The Interest never gave up. Under the terms of the act, West Indian slaves were not immediately freed, but forced to labour on for years as unpaid “apprentices”. Meanwhile, the British government compensated slaveholders generously for the loss of their human property. As a proportion of government spending, Taylor estimates they received the equivalent in today’s money of about £340bn – more than five times the combined GDPs of the modern nations of the Caribbean. He ends, appropriately, with a plea for reparatory justice and a proper reckoning by our national institutions with the enduring legacies of centuries of slavery. As this timely, sobering book reminds us, British abolition cannot be celebrated as an inevitable or precocious national triumph. It was not the end, but only the beginning.
Taylor vividly evokes the slave revolts in Demarara in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831-32 that shook the Interest’s confidence that its system could endure indefinitely. He documents the impact of writings by former slaves, such as the autobiography of Mary Prince, which dented beneficiaries’ depiction of slaves as a contented peasantry. Taylor also reveals some of the atrocities perpetrated by slave-owners, such as the grotesque career of Thomas Thistlewood, son of a Lincolnshire farmer, who during his 37 years in Jamaica committed 3,852 sexual assaults on 138 black women. Being an educated man, he was pleased to record each assault in schoolboy Latin.
Impressively researched and engagingly written, The Interest is a promising debut. But it is not perfect. Taylor sometimes seems torn between analysing and moralising; he insists on telling us how “troubling” his story is, and the sackcloth and ashes are never far from hand. In his prologue he practically apologises for being a “white man who was born into a middle-class family”. The horror! And in his epilogue he collapses into a jelly. “I must learn more,” he writes piously; “I can do better.” Well, maybe. But if he really wants to do better, he should ditch all this stuff and let his story speak for itself.
One reason that historians believe that Britain’s involvement in slavery is marginalised is that, unlike America, “the enslavement of Africans was quarantined at a distance of several thousand miles”. In consequence, argues Taylor, the British “remember” that Parliament abolished slavery but not that Parliament had spent two hundred years encouraging and protecting this evil trade. In an era when black history is at last being given its rightful due, Taylor’s potent book shows why slavery took root as an essential part of British national life and why to remember it otherwise is “misleading and self-serving”.
One achievement of Taylor’s fascinating book is that, for the first time in a book about abolition, it gives equal weight to the force of pro-slavery. In doing so, he aims to undermine the myth that William Wilberforce and co rode “a wave of Christian sentiment to undo a great evil”; that emancipation was a triumph of British decency. For all its organisational successes, abolitionists could make little headway against the Interest. Taylor gives a lot of room to the intricacies of politics in the 1820s — and for good reason.