From the book description on Goodreads:
“In 1807, Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire, but for the next quarter of a century, despite heroic and bloody rebellions, more than 700,000 people in the British colonies remained enslaved. And when a renewed abolitionist campaign was mounted, making slave ownership the defining political and moral issue of the day, emancipation was fiercely resisted by the powerful ‘West India Interest’. Supported by nearly every leading figure of the British establishment – including Canning, Peel and Gladstone, The Times and Spectator – the Interest ensured that slavery survived until 1833 and that when abolition came at last, compensation was given not to the enslaved but to the slaveholders. Worth £340 billion in today’s money, this was the largest pay-out in British history before the banking rescue package of 2008, incurring a national debt that was only repaid in 2015 and entrenching the power of slaveholders and their families to shape modern Britain.
Drawing on major new research, this long-overdue and ground-breaking history shows that the triumph of abolition was also one of the darkest episodes in British history, revealing the lengths to which British leaders went to defend the indefensible in the name of profit.”
The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery by Michael Taylor was a densely written history of slavery in the British Empire, focusing on the Caribbean, and of the abolition of slavery that eventually was passed as law in 1834, 27 years after the prohibition of the slave trade.
Taylor explores the social and political climate at the time and presents why it took 27 years to abolish slavery once and for all after the foundations were laid by Wilberforce and Co. in 1807.
For the past two hundred years, the authors of Britain’s ‘national story’ and the smiths of British ‘national values’ have placed opposition to slavery at the core of their constructions. I have never been persuaded. As this book will show, the British ‘nation’ was in fact deeply implicated in and violently supportive of colonial slavery. If this book achieves anything, I hope it encourages readers to interrogate the myths of British history, to question Britain’s troubling role in the shaping of the modern world, and to think about what should happen next. Perhaps most relevantly, this book poses the question: Should criminals ever celebrate the end of their own criminality?
It took me quite a while to finish the book. It is densely written. Taylor based the book on his PhD research. There is a lot of information to take in and digest.
The topic of the book also slowed down my reading progress. Especially at the beginning of the book when Taylor provides descriptions of the conditions in which humans were traded as chattels made this a difficult read at times. There is just so much I can read about the inhumanity of slavery at any one time.
Once we the introductory chapters over with, however, Taylor tells of the the propaganda created by slave traders and gives a brief overview of legal challenges brought forward by abolitionists and of the political landscape at the time.
I found this section riveting.
It also made me smirk that I could not help but notice certain similarities between the arguments of pro-slavery interest holders and Brexiteers accusing abolitionists as traitors to the Empire etc.
Funny how some arguments don’t change.
Despite this, there were some aspects of the thorough and detailed blow-by-blow description of political maneouvres that were also really, really boring. I guess, it depends on what one is looking for, but I was interested more in the legislation itself than the politics around it.
At times, it also seemed that the author drifted from what I thought the purpose of the book was – i.e. exploring the resistance to the abolition of slavery in the British establishment – to spend a large part of the book entirely focussing on the conditions of slavery in Jamaica, descriptions of riots and retributions, mostly based on eye-witness accounts and reports.
This was interesting enough for the first 5% (of about 20%), but I was decidedly bored with the almost repetitive descriptions. I’m sure there were stories that need to be heard and recorded, but I really wanted to know more about the developments that actually refer to the book’s purpose.
It was at this point that I hoped the book would find its way back to the original premise again, and when it did, it concluded with a lot that the author wanted to impart, and the last 25% made the book for me:
Taylor does not just recount the history of how slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1834, but he also actually analyses the consequences of it and looks into how the “myth of the abolition of slavery” was created, mostly by public figures who previously fervently argued against the abolition re-writing their own history.
[…] the British ‘remember’ that Parliament abolished slavery, but not that Parliament had spent two hundred years encouraging and protecting slavery in the first place; they remember the selflessness of white abolitionists, but not the suffering – let alone the loves, lives, hopes, and dreams – of the enslaved and the sacrifices that they made in order to undermine the institution of slavery.
What really struck me was Taylor’s Epilogue in which he explains that he used to be in favour of keeping statues and memorials to benefactors and philanthropists even if their wealth had derived from slavery but that Taylor had now changed his mind.
This comment was in response to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last year and in response to the outcry by some elements of the media and some public figures and politicians.
Taylor explains that he used to be in favour of the statues etc. not as a celebration of the personalities or their philanthropy or whatever but because he felt that they are important as reminders of the dark side of history.
“[…] the Abolition Act was neither the inevitable bequest of sweeping anti-slavery sentiment and the triumphant march of British ‘justice’, nor was it a simple coda to the better-known campaign against the slave trade. In reality, the passage of the Act had relied upon several factors: the political collapse of the Tories which led to Reform and the return of a sympathetic House of Commons; the persistent pressure applied by the Anti-Slavery and Agency societies; and the violent slave resistance that finally convinced the British public of the immoral, unsustainable nature of slavery. Until those factors combined in the early 1830s, defending slavery was a tenable, popular position for British conservatives, imperialists, economists, and more besides. Until 1833, slavery had been an essential part of British national life, as much as the Church of England, the monarchy, or the liberties granted by the Glorious Revolution. When we remember it otherwise, we promulgate a self-serving and misleading version of British history.”
However, Taylor changed his mind.
He explains that the statues etc. were erected by people who either created or perpetuated the myth that there were positive aspects of slavery, and that it takes an awful lot of education and awareness to see behind that myth rather than to perceive the statues etc. as a celebration of history (however false that notion of history may be).
Taylor notes that most people just do not know enough about the background and history to be able to see behind the myth of Britain leading the abolitionist movement, when in fact, as he outlines in the book, the interest of maintaining slavery ran through every corner of society at the time, and resistance to the abolitionist ideals did not end – far from it – with the passing of the 1834 Act.
From considerations and debates among Caribbean nations for reparations from Britain for the lasting consequences brought on by slavery to listing how many institutions, individuals, and companies even today benefit from the legacy of the pay-off that enabled abolition to take effect, Taylor highlights that even almost 200 years after the Act, there is still a lot to question and this starts with educating people about why the 1834 Act was not passed earlier.
For all of the book’s boring (to me) parts, this was a timely and very informative book and I am delighted to see it nominated for the 2021 Orwell Prize.
Edit: One day after I wrote the above review, The Guardian published an article about the UK government’s interference in the governance of public cultural institutions and museums in efforts to preserve the sanitised “myth” of British history that Taylor describes in The Interest.
The government announced plans earlier this year to appoint a “free-speech champion” and said it would warn heritage bodies against taking significant steps in reevaluating British history.
Considering that “reevaluating” history is part of what historians do, interfering which this process and calling it “free speech” is not conservatism, it’s censorship. Again, Taylor’s book could not have been published at a better time.
4* (out of 5*)