Historic illiteracy

19Feb12

Every family has its dirty secrets. Well, most families. Though not mine, of course.

It comes as no surprise to learn that even Professor Richard Dawkins, scourge of superstition and credulity, or Satan’s Useful Idiot (delete according to taste) numbers a slave owner among his ancestors.

For this shock horror revelation we have to thank an article in the Sunday Telegraph which the paper may regard as honest investigative journalism, or it may be some gleeful attempt at a hatchet job. No matter.

Now someone will have to do the research to get the exact numbers, but the point is that many, many Britons have slavers among their ancestors. If your own personal genealogy includes members of the British middle and professional classes going back 200 years or more it is almost a certainty that they made some of their money directly or indirectly from the West Indies sugar trade, whether as owners or part-owners of plantations, or as owners or part-owners of businesses supplying or profiting from a huge range of ancilliary trades. Even if your ancestors were, say, building workers, they may have built houses paid for on the profits of slaving.

You can argue about the differences in moral culpability between an actual plantation owner who witnessed exactly how his business was run and, say, an impoverished sailor who felt he had no choice but to sign up for a slaving voyage, but the point is that there were few corners of the British economy that slavery didn’t touch, however indirectly, between the early 1700s and early 1800s.

When slavery was abolished by Act of Parliament in Britain and all her colonies in 1833, the government paid out about £20 million in compensation to the “owners”. (the actual slaves got nothing of course). This was a stupendous sum of money at the time, representing almost half the government’s annual expenditure. Historians argue about the impact that this immense injection of capital had, but it’s no accident that this payout was followed a few years later by the railway boom. Certainly my own casual forays into this in the Bristol area suggest that a chunk of the money used to build Brunel’s great railway line to London came from this source, but more work is needed here, so don’t quote me.

That £20 million quid was paid out to around 40,000 people, the great majority of them living in Britain and Ireland, some of them titled aristocrats, others were Church of England clergymen, and many were little old ladies in Tunbridge Wells living out modest retirements.

Now how many descendants do those 40,000 people have? Start in 1800, assume a generation every 25 years, assume that each generation produces two surviving children because they had much bigger families back in the day… and you end up with over 10 million people – and that is from actual owners alone, never mind all the others who profited from slavery in lesser ways.

If Dawkins has a slaver further down his evolutionary tree, then so, I bet, do several other staff on the Sunday Telegraph. And so, like it or not, do many members of the clergy.

Whatever the intentions of the article, it is, at best, historically illiterate.

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One Response to “Historic illiteracy”

  1. It’s historically illiterate, as well as socially and politically illiterate, and a crappy attempt at ad hom. Things being as they were, lots of people who have slaveholders for ancestors have slaves in their ancestry as well anyway, so which part of their genome would the ST want to castigate?

    Like you say about the railway, our whole society and infrastructure in this country gained benefit from slavery and colonialism to some extent or another. Not only that but our society is still benefitting to this very day from the wealth and investment that got stolen and pumped in to our Euro-American sphere, and do you see any sign that Africa or Indigenous Americas and Australia will *ever* see justice or restitution? As far as I can see the pillage and wealth transfer from the largely impoverished South to the wealthy North is still going on as we write.

    Can’t they think of any better grounds to have at Dawkins? There’s plenty of them if you look, like his male chauvinistic attitude, or his pusillanimous reductionism.


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