Friday, March 11, 2005

Slave walk in the city

Before coming to Japan, I walked into the City of London to try to track some of the addresses mentioned in Hochschild's book about the anti-slave trade movement. Below is a list of the main points on the walk. I have not organised them in any logical walking order. I did not walk in either the order I've given or in a logical manner.

For a map of the walk go here (it should open in a new window):

1. Old Jewry: The first office set up by the small group of men who decided to campaign against the slave trade was at 18 Old Jewry, at the heart of the City. It was rented for £25 a year. The street has other historical connections: there is a plaque commemorating the medieval synagogue that once stood there and from which it takes its name. There is no commemoration of the connection with the anti-slave trade campaign however. 18 Old Jewry no longer exists. Its place seems to have been taken by an access road beside an Allied Irish Bank building.

2. South Sea House: The South Sea Company, established in 1710, was based at 38 (or 37?), Threadneedle Street. Under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain gained from France the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies. The South Sea Company was chosen to do it. A Royal Warrant in 1714 instructed the company to "charge themselves with the bringing into the West Indies of America belonging to the said King of Spaine in the space of thirty years therein mentioned one hundred four thousand such negroes as are therein described at the rate of four thousand eight hundred such negroes in each of the said thirty years." The company was permitted to import more slaves than this if the demand was there and "introduce, sell and dispose of the said negroes" without extra duties.

3. St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street: The church has a monument to John Newton, who was the Rector from 1779. He was a slave boat captain before he became a minister (see "Evil Aesthetes" below). He wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace". Some have annointed him as a leading anti-slave trade campaigner. Hochschild, however, points out that at no time during his decade on the slave ships or for thirty years afterwards did Newton show any sign of remorse for what he did, despite a marked tendency towards moralising on other matters. He did not come up with his first pamphlet "Thoughts upon the African Slave trade" until 1788, fully thirty years after he gave up slaving. In 1788, the anti-slavery campaign had begun to set the moral agenda and it seems the slaver turned prominent evangelical preacher started to feel the heat. As Hochschild says: "The curious thing, of course, is that for so long the slave trade apparently wasn't a subject of humiliating reflection for him at all. That Newton shuddered so is testimony to the way a strong social movement can awaken a conscience - even in a clergyman, whose very business is the awakening of consciences."

4. St Michael's Alley: "Triangle trade merchants and ship owners ... often gathered at the Jamaica Coffee House on St. Michael's Alley, said to have the best rum in London. Slave ship captains collected their mail there," says Hochschild.

This was in fact the site of London’s first coffee house, thriving before the slave boom. It was called the "Pasqua Rosee" when it opened in 1652 but was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666). A new coffee house was built two years later and it had a new name, referring to Britain's freshly acquired territory in Jamaica. It was used by slave traders not only as a place to discuss business but also to advertise slaves for sale or to announce runaways. On 8 August 1728, for instance, a two Guinea reward was offered at the Jamaica Coffee House for a black woman called Caelia Edlyne. (Incidentally, the Guinea coin itself was named after slave trade on the West African coastline.) The spot is now occupied by the Jamaica Wine House. There is a plaque to commemorate its history as the first coffee shop but I couldn't find anything on its connection with the slave business.

5. Africa House, 44-46 Leadenhall Street: The headquarters of the Royal African Company. In 1660 King Charles II gave the "The Company of Royal Adventurers" a royal charter. It was unsuccessful but was relaunched as the Royal African Company in 1672. Its main purpose was to develop the African slave trade. Its initials "RAC" were branded onto the chests of tens of thousands of slaves. The great philosopher and father of liberalism John Locke was a shareholder. The house in Leadenhall Street was pulled down in the 18th century to make way for the enlargement of the East India Warehouse in nearby Billiter Lane and in 1766 the RAC's offices were in Cooper's Court, Cornhill. They later moved later to 3 Suffolk Lane, Cannon Street.

6. George Yard: "Strangely, in a city where it seems that on almost every block a famous event or resident is commemorated by a blue and white glazed plaque, none marks this spot. All you can see today, after you leave the Bank station of the London Underground, walk several blocks, and then take a few steps into a courtyard, are a few nondescript office buildings, an ancient pub, and, on the site itself, 2 George Yard, a glass and steel high-rise. Nothing remains of the bookstore and printing shop that once stood here, or recalls the spring day more than two hundred yeas ago when a dozen people ... filed through its door and sat down for a meeting... Yet what these citizens began rippled across the world and we feel its after effects still," writes Hochschild. This was where, on May 22, 1787, at James Phillips bookstore and printing shop, the first meeting of the anti slavery movement was held. It was to grow into the first international human rights campaign and helped to revolutionise politics, civil society and the terms of international trade. The George and Vulture pub was there in 1787 and, given that it is just a few steps from the Jamaica Coffee House mentioned above, was probably packed with drunk slave traders. The two George Yard high rise was, until spring 2005, the main registered office of Barclays Bank, which is ironic because Barclays was founded on the slave trading profits of David and Alexander Barclay. Another irony is that the Barclays were Quakers: the Quakers were the first religious group to come out against slavery and provided much of the impetus for the early anti slavery campaign. Most of those present at the 1787 meeting were Quakers.

7. Philpot Lane: Number 17 was the base of Richard Oswald, one of the richest slave traders (see "Evil Aesthetes" post below). Other slave triangle traders had their headquarters on the same street. Today, it is a parade of dour buildings, including two Tandoori restaurants. One is called "Spice Trade". Perhaps the more historically accurate "Slave Trade" would have put customers off?

7. Custom House: repository of the red tape of the slave trade. Its records were used by the anti-slave trade campaigners to substantiate the cruelty of the trade.

8. Sugar Quay Walk - It is funny how London's docks are covered with tributes, in the names of roads and quays, to the various trades that built the city's fortune. But no reference to the slave trade! The sugar trade, the most profitable of all, was in fact one and the same thing as the slave trade. The boats that brought the slave grown sugar from the West Indies would then travel back out the Africa to pick up slaves and then make the deadly "middle passage", with slaves crammed in their holds, before returning to the mother country with the sweet stuff.

9. The Thames: "London Bridge ... barred tall masted ocean going [slave trade] ships from proceeding upriver; dozens of them would be docked or anchored there," says Hochschild. This is a painting of this part of the river from 1884, long after the abolition of the slave trade, but it gives a feeling of the scene:

It was a surreal experience trying to trace these landmarks of London's slave past. It is no exaggeration to say that much of London's present importance as a financial centre is, if you trace it back, founded on the slave and sugar trade. That incredibly profitable business built the capital that now gives this place its power.

I say it was a surreal experience because this extraordinarily powerful, energetic and impersonal nest of shiny office buildings does not relate to history in the way that most places do. If you come to Cambridge, for instance, history is given space both physically and in the story of the place. Cambridge has a linear narrative for the visitor and its historical artefacts occupy uncontested space, roped off for us to ponder the past and its continuity with the present. We can imagine people sitting in the same pub as us, centuries ago, and feel some kind of simple connection with them. The same is true of other parts of London: Buckingham Palace, Greenwich, even Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament. History makes sense there.

Trying to walk the same streets walked by the anti-slavery campaigners two centuries ago, in the centre of the City of London, is a much more disorienting experience. At one stage, as I left St Michael's Alley, my head was swimming. On the most basic level, I found virtually no commemoration of the slave trade. However, the disorientation came from something more than that: there was a feeling that these streets had no continuity with the past. They didn't have a linear narrative. Too much had gone on there over the centuries and too much was happening now. Too many millions of people, with too many backgrounds and competing thoughts in their heads had stepped on each paving stone. Hundreds of different stories ebbed and flowed across each inch of space. The City is a historical black hole, dense and full of energy. It doesn't really seem to want to have a story at all.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Slavery in art

While digging a bit deeper into a reference by Hochschild to J.M.W Turner's painting "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying. Typhon Coming On" (above), I was fascinated to discover that Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is believed by some to be filled with references to the slave trade. I had never even suspected such a link. Heathcliff comes from Liverpool and is persistently referred to as having a "swarthy" complexion. Is he a child of the slave trade? But, more interesting, did he himself become complicit in the trade during the time frame of the Novel? The author and academic Marina Warner says:

"...just before she died Angela Carter told me she was going to write an introduction to Wuthering Heights. She had a very interesting theory about what it was that Heathcliff had been up to. If you remember, Heathcliff goes away and comes back having made a fortune, and it takes place during this period we are talking about. One of the few things we know about Heathcliff is that he is found as a child in the Liverpool docks. Angela's theory was that, hidden in rather the same way as Turner approaches the story of the slave ship, and at the same time hides it under the paint, the Brontës similarly knew about slaving, they knew about the trade, they hinted at it in the Liverpool origin of Heathcliff, and this unexplained fortune that he brings back makes him feel damned. He says "I have sold my soul." Angela's theory was that he had sold his soul, that he was a black child, or half-black child – Brontë insistently calls him 'swarthy' – who had returned to Africa as a factor working for the British slavers, and done the trade, and that's how he'd made his fortune. This is hidden under the tempests, more tempests, the tempests of the novel. "

This was written in 1994, so I am obviously way out of date, but this was a bit of a revelation for my understanding of the novel. All that brooding soul-searching stuff suddenly seems a little bit less like romantic twaddle.


Hochschild describes the the Caribbean slave economy as a "slaughterhouse". It was significantly more deadly than the horrific North American cotton plantations. The survivors of the 400,000 slaves brought to North America over the centuries had grown to a population of 4 million by the end of slavery there . The 2,000,000 slaves brought to the British West Indies left a surviving population of only 670,000 when the institution was abolished on those islands. Of course, many more than 1,330,000 people died because of the large numbers of children born to the slaves.

One of the biggest plantations on Barbados, at the centre of this mass murder (in which the usual punishment for rebellion was burning at the stake), was the Codrington estate. It was owned by an absentee landlord. But the absentee was not an individual:

"It was the Church of England.

Specifically, it was the church's missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, whose governing board included the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the head of the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The estate's brand, burned onto the chests of slaves with a red-hot iron, was 'SOCIETY'."