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Prized possessions

31 July 2015

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DESPITE all the things for which I ought to feel guilty, at least my conscience can be clear as far as the slave trade is concerned. Or so I thought until watching Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (BBC2, Wednesday of last week). With most documentaries I can make notes of the salient stuff: here, David Olusoga presented so many unsuspected truths in such quick succession that I could not scribble them down fast enough.

The second of two, this built on the earlier programme’s demonstration of how much the glory of 18th-century British art — especially the country houses and their collections — were made possible only by wealth derived from the slave trade. Now he turned to the Abolition, the great moral movement in which we take such pride, driven by Christian conviction.

Abolitionists hoped that the 1807 Act ending the Transatlantic trade would force owners to treat their slaves with greater humanity. It proved otherwise, however, and complete abolition of slavery became the campaigners’ goal.

As they gained momentum, the pro-slavers changed tactics: the freeing of slaves, they said, would undermine one of the central tenets of British liberty — property rights. This set up an extraordinary ethical dilemma for the reformers. To achieve their goal, they would have to allow the exact contrary to the heart of their case: they would have to concede the possibility that one human being can be the property of another.

Pragmatically, they gave way, and the government handed out £20 million in compensation (£14 billion today). It went to a far wider range of people than I thought possible, in every part of the country. The economics of slavery were so closely woven into British finance that the system could not be allowed to collapse.

The slaves received nothing except their freedom; so the legislation treated the owners as the victims. This was the largest single injection of cash by a government to its citizens in history, and the capital financed the industrial revolution.

Britain today is still shaped by this bounty: much of what we consider admirable about the Victorian era — its cultural, educational, and philanthropic institutions — was paid for by this source of funds. This programme was a plea for us to acknowledge a truth conveniently ignored for 200 years.

With so explicit a title, I don’t need to explain the subject of Cake Makers and Trouble Makers: Lucy Worsley’s 100 years of the WI (BBC2, Monday of last week). Lucy Worsley explained how one impetus for the movement was the Suffragette struggle: many of the first leaders cut their teeth in those campaigns.

The radical aspect of the Women’s Institute never actually went away; its uniquely democratic set-up championed many issues that male-dominated organisations, both political and trade-union, refused to touch.

After a period of decline, recent revival came in curious forms: the famous nude calendar that sold 350,000 copies; the heckling that greeted Tony Blair at their national convention; and, now, today’s new wave of campaigning urban feminist members, spearheaded by the Shoreditch Sisters.

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