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Great Britain and the End of the Slave Trade


And now, from deadly conflicts in Africa today to the historic decline of the African slave trade.

(Soundbite of song, "Penny Lane")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist, The Beatles): Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs of every head he's had the pleasure to know…

CORLEY: You might not think of The Beatles and slavery in the same breath, but their song about Penny Lane, a street in The Beatles' hometown of Liverpool, is actually named after James Penny. He was a slave trader and an investor in 11 voyages which took hundreds of captives at a time to the New World.

Yesterday, March 25th, marked 200 years since Britain officially abolished slave trading. Slavery itself wasn't outlawed in the empire for another quarter century. All this month, communities in the Caribbean and Africa are commemorating the bicentennial with celebrations and serious discussions of slavery's legacy throughout the former colonies.

I'm joined now by Adam Hochschild, who is the author of "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves." And he just returned from England, where there are also events marking the bicentennial.

You know, if we talk about the history of slavery, what was a slavery experience like in the British colonies outside of what we now consider the United States and in Britain itself?

Mr. ADAM HOCHSCHILD (Author, "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves"): Well, in the Caribbean, which is where the vast bulk of British slave were after the American Revolution, conditions were really horrible. Cultivating sugarcane by hand, which is what the great majority of British slaves did, was and still is one of the harshest forms of labor on earth. You're out there in the sun 12 hours a day in the days of slavery, slashing away with a heavy machete at the base of the sugarcane. Plus, 200 years ago, they had no defenses against malaria, yellow fever. So for all these reasons, the West Indies had one of the highest death rates of any of the areas of the Americas where there was slavery.

CORLEY: How about Britain itself?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: There were a small number of black people in Britain in the late 1700s - maybe 10,000 altogether. A lot of them ran away. Some of them were set free by their owners. Sometimes, the owner died and their status was a little ambiguous. This was finally resolved in 1772. There was a court decision that, in effect, establish that there could be no slavery in Britain itself. And the British congratulated themselves to no end on this. But, of course, they still had hundreds of thousands of slaves in the West Indies.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Well, we're talking about the celebration of the end of the slave trade, not of slavery. So, what did it mean for blacks in real terms?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, Great Britain at this time, 200 years ago, controlled half the Atlantic slave trade. So, half of the enslaved Africans taken across the Atlantic in the below decks on those terrible ships traveled on British ships. So Britain was the superpower of the day, both in the slave trade and militarily. And when they abolished the slave trade, it was an important step forward, although it didn't make much difference to the lives of people who are working on those sugar plantations.

CORLEY: And Adam, lastly, how big a deal has this anniversary been? What have the celebrations been like?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, you know, it's really astonished me, because the 100th anniversary in 1907 passed by without a mention. I actually was looking at the London Times index the other day for that year. No commemorative ceremonies, lectures, anything of the sort. But this year, it's been a huge thing in England. Every major museum in the country has an exhibit related to slavery. There have been dozens and dozens of radio and TV documentaries and dramas on the BBC. And I think a major reason for this is that compared to 100 years ago, it's a different Britain. Eleven percent of the population of London is of African or West Indian descent, for example.

And I think for these people, coming from a heritage of slavery, it's an enormously important to mark this anniversary. And I think a lot of other people in Britain as well are realizing that the history of their country is not just a parade of kings and queens and glorious military victories, but that of slavery - the slave trade, the profits from these things, and what they allowed the British economy to do - that's part of the history as well, and it has to be recognized and faced squarely.

CORLEY: Adam Hochschild is author of "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves." Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: It was good to be with you.

(Soundbite of music)

CORLEY: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, deconstructing the black male through a hip-hop lens.

I'm Cheryl Corley. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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