a black writer.

Another tactic employed by the abolitionists was the formation of the Sierra Leone Company. In many ways, this was an international investment company like the Hudson’s Bay Company or the East India Company. This was a pro-active solution where the abolitionists would work to establish a colony of free blacks in Africa. After an initial investment on the part of the Sierra Leone Company, it was hoped that the colony would become self sufficient and even pay a profit to the investors. On the “not quite as humanitarian” side of the ledger, this effort was also supported as a way to clear excess population off of the streets of London.

While this format does not really permit a full discussion of the British abolitionist movement, I would highly recommend the book Rough Crossings by Simon Schama if you are interested in a very detailed account. In my next post on this topic I will discuss the failure of the first Sierra Leone settlement which will set the ground for the arrival of the Black Loyalists. The image in this post is of a group of slaves working on a sugar plantation in Antigua.

All for now,

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