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Richard Symonds

When the people inside try to flee, he forces them back.

Oxford and Empire

Eventually, after many hours of this, he decides to help the people, both inside and outside the building, who are trying to put the fire out. In , Britain passed a law banning the slave trade. But for three centuries, that trade had been dominated by Britain; three centuries of savage enslavement, pitiless brutality, and casual mass murder.

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Twelve million Africans are thought to have been transported to the Americas, half of them in the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade between and In those peak years, about half of these slaves were taken on British ships. Historians estimate that at least one in ten, and possibly one in five slaves, died on the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the New World.


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This suggests that half a million Africans may have lost their lives while being transported on British ships. The Church of England was largely silent on the issue, as were most of the politicians. It was not the British Empire that began the struggle against enslavement, but slaves themselves, and radicals in Europe. When slaves rose up, the British response was savage, and not just in British colonies.

In Haiti, after the revolutionaries defeated the French, Britain sent more than 20, men to try to retake the island as a British colony. They, too, were humiliatingly defeated by the army of former slaves. The reasons that led Britain to eventually ban the slave trade in are still debated by historians.

There are many threads to the story: the growing social influence of both working-class radicalism and Christian moral evangelism; the decline in the political power of West Indian planters; the entrenchment of Enlightenment ideals of equality; the changing economics of plantation production; the strategic advantage that Britain now had in being able to police its imperial rivals, such as France and Spain, which were still involved in the slave trade. And what went before was not only important to Britain, but it was brutal on a scale which, even now, is scarcely credible.


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  • As Marika Sherwood shows in her book After Abolition , Britain continued to profit from the slave trade even after It took another three decades before Britain ended slavery itself with the Abolition of Slavery Act; and even then, not throughout the empire. Not until the twentieth century was slavery legally abolished in colonies such as Burma, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

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    Even where the Abolition of Slavery Act did end slavery, it did not end slave-like conditions. Not only did the slaves themselves receive no reparation, but, under the Act, they were compelled to provide forty-five hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four to six years after their supposed liberation. The suggestion that the British Empire was good because it ended slavery reflects historical amnesia of the most decadent kind. The arguments for the moral good of colonialism are, then, threadbare. Other polls have shown even greater support for British colonialism.

    The public support for colonialism reflects, at least in part, the lack of a full and proper debate on the issue. Why has the debate erupted now? For many, the obvious answer seems to be Brexit.

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    The desire to leave the European Union, critics insist, is little more than a form of nostalgia for a Britain that has gone, and for an empire that is no more. There is certainly a strand of imperial nostalgia that has never quite disappeared in the national consciousness, and that keeps resurfacing, especially at times, as now, when Britain is searching for a sense of identity. It is one strand of the Brexit discussion, but hardly one that dominates the debate.

    In his Times article , Nigel Biggar referenced not empire nostalgia, but the lessons of empire for contemporary Western foreign intervention.

    Oxford and Empire

    Foreign intervention and technocratic governance: these are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates.

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