After abolition: Britain and the slave trade since 1807, by Marika Sherwood. London: LB. Tauris, 2007. ix, 246pp. ISBN 1-84511-365-0. £19.50.
This book is passionate, angry, provocative, stimulating and thought provoking, but also at times infuriating. It is certain to arouse strong emotions and to kick start a debate on Britain's relationship with slavery and the slave trade after the abolition of the latter in 1807.
Sherwood begins by asking a very simple question, but one which most of the writers on slavery and the slave trade have shied away from. Namely, was the Act of 1807, and indeed all the subsequent acts on slavery, obeyed, and if not, how were they evaded? This leads her on to a number of other questions: how was the continuing illegal participation in the slave trade that she believes existed arranged and managed? What were the forms of participation? Which manufacturers, bankers and shippers participated? Who else in Britain was involved? What happened in Liverpool, the principal slaving port, after 1807? Did government turn a blind eye? Were those involved in slavery able to use parliament to protect their own interests? How much profit was being made? How dependent was the British economy, including the Lancashire cotton industry and the Birmingham manufacturing trade, on slavery in the Americas? And, following on from this, perhaps the biggest question of all: Could Britain have become the foremost industrialised nation of the 19th century without the profits made from slavery?
To answer these questions Sherwood uses a wide range of sources, including government documents, contemporary reports and newspapers as well as published books. A particular strength of the book is that in one long chapter she examines the relationship between the British and both Cuba and Brazil, where slavery persisted long after it had been abolished in the British possessions in the West Indies. Her conclusion is that the British were involved in the slave trade to both countries, that they owned slave worked enterprises there and that the British government took no action against these illegal activities.
In another chapter she examines the links between Britain and the cotton plantations of the Southern states of America, rightly pointing out that American cotton, produced using slave labour up until the Civil War, was preferred by British cotton merchants and manufacturers over that produced by free labour elsewhere. It has long been known that many in Britain supported the South in the Civil War, but Sherwood goes further than this, exploding the myth that workers in the cotton mills of Lancashire supported the North, even at the expense of their own jobs. She points out that only Rochdale, home of the radical politician John Bright, was unequivocably in favour of the North, whereas in most of the other cotton towns the number of pro-South meetings 'grossly exceeded' those which were pro-North. She also makes the uncomfortable point that even some of those who were abolitionists in public - such as the Rathbones of Liverpool - were at the same time reliant on slavery for much of their own income.
Whilst not denying the overall validity of Sherwood's case or the strength of her arguments, there are times when one feels she has stretched the evidence too far, or relied on an unproven causality to maintain her case. To take one example, when discussing the firm of Forster and Smith she states that she knows nothing about the company's involvement in Cuba, but then goes on to say that she found one letter from John Forster to his father sent from Havana, and on this basis concludes that 'there must have been some involvement. …