Philip Walker is a member of the Conservative Party in Stevenage.
I wonder if the current financial crisis could have the effect of burying another crucial event which could have an equally huge impact on our society, albeit in other ways: the coming before the House of Commons on Wednesday of the contentious and potentially unpopular Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill for its final stages. There was speculation that the Government postponed the final stages from the summer to avoid alienating public opinion even further at the time of the Glasgow East by-election. Labour lost the Crewe and Nantwich by-election just after the amendments to lower the abortion time limit were defeated. I understand that the SNP candidate who won Glasgow East opposes abortion on demand and is extremely uncomfortable with embryo experimentation.
But why do I see a connection between the slave trade and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? I think the use, exploitation, of humans as commodities, which the slave trade clearly was, and which was clearly an assault on human dignity. Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, and branded with hot irons and shackled to endure the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic. They were crammed together on decks that had less than five feet of headroom, little ventilation, air unfit for breathing and, in some cases, not even enough space to place buckets for human waste, with 20% of them dying from inevitable disease. European traders would export manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa where they would be exchanged for slaves.
The first definition of a “commodity” in the Oxford Dictionary is “an article or raw material that can be bought and sold, esp. a product as opposed to a service.” In the slave trade human beings were used as commodities to be brought and sold for the purpose of profit. Slaves were sold in the Americas for huge profit, and traders used the money to buy raw materials which were shipped back and sold in Europe. Slavery needed a large support network of shipping services, ports, and finance and insurance companies. New industries were created, processing the raw materials harvested or extracted by slaves in the Americas. Therefore it can be claimed that the commercial and industrial revolutions were built at least in part on the slave trade.