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Lord Horatio Nelson, William Wilberforce and slavery in the Caribbean

Horatio Nelson (1758–1805)’s first long sea-voyage as an adolescent boy was to the Jamaican sugar colonies of the West Indies in 1771-2. He served in the region as a Naval officer during the War of American Indep­end­ence (1775–83). This was at the very time million of Africans were being transported to European colonies as slaves.

Nelson had developed a close affinity with the planters in the Caribbean, befriending local colonists. He became a close friend of Simon Taylor, a Jamaican slave owner, and in 1787 married his wife Fanny Nisbet, daughter of a wealthy slave owner. And they all firmly believed that the Britain's booming economy rel­ied heavily on the Atlantic slave trade.

Portrait of Nelson, 1797 
by L.F Abbott 
75 x 62 cm, National Portrait Gallery

Who was Will­iam Wilber­force (1759–1833)? He studied at Cambridge University creating a lasting friendship with future prime minist­er, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became M.P for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. In the 1780s Wil­b­erforce and his allies argued for an end to slave-trading on the basis that it was an immoral blotch on the reputat­ion of a proud, Christian nation. 

Slave holders, on the other hand, patriot­ically maintained that their trade was utterly vital to Britain’s imperial econ­omy. And the connection between the Navy and the colonies was very strong. Import duties collected on British colonial produce helped fund the Treasury whose primary objective was defence of the realm. The country was divided.

So how do modern histor­ians know Lord Nelson’s true beliefs? Let­t­ers he wrote onboard HMS Vict­ory reveal­ed his posit­ion, showing his vehement opposition to Wilber­force ’s camp­aign for the abolition of the slave trade and his sympathy with the slave-owning elite. To help his friend Simon Tay­lor, Nelson wrote he would launch his voice against the “damn­able and cursed doctrine of Wilber­force and his hypocritical allies”. Afua Hirsch says Nelson used his position to "perpetuate the tyran­ny, ser­ial rape and ex­ploitation org­anised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends".

Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of London and their religious allies had to work for decades to end Britain’s offic­ial in­volve­ment in the transatlantic slave trade. His nation­wide camp­aign helped bring an end first to the trade between Africa via Brit­ain and the Caribbean in 1807, and then to slavery itself in the 1830s.

Nelson was widely celebrated for victory in the 1798 Battle of the Nile, off Egypt's Mediterranean coast. And he became even more famous as the heroic victor of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. He lost his life at the height of the fight­ing, against the rival combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain, aboard his flag­ship HMS Victory. The dead Admiral was soon elevated to the status of an al­most god-like imperial, patriotic hero. But though extremely capab­le in command of a fleet, he had been in other ways a flawed human being, limited by his own experiences and friend­ships. Thus Christer Pet­ley showed how Nelson, the British Navy and Trafalgar were all linked to the big­ger British political struggle over slavery.

Thanks to Lord Nelson, the British Navy soon enjoyed almost complete control of the seas. After the British formally abolished the slave trade in 1807, Nelson’s succ­essors took freeing of the slaves ser­iously.

  Slaves working the sugar cane, early C19th 

The hundreds of USA statues that still stand, often in southern states, have always been the subject of trauma for many African Americans. The mem­or­ials are rightly seen as glorifying slavery and segregation, and perhaps energising white supremacist groups. While the USA argues about whether to tear down monuments to the support­ers of slavery, Britain has trouble in confronting its ugly past.

The USA is moving on from its slavery and segregationist past. But have the British at least put the nation’s monuments in their historical context? Yes, Nelson’s column does include the figure of a black sailor, cast in bronze in the bas-relief. He was probably one of the thous­ands of slaves promised freedom if they fought for the British mil­itary, only to be later left destitute and homeless, in London. The black slaves whose brutalis­ation helped make Britain a global power ..largely remain invisible.

Lord Nelson’s supp­ort­ers have moved to defend him. They argue that he was the man who twice defeated Napoleon at sea, and, in so doing, confirmed Britain’s unparalleled naval supremacy. Now Afua Hirsch says that Britain should look more carefully at its past, to understand itself better today. The Trafalgar Square statue should be protected since Nelson was truly one of the nation’s greatest maritime heroes. But a full picture is required; historically accurate plaques need to be added.

Battle of Trafalgar, c1807 
by JMW Turner
171 x 239 cm, Tate

In the British sugar colonies in the Carib­b­ean in the late C18th, it was the transatlantic slave trade that drove the thriving plantat­ion econ­om­ies and made huge profits that flowed back into the wider British economy. Could British colonial­ism continue to thrive without the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

In the battle over slavery, Nelson clearly symp­ath­ised with the sugar traders’, naval leaders’ and slavers’ pol­itical outlook. As he became more exper­ienced, he increasingly despised Wilber­force and staunchly opposed the British abolitionist campaign. Brit­ain’s best known naval hero, he might have used his seat in the House of Lords and his hugely influential position to perp­etuate slavery in the British Caribbean. If he had lived long enough!

Nelson's Column 
Trafalgar Square, London

For new research, about the Royal Navy and the C18th British Atlantic Empire, read Christer Petley’s book The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 2016. And for Napoleon's role in making slavery legal again in the French colonies, read the BBC article. The Emperor's efforts to restore slavery meant that campaigning for the 1806 Act in Britain would help to undermine Napoleon's plans for the Caribbean. 



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