The dark side

The price mechanism, like justice, is blind. It operates regardless of the nature of the produce or of the consumer or supplier. It works just as efficiently when it comes to drugs, prostitution and slavery as it does with groceries and leisure wear. The price that a paedophile pays to rape a child is just that needed to match the supply of enslaved children with the demand for such activities, regardless of our moral scruples. The price that an addict pays for a gram of heroin on the streets of London or Los Angeles is that needed to match the supply available from local dealers with the demand from local addicts, in just the same way as it is in the fish or fruit market, and the damage caused as a result to families and society is an externality in just the same way as the cost of cleaning our pavements is an externality to the chewing gum industry.

Most decent people agree that the only acceptable response to such activities is to make them illegal and to ensure that resources are in place to fully enforce the legislation. However it is easy to forget that such a response can meet with vigorous opposition from those with a vested interest, as was particularly apparent before the Slavery Abolition Act finally became law in Britain in 1834.

Slavery has always been a part of the human story and was certainly an integral part of most societies by Roman times. By the 10th century slavery had largely been replaced by serfdom in western Europe but it remained common in the Muslim world well into the 20th century. The enslavement of free Muslims was prohibited by Islamic law so the main source of slaves was across the Sahara in central Africa. In the 15th century, when Portuguese traders first started buying slaves from the west coast of Africa to work in the cane sugar plantations of the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, they were integrating into a trade that had been operating in the African interior for centuries.

Following the discovery of the Americas, two facts became apparent to the Spanish and Portuguese colonists: first, that sugar cane was a viable crop in these lands; and second, that the natives were too vulnerable to the new diseases being brought in by the Europeans, and too prone to disappearing into the interior, to provide a reliable source of labour. As a result, African slaves were brought across the Atlantic to work the plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil, and sugar became increasingly popular in western Europe as the increase in supply brought down its price. By 1650 some 800,000 Africans had been transported across the Atlantic, primarily by the Spanish and Portuguese but also by Dutch, French and British traders.

Britain’s initial involvement in this trade was the pirating of Spanish ships returning from the Caribbean, which was sanctioned by the Crown as the two countries were at war at the time. However by the middle of the 17th century Britain had colonies on several of the Caribbean islands including Jamaica, Barbados, Tobago and Antigua, and a lucrative triangular trade route was being established. Initially monopolised by the London-based Royal African Company, established by royal charter in 1672, the trade was opened up in 1698 to rival traders who also operated from Bristol and Liverpool.

Slaves were purchased primarily from African slave traders based at well-established trading posts along the coast of west Africa, so the first step involved the purchase of goods in Britain with which to trade. These included cutlery from Sheffield and guns from Birmingham, but more popular were textiles that had been imported into London by the East India Company. Once the ship was ready the voyage to the west African coast took around a month, and the ship would then remain for another month or so loading up with slaves from the various trading posts between Senegal in the north and the Congo or even Angola in the south, a distance of many thousands of kilometres. A Portuguese slave trader estimated that nearly a half of the slaves died during the forced march from their home in the interior, while the conditions in which the slaves were held on the ship could result in death rates of 45 per cent for each month it remained on the coast (Walvin, p.70).

Once fully loaded the ship set sail on the ‘Middle Passage’ of the triangle, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. This leg could take four to six weeks during which a further 25 per cent of the slaves were likely to perish although this did drop to 10 per cent in later years, particularly after Dolben’s Act was passed in 1788 restricting the number of slaves that could be carried on each ship. Arriving in the Caribbean the slaves would then be sold in public auction for eight or nine times the price paid in Africa. The proceeds were then used to purchase the sugar, cotton and tobacco that the slaves had helped produce for shipment back to Britain, a voyage which would again take around a month. The whole venture would take about a year and investors could expect to see a return of between 8 and 10 per cent. By 1776, gross revenues from sugar sales in Britain had reached £3.2 million (Morgan, p.83). Adam Smith stated in Book III of The Wealth of Nations, published that same year: “The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those in any other cultivation that is known in either Europe or America …”

In 1672 the Royal African Company undertook to supply 5,500 slaves to the Caribbean but once its monopoly was rescinded the trade increased rapidly, peaking a century later at some 43,500 a year. Between 1660 and 1807, when the trade in slaves was abolished, records show that ships from Britain and the British colonies transported nearly 3.4 million slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.

One of the reason for such high numbers was the appalling death rate on the plantations themselves. It is estimated that some 800,000 Africans had been transported to the British colonies in the Caribbean by 1750, and yet the slave population was less than 300,000. One plantation owner estimated that anyone who owned 100 slaves would need to buy 8 or 10 a year “to keep up his stock”. (Ferguson, p.80)

The horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and the shameful behaviour of slave owners are well known, but one impression that does stand out as you contemplate these figures is its wasteful nature. Although undoubtedly a competitive market, those involved did not seem concerned by the high mortality rates – indeed did not seem to bestow on their slaves even the care they would bestow on their livestock. One can only assume that the supply from the African interior was felt to be so plentiful that the additional expense involved in reducing mortality rates by, for example, carrying less slaves on each ship, did not make economic sense.

There had been opposition to slavery through the 17th century, particularly from Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic. By the 18th century, as the trade grew and more people became aware of what was going on, opposition had grown more vocal. The Quakers presented a petition to the British parliament in 1783 opposing the trade, and in 1787 formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade whose membership included a member of parliament in William Wilberforce.

An early victory was Dolben’s Act of 1788. However, thanks in part to the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, it was to be another 18 years before the Slave Trade Act 1807 was passed, prohibiting British ships from transporting slaves at all, and only in 1834, following the return of the Whigs to power, that the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed slavery throughout the British colonies. The Act also decreed that plantation owners be compensated a total of £20 million for the loss of their ‘property’. The slaves themselves received no compensation and had to continue working for their previous owners for a further four years as ‘apprentices’, receiving pay solely for overtime. It was only slave children under the age of six who were freed immediately (Morgan pp.91-7).

Although some have argued that there were economic reasons for abolishing slavery, it is generally accepted that it was primarily effected by the campaigning of the Quakers’ Committee and other like-minded groups. As well as issuing pamphlets and lecturing across the country, it is estimated that abolitionist petitions were signed by some 1.5 million people – almost a sixth of the British population – and presented to Parliament (Morgan p.157).

Most European countries outlawed slavery through the following decades, with the United States abolishing slavery in 1865. Slavery was officially abolished by the United Nations in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however many Arab nations did not abolish slavery until the 1960s. Today the International Labour Organisation estimates that 12.3 million people are still forced to work against their will under the threat of punishment, of which 360,000 are enslaved in industrialised countries, often under the pretence of paying off loans (Forced labour, 2008).

Arguments against abolition took a number of forms. Firstly, it was widely accepted that Africans were in some way inferior to white people and suited only to hard labour, an opinion reinforced by the stories told by the slave traders themselves. The entry for ‘Negro’ in the 1798 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica reveals the extent to which such views were considered acceptable:

… Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race: idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.”

Secondly, it was asserted that the trade ‘rescued’ Africans from the hardships of life on the ‘dark continent’, the awfulness of which was again confirmed by slave traders who were, after all, amongst the few Europeans who had actually been there. Thirdly, there was the argument that the trade saved African souls by introducing them to Christianity.

Then of course there were the economic arguments. Typical was a letter in the Bristol-based Bonner & Middleton’s Journal in 1788 asserting that: “To abandon the slave trade to our rivals the French would be to stab the vitals of this nation.” A particularly vocal opponent in the House of Commons was Colonel Banastre Tarleton who forcibly argued that the British economy would collapse without slavery. Tarleton had fought in the American War of Independence where he had earned the nicknames ‘Bloody Ban’ and ‘Butcher’. Several of his brothers were profiting considerably from shares they had taken in slaving voyages.

While the abolition of slavery did undoubtedly affect the economy, it did not spell its doom. Instead, conditions became increasingly favourable for the British entrepreneur. The slave trade was no longer an option but the Industrial Revolution was transforming the British economy. The legalisation of joint-stock banks in 1826, with remaining restrictions lifted in 1833, meant that banks could operate as limited liability companies rather than partnerships of no more than six persons. Banking became a far less risky business which made it much easier for the entrepreneur to raise money.

The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 had extended the vote beyond the landed gentry but it was still restricted to adult males paying at least £10 a year in rent, or owning land worth at least £10, and ballots were not secret so parliament could generally be relied upon to support your interests. The Factory Acts of 1833 and 1844 did prevent you from employing children under nine, or from working women or youths under the age of 18 for more than 12 hours a day (9 hours on a Sunday), but it was only in 1878 that such restrictions were extended beyond the textile industry.

There were plenty of opportunities, too. The monopoly held by the East India Company over trade with India and China had long been terminated and in 1842 the newly-elected Peel government started the process of reducing import duties, preferring income tax as a means of raising revenue. These reductions, together with the removal of the protectionist Navigation Acts in 1849, encouraged free trade throughout the Empire and beyond. By the 1850s, over 90 per cent of British imports were raw materials and over 90 per cent of British exports were manufactured goods. Britain had become the ‘workshop of the world’, producing some 40 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods – a fact celebrated in the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Mathias p.229).

However life was not so good for the less fortunate. The population in England had doubled in just 50 years, rising from 10 million at around 1815 to 20 million by around 1865. This was partly down to the Irish potato famine which started in 1845, resulting in some 1.5 million people emigrating to England over the following decade (Mathias, 1983, p. 178). It was also a period of migration into the towns and cities where work could be found in the factories. As a result urban population, which in the 1801 census accounted for around one third of the total, rose to 50 per cent by 1851 and 70 per cent by 1881.

This ever increasing supply of workers kept salaries low (although still higher and less prone to seasonal variation than in the agricultural sector). Furthermore the division of labour so praised by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations meant that most factory work involved mundane and repetitive tasks that required little skill and could be carried out not only by men but also by untrained women and children, which further increased the labour supply. As Karl Marx put it in his Manifesto of the Communist Party:

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him … The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.” (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 10)

What infrastructure there was in the major towns and cities strained under the burgeoning population, turning more and more neighbourhoods into overcrowded slums. Henry Mayhew, journalist and co-founder of Punch magazine, described the resulting squalor in an article for the Morning Chronicle reporting on a visit made in 1849 to Bermondsey in London, investigating an outbreak of cholera:

“We then journeyed on to London-street, down which the tidal ditch continues its course. In No. 1 of this street the cholera first appeared seventeen years ago, and spread up it with fearful virulence; but this year it appeared at the opposite end, and ran down it with like severity. As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water. In the bright light it appeared the colour of strong green tea … and yet we were assured this was the only water the wretched inhabitants had to drink. As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women, built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it, and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it seemed, by pure force of contrast, white as Parian marble.” (Mayhew, 1849)

Losing your job was something to be avoided in such times. Once any savings had run out, and you had pawned what possessions you could, you were left with the charity of friends and neighbours. If you were skilled, perhaps a printer or carpenter, you may have been able to seek help from your friendly society or trade union. Otherwise the only state provision was that provided by the Poor Law, first introduced in England and Wales in 1601.

The total amount paid out in poverty relief across the country had reached nearly £9 million by the 1830s, but this was slashed to just £4 million following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (Cook, 1999, p. 122). As a result of the Act, the last resort for the able-bodied became the workhouse where you were required to labour without pay in return for board and lodging. Conditions in the workhouse were kept deliberately harsh and degrading so as to discourage applicants. Your family were split up and you would likely find yourself sharing with the infirm and the mentally ill.

There was concern amongst the middle classes. Charles Booth, who made his money from shipping and manufacturing, conducted an extensive survey of London which is famous for his maps showing conditions as they existed street by street. Published in 1889, this revealed that 8.5 per cent of Londoners could not afford to clothe and feed themselves while another 22 per cent – in other words nearly a third of the population – were unable to put anything aside to cover unforeseen eventualities such as periods of unemployment (Booth, 1889).

Many of those moved to respond were Quakers, such as Joseph Rowntree whose family founded the famous confectionary brand. Rowntree ensured that all his workers under the age of 17 received a free education, and employed a doctor and a dentist to provide free health services. Furthermore in 1906 he donated £10,000 to start a pension fund for his workforce. George Cadbury, whose father founded what is now the world’s largest confectionary company, created a ‘model village’ for his workers at Bournville near Birmingham in 1893.

However the prevailing view was that the poor would benefit from ‘the crumbs that fell from the tables’ of the wealthy as they gorged themselves on this feast of opportunity. This is commonly referred to as ‘trickle-down economics’ or, as the economist J. K. Galbraith was later to describe it, “…what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: if you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.” (Galbraith, 1982)

Others subscribed to the view of Thomas Malthus whose Essay on Population, published in 1798, suggested that any re-distribution of wealth, whether through poor relief or charity, only encouraged the poor to marry earlier and breed more prolifically, so increasing their number and negating the benefit of the handout. It was such views that led the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle to dub economics “the dismal science”. It was also widely held that unemployment was a lifestyle choice, at least where the able-bodied were concerned. It was not until Booth’s survey and other similar studies were published that poverty began to be seen as inevitable in an imperfect market. State-funded pensions were finally introduced by the British government in 1909, followed in 1911 by insurance contributions against sickness and unemployment which were paid by the state and the employer as well as by the employee.

There were attempts at revolt. In Britain perhaps the most significant centred around the People’s Charter, published in 1838, which demanded annual elections by secret ballot for all men of 21 or over, and changes to the law that would allow any man to become a member of Parliament and to receive a salary while in that position. The Chartists, as its supporters were called, made three attempts to petition the House of Commons but were rebutted each time with Parliament voting not even to receive it, despite the 1842 petition containing over three million signatures (roughly a fifth of the population). Matters came to a head in 1848 with the final petition when some 25,000 supporters rallied on Kennington Common. Confronted by a robust show of force, including armed and mounted police and cannon brought from Woolwich Arsenal, the meeting broke up and the movement was considered a failure. However by 1918, most of the demands made in the Charter had been met.

Also in 1848, revolutions broke out across much of central Europe, although most collapsed within months. Particularly significant was the February Revolution which resulted in the French king Louis-Philippe fleeing as revolutionaries seized Paris and set about establishing a Second Republic. However internal division led to a workers revolt in June which was brutally put down, resulting in the death of some 1,500 during the fighting and the massacre of over 3,000 who had been taken prisoner. By December, more moderate attitudes had led to the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as president who, at the end of his term in 1851, staged a coup and seized power as Emperor Napoleon III.

In 1871, following the defeat of Napoleon’s army, the Parisian National Guard refused to surrender to Prussian forces and declared Paris an independent commune. The Communards, as members were called, elected a council composed of workers and soldiers which decreed that no-one was to receive a salary of more than 6,000 francs, and put in place plans for factories to be managed by their workers. However the movement was again beset by internal disagreement and, only a few months later, the Prussians allowed defeated French troops into Paris who proceeded to put an end to the uprising by slaughtering tens of thousands of supporters.

But it was the writings of Karl Marx, a German philosopher living in London, which were to have the greatest effect. His sponsor Friedrich Engels had written The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, which proved influential, but Marx’s solution was the overthrow of the structures of capitalism altogether – by force if necessary.

Chapter 3: The socialist experiment →