The Atlantic slave trade’s legacy of racial injustice continues to vex us, writes Professor Chris Evans in The Conversation.
should a historic wrong be remembered or redressed? It’s a question
that has the power to kill, as the violence unleashed by white
supremacists in defence of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville,
Virginia, in 2017 demonstrated. While the debate in Britain is less
murderous, it nonetheless raises passions.
For many years the
debate in Britain centred on the port cities that were directly engaged
in trafficking people out of Africa: Bristol and Liverpool. Consider the
recent furore over Edward Colston (1636-1721), the Bristol slave
merchant whose name is still controversially attached to numerous
landmarks in his native city. A mix of lobbying and guerrilla art has
succeeded in having prominent buildings re-badged and Colston’s civic
philanthropy recast as a problem to be confronted rather than
More recently, debates about the impact of Atlantic
slavery on British society have broadened out to consider how
slave-derived wealth has fed elite institutions and places of privilege,
hence the University of Cambridge’s inquiry launched this year into its
links to enslavement. Hence, too, the efforts of English Heritage and
the National Trust to assess the ways in which stately homes embody
But this is not a conversation that has
extended to less garlanded rural locations, to places that were
wretchedly poor. Yet these places often played a vital role in
sustaining Atlantic slavery. Mid Wales is a case in point: there would
seem to be little connection between this damp, upland region and racial
enslavement in the New World. But there was, because woollen cloth
produced there clothed enslaved workers in the Caribbean and North
A rural industry
understand that connection, we should spend less time gawping at the
wealth, which the masters – the super-rich of their day – extracted from
the plantation world, and ask instead what was needed to keep that
wealth flowing year after year. Plantations were like oil rigs: they
produced a single high-value commodity and everything needed to sustain
life on them such as food, clothing, and specialist equipment had to be
brought in from outside. This meant that places and people far removed
from slavery were in fact integral to its success, whether they were cod
fishermen off Newfoundland who supplied dried fish to feed the sugar
islands, or miners in Upper Hungary (in present-day Slovakia) who
produced the copper from which sugar boilers were made.
sugar plantations were highly profitable, yet were entirely dependent
upon external imports to sustain themselves. www.shutterstock.com
contribution of Mid Wales came in the form of woollens named “Welsh
plains”. The purpose of Welsh plains, declared Thomas Pennant, a
knowledgeable local commentator, was “covering the poor negroes in the
West Indies”, hence their other, more pointed name: “Negro Cloth”. It
was unsophisticated but durable fabric – called “plains” for good reason
– and equally importantly it was cheap due to being made by
impoverished rural households, by people making a bare living from
working the soil and who needed some sort of extra industrial work to
make ends meet.
Welsh plains became a major part of the Welsh
economy in the 18th century because it catered for one of the most
dynamic markets in the Atlantic world. In 1690 there were about 87,000
enslaved workers in the British Caribbean. By 1812, their number had
grown to 743,000. All of them had to be clothed. Until the 1830s, when
emancipation in the British West Indies sent demand plummeting, Welsh
spinners and weavers were kept busy making the coarse woollens from
which plantation uniforms were fashioned.
if Welsh-made cloth was so important, why is it not better remembered?
The existence of this cloth industry was not something that lodged in
the collective memory of the communities that produced it. As demand
boomed in 18th century, the population of woollen-making districts in
Montgomeryshire and Merionethshire rocketed. As demand fell in the 19th
century those weavers drifted away, and with their departure the memory
of an industry fuelled by the slave trade faded.
The tranquil ideal of Mid Wales masks a dark history
economic refugees from Mid Wales often headed to the booming coalfields
of South Wales. Indeed, the raucous modernity of South Wales around the
turn of the 20th century was a thing of such colour and drama that it
for the decades that followed it absorbed much of the attention of
professional historians. Mid Wales by comparison seemed a quaint
backwater, offering little of interest.
But by the mid-20th
century, Welsh nationalist intellectuals were keenly interested in the
green uplands of mid Wales because they identified rural communities
there as embodying an authentic, organic Welshness. The industrial south
was damned as anglicised and mongrelised. Mid Wales, in their eyes, was
uncontaminated by modernity and all the better for it. But this rural
tranquillity that historians then and so many people today still look
for in Mid Wales is a mirage.
To look at upland the parishes of
Montgomeryshire is not to see an unspoilt rural landscape but in fact a
de-industrialised wasteland, which once thrummed with what the poet and
editor Walter Davies called the “incessant monotony of looms,
fulling-mills, and other machineries” – energised by the slave economy
of the 18th-century Atlantic world.
Chris Evans, Professor of History, has received funding from the Pasold
Research Fund. He is a consultant to the National Heritage Lottery
Fund-supported project 'From Sheep to Sugar: Welsh Wool and Slavery'.