Molasses to run to slaves. ‘Tisn’t morals; ’tis money that saves. … Who sails the ships back… laden with gold, see it gleam! Whose fortunes are made in the Triangle Trade? … Who stinketh the most?
This song may be from a musical about America, but it brings up an important point about every country that actively participated in the slave trade: money is the root of the problem.
Robert Cruikshank’s ideologically charged 1826 political cartoon conveyed his frustration with the state of events in Britain at the time: the use of the slavery and abolition narrative as a national distraction from its own internal issues and the corruption of government officials and clergy. The largest statement in the cartoon is that the constructions of slavery have been erected so as to appeal to British sensibilities and whip them up into a distracting, self-righteous fervor. Just by the central caricature of the Quaker holding up a dramatized image of a slave and his master, you can see that slavery was stylized so as to draw national attention away from the real problem of political corruption that hid underneath. The cartoon, in my opinion, takes no particular stance on slavery, as far as actively critiquing the peculiar institution. It should instead be read as anti-abolitionists (different from anti-abolitionism) and their corruption. Money is the problem, not slavery.
Equiano’s interactions with slavery betray this opinion, but is itself naive. Discussing the benefits of ending the slave trade, he says:
“It is trading upon safe grounds. A commercial intercourse with Africa opens an inexhaustible source of wealth to the manufacturing interests of Great Britain, and to all which the slave trade is an objection.”
In accordance with this cartoon, Equiano is both right and wrong. His statements are making a correct assumption about British industry: ‘commercial intercourse’ (I could dive into a whole paper on the word choice here) with Africa does create an undending source of wealth for Britain, but not in the open and honest manner he assumes. The slave trade continues for quite some time, and spreads to America, and creates a long-standing industry that supports the two countries financially and economically for quite a while.
The part that is most important to the cartoon is the second half of the quote: ‘and to all which the slave trade is an objection.’ A commercial interaction between Britain and Africa is certainly of interest to abolitionists–that is what the cartoon is claiming. Equiano displays an almost sad level of naïveté in missing the irony of his words. He sincerely believes that white abolitionists would want to free slaves for altruistic reasons, as well as for the economic and social health of both countries; but in fact, they prefer to work against slavery as a front to encourage the economic health of their own country, and cover up their own insidious actions under the guise of goodness. Equiano sees who benefits from the trade and the whole system of slavery, but misreads it. Both countries do not stand to benefit from the end of slavery. The abolitionists know that. And so economy and money become more important than humanity.
PS: Look at me! I didn’t talk about race this week!