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What the Abolition of the British Slave Trade Can Teach Us About Free Speech

Slave rebellions, not debates about slavery, ended the slave trade.

(Photo: National Museum of American History)

Adam Hochschild’s bestselling 2005 book, Bury the Chains, describes the great debate in the British parliament regarding the abolition of the slave trade (not of slavery itself) in April 1792. It’s a historical moment that has fascinating relevance for the debates over “free speech” in the US today.

While the Abolitionist campaign had been active and remarkably popular in England for about five years prior to the debate, and while an unprecedented 390,000 Britons had signed petitions to the Parliament in favor of abolition, the pro-slavery forces spent the equivalent of millions of dollars to flood the field with advertising, lobbyists and essayists defending their source of wealth. Unlike the white abolitionists, who were mostly religious dissenters and tradespeople, the pro-slavery forces, made up of the rich and aristocrats, had vastly more access to parliamentarians through private clubs and elite social space, which they used to bribe and cajole votes. Recall that there was no universal suffrage in Britain at this time, and only male property owners (i.e., elites) could vote for or sit in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that formerly enslaved Africans and their families — including the great Olaudah Equiano — were crucial protagonists and intellectual and moral leaders in the abolition struggle in Britain, and the only ones with first-hand knowledge of the experience of slavery, they were only allowed to watch the parliamentary proceedings, not participate. They had to trust white aristocrats and politicians to speak for them.

Further, white abolitionist campaigners who had traveled the length and breadth of Britain at their own expense over the prior few years had routinely had their lives threatened as they sought to investigate and have public meetings about slavery. They were harassed, attacked and defamed in the press. Their lives were threatened.

When the debate came it was organized along the rules of 18th-century English parliamentary discourse, the ironclad and esoteric norms of which would have been familiar only to those who had elite educations. In spite of the fabled anti-slavery aristocrat William Wilberforce’s stunning oration and that of other abolitionist-friendly parliamentarians, many slave owners or their agents in parliament also spoke in defense of their horrific privileges.

Let us recall that these men were either personally responsible for, or directly benefited from, a system that normalized slavery — one of the most heinous crimes in human history. It bears repeating that it included the destruction of whole African civilizations to liquidate their people into enslavable bodies; the horror of the Middle Passage where at least a fifth of all enslaved Africans, packed thickly in the dark, perished or fell ill on those stormy seas and were thrown overboard, dead and alive; the selling of human beings at slave markets and auctions like chattel, including the forced separation of families; the deadly exploitation of slave labor which led to a life expectancy on most plantations of less than 35; the completely normalized, everyday use of torture, including whippings, beatings, sadistic experiments and gory public executions, such as flogging to death, burial alive and burning at the stake; the systematic and arbitrary use of rape both for the pleasure of slavers and to reproduce the next generation of enslavable bodies; and the attempted destruction of what small forms of community and solidarity enslaved people were able to create through divide-and-conquer techniques.

The press and the parliamentarians of the day heralded the passionate civility of the abolition debate in 1792 as evidence of Britain’s moral superiority in the defense of free speech and gentlemanly conduct, especially in contrast to the ongoing French Revolution. The debate ended in victory for an amendment to the motion for abolition proposed by home secretary Henry Dundas (after whom towns and streets are still named): a gradual approach where the trade would be phased out over the next decade. The watered-down bill was sent to the House of Lords where it was nixed. Slavery would not be outlawed in the British Empire until decades later, in 1833 (thereafter enslaved people became “apprentices”) and slave owners were collectively compensated the princely sum of £20 million for their pains. Formerly enslaved people got nothing.

When we discuss freedom of speech, we all too often inherit the idea that we should model ourselves after those highly educated, well-dressed, erudite and allegedly sober men on the floor of the House of Commons, who, in spite of the charged nature of the content, stayed through the night to debate and consider. The dominant notion of “campus free speech” evokes images of the packed halls at Cambridge or Oxford where clean-scrubbed young men, future parliamentarians (and slave-owners), battle with wits for the ears and minds of their colleagues.

Yet what of the white abolitionists sitting in the gallery who had sacrificed their lives, their wealth and their time for their hopeless cause, forced to listen to the pompous, bought-off aristocrats and sneering slavers spew lies and patent propaganda? What of those abolitionists beaten on the docks of Liverpool, Bristol or London for speaking out?

And what, indeed, of Equiano and the other Black abolitionist leaders whose fingernails must have shredded their own palms as they listened to the civil discourse of the men who had themselves murdered and raped other human beings whom they claimed to own, or who had licensed and profited from that work done by others? How must they have felt, these Black abolitionists who were barred from speaking at all, who had to listen to their stories and their ideas and their research and their monumental pain expressed in dulcet tones by wealthy white do-gooders eager, in spite of their conviction, not to offend or upset the uncomfortable centrists, the “swing voters” of Parliament who held the lives of hundreds of thousands in their well-fed hands? These Black abolitionists must have known that, even if successful, their own labors would be erased and forgotten by the tides of white history, a history that would lionize the Wilberforces and largely ignore the Equianos.

Could any of us, today, have blamed any one of them for barring the doors and lighting the parliament house on fire? Or for at least screaming in rage at the absurd spectacle below? They chose not to.

And how much has changed?

We are discussing today whether or not Nazis and white supremacists should be allowed to speak publicly, to rally in the streets, and to be taken seriously in the media and on campuses. There are plenty of liberal white people who have developed sophisticated arguments for why they should be allowed to do so, or at least why they ought not to be stopped. We are told that limiting freedom of speech is a slippery slope, that once it is undermined in one instance it is weakened in all instances. We are told that giving any attention to these heinous views and people only encourages them. We are told that the future of our civilization depends on civil debate, even with uncivil actors. We are told that their racist ideas are so ludicrous that they will fall like dominoes if vigorously and publicly refuted in debate. We are told that shutting them down is not strategic — though we are rarely informed what, if any, strategy is in play.

These are all arguments from the proverbial “floor” of parliament. Regardless of their content, they reinforce the authority of the parliament as the only legitimate realm of discussion and decision-making. Yet the irony was, as the later history of abolition proved, the laws of parliament have always been full of loopholes to be abused by the powerful. And as we have learned, even once slavery was abolished, Britain continued to profit from and manage a vast racist empire, even unto the present day when British corporations and financial interests control huge swaths of the rest of the world’s wealth.

The view of this “debate” and of free speech from the gallery is much different, then and now.

Many people today can imagine how those who watched silently from the gallery of the Parliament felt because they endure an analogous experience every day in this racist society, still. And still they bite their tongues as the would-be parliamentarians demand a “civil” debate about the very possibility of their freedom and safety. Meanwhile, scholars and writers who publicly decry racism are still subject to death threats and abuse, threats which are made more credible by increasingly well-organized far-right ideologues emboldened by their public notoriety.

Lest we forget, the British did not “free the slaves.” Enslaved Africans abolished slavery through rebellion, riots, subversion and conspiracy. They also, in the acts of people like Equiano, used diplomacy, writing, lobbying and political organizing. The white abolitionists simply caught up to the facts on the ground that were being actively changed by the direct action of enslaved people.

When we assess the question of free speech and anti-fascist action, we need to remember that those of us who have inherited the privileges and perspectives of whiteness have been trained not to see what is obvious to many others. The fetishization of the abstract notion of free speech as an unassailable virtue must be complicated by the real histories of struggles for collective liberation.

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