Based on a 2014 blog post of the same name, Reni Eddo-Lodge's book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race exploded onto our shelves last year with its eloquent, frank survey of structural racism in the UK.
A book that has legitimately changed the landscape of contemporary discourse around race, it was also voted our Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. Below, in an extract from early on in the book, Eddo-Lodge writes about her own awakening to the often-overlooked history of slavery in Britain and its legacy today.
"To me, this didn’t seem like information you could opt out from learning."
IT WASN'T until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history. I must have been about nineteen or twenty, and I had made a new friend. We were studying the same course, and we were hanging around together because of proximity and a fear of loneliness, rather than any particular shared interests. Ticking class boxes for an upcoming term found us both opting to take a module on the transatlantic slave trade. Neither of us knew quite what to expect. I’d only ever encountered black history through American-centric educational displays and lesson plans in primary and secondary school. With a heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King, Jr, the household names of America’s civil rights movement felt important to me, but also a million miles away from my life as a young black girl growing up in north London.
But this short university module changed my perspective completely. It dragged Britain’s colonial history and slave-trading past incredibly close to home. During the course, I learnt that it was possible to jump on a train and visit a former slave port in three hours. And I did just that, taking a trip to Liverpool. Liverpool had been Britain’s biggest slave port. One and a half million African people had passed through the city’s ports. The Albert Dock opened four decades after Britain’s final slave ship, the Kitty’s Amelia, set sail from the city, but it was the closest I could get to staring out at the sea and imagining Britain’s complicity in the slave trade. Standing on the edge of the dock, I felt despair. Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick. Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy.
At university, things were starting to slot into place for me. In a tutorial, I distinctly remember a debate about whether racism was simply discrimination, or discrimination plus power. Thinking about power made me realise that racism was about so much more than personal prejudice. It was about being in the position to negatively affect other people’s life chances. My outlook began to change drastically. My friend, on the other hand, stuck around for a couple of tutorials before dropping out of the class altogether. ‘It’s just not for me,’ she said.
Her words didn’t sit well with me. Now I understand why. I resented the fact that she seemed to feel that this section of British history was in no way relevant to her. She was indifferent to the facts. Perhaps to her, the accounts didn’t seem real or urgent or pertinent to the way we live now. I don’t know what she thought, because I didn’t have the vocabulary to raise it with her at the time. But I know now that I was resentful of her because I felt that her whiteness allowed her to be disinterested in Britain’s violent history, to close her eyes and walk away. To me, this didn’t seem like information you could opt out from learning.
With the rapid advancement in technology transforming how we live – leaps and bounds being taken in just decades rather than centuries – the past has never felt so distant. In this context, it’s easy to view slavery as something Terrible, that happened A Very Long Time Ago. It’s easy to convince yourself that the past has no bearing on how we live today. But the Abolition of Slavery Act was introduced in the British Empire in 1833, less than two hundred years ago. Given that the British began trading in African slaves in 1562, slavery as a British institution existed for much longer than it has currently been abolished – over 270 years. Generation after generation of black lives stolen, families torn apart, communities split. Thousands of people being born into slavery and dying enslaved, never knowing what it might mean to be free. Entire lives sustaining constant brutality and violence, living in never-ending fear. Generation after generation of white wealth amassed from the profits of slavery, compounded, seeping into the fabric of British society.
Slavery was an international trade. White Europeans, including the British, bartered with African elites, exchanging products and goods for African people, what some white slave traders called ‘black cattle’. Over the course of the slave trade, an estimated 11,000,000 black African people were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to work unpaid on sugar and cotton plantations in the Americas and West Indies.
"But the recipients of the compensation for the dissolution of a significant money-making industry were not those who had been enslaved. Instead it was the 46,000 British slave-owning citizens who received cheques for their financial losses."
The records kept were not dissimilar to the accounts of a modern-day business, as they documented profit and loss, and itemised lists of black people purchased and sold. This human livestock – these ‘black cattle’ – was the ideal commodity. Slaves were lucrative stock. Black women’s reproductive systems were industrialised. Children born into slavery were the default property of slave owners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost. That reproduction was made all the easier by the routine rape of African women slaves by white slave owners.
Profit and loss also meant documenting the deaths of ‘black cattle’, because it was bad for business. The vast slave ships that transported African people across the Atlantic were severely cramped. The journey could take up to three months. The space around each slave was coffin-like, consigning them to live among filth and bodily fluids. The dead and dying were thrown overboard for cash-flow reasons: insurance money could be collected for those slaves that died at sea.
The image of the slave ship Brooks, first published in 1788 by abolitionist William Elford, depicted typical conditions. It shows a well-packed slave ship: bodies are lined up one by one, horizontally in four rows (with three short extra rows at the back of the ship), illustrating the callous efficiency used to transport a cargo of African people. The Brooks was owned by a Liverpudlian merchant named Joseph Brooks.
But slavery wasn’t just happening in Liverpool. Bristol, too, had a slave port, as well as Lancaster, Exeter, Plymouth, Bridport, Chester, Lancashire’s Poulton-le-Fylde and, of course, London. Although enslaved African people moved through British shores regularly, the plantations they toiled on were not in Britain, but rather in Britain’s colonies. The majority were in the Caribbean, so, unlike the situation in America, most British people saw the money without the blood. Some British people owned plantations that ran almost entirely on slave labour. Others bought just a handful of plantation slaves, with the intention of getting a return on their investment. Many Scottish men went to work as slave drivers in Jamaica, and some brought their slaves with them when they moved back to Britain. Slaves, like any other personal property, could be inherited, and many Brits lived comfortably off the toil of enslaved black people without being directly involved in the transaction.
The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded in London in 1787, was the idea of civil servant Granville Sharp and campaigner Thomas Clarkson. Sharp and Clarkson formed the society with ten other men, most of whom were Quakers. They campaigned for forty-seven years, generating broad-based support and attracting high-profile leadership from Members of Parliament – the most famous being abolitionist William Wilberforce. The public pressure of the campaign was successful, and an Act of Parliament declared slavery abolished in the British Empire in 1833. But the recipients of the compensation for the dissolution of a significant money-making industry were not those who had been enslaved. Instead it was the 46,000 British slave-owning citizens who received cheques for their financial losses. Such one-sided compensation seemed to be the logical conclusion for a country that had traded in human flesh.
Despite abolition, an Act of Parliament was not going to change the perception overnight of enslaved African people from quasi-animal to human. Less than two hundred years later, that damage is still to be undone.
Reni Eddo-Lodge is a London-based, award-winning journalist. She has written for the New York Times, the Voice, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Stylist, Inside Housing, the Pool, Dazed and Confused, and the New Humanist.
Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race is her first book.