We are all beneficiaries of the slave trade – like it or not.The work The Guardian is doing on the actions of its founders and the work commissioned by the King will enhance the historical record, but they are unlikely to change the broader picture identified by Eric Hobsbawm and others.
Cheap cotton picked by slaves fired the industrial revolution.
Everything else flowed from it. The need for machinery demanded coal and iron. These begat steam engines, the railways, factory system. The benefits were not, and are not, evenly shared. My friend’s grandmother, who worked in a cotton mill at the age of thirteen, and so many like her, suffered along with her brothers and sisters transported against their will from Africa.
Yet industrialisation transformed our lives. Taking the example of cotton. Roger Osborne offers a very telling statistic. ‘In 1790, 4% of the clothing in Europe was made of cotton; by 1890, it had grown to 73% and the population had roughly doubled to 400 million’.
Industrialisation was not without its critics, not least John Ruskin. Its legacy though is a world of disparity in wealth both between and within nations, let alone the shadow of global warming.
The evil of the slave trade lies there at the heart. Individuals and families may have been responsible, but they are dead. It is with each of us in the post-industrial western world that discussion of reparations must start