Published:

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

This week, David Lammy, wrote to the Government asking for a pardon of 70 slave rebel leaders involved in the 1823 Demerara rebellion.

Lammy is right and his call is a sensible one. As he highlights, these were some of the pioneers of the continuing abolition movement. And their actions helped pave the way for the final abolition of slavery in the British Empire 10 years later.

But our history with slavery is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe. And when matters such as this are raised, it is important we take a closer look at our real history.

Undoubtedly, Britain played a terrible part in the 17th and 18th-century history of slavery. Millions of human souls were captured and traded. Hundreds of thousands died in the terrible Atlantic crossing, and hundreds of thousands more died in the cruel and oppressive conditions when they arrived in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was an evil trade.

Britain was not alone in this evil pursuit. Every European nation with a maritime presence took part, as well as several African kingdoms that sold human beings to the European slavers. Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands were particularly prominent. That does not exonerate Britain from its guilt in this matter. As the biggest maritime power, we were the second biggest offender.

But Britain did something that nobody else did, something that was astonishing in its motivation and in its eventually dramatic effect.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807 was, perhaps, the most under underappreciated moment in our history. This was the first legislative step by Parliament to abolish slavery and the first major success of the abolitionist movement.

The Act was both the ending of a decades-long struggle and the beginning of a sweeping political and societal change.

Its passage was the celebrated achievement of the leadership of inspirational figures such as Ignatius Sancho (the first African in Britain to receive an obituary), Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, and of course, William Wilberforce. But it also recognised the almost 400,000 people who had signed petitions calling for change.

At the end of February the book Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams – the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago – will be published in the UK for the first time.

In it Williams asserts that not only was Britain’s role in the slave trade driven by wealth creation, so too was our role in its abolition. As it happens I think that this argument is nonsense. The Clapham sect, who drove the demand for reform, were driven by religious and moral fervor on slavery and on other social reforms. The 400,000 petitioners were not petitioning for profit. The brave sailors who volunteered for dangerous service to defeat the trade were hardly driven by a the interests of the capitalists of the day. Indeed they were sued by them!

Abolition is a landmark moment in our history. It transformed the world.

For thousands of years, humanity had been characterised by the enslavement of one people by another. Over 550 years ago, Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

While Britain was not the worst practitioner of this evil, we must acknowledge our part; we can no more re-write history than those who tear down statues. Over the course of 150 years, British ships purchased an estimated three-and-a-half million Africans. Almost three million survived the “middle passage” and were sold into slavery in the Americas.

But as British society developed amid the Enlightenment, more people thought slavery was anathema to modern understandings of liberty.

Change was needed.

Under the leadership of Wilberforce and others, in 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed by a massive majority of 283 votes to 16.

This was a monumental moment that realised the triumph of political will and mass protest. And in what Britain did next, it spawned a heroic moral endeavour that has never been matched.

Today’s critics conveniently forget this in their version of history.

The cost to Britain in abolishing the slave trade was huge.

Prior to the Act, British ships had carried 52 per cent of all transported slaves, and British colonies – dependent on slave labour – produced 55 per cent of the world’s sugar. Britain conducted more trade with the West Indies than anywhere else.

After abolition, British sugar production fell by 25 per cent, while rival economies more than doubled. In global terms, Britain’s share fell from 55 per cent in 1805 to 15 per cent by 1850. This cost Britain two per cent of GDP annually from 1808 to 1867.

This was a massive financial cost. The British Parliament knew this, and yet they persisted regardless – because it was the right thing to do.

It was the most costly overseas ethical intervention in history. We should be very proud of it.

And yet, Williams claimed, in his book in 1938, that slavery was abolished in much of the empire out of economic self-interest and not as a result of extensive campaigning over the course of decades.

Whilst the role of Britain in the slave trade is well known, the role of the Royal Navy in correcting that injustice is barely mentioned in the discussion of our legacy.

Founded in 1808, the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy had the singular purpose of stopping transatlantic slave ships. For over 60 years, the force patrolled international waters, captured 1,600 slaver ships and rescued 150,000 slaves.

It was the first chapter in the British Navy’s history against the international slave trade. It was an astonishing tale of derring-do and heroism, of great deeds done solely for the purpose of destroying a great evil.

It was done at great personal cost to many of the sailors involved. The death rate from action and disease was the highest in the Navy, at about six per cent per annum. Two hundred men died from disease in 1829 alone.

It was an astonishing period, with the ongoing battle between the Royal Navy and the slave traders marked by an arms race between frigates and fast clippers, and then paddle steamers. There were stories of prolonged pursuits and sea fights, of rescues of slaves thrown overboard, and of individual heroism worthy of Nelson’s successors.

Naval officers and seamen returned year after year to the fight, risking death from yellow fever, malaria, hepatitis, and the violence of battles with everybody from slaver ships to the soldiers of the African slaver kingdoms.

Because their own ships were not fast enough to catch the Baltimore clippers, naval captains sometimes bought captured slave boats with their own money and converted them for action. The most famous of these was the clipper Henriquetta, captured, bought, and renamed the Black Joke. Armed with a single 18 pounder and five marines, time after time she captured slave ships and pirates that outran the conventional naval vessels. All told she captured at least ten ships, including a 14 gun slaving vessel that was twice her size, after a 31 hour chase and battle.

Naval captains used their military power to destroy the “slave factories” along the African coast, sometimes with the prior approval of the British government, sometimes not. One of them ended up facing a law suit brought by slaver interests in the London courts for these actions. But the battle went on.

Often it seemed like a futile and hopeless contest, rather similar to today’s “war on drugs”, with almost no hope of success. But neither the Navy, nor successive British governments of all colours, ever gave up

The West Africa Squadron’s task was made more important because other colonial powers continued their slave trade. France permitted slave trading until 1826 and Portugal continued to trade slaves with Brazil until 1851. The British government used the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, financial pressures and treaties to coerce other European powers to give up part or all of their slave trading activities.

The relentless work of the squadron peaked in the mid-19th century. And eventually it succeeded, with the Atlantic slave trade being stamped out in 1867.

This does not absolve Britain of our role in a global tragedy, but it provides a broader lens with which to view history. It was a unique action that our country, and only our country, can be proud of.

The idea that Wilberforce et al pioneered abolition out of a desire to enhance Britain’s economic position only does them, and the hundreds of thousands of fellow campaigners a disservice. Abolitionists were not popular. Careers were put on the line in the passing of the Act, not to mention the lives of thousands of sailors that were laid down enacting it.

Today, we are at serious risk of distorting history beyond all recognition. This is the real risk of the saga of the Colston statue in Bristol.

But instead of tearing down our history, we need a proper, reasoned and mature debate about it and the legacy it imparts on our society.

As it stands, that is impossible with those who violently tear down statues and seek to dismiss opponents through character assassination.

There are some who believe that our history is a litany of abuses – that is nonsense. Our history has its dark times, but in the round it is a long one, full of episodes of high principle, creativity, bravery, and genius.

Of course, we have a duty to teach the full history of our country – the peaks and the troughs.

But we are doing our children a disservice by not celebrating that which we should rightly be proud of. We need to inspire our children with principled heroes such as Equiano and Wilberforce, Sancho and Clarkson, and heroic naval commanders like Collier and Denman.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 was a transformational moment in British history and it changed the history of the world for the better, for ever.

That is worth remembering, regardless of what others may say. Perhaps the proper response to the Colston statue episode is to make March 25, the anniversary of the Abolition Act, an annual holiday: Anti Slavery Day, perhaps. That date can also serve as a celebration of the pardoning of leading abolitionists.

And while we are at it, why not replace the statues of Colston and his like with statues of the heroic naval captains whose courage helped bring slavery to an end across much of the globe.