By James Dawkins
The lack of attention paid to the contribution of British West Indian slavery in the formation of modern Britain has been an on-going issue of concern amongst parents of African-Caribbean heritage and some school teachers. Slavery, its effects, and abolition in 1833 is currently taught as a non-statutory topic at Key Stage 3 (years 7 to 9) in English state maintained schools. This is, however, the only period of compulsory schooling when pupils are exposed to the history of our country’s slave-based West Indian plantation economy. The brutal and inhumane nature of this system along with its lasting legacies, including a sustained sense of white guilt and the continued emotional pain along with feelings of injustice felt by the country’s African-Caribbean citizens, has made it a difficult subject to discuss in Britain. Interestingly, our nation’s active distancing, sanitisation, and downplaying of slavery and its role in the economic development of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain has garnered increasing curiosity from a number of quarters, particularly secondary schools and I was happy to receive an invitation from Doctor Brenda Quinn at Latymer Grammar School in north London who asked if I could come in to talk about slavery and industrialisation with the institution’s year-13 pupils.
Drawing upon several key texts – Capitalism and Slavery; Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England; and ‘Slavery Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ – I spoke about the broad range of industries and professions which emerged and developed from their connection to the slave trade and the plantation economy. Eric Williams was one of the first historians to trace the investment of slave-based wealth into the establishment of sugar refineries and metal works. He also pointed to the slave-trade’s stimulation of Britain’s timber and maritime industries, along with the erection of cotton factories – all of which processed the raw goods arriving from the West Indies and America, or manufactured guns, textiles, and domestic utensils that were shipped to the west coast of Africa and exchanged for Africans. I moved on to discuss the development of Britain’s social and transportational infrastructure highlighting the rise of its banking system, railways and canals, and steam-powered mechanisation, upon which the foundations of our modern-day economy were constructed. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership online database is an excellent resource for exploring the commercial footprint of the slave-based economy and I provided the pupils with a demonstration that elaborated upon the spread of West Indian colonial wealth into and across the country.
My discussion shifted from the national to the local significance of slavery as I used the online database to present an example of the geographic closeness of slavery and slave-ownership to Latymer School. John Snell was a particularly interesting individual who, in 1836, received over £3,300 in exchange for the liberation of the 123 enslaved people he possessed on the Clare Valley estate in St. Vincent. Snell was a wealthy absentee who lived on Fore Street, opposite Pymmes Park, which is under one mile’s walk from Latymer School. Moreover, before he died, in 1847, he gifted one acre of land to St. James’ Church, situated just over one mile away from Latymer School, upon which St. John and St. James’ Primary School was built and opened in 1851. This was, therefore, an intriguing example of how a former slave-owner contributed to the establishment of an English school which is a stone’s throw away from Latymer School. Indeed, some of St. John and St. James’ pupils may have attended Latymer Grammar given its close proximity.
My evening at the school concluded with a lively discussion on the topic of slavery, its legacies, and reparations. The Latymer pupils advanced a series of important questions and were genuinely interested in the aftermath of British West Indian slavery and how its current legacies might be addressed. One pupil asked the excellent question: “how was Britain able to sustain itself as a global economic superpower after the decline of its plantation economy?” whilst another student asked “do you think that the country is ready to discuss the issue of slavery and reparations?”. These were just two of the many good questions that were posed. I responded to the former by highlighting the shift in Britain’s commercial interest from the West to the East Indies along with its colonisation and subsequent extraction of mineral resources from Africa in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The latter question took a little more consideration and discussion with the pupils, after which I clarified my personal position and stated that stated Britain isn’t ready for an informed discussion on the subject of slavery and reparations yet. I explained that a discussion of such significance can best be addressed after a period of national education on the issue where the historical context, facts, and arguments are set out. Exposure to the numerous dimensions of this long-standing and complicated subject will allow for a more knowledgeable debate to take place. Indeed, I was informed that this lecture provoked a lively discussion in the classroom the following day as the pupils talked about slavery, industrialisation, and its legacies, which is exactly what the Legacies of British Slave-ownership’s outreach activities are intended to do.
I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon at Latymer Grammar School and appreciate Dr Quinn and her pupils’ kind invitation to come and talk about this overlooked period of British and African-Caribbean history.
 Statutory Guidance – National Curriculum in England: History Programmes of Study [https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study].
 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944); Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); David Richardson, ‘Slavery and Bristol’s ‘Golden Age’’ Slavery and Abolition, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 2005), pp. 35-54.