British involvement in slavery is over 2,000 years old, but not in what is now the accepted perspective. Cicero noted in about 54 BC that the 'British' enslaved by Julius Caesar 'were too ignorant to fetch fancy prices in the market'. The enslavement of the people of this outpost of the Roman Empire continued for hundreds of years as we know that Pope Gregory spoke with some British slaves in the slave market in Rome in the seventh century AD. Domestic slavery – usually called 'serfdom' also existed in Britain: serfs were bought and sold with the estate on which they had to work for a fixed number of days a year without payment; they could only marry with their lord's consent, could not leave the estate and had few legal rights. However, as they could not be easily replaced, they were not as physically abused as enslaved Africans a few centuries later. The institution of serfdom was not abolished in Britain until 1381.

Britons were also enslaved by the Barbary pirates. The cross-Mediterranean trade was subject to piracy and privateering (piracy licensed by ruling monarchs) by many of the coastal seafarers. Some of the British enslaved by the north Africans (the 'Barbary' coast) were used as galley slaves; others fulfilled the usual tasks allotted to slaves; those who converted to Islam had an easier time. The men seized by the British from Barbary vessels were either sold as slaves or executed as pirates.The enslaved/imprisoned could be ransomed: Queen Elizabeth I, for example, attempted to have the 'Negroes' resident in Britain volunteer to hand themselves over to a trader named Caspar Van Senden. This Lubeck trader had told the Queen that he could sell them as slaves in Spain and Portugal, which would enable her to repay his expenses in ransoming and returning to England some English prisoners held there. It seems that neither free Africans nor the owners of any enslaved Africans in Britain were prepared to obey the Queen's proclamation, as she had to issue it a number of times.

The enslaving of Africans was of long standing. Arab and then Muslim slave traders had been marching Africans, or sailing them across the Red Sea and then the Indian Ocean, from about the sixth century AD. It is probable that at least as many women as men were taken: the women were used as domestic labour and as concubines in the harems of the rich; men were also domestics, but most were destined for the military. When some were used – and abused – as plantation labour in the area we now call Iraq, they eventually revolted and were not again used for such labour. The Africans were not seen as non-human objects, had rights and could rise in the ranks of the army and the society. In most Arab societies they could also intermarry and the resulting children were not slaves. Slavery in Muslim societies was not racial – the Turks enslaved my Hungarian ancestors while they ruled Hungary from the sixteenth century. There was also an export of east Africans to India and the intermediate islands. The conditions of slavery in India were similar to those in the Muslim world, more akin to serfdom in medieval Europe than to the conditions imposed upon enslaved Africans in the Americas.

Slave emancipation by Britain
A few Britons – including the British Africans – were not content with abolition and campaigned for the emancipation of slaves. This was another long struggle. Among the most forceful were the women abolitionists, who, being denied a voice by the men, formed their own organisations and went door-knocking, asking people to stop using slave-grown products such as sugar and tobacco. The most outspoken was probably Elizabeth Heyrick who believed in immediate emancipation, as opposed to the men who supported gradual freedom. This battle was won when Parliament passed the Emancipation Act in 1833; as the struggle was led by men, it was for gradual emancipation. But protests, often violent in the West Indies, resulted in freedom in 1838. The slaveowners were granted £20 million (about £1 billion today) compensation; all the freed received was the opportunity to labour for the paltry wages that had now to be offered.

This Act only freed the enslaved in the West Indies, Cape Town, Mauritius and Canada. Slavery continued in the rest of the British Empire. Even the importation of slaves into a British colony continued into Mauritius, obtained from the French after the Napoleonic Wars, where importation was not stopped until about 1820. Emancipation in Britain.Africans have lived in Britain since they arrived as troops within the Roman armies. How many came here in more modern times, i.e., since the fifteenth century, has not been researched. They begin to appear in parish records of births and deaths from the sixteenth century. Again, what proportion was free and how many were slaves is not yet known. The famous decision by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in 1772 in the case of James Somerset, taken to court by activist Granville Sharp, merely stated that Africans could not be exported from the UK to the West Indies as slaves. There was no consistency in the many court judgements on the legality of slavery in Great Britain.

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