Slavery was, and is, a terrible institution. Discrimination against people on the grounds of their race is indefensible. Black Lives do matter. These ethical positions now seem obvious. It was not always so.

Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of our Nature, has documented the way in which, over centuries, the degree of sympathy which people could feel for other people gradually increased, leading to an equally gradual decline in violence, brutality and indifference to suffering.

medieval torture
Photo: Wikicommons

In the middle ages, suspects were tortured, witches were burned, and heretics were tortured and then burned. Women were treated like chattel. Rape and pillage were considered acceptable compensation for the hardships of military life. Mutinous sailors were flogged to death and traitors were disembowelled.

Name any early national hero, and you can assume he–or she–participated with varying degrees of willingness in this sort of thing. We do not expect people to have subscribed then to the notions of what is acceptable now.

The Queen today would not order the execution without trial of a potential rival to the throne. The first Elizabeth gets a free pass for the decapitation of Mary Queen of Scots because that was what people did in those days. Her father had used the same method to dispose of inconvenient wives.

edward colston
Edward Colston statue in Bristol, before it was thrown into harbour by BLM protesters. Photo: Wikicommons

In the light of this, I wonder if it was entirely fair to dunk the statue of Edward Colston in the Bristol harbour on the grounds that some of the considerable wealth he devoted to good works in Bristol came from the slave trade.

Mr Colston was not a Confederate general who might be supposed to have believed in the merits of the “peculiar institution” in whose defence he was fighting. Colston was born in 1636. At that time slavery was not controversial. Indeed it seems to have been more or less universal.

All the ancient empires of which we have records had slavery. This was so commonplace it suggests that periods during which slaves were not documented is due to the absence of records, not the absence of slaves. Asian empires were no different.

There was no particular racial discrimination within these slave trades, though religion often intruded. The largest slave market in the world was in Istanbul. In the intermittent wars between the Turks and Christendom both sides enslaved their captives, and often swept up unlucky civilians as well.

Ottomans with Christian slaves depicted in a 1608 engraving published in Salomon Schweigger's account of a 1578 journey
Ottomans with Christian slaves depicted in a 1608 engraving published in Salomon Schweigger’s account of a 1578 journey. Photo: Wikicommons

All Mediterranean sea powers had fleets of galleys powered by slaves. Coastal settlements lived in fear of visits by pirates for whom potential slaves were a lucrative item of plunder.

There were few, if any, slaves in England in the 1630s, but educated men like Colston in those days were exposed to two sources of authority. One was the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. Both societies took slavery for granted. Nobody complained then–and indeed few complain now–that Pericles’s famous oration on the merits of democracy was delivered to a men-only audience of slave owners.

Aristotle’s opinion on the matter was that slavery was natural and useful: “That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” He accepted that this did not satisfactorily apply to people who were enslaved because they were on the losing side in a war, which was just a “social convention”.

File photo: via Wallpaperflare

The other source of authority to which Colston was exposed at considerable length was, naturally, the Bible. This is an embarrassing topic for modern scholars. Two of St Paul’s epistles include exhortations to slaves to obey their masters. This is sometimes obscured by using “bondservant” as a euphemism for “slave”. It is also sometimes questioned whether the letters concerned actually came from Paul, a point which had not been raised in the 1630s.

The Old Testament leaves less wriggle room. Consider for example these three verses from Leviticus:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

In short it is, I think, unfair to blame Colston for sharing the moral blindness of his time. The Royal Africa Company, in which he was certainly an investor and for a year a senior executive, had a curious history.

map of Africa 1722
File photo: via Rawpixel

The famous Royalist cavalry commander Prince Rupert spent a period in exile after losing the Civil War. During his wanderings round Europe he heard stories of a legendary gold mine in West Africa. The Royal Africa Company was founded after the Restoration of Charles II to exploit this opportunity, and favoured individuals, including the king himself, subscribed.

It will not perhaps come as a complete surprise that when the first fleet arrived in West Africa it found that the stories of mountains of gold had been greatly exaggerated. The only commodity on offer from the locals was slaves, a well-established trade which had been pioneered years before by the Portuguese.

This was no bar to continued investment by respectable citizens, including the political philosopher John Locke, and everyone’s favourite 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Samuel Pepys. Photo: WIkicommons

The question then becomes: when did the moral status of slavery become so questionable that It must be considered a blemish on the record of those involved? The significant date here, as far as England is concerned, is probably 1772, when the leading judge of his day, Lord Mansfield, held that slavery was “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England.”

This seems to have come to many people as a surprise on the scale of a Supreme Court decision today that meat-eating was illegal. Mansfield himself protested wider interpretations, pointing out (technically quite correctly) that his decision was only binding on the point before the court, which was whether a slave’s master could export him for sale in another country.

But his judgment was generally interpreted as implying that slavery was and had always been illegal in England. Opponents of the practice, who were now appearing in substantial numbers, seized on it to accuse owners of overseas slave plantations of hypocrisy.

slavery digging
File photo: British Library public domain

Certainly by 1830, when slavery was formally abolished throughout the Empire, it had been in bad odour with the British public for a long time. Looking askance at the list of the hold-outs who were still in the business and claimed compensation for the loss of their “property” is entirely justified.

Still, you have to wonder whether this preoccupation with grievances two centuries old is distracting people from more immediate problems. Could it be that, as Jarett Kobek puts it, “These lessons in ethics and morality were conveyed through computers and cellular phones built by slave labour in China”?

Slavery is not over. And dunking Mr Colston is not going to change that.

Correction 6.7.20: This piece has been corrected to state that the statue of Colston was thrown into the Bristol harbour as opposed to the River Severn.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.