Intended for healthcare professionals


Mea culpa: “correcting” my 2012 BMJ article on the Abolitionists and calling on medical institutions to research their links with slavery

BMJ 2023; 381 doi: (Published 09 June 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;381:p1245
  1. Richard Smith, chair
  1. UK Health Alliance on climate change

In the Christmas issue of The BMJ in 2012 I published an article on the British Abolitionists, arguing that they were the first social movement.1 I was primarily interested in understanding social movements, and I thought that analysing how the Abolitionists had been so effective would both lead to a readable article and be a way to pull out useful points on how a social movement might achieve its aims. This was a reasonable approach to take, but if I were to write the article today I would write it differently. This piece is my “correction” of that article. I’ve put “correction” in inverted commas because nothing in the article is, as far as I know, factually wrong, but I’ve told the story in a biased way.

Two quotes are buzzing around in my brain as I begin, the first is the assertion by the historian E H Carr that history tells you more about the time it is written than the time that it is written about. Next, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and historian, wrote in 1964: “The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.”2 I wrote my article before the appearance of Black Lives Matter, and I concentrated more on the success of the Abolitionists than on the vastness of the crime of slavery as an industry.

My mea culpa has been brewing some time, but I’ve finally been inspired to sit down and write it by a visit to the exhibition on slavery at the Museum of London Docklands, which concentrates much more than my article on the suffering that slavery inflicted and its long term benefit and harm to Britain, particularly London.

I failed in my article to make clear the scale of slavery and that Britain’s past and present wealth depends on slavery. I did write: “The British economy depended on slavery, and sugar, coffee, and rum, which people loved, were produced by slaves. Many rich men and institutions, including the Church of England, owned plantations worked by slaves, and most members of parliament had close links to slavery.” But I didn’t make clear that over three centuries the British enslaved more than 2.3 million people. London was the fourth biggest slave trading port in the world after Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Liverpool, and over 3100 ships from London carried nearly a million Africans into slavery.

Exactly how much of Britain and London’s wealth depends on slavery is disputed, but it was a substantial amount. Britain’s manufacturing, banks, and insurance companies grew in part through slavery. When we remember that, as the economist Thomas Picketty has shown, wealth is the surest way to more wealth, we realise that much of Britain’s present wealth depends on slavery.3 That is why many people want Britain not to talk about aid or charity to low and middle income countries but rather “reparation.”

The Guardian newspaper has funded an investigation into its past and discovered that its founder John Edward Taylor and the other Manchester businessmen who funded its creation had multiple links with slavery. The Guardian will invest more than £10m in reparation.4 King Charles has also said that the royal family will investigate its link with slavery, and every institution that was around in the early 19th century should do the same.5 That will include the British Medical Association, The BMJ, Lancet, and dozens of medical institutions.

Another major “correction” to my article is that the British may have been motivated to abolish slavery not through moral outrage, but because it was no longer profitable.2 The ships which carried enslaved people [the museum uses “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”] from Africa to the Caribbean could be used more profitably in other ways, and economists argued that free labour was more productive than slave labour. As with everything in history—and particularly the politically charged history of the British Empire—this conclusion is disputed, and it seems likely that the Abolitionists played an important role even if changing economic conditions and arguments may have been important.

In my 2012 article I did make clear that former slaves and people from ethnic minorities played a role in the Abolition movement, but I didn’t give them sufficient prominence. I didn’t mention at all the role of women, but the Museum of London describes how “the abolition campaign was the first in which women played a leading role, and they radicalised the movement…In 1830 it was pressure from the women’s organisation that forced the male-dominated Anti-Slavery Society to declare itself in support of an immediate end to slavery.”

As I concentrated in my article on the campaign to stop trading in enslaved people in the British Empire and mentioned only briefly “the aftermath,” I failed to mention that slave owners in the Caribbean were paid £20 million (about 40% of the Treasury's annual income) in compensation for their loss of “property,” whereas enslaved people were paid nothing. Indeed, many of the people who were “freed” continued to work as “apprentices” in conditions that were no better than when they were enslaved. The British government also replaced enslaved people with cheap labour from India, moving around 1.5 million people to the Caribbean and other colonies.

Profits from the slave trade allowed Britain’s imperial expansion, and migrant labour from the colonies helped in Britain’s reconstruction after the second world war, not least in the NHS. Yet, as the Museum of London explains, colonisation was accompanied by the “designing of a ‘racialised’ world and the adoption of racism.” Migrants who arrived in Britain were greeted with discrimination and hostility, which persists to this day. Kamran Abbasi, editor in chief of The BMJ, describes vividly the racism he experienced as a child in Rotherham in his book Englistan.6

The exhibition in the Museum of London asks “How are we as Londoners to come to terms with these legacies?” It doesn’t give an answer, but one answer I can give confidently is that we need to be aware of the past, educate our children about it, and be as unbiased as we can in what we write about the past. Mea culpa.


  • Competing interests: Richard Smith was the editor in chief of The BMJ from 1991 until 2004.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.

  • Please be aware that a historical quote in this article contains potentially harmful or offensive language or ideas. BMJ does not in any way endorse or condone discrimination of any kind. We have decided to keep this quote available for historical accuracy.