In 1897, Robert Sherard published a collection of his Pearson’s Magazine articles documenting the exploitation and suffering of the working men and women of Britain in some of the ‘sweated’ trades – he visited chemical works in Widnes, white-lead works in Newcastle, nailmakers in Bromsgrove, chainmakers in Cradley Heath, and more. The title, The White Slaves of England, has become a classic of the Victorian social commentary genre. The Cradley Heath chapter closed the book: whilst Sherard was musing on a Goethe quote, of all things
“before my spiritual eyes there passed the pale procession of the White Slaves of England, I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant, instinctive yet laborious – an anvil and hammer ever descending – all vague, and in a mist as yet untinged with red, a spectacle so hideous that I gladly shut it out, wondering, for my part, what in these things is right.
The title grabbed attention of course: a legal slave trade (at least in the Caribbean) was still in the living memory of some when this was published – it was only in 1833 that the trade was banned anywhere under British rule. “White slaves” – Britain’s industrial might and democratic freedoms were supposed to be the envy of the world, yet here were the free working people – free to choose to whom they would sell their labour – forced into brutal, degrading work for a pitiful remuneration. They hadn’t been forced from their homes, or manacled together for a trans-continental journey which many would survive, or sold off, or shackled and put to work… but their suffering and their economic trap was still awful.
This weekend saw the now-annual controversy over the Black Country flag erupt. I’ll get this out of the way: I like the flag, it’s a great design, and it’s been massively successful. But. As all historians know, It’s More Complicated Than That. Eleanor Smith, the West Midlands’ first black MP and in Enoch Powell’s old seat, no less, raised similar concerns to those of Patrick Vernon two years ago: that a celebratory image foregrounding chains is difficult for those whose forefathers were taken from Africa in chains. More than that, as maybe the world’s foremost metalworking region during the high peak of the transatlantic slave trade, chains from the Black Country certainly bound those poor individuals.
In fact, as Vernon points out, there is direct evidence: in 1767, Henry Waldram of Brickkiln Lane, Wolverhampton, was a “lock maker, horse screw, men’s leg & Negro collar, thumb’s screw, and hand cuff manufacturer”; in 1805, the metal goods merchant John Shaw (from Penn, in Smith’s constituency) used his convenient position at the heart of England’s new canal network to ship “African chains” and “negro collars” to the slaving ports of Bristol and Liverpool. UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project shows how deep the roots run: the Molineuxs of Wolverhampton, the Adams’ of Walsall, the Ansons of Bentley Hall, even the Lords Ward of Dudley all owned slaves in the Caribbean and had connections within the vast financial apparatus that grew up around the trade. The UCL project is important as it shows just how insidious this trade was: owners were compensated on abolition, and this money – blood money – went into their investments: railways, mining, metalworking…
As always, it’s essential to critique the reporting of this. The Express & Star is known colloquially as the Express & Stir – it has a reputation for seeking out controversy that extends at least back to its close links with Powell in the 1960s. It has a pecuniary interest in getting attention, of course. The original article make sure to point out that Ms Smith is from Birmingham; that others (MPs, mostly) have commented on her misunderstanding; that it was designed by a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Stourbridge; that it represents historically-important industries; that UKIP thinks this is PC Gone Mad; and that it’s a flag – it can’t possibly be racist. These are all themes taken up in the lengthy comments section, on Twitter and Facebook – just as they were when Vernon published his critique.
Eleanor Smith is from Birmingham – an out-of-towner. The implication most seem to have drawn is that she either doesn’t know the industries the flag is representing, or is ignoring them (see swathes of comments calling her stupid, ignorant, idiot, moron, pea-sized brain and so on). To many people, the flag is a straightforward representation of “black by day, red by night” featuring two specific industries, glass and chain. But of course we don’t get to dictate what something represents to someone else. Symbols and histories are re-appropriated all the time – the Nazi’s use of the ancient Eastern swastika is only the most obvious example. Now, to me, the swastika represents something completely different to what it represented to an ancient Mesopotamian or a 19th century Buddhist. If you weren’t from the Black Country and didn’t know that chains were made here, what might you think if you saw a flag with chains on?
Smith and Vernon are offended by the chains on the flag, because chains like those forged in the Black Country were used to shackle their ancestors. I have no right whatsoever to deny them that offence, and neither do any of the legions of commenters. The assumption for many has been that in calling for the flag to be done differently, Ms Smith is denying the region’s proud working history, and I think that boils down to the same basic offence: that the sufferings and hard work of our ancestors are being denigrated. To quote Smith though: “I have absolutely nothing against the chainmakers. They were working people making money like working people do.” And this is the crux of it: whether your ancestors were black Africans enslaved against their will, or white Staffordians, bound by economic shackles, they were victims of a system that inherently exploited lives across the globe. This is not to equate one with the other. Chainmakers were not beaten, raped, shackled together, killed for minor infractions, or otherwise denied their humanity as part of their existence.
As we saw above, the global slave trade thrust its tendrils into the entirety of British economic and cultural life. Those that benefited from it were the rich, the investors who gambled their money with the Royal Africa Company or South Sea Company. And note the names: before the British Empire as we think of it, Britain’s imperial work was done by state-sanctioned private enterprise, for profit – they were content to make money from the exploitation of black bodies, trading them as though they were cattle or goods. To quote Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” The same forces were demanding trade goods, guns, shackles, chains, nails and so on from the Black Country and elsewhere, to be traded in Africa and to manage the trade of human lives. This required workers in the Black Country to make the items, and how does anyone make a profit? By selling as high as they can, and keeping costs – including labour – as low as they can. By the mid-18th century, villages like Cradley Heath had developed industrial specialisms and practices of working which bound communities to that specialism in horrendous conditions. People were paid a pittance – just enough to keep alive, and certainly not enough to have the privilege we have today of choosing our job. To coin a phrase, there is more in common between these sets of slavery than divides them.
The problem with the flag is that it is just a symbol. Nobody is blaming the young girl who designed it, and to be honest, it’s a bit devious to suggest that’s what’s going on. For a start, chainmaking is everywhere around here, from the Titanic’s chains and anchors in Netherton to the demonstrations at BCLM to the mosaics on the bridges on Dudley bypass. It also went through several stages of design and selection, including flag masterclasses, selection to a shortlist by various notables, and a public vote. But the fact remains that it’s a flag with chains on – the only people that benefited out of any sort of chains in the Black Country were the wealthy capitalists who exploited the working class here and who financed the slave trade. If we truly wanted to celebrate the Black Country’s working-class heritage, perhaps something that didn’t celebrate oppression of any kind would suit better.
Public history is a complex beast, and I’m only starting to come to terms with the complexities of it. All those engaged with this have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders to ensure it’s done right. Part of this means telling the stories that are uncomfortable, or that challenge our accepted understanding, because often these are just wrong. History as I was taught it in school was mostly about kings, politicians, and white men fighting wars against white men. Because it focused on those stories which sat comfortably in the worldview of previous generations, it ignored half the world’s population completely (the women (with the exception of Victoria)); it ignored the vast histories of those people who didn’t come into contact with Britain; it ignored the realities of those who suffered as a result of brutality, greed and power-grabbing by Britain. I would have guessed that Britain had been 100% white at every point up until 1948; of course that was not true, and even less true than you probably think. So this generation have a responsibility to put particular effort into retelling those stories that have been downtrodden and ignored, for parity if nothing else – to quote Stuart Hall, we need to “revise own self-conceptions and rewrite the margins into the centre, the outside into the inside.” If we can do that, we can begin to understand that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but fits within
Wolverhampton and slavery: http://www.wolverhamptonhistory.org.uk/people/migration/slavery2
More on Wolverhampton and slavery: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blackcountry/content/articles/2007/03/03/wolverhampton_slave_trade_feature.shtml
Legacies of British Slave-ownership: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
Hall, Stuart. “Whose Heritage? Unsettling ‘The Heritage’, Re-Imagining the Post-National.” In The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of “Race,” edited by Jo Littler and Roshi Naidoo, 23–35. Psychology Press, 2005.
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Perigee Books, 1980)