Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer and slave owner.
The recent revelations in our media about the treatment of British subjects that has become known as “the Windrush scandal” has rightly shocked many people. What decent person could fail to be horrified by the degrading and inhuman treatment of fellow citizens who should be approaching their later years as respected members of our society, not facing poverty, fear and deportation?
Something else has intensified my personal feelings of revulsion however. By coincidence, I have been researching and writing an article about the conduct of some slave-owners in the West Indies. Most, if not all, of the “Windrush generation,” are, almost certainly, the descendants of slaves who worked on British-owned plantations in the Caribbean. Having spent the last few weeks reading about the horrors of slavery in the Leeward Islands, I have watched my government treat them, not with the humility and contrition that might be expected, but with hostility and aggression. I never thought I would ever read about a British citizen fearing “the knock on the door in the night.” That fear, until recently, firmly belonged to people living under oppressive, totalitarian regimes.
Anyone who has read about the atrocities of the slave trade will feel that we owe the descendants of slaves a great deal. Citizenship, certainly. Arguably, Britain also owes them compensation in some form. Yet, just before this scandal broke, the Treasury revealed that although compensation had been paid, it was not to the victims of slavery but to its perpetrators. Last February it tweeted: “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”
The government department clearly thought this was the cause of celebration, but the tweet was deleted the following day after it was received with some anger. As the historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian: “… the £20 million was paid out to the 46,000 slave owners, to compensate them for the loss of their human property. By one calculation that is the modern equivalent of about £17bn. Is this really something we should regard with collective pride?”
One of the families that received compensation for the loss of their slaves was the one I am researching. The Greene family were an important and respected dynasty in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. Benjamin Greene, the man who founded the famous Greene King brewery there in 1799, produced some distinguished descendants, including his eldest son, Benjamin Buck Greene, who became Governor of the Bank of England, and his great-grandsons, Hugh Carleton and Graham Greene, who were Director-General of the BBC and a highly-acclaimed novelist respectively.
By 1830, the Greenes had acquired several sugar plantations in St Kitts, Montserrat and Antigua, which they either owned or managed, eventually running eighteen estates. They made a great fortune out of sugar and, far from being ashamed of their involvement – the prevailing atmosphere in Britain at that time was in favour of abolition – Benjamin Greene dedicated himself to arguing the case for slavery to continue, claiming that slaves had better lives than the agricultural labourers who worked on his Suffolk estates. He even bought himself a newspaper in which to put his views forward. In contrast to the thousands of words in print debating the subject from the point of view of both slave-owners and abolitionists, the slaves themselves were forced to remain silent. They were rarely given a voice in either the official records or the printed media of the time. To catch a glimpse of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean, we must go back to a few decades before the Greene family became involved, to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):
“When I was in Montserrat I knew a negro man, named Emanuel Sankey, who endeavoured to escape from his miserable bondage by concealing himself on board of a London ship, but fate did not favour the poor oppressed man; for, being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master. This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ancle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and dropped it all over his back. … It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed, on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c, … were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over… I grant indeed, that slaves are sometimes, by half-feeding, half-clothing, over-working and stripes, reduced so low, that they are turned out as unfit for service, and left to perish in the woods, or expire on the dung-hill… It was almost constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations of the chastity of the female slaves… I have even known them gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.”
The official abolition of slavery in St Kitts did not immediately improve the situation for what were supposedly now “free” slaves. For several years, slavery was replaced with an “apprenticeship” system in which slaves over the age of six had to work for forty-six hours a week, scratching out a subsistence living in the time that was left to them. The resulting rebellion, when black labourers refused to work, was ruthlessly suppressed by a regiment of British soldiers shipped in from Barbados. British newspapers reported: “We regret to learn that an insurrection has broken out in St Kitts. The particulars we have not heard; but it appears the deluded wretches, on being fired on, charged en masse with the intention of overwhelming the military. They were, however, received with coolness, and bayonetted on the spot.”
Even in the dying years of slavery, the Greenes continued their ruthless treatment of their black workers. It does not seem to have ever been a source of shame to them. One of Benjamin’s sons, Charles, was reputed to have fathered thirteen children in his brief time managing the family estate in Nicola Town, St Kitts, before he died at the age of nineteen. In 1970, Hugh Carleton Greene wrote an article about “great-uncle Charles” for History Today, in a tone that now seems repellent:
“In the possession of my family is an inventory of slaves on some of Benjamin Greene’s estates prepared in 1819. On one estate alone there were 43 men, 43 women, 37 boys and 35 girls to a total value of nearly £15,000. Against their names are such comments as ‘ruptured’, ‘infirm’, ‘broken leg’, ‘one eye’, ‘wooden leg’, ‘elephantiasis’, ‘leprosy’, ‘subject to fits’, ‘eats dirt’ and ‘pregnant’. The girls about to be born would have been ripe for Charles fifteen years or so later. Whether the exact number of his children was thirteen one may never be able to find out: some there certainly were. … William’s diary makes many references to their riding excursions and to the nervousness of the negro workers when they broke into a gallop. One likes to think of Charles, like King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, dismounting and bestowing his casual favours on girls working in the fields. … Many of his children no doubt sank back into the great anonymous mass of negro labour.”
Benjamin Greene’s descendants were part of a liberal élite but, at best, they were wryly amused by their family’s exploitation of the black people on their Caribbean estates and almost wholly dismissive of them as fellow human beings. Hugh’s brother, the writer Graham Greene, worked for the Anti-slavery Society briefly, perhaps in an attempt to expiate his family’s sins, but it was hardly enough. The Greenes, along with 46,000 other slavers wanted compensation for the loss of their slave “stock.” The list of compensation claims, listed on the UCL Database of Slave Owners, is an example of how Britain has never addressed the crimes that it committed. As a nation, Britain still likes to think of its colonial era as a time of adventure and endeavour, rather than atrocity and oppression. We prefer to talk about abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson than to recall the horrendous exploits of people like the Greenes. Until Britain starts to face up to the crimes of its past, it cannot begin to repair the damage it has done in the world.
In recent years, people have been forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families and detained without due process. As Hugh Muir recently wrote in the Guardian “Behind the scandal were questionable philosophies, assumptions and attitudes, and it is those we need to unearth.”
We can find some of those philosophies, assumptions and attitudes in the history of Britain’s involvement with slavery.