The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.
Today we talk with Michael Taylor, author of The Interest. Our judges said of the book: “The Interest is exactly the kind of history book Britain needs now, putting into sober context the back-slapping idea Britain did everything it could to wipe out slavery in the nineteenth century. Exhaustive and unflinching, Taylor’s book shows that, in reality, many British institutions and individuals desperately tried to keep it alive, motivated by greed.”
Why do you think the national myth that Britain was on the “right side of history” on the matter of slavery in the early 19th century persisted for so long?
For three reasons, I think.
First, because the early histories of slavery and emancipation were written by abolitionists, who cast the whole story as one of triumph and not of resistance.
Second, because slaveholders and their allies were able to rewrite their biographies with amazing speed and dexterity. For example, the geologist and Jamaican slaveholder Henry de la Beche was a key member of the West India Interest who in 1825 had represented plantation slavery as a system of sweetness and light; by 1837, only three years after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica, he had persuaded polite society that he had “always” been the enemy of enslavement.
Third, because until recently few Britons had been willing to interrogate this myth: it is true that, later in the nineteenth century, Britain devoted considerable resources to the prosecution of the international slave trade, but posterity has often regarded this crusade as representative of an eternal policy. That is false: most Britons converted to abolitionism only after abolition itself.
Your book notes Wilberforce’s amazement, late in his life, that England, as he put it, was willing to borrow such large sums to redeem the freedom of slaves. Was compensation for slave-owners necessary for abolition to be realised? Should the decision to compensate slave-owners now be viewed with shame or pride?
Sometimes, a corrupt bargain is necessary. Slaveholders predicated their campaign on the racist assumptions that free Africans could not work efficiently or profitably, and so that enslaved labour was essential to a prosperous plantation economy. Accordingly, British slaveholders had threatened rebellion and even secession from the Empire if Parliament enacted emancipation without compensation: the money was thought to represent not only the value of their confiscated “property”, but also their predicted economic losses.
At the same time, both Whig ministers and abolitionist leaders recognised that the legislative resolution of the crisis required compromise, if only to persuade British landowners in Parliament that property was still sacred and that future compulsory purchases would be accompanied by similar recompense. Of course, this disgusted some of the more ardent abolitionists, who deplored compensation as the tacit recognition that enslaved Africans were a legitimate form of “property”. The real source of shame in the arrangement is the fact that the enslaved people of the Caribbean received none of the £20 million; rather, they were to serve another four years of “apprenticeship”, which was slavery by another name.
One striking feature of your book is the interplay, for good and for ill, between parliamentary reform and abolition. Would abolition have been possible without parliamentary reform – and does this suggest that abolition was a close-run thing or that it became increasingly inevitable as the franchise expanded?
No, without the 1832 Reform Act it would have been impossible to abolish slavery. Far from the inevitable triumph of British humanitarianism, the achievement of abolition was in fact due to a series of chance and contingent events in the late 1820s and early 1830s. If Wellington and Peel had not conceded Catholic Emancipation in order to prevent civil war in Ireland, the Tories would not have fallen apart; if the Tories had not fallen apart, the Whigs would not have come to power; if the Whigs had not come to power, there would have been no reform of Parliament; and without the reform of Parliament, newly enfranchised voters and their new and relatively liberals MPs would not have entertained a policy of abolition.
No less importantly, we must acknowledge two other developments. The first was a schism among the abolitionists, the more radical of whom by 1831 were demanding immediate abolition, thereby giving the whole campaign greater impetus. The second was the 1831-32 rebellion of enslaved Jamaicans, which persuaded the Whig ministry that the persistence of slavery would lead to further rebellions and risk the convulsion of the whole of the British Caribbean. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 because of these events, and there is no guarantee that otherwise it would have enacted similar legislation within years or even decades.
David Lammy MP has said your book makes a powerful case for reparations. What place do you think reparations should have in current government policy?
First, I should make clear that the legal case for reparations is weak: slavery was legal throughout the British Empire until 1834, and over the centuries Parliament had both promoted and regulated the institution, giving slavery an explicit seal of approval. Moreover, even though there was a developing international legal framework which sought to eradicate the slave trade, there was no comparable prohibition upon slavery itself. Finally, the American descendants of enslaved Africans have already sued Lloyd’s of London, which had insured so many of Britain’s slave ships, but the High Court has dismissed their claim.
However, there is a strong and persuasive moral case for reparations, the Caribbean Commission having set out ten potential means of procuring reparatory justice from the present-day governments of the former slave empires. If historians, economists, politicians, and public health officials can prove conclusively that slavery was the direct cause of serious, enduring problems in the Caribbean then I think there is an imperative to remedy those problems. Has the widespread cultivation and consumption of sugar led to the Caribbean diabetes epidemic? Has the British ban on industrial development in the colonies led to economic underdevelopment? Has the lack of educational infrastructure led to illiteracy? If so, then I believe the burden of solving these problems belongs in part to the British.
Yet on the same note, I cannot foresee the present government – which is currently fomenting a culture war against historians of empire, and which has already signalled its intent to breach its manifesto commitments on aid – engaging in such discussions at all, let alone sincerely.
In what ways do you think works of history can, or should, be political? Are there any examples of great and politically important history books you would recommend?
If this is not too obvious an answer, the political aspect of a book depends largely on its subject matter: for instance, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that a cultural history of the northern Renaissance should have much political relevance to present-day Britain. Further, given the years of research and writing that are needed to write history, the political impact of a history book is often accidental: it was only the events of last summer which obliged me to situate The Interest so directly within contemporary discussions of race, racism, and colonialism.
Yet if personal relations are the sum of personal histories, and if political relations are the sum of political histories, there are several recent books from which we can learn a great deal. Anybody with an interest in education policy should read Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy; Ian Cobain’s The History Thieves is a compelling account of how British officials addressed decolonisation; and recent years have felt like a sequel of sorts to Robert Saunders’s Yes to Europe.
Is there a piece of writing by Orwell you would recommend young writers read?
With a stunning lack of originality, I would recommend “Politics and the English Language”, even though I have probably broken all its rules in responding to these questions. “Shooting an Elephant” ought to be compulsory reading for anyone working in imperial or colonial history, or anyone simply trying to make better sense of Europe’s relations with the wider world today.