Pulling Together


Slavery and Bullying: Two sides of the same?

Two controversial issues in the news recently have been slavery and bullying; slavery because many British institutions, from The Guardian to the Monarchy have begun recognising how, in the past, they benefited from slavery and wondering whether and how they should make amends, and bullying because in various cabinet posts Dominic Raab had been accused of bullying, not because he intended to intimidate staff, but because staff felt intimidated by his manner

Both these issues led to the natural accusation of over-reactions. After all, those who were directly enriched by slave trading or from slave labour, like those who suffered from trafficking and mistreatment, are long dead. What are left today are descendants who might have inherited some of the resulting wealth on one side and those who almost certainly would never have been born if their ancestors had not been trafficked into new circumstances on the other. Surely, apologies and payments would just be a pointless gesture.

Likewise, accusing somebody of bullying in the absence of any intention seems to be blaming a person for something nobody can control: how an independent person reacts. I can control my intentions. I cannot control your reactions.

There is a bigger picture here, however. Let us step back and see it. Slavery was not just the activity of certain individuals, but a largely national project. The Royal African Company was set up by Royal Charter under government authority and granted an exclusive monopoly on the trade for its early years. There can be no greater indication of decision at the very top of government that this was part of an official trade policy. Many people who had savings were encouraged to invest them in this company, and many did. This, then, is not the activity of a few traders or plantation owners, but of the country as a whole. The mill owners of Lancashire, the sugar-rich recipes of polite eighteenth century society, the Quaker chocolate makers who chose this new pleasure over tobacco and alcohol because they thought it less morally corrupting, as well as the tobacco merchants themselves, all benefited from slave-grown produce and slave-refined products. So, in a lesser capacity, did the thousands of workers in these new industries who flocked to the cities to work in the new factories. Slavery drove the Industrial Revolution and all its benefits and vices.

There is a link here to bullying. Slavery, which had been an accepted institution since civilisation was founded, was utterly discredited because the slaves of the baroque era were badly mistreated. It was the bullying which went with the status in the American colonies which brought people to question the legitimacy of a system which could be so arbitrary and cruel. It was the appallingly vicious treatment of the victims of slavery which brought the whole institution into disrepute and led to thinking that not only the cruelty, but the whole idea of one person owning another was not a justifiable organisation of society. The bullying inherent in making slavery work ultimately led to its destruction.

There is another link, in that among those campaigning for Abolition were the very mill workers who benefited from the products of the trade which provided the products they were employed to process. Their very jobs depended on slavery, yet they sided with the slaves, because they could easily sympathise with them. The conditions in those early factories were appalling. The hours were so long the workers had little time to eat and sleep before their next shift began. The factories were noisy and dirty and the management system unsympathetic. Wages were low and often paid in tokens which could only be spent in the company store, meaning that the workers received, in return for their labour, no more than their bed and board, the only things their tokens could buy. Needless to say, they saw themselves as “wage slaves’, trapped in an endless cycle of work with little reward and, while free to hand in their notice, with no real alternative available there was little opportunity to do so. Although technically free from a legal viewpoint, these workers were virtually slaves in practice. The abolition of slavery enabled them to use the comparison to claim rights, with slogans such as the early trade-union “Only slaves cannot withdraw their labour.”

In the nineteenth century, conditions slowly improved as laws regulated working conditions, guaranteeing greater humanity in employment. People became more mobile and opportunities for alternative work increased with that mobility. Much of this progress continued in the twentieth century, arguably reaching a peak around 1970, despite numerous economic setbacks such as The Great Depression and two World Wars. Two changes began to threaten this. Firstly, in 1973, the UK finally joined the European Economic Community. This was assumed to provide opportunities for expansion but instead began to tie the country into a new form of economic thinking which highlighted debt as a fuel for artificial growth and the growth of capital returns for investors beyond those justified by actual work, again fuelled by debt. Then, as the strain began to show, Mrs Thatcher was elected and this unsustainable economic model became more firmly entrenched.

Debt ensnares people in another form of slavery; while promising a more prosperous lifestyle it actually ensures people’s income is already spent before it is earned. Thus, those in work find themselves on a debt-driven treadmill they cannot escape, lured in by promises which are actually illusions. Interest on debts reduces, rather than increases, the spending power of the debtor, in the long term lowering rather than raising affordable lifestyle. At the same time, it replaces the financial security of savings with the liability of instalments which must be found and paid. In the former case, reduced income can be accommodated by making savings and short-term costs can be paid from saving which can be replenished later. In the latter, a sudden unexpected expense or change in circumstances can produce instant insolvency, with commitments which cannot be avoided. People in such a position cannot afford jeopardy at work and the prospect of unemployment. Their debt forces them to stay in with their boss and limits their freedom. If they have a nasty manager they cannot walk away, for their whole lifestyle would collapse if their income fell or were lost. It is not for nothing, in its Green Paper The End of Indifference, the SDP calls this economic model “dissaving”.

This might put a different perspective on bullying; people who already live in fear will have that fear considerably raised if they think their manager is against them. They will feel threatened by every rough word or expression of disapproval, whether intended or not. Their position is already so precarious because of their finances that they will constantly seek reassurance their income is not in danger, and any perception all is not well will send them into a feeling of panic. In this hyper-sensitised state, should we be surprised if they feel threatened by anything the boss says which is not unambiguously positive toward them?

Perhaps that could explain a lot.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

Engage with the Author

If you’d like to discuss anything please send me your e-mail address and I will send you mine.

Your address will only be used for replying and will not be passed to anyone else.


If you would like to be informed by e-mail of new Pulling Together articles as they are published, please enter your address here.

Your address will only be used to let you know about new articles and will not be passed to anyone else.

Full List