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Monday, 25 August 2014

BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY : HOW SLAVERY MADE WALES INDUSTRIES WEALTHY AT A TIME WHEN TRADE WAS OFFICIALLY ABOLISHED IN SLAVES :

 BLACK  SOCIAL HISTORY                                                                                                                 How slavery made Wales’ industrialists wealthy at a time when the trade was officially abolished

The links between Wales and the slavetrade are little-known. But as a new book on the subject is published, DAVID WILLIAMSON discovers they were shamefully stronger than many may think.



The links between Wales and the slavetrade are little-known. But as a new book on the subject is published, DAVID WILLIAMSON discovers they were shamefully stronger than many may think
IT is a chapter of history many in Wales might want to leave unopened and forgotten, but a major new book lifts the lid on how the nation’s copper industry kept slavery alive in Cuba.
University of Glamorgan historian Chris Evans has unearthed evidence that Welsh industrialists put hundreds of slaves to work in horrific conditions in the copper mines of El Cobre, Cuba.
His most disturbing discovery is that slaves were making Wales’ commercial titans wealthy at a time when the trade was officially abolished.
His work, Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, traces the troubling story of Wales’ complicity in this exploitation from 1650 to 1850.
El Cobre, located close to Guantanamo Bay, is today a pilgrimage destination and little evidence remains of the central role it played in providing Swansea’s copper industry with crucial supplies.
The lowering of import tariffs on ore in the 1820s triggered a worldwide search for supplies. High-quality reserves were discovered in the Sierra Maestra and soon an old mine was reopened and ships laden with ore were sailing to Swansea Bay.
Prof Evans writes: “So urgent was Welsh demand that a workforce had to be assembled with great haste to excavate the ore. This being Cuba in the 1830s, opting for slaves was virtually a reflex action on the part of the mine’s proprietors.
“But it was not the cruelty of Cuban slave masters that condemned hundreds of Africans to work in the shafts and galleries of El Cobre; it was Welsh industrialisation.”
Expert Cornish miners and engineers were recruited. Even these hardened men were shaken by the cruelty the slaves experienced.
Prof Evans describes the mining operation as a “system based on terror”.
James Whitburn, a Cornish engineer, wrote in his diary: “The flogging of the Negroes in this country is most cruel.”
Overseers carried cowhide whips around their waists and they were not reluctant to lash out at slaves.
Whitburn described the floggings in graphic terms, writing: “I have seen them laid on the ground, sometimes tied to a ladder, and at other times held by one man at the foot and another at the head, while another Negro with a whip 10 or 12ft long from the end of the stick to the point of the lash, gives the Negro confined 25 blows or I may say, cuts.”
The victims of whippings were locked in stocks where Whitburn heard them “groaning as if in a fever”.
Runaway slaves were chained to blocks of tropical hardwood which he estimated weighed up to 50 pounds but they were still expected to work.
Prof Evans was inspired to explore Wales’ links with slavery when working as an historical consultant on a 2007 BBC Wales commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain.
Slave ships may not have docked at Welsh ports, but the trade shaped the landscape of Wales.
Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, is a 19th-century neo-Norman architectural fantasy of Disneyland proportions. It was built by the Pennant family whose fortune stemmed from plantations in Jamaica.
Anthony Bacon may have also used his profits in the slave trade to back Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil.
Slavery supposedly ended in Britain’s Caribbean empire in 1834, but even in the 1860s most labour at El Cobre was carried out by slaves.
The eventual demise of the slave-mining operation was brought about not by abolitionist fervour but by a collapse in copper prices. Despite the British Empire’s pride in its image as a foe of slavery, mine operators had managed to find loopholes in the law and hire slaves on long leases that Prof Evans describes as “pretty much tantamount to purchase”.
The Company of Proprietors of the Royal Copper Mines of Cobre had a head office in London, but the proprietors included Mary Glascott and her sons – who owned the Cambrian copper works at Llanelli – and solicitor Alexander Druce, a partner in the Llanelly Copperworks Company.
Charles Pascoe Grenfell (1790-1867), who would serve as director of the company, was a partner in Pascoe Grenfell & Sons, Swansea’s most powerful copper combine.
A second mining operation at El Cobre, the Santiago Company, was headed up by William Thompson, the ironmaster of Merthyr Tydfil’s Penydarren works.
El Cobre’s population rocketed from less than 600 in 1827 to more than 4,600 in 1841.
When the supply of slaves began to dry up in the 1850s Chinese indentured servants were imported.
Prof Evans writes: “[For] a generation the pull of Swansea’s copper smelters had drawn Cuba into a close commercial relationship with Wales. It was a relationship with deadly consequences for thousands of people of African birth or descent.
“Just as the industrialisation of Lancashire held people in bondage in the cotton-growing states of Alabama and Mississippi, so the industrial supremacy of the Swansea region kept people captive in eastern Cuba. The strong abolitionist tradition in Swansea counted for naught.”
The examples of how respectable figures in Welsh society turned a blind eye to the barbarity of slavery should make us look at ethical questions we might rather avoid, argues Prof Evans.
He said: “It is an episode that resonates in all kinds of ways. When you buy shares in a company, do you know how it is operating?
“Certainly, lots of people who bought shares in the Cobre company didn’t know it was a slave company.”
Even when shopping on the high street, he believes we should be on the lookout for goods that could have been put together by child labour.
He said: “How many people will just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I’ve got to buy my kid a pair of trainers’?”
The Grenfells were so deeply involved in the activities at El Cobre he argues “it is hard to see them as anything other than fully fledged Cuban slaveholders”.
Charles Pascoe Grenfell was an evangelical Christian and his father, Pascoe Grenfell, had been a close friend of leading abolitionist William Wilberforce. He had campaigned against the slave trade in the House of Commons and the family were prominent philanthropists.
Prof Evans suspects the ability of high-minded citizens to “square the moral circle” was helped by the develop- ment of joint stock companies.
“By severing the link between ownership and oversight that had been a feature of family capitalism the joint-stock form enabled brutal power to hide behind a decorous corporate nameplate. For most of those concerned in the firm it was a collection of shares that passed to and fro on the stock exchange, scraps of paper that yielded a handsome dividend.
“The actual realities of El Cobre – the suffocating heat of the mine and the lacerated flesh of its imprisoned workforce – were obscured.”
However, he does not believe directors could claim such ignorance. And in 1841 the British and Foreign Anti- Slavery Society condemned the continuing enslavement on “the Spanish island of Cuba”.
This led to the Suppression of the Slave Trade Act of 1843 which banned any British subject from holding a slave in a country where it was legal to do so. More than a century before the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this law established the principle that slavery should be considered anathema anywhere in the world.
The scandalous activity of Welsh industrialists triggered this pioneering legislation and – even though the mine operators found loopholes – the debacle forced Britain to look at the dark underside of the industrial revolution.
By dragging this ugliest of moments in the story of Wales back into the limelight, Prof Evans may encourage his readers to look for the hidden victims of globalisation.
Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660-1850, by Chris Evans will be published next month by University of Wales Press
It is hard to see them as anything other than fully-fledged Cuban slaveholders