The focus on individual traders like Colston means lawyers are out of sight—but they facilitated the tradeby David Allen Green / July 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
A slave is a human being who is the property of someone else: a human being who can be owned, bought and sold just like other forms of property. Property rights, in turn, depend on being recognised and enforceable by a system of law.
Of course, a person can be kept captive by brute force and forced to work on pain of violence, and this too perhaps can be called slavery. But for slavery to be sustainable in any organised society, the complicity of laws and lawyers is required. A system of slavery needs to have laws and lawyers to make it work.
Slave owners and traders such as Edward Colston, whose statue was recently toppled in Bristol, were not on some frolic of their own. They were part of a wider enterprise in which many others in British society were complicit. They were practical businesspeople supported by specialist banks and insurers, supplied by expert chain and weapon makers, and advised by attorneys and barristers on how to avoid and minimise risk in their commerce in human flesh.
Few at the time thought any of this exceptional. Slaves were regarded as chattels or even as investment opportunities. Ownership of a slave in the faraway plantations was as normal then as, say, owning a timeshare in Spain would be now. Slave ownership was prevalent throughout society, and not just the preserve of a few wealthy merchants in Liverpool and Bristol.
There is a comforting national myth promoted by some commentators and politicians that slavery was not known to English law. Certain 18th-century cases are pointed to as deciding that slavery was always repugnant to the common law. But this is not correct: English law was quite at ease with slavery until its abolition across the Empire in 1834. This is demonstrated by the immense compensation arrangements that were required for the abolition to happen. If slavery was already unlawful, then what were the slave owners being compensated for losing?
The celebrated cases of the 1700s touched on what rights a slave owner could assert if their slave happened to be on British soil. The sordid practice was fine, as long as owners exercised their property rights from afar.
Other legal cases…