From Tudor times the English, and then the British, state had gradually been constructed into a fiscal system capable of financing the building of an empire on a world scale. The slave trade and global profiteering helped provide the surplus money that financed the technological advances of the industrial revolution and led to the expansion of empire. In Britain the rural poor and Irish emigrants, flocking into the ever expanding industrial cities, worked long hours on starvation wages to facilitate the mines, mills and factories prolific output. For the ruling class, cheap labour at home and exploitation and plunder abroad – combined with trade monopolies – became the order of the day.
Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ published in 1776, had argued for a policy of government non-interference in economic affairs and for giving free rein to the ‘magic hand of the market.’ These moves toward a ‘laissez-faire’ economic policy led to the Reform Acts, from 1832, which consolidated the hold of predatory capitalism over parliament and gave ever-increasing power to the magnates. The administration of government, centred in Whitehall since the 16th century, was also modernised after the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1845, which extensively increased the number of civil service mandarins and their departments. Although unelected, they evolved into a permanent background executive, who provided the safe hands for establishment interests and operated the machinery of control and exploitation – both at home and across the Empire.
From Cromwell’s time to the start of the 19th century Britain’s rulers had sent their armed forces to fight 10 wars against European rivals. The Seven Years War, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, had shown how Britain, through force of arms, could extend the Empire at the expense of other colonialists. French territory was seized in Canada, America, India, West Africa and the West Indies – and Florida, Manila, Havana and Minorca were taken from Spain. The quest for empire went on apace and was undertaken through state power and force of arms:
‘England’s wars led to the acquisition of new territories and markets. Contemporaries had few doubts that, in the words of Lord Holderness, “our trade depends upon a proper exertion of our maritime strength.” “The rise of the British economy,” writes Professor Wilson, “was based, historically, on the conscious and successful application of strength; just as the decline of the Dutch economy was based on the inability of a small and politically weak state to maintain its position against stronger states”.’ [‘Reformation to Industrial Revolution,’ by Christopher Hill].
In the early days of capitalism in England little heed had been taken of the plight of the poor. Later, as the demand for soldiers and sailors multiplied, unemployed and homeless youths were seen as potential cannon fodder for the army and navy. In the 18th century the rich had formed ‘societies’ to recruit and train these youngsters for conflicts, like The Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763, between several of the major European powers:
‘The more blatantly chauvinist societies tried to encourage good conduct among ordinary soldiers and sailors. Each boy recruited by the Marine Society was supplied with a new set of clothes and with a new set of ideas:
“You are the sons of freemen. Though poor, you are the sons of Britons, who are born to liberty; but remember that true liberty consists in doing well; in defending each other, in obeying your superiors and in fighting for your King and Country to the last drop of your blood.”
… Just how many of the boy-sailors were able to read and understand these words is unclear. What is certain is that many of the Marine Society’s more affluent supporters … advocated recruiting orphans and unemployed men for the Royal Navy as a sterling solution to crime, disorder and poverty. Stronger national defence was to go hand in hand with clearing the streets of potential thieves, beggars and disturbers of trade. And perhaps it worked. Of the 4,787 boys recruited by the Marine Society during the Seven Years War, only 295 could be accounted for at its end.’ [‘Britons- Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837,’ by Linda Colley].
In the British Army and Navy, it was the upper class, who had much to gain from colonial conquests, that provided the ‘superiors,’ or officer class – whom the ordinary soldiers and sailors must obey. But now and again some of the rank and file disagreed with the actions they were ordered to carry out. In 1870, ‘Poetry of the Pavement’ carried a poem called ‘The Hulks,’ with this introduction:
‘The Hulks are old vessels kept for the convenience of imprisoning disobedient sailors, who presume to have a conscience opposed to the destruction of foreigners who have no wish on their part to interfere with the private affairs of other countries.
But a warrior should never think, and if he keeps a conscience he must soon learn to surrender it to the call of duty (which means the doing of acts contrary to his inclinations, and which may therefore be defined as unnatural morality), or he will soon feel the reason why.’
The poem followed:
The youth now leaves his home, his work, his friends;
All social happiness on earth he ends,
And learns assassination as a trade,
Which does his Christian feelings deep degrade.
Conscience at last will claim the power to speak,
And now for conscience brave, for duty weak,
In calm refusal to engender strife,
He earns with conscience clear the hulks for life.
Awake – free trade! and teach us better things;
Show earth is for the people, not for kings;
Show man should send his produce to exchange,
Not armies over other lands to range,
And claim possession through success in war.
Free trade! we ask that you at once restore
The Nation’s sense of justice, and disperse
Kings, Priests, and Warriors, every nation’s curse.
Free trade had been promoted as a liberating force, where all trade would be equal and a portion of the wealth would trickle down to the poor. But British big-business, while demanding that no restriction were put on it, ensured that ‘foreign interests’ were shackled – shutting off any chance of conquered nations setting up competing industry. Just as in our own time, there was also no sign of the trickle down of wealth effect – either at home or abroad. Laissez-faire had not led to social emancipation as promised – but rather to the growth of monopolies and the increased exploitation of workers and natural resources. The ethos of empire was conquest and profit – not a trade that was free – so, not surprisingly, the plea from ‘Poetry of the Pavements’ fell on deaf ears.
The Slave Trade
While the British Empire was built by violence, superior arms and the practice of divide-and-rule, the justification for it was usually made in racist terms. Conquest and colonisation had always brought with it changes in attitude towards the conquered – and the slave trade, which required ignoring and justifying the suffering of the slaves, deepened that process.
In his book, ‘Reformation to Industrial Revolution,’ the historian, Christopher Hill, wrote:
‘Early references in English literature to people with non-white skins – Pocahontas, Othello, Massinger’s The City Madam, many early seventeenth-century poems about flirtation between black and white, Mrs Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all suggest that an attitude of racial discrimination was the result, not the cause, of the profitable slave trade: in the seventeenth century far greater generalized contempt seems to have been shown for the Irish than for Negroes… The consequences of the slave trade in brutalizing English opinion, and in fostering the Puritan tendency to hypocrisy, should not be underestimated.’
Control of the West Indies had opened the way for the slave trade as conquest and exploitation went hand in glove. From 1500, over the next three-and-a-half centuries, some twenty million African slaves were shackled in irons and forced aboard ships so they could be transported to the ‘New World.’ About a quarter of the slaves did not even survive the journey, dying from trauma and illness due to the conditions in which they were kept – and from the brutal treatment of their captors.
Slavery, the ultimate exploitation of human beings, made fortunes for those who ran and controlled it:
‘“All this great increase in our treasure proceeds chiefly from the labour of Negroes in the plantation,” said Joshua Gee in 1729, with a frankness that few historians have emulated. The slave trade was essential to the triangular imperial trade which grew up under the Navigation Acts. It seemed to economists an ideal trade, since slaves were bought with British exports, and transported in British ships…
“When I think of the colossal banquets of the Barbados planters [wrote Richard Pares], of the money which the West Indians at home poured out upon the Yorkshire electorate … of the younger William Beckford’s private orchestra and escapades in Lisbon, of Fonthill Abbey or even of the Codrington Library, and remember that the money was got by working African slaves twelve hours a day on such a [starvation] diet, I can only feel anger and shame”.’ [‘Reformation to Industrial Revolution,’ by Christopher Hill].
Captured Africans were treated like animals and not humans, with slave traders even using branding irons to brand their initials on slaves. This was justified by calling the Africans ‘barbaric heathens’ and saying they were not Christians. Ottobah Cugoano was a 13-year-old when he was kidnapped in Ghana and shipped to the West Indies as a slave. After he was eventually brought to Britain and freed, he questioned the morality of those who had enslaved him:
‘Is it not strange to think, that they who ought to be considered as the most learned and civilised people in the world, that they should carry on a traffic of the most barbarous cruelty and injustice, and that many … are become so dissolute as to think slavery, robbery and murder no crime?’ [‘Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain,’ by Peter Fryer].
The City of London boomed with wealth and ports like Bristol and Liverpool expanded dramatically during the slave trade. The profit made from the production of sugar on plantations using slave labour, became a major source of funding for the industrial revolution. Slavery continued as a lucrative trade for British ships until the early 19th century, when parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. But it wasn’t till 1838 that it was abolished in British colonies.
While many sincere people campaigned against slavery, it also came to an end because of a clash between the requirements of old and new capitalism. Industrialisation and factory systems demanded an ever-expanding exploitable labour market, which was best provided by creating pools of workers who were free – but unorganised, property-less and poverty-stricken. And therefore ready to be forced into being wage-slaves, the new form of exploitation.
When slavery ended, the British Government paid out £20m in compensation. Not a penny of this money was paid to any slave; the total sum, almost £17bn in today’s money, was paid to the slave owners. Although ‘freed,’ former slaves received little help towards integration and social and financial improvements. They were also forced to work on as slaves for a set number of years, to reduce the distress that the ending of slavery was causing for the slave owners.
The East India Company
In 1942 George Orwell wrote, in a review of ‘A Choice of Kipling’s Verse’ by T. S. Eliot, that Kipling: ‘Was the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase…. and also the unofficial historian of the British Army…’ Orwell continued:
‘It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realise, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelising. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed “natives”, and then you establish “the law”, which includes roads, railways and a court house.
… His outlook, allowing for the fact that after all he was an artist, was that of the salaried bureaucrat who despises the “box-wallah” [business man] and often lives a lifetime without realising that the “box-wallah’ calls the tune”.’ [‘Horizon,’ Feb. 1942].
India, Kipling’s birthplace and where he spent his early life, was exploited ruthlessly by the East India Company and English ‘box-wallahs’ like Sir Josiah Child and Robert Clive. Given its first charter and monopoly privileges under Queen Elizabeth I, the East India Company was first set up in 1600 when 125 London merchants launched the company ‘for the honour of this our realm.’ The company’s stock increased nine fold in the period of Cromwell, who protected it from competition, allowing the company to set itself up for future expansion:
‘The Charter of 1661 recognised the company’s right to tax, and gave it power to wage war against non-Christian peoples. By 1684 Sir Josiah Child was advocating “absolute sovereign power in India for the Company.” In the mid-eighteenth century Clive, began to execute this policy, to his own and the company’s great financial advantage.’ [‘Reformation to Industrial Revolution,’ by Christopher Hill].
Bengal was brought under East India Company rule after Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 and the land tax was tripled. Million of ‘the soft Bengalese’ died during the subsequent famine, while the company continued to extract wealth from the country. Many more Indians were to die from war, pestilence and famine in the years to come, including tens of millions in the last three decades of Victoria’s rule alone. Others were forced to move to different areas of empire, as semi-slave labour.
As it expanded, the East India Company manipulated and moulded the indigenous order and rulers to accept company domination and swiftly moved to extinguish any opposition. Divide-and-rule tactics gradually allowed a tiny group of colonial administrators and soldiers to dominate the vast continent and impose their strict central control over the areas occupied. To enforce its exploitation, the company also formed its own navy and army and built a network of forts, taxing the Indian population to pay for their upkeep.
Clive served as a military officer and then governor of East India and he, with other ‘box-wallahs’ like Warren Hastings, used the money they extorted to gain fame and influence back home:
‘The great wealth won by the plunder of India enabled the plunderers to buy their way into English politics. Clive himself acquired first a Parliamentary seat, then a peerage. It was alleged that between 1757 and 1766 the company and its employees received £6 million from India as gifts. Warren Hastings prided himself on never defrauding the company: before accepting money he asked himself only this, “whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.” In thirteen years he remitted to England over £218,000, which he had saved from black men. There had been nothing like it in history since the Spanish conquistadors looted the Aztec and Inca civilisations of America in the early sixteenth century.’ [‘Reformation to Industrial Revolution,’ by Christopher Hill].
Back in London in 1773, with the East India Company on the verge of bankruptcy, Clive and others were criticised by a parliamentary inquiry for enriching themselves while ‘oppression in every shape has ground the faces of the poor defenceless natives.’ Clive, whose military victories had paved the way for company expansionism and made him a great British hero, replied that he was “astonished at his own moderation” for taking so little. Exonerating him, the House of Commons ruled that while Clive had pocketed £234,000 he had performed “great … services to the state.” However, Clive found it difficult to refute his detractors and suffering from depression committed suicide the following year.
State Drug Trafficking
The East India Company was saved from bankruptcy and forcibly extended its operations into China to trade opium for tea. The company forced Indian peasants to stop growing food and cash crops and to instead grow poppies, which were then harvested as an opium crop. In 1830 nearly 450 tons of this opium reached China and the next year a House of Commons report stated that: ‘The monopoly of Opium in Bengal supplies the Govt. with a revenue amounting to £981,293 per annum; and the duty amounts to 302% on the cost of the article. … It does not appear advisable to abandon so important a source of revenue.’
When the Chinese tried to stop this drug trade, Britain resorted to warships and soldiers to crush any resistance in the Opium Wars of 1839-42. The defeated Chinese were forced to hand £2,000,000 and Hong Kong over to Britain and four ‘treaty ports’ opened up China to foreign (mainly British) trade.
The East India Company had lost most of its autonomy under the India act of 1833 and in 1857 its demise was ensured when many native soldiers rebelled. The ‘Indian Mutiny,’ which rocked British rule in India, was ruthlessly suppressed by British and loyal native troops. Many rebels were executed and some were hanged out of hand. But others were dispatched by a new method:
‘Hanging … was usually thought too good for mutineers. When the facilities were available, it was usual to blow them from guns. It was claimed that this method contained “two valuable elements of capital punishment; it was painless to the criminal and terrible to the beholder.” The ritual was certainly hideous. With great ceremony the victim was escorted to the parade ground while the band played some lively air. The victim’s back was ranged against the muzzle of one of the big guns and he was strapped into position. Then the band would fall silent and the only sound would be the faint crackle of the portfire, as it was lowered to the touch-hole. With a flash and a roar, an obscene shower of blood and entrails would cover both the gunners and observers.’ [‘The British Empire,’ vol. 2, Orbis 1979].
State drug trafficking expanded after the East India Company was abolished in 1858 and the crown took over direct control of India. While 2,000 tons of opium was exported to China in 1843, this had soared to 5,000 tons by 1866. In 1875 alone £6,500,000 was made from the trade in opium. On the 1st of January 1887 Queen Victoria was formally proclaimed Queen-Empress of India, at that time her government had became the biggest drug trafficker in the history of the world. Meanwhile, Indian peasants suffered from poverty, starvation and famine – and in China tens of millions were dying from the effects of opium addiction.
The Myth of Free Trade
Towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, Frederick Engels’ book, ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England,’ had exposed the terrible slum living environment in British cities and the brutal working conditions in factory, mine and mill. The Chartists were campaigning for change and against the ‘old Corruption’ in parliament. Only the comparatively wealthy were enfranchised and the Chartists demanded an extension to voting rights – and wanted to remove the fixers, who rigged the electoral system, and the Victorian equivalent of today’s ‘spin doctors.’
In1842, during the Opium Wars, the Chartists presented a six-mile long petition of 3,317,702 signatures to parliament calling for the adoption of a Charter of Rights, which demanded:
Universal male suffrage; Equal electoral districts; Annual parliaments; Payment of MPs; Secret ballots and No property qualifications for MPs.
The ‘Peoples Charter’ was dismissed in Westminster by 287 votes to 49. Riots and strikes broke out, but were suppressed by the police and soldiers. This was anther chapter in the constant struggle for basic human rights in Britain, which has included the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the Levellers and Agitators movement during the English Civil War in 1642-51 – and which still continues to this day.
Engels had written that while: ‘England was to become the “workshop of the world;” all other countries were to become for England what Ireland already was – markets for manufactured goods, supplying her in return with raw materials and food’.
In ‘The Economic History of India,’ the Indian historian Rumesh Dutt wrote that: ‘The East India Company and the British Parliament … discouraged Indian manufactures … in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England. Their fixed policy … was to make India subservient to the industries of Great Britain, and to make the Indian people grow raw produce only, in order to supply material for the loom and manufactories of Great Britain.’
The traditional Indian production of silk and cotton goods was suppressed by laws and tariffs and the raw materials sent to England for manufacture in ‘the dark satanic mills.’ The effect was catastrophic for Indian artisans as a Select Committee of the House of Commons heard in 1840: ‘Dacca, which was the Manchester of India, has fallen off from a very flourishing town to a very poor and small one; the distress there has been very great indeed.’
While ‘free trade’ had been claimed as the justification for the activities of organisations like the East India Company, in reality trade was only free one way and remained a stitch-up for the native peoples. British business interests bitterly resisted any attempt to impose public control over their activities, but demanded that governments impose all manner of protective measures on their behalf. Moral issues did not play any part in decision making, because it was the profit motive that predominated and ensured that a monopoly of manufactured goods was maintained – with the cards kept stacked against ‘foreign interests’.
The Butcher’s Apron
East India House, in the City of London, was one of the nerve centers from which this system operated. Situated a short distance from the Bank of England, this grand building, with its elaborate facade, stood as a striking monument to ‘imperial achievements.’ It was demolished after the company’s demise and it is fitting that the Lloyds building now stands in its place, because, in its own time, the East India Company was an integral part of a global economy:
Opium from India bought tea from China, which was sent to Britain with Indian raw materials like cotton.
Imported raw materials were processed into textiles and other manufactured goods in British factories, which were then sold throughout the Empire, or exchanged for slaves in west Africa.
African slaves were bartered for sugar and tobacco and/or sold for gold and silver in the West Indies and America, while plantation owners worked slaves to death to produce vast profits from crops like sugar and cotton.
The gold and silver and the profits from slave labour helped fund the industrial revolution and the subsequent monopoly of manufactured goods, combined with cheap labour at home, ensured British dominance of world trade.
It was during this time that tea became a common drink in Britain and even something as mundane as this was procured by force and exploitation. The leaves to make the tea, were mostly obtained from opium trading in China, and were combined with sugar, produced by slave labour on the plantations, to produce what became England’s national drink.
The army and navy, who were controlled by the officer-class, with the rank and file soldiers and sailors drawn mainly from the Celtic fringe and the urban and rural underclass, protected this system. Mercenary units of soldiers and colonial police, recruited from the previously conquered, often playing a crucial role. While ‘civilisation’ and ‘Christianity’ were the oft-declared motives for empire, many of the subject peoples, over whose countries the Union Jack flew, had their own view of British rule. They called Britain’s flag ‘the butcher’s apron’ and when British politicians boasted that the Empire ‘was the place where the sun never sets’ they added ‘and the blood never dries.’
Pro-imperialist historians often brag that, at its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land surface and contained a population of over 400 million. They neglect to tell us, however, that it was drug trafficking and the slave trade that helped put the ‘Great’ into Great Britain. Or that the famines in Ireland and India, that caused millions of deaths, were the result of an unyielding market ideology – backed by official callousness.
In our own age, we have new forms of slavery, which includes women trafficked for the sex trade, children trafficked for domestic, factory and even sex work and migrants forced into labour gangs. We also have the market led neoliberal economic and political agenda combined with the US-led new imperialism and the ‘war against terror’ – all of which are conducive to the new slavery happening and bear a remarkable similarity to the Victorian period. In both times, those, in who’s interests these economic and political systems are imposed, are in numbers very much smaller than those they are imposed on. So, perhaps the biggest question we all need to answer is: Why do we allow these political and economic systems to be imposed on us over and over again?
Emancipation in the Victorian period – whether for those at home, including veterans in “Great” Britain, or those suffering under imperialism in the Empire – could only have come from throwing off the legal, social, political and economic restrictions and systems being inflicted upon them. This also holds true for us today. At the very least, we should understand that – while profits multiplied in the City of London during the Victorian heyday of the British Empire and in our own time – at home and abroad many of the people face/d subjugation, slavery, misery, starvation and death.