History lecturer claims Britain did not abolish slavery

Close up photograph of Dr Jenny Bulstrode
Dr Bulstrode is a lecturer in UCL's History of Science and Technology Department

An under-fire lecturer who was accused of besmirching a hero of the Industrial Revolution has mocked the idea that Britain abolished slavery.

Dr Jenny Bulstrode of University College London (UCL) has already prompted a weeks-long academic dispute over her claim that Henry Cort stole his groundbreaking iron-making process from Jamaican slaves, with Oxbridge professors dismissing her account as a “fairy tale” and a correction subsequently being issued by the prestigious journal that published her work.

Now, another war of words has flared over her “historically stupid” suggestion that Britain did not abolish the slave trade, in an interview to promote her controversial paper.

She told the Context of White Supremacy podcast earlier this year, while laughing: “In the UK we have the British government saying ‘well we abolished slavery’, again the shock – you tell a Jamaican that the British abolished slavery and they will tell you something back.

“We know that this wasn’t gifted, this was something that people fought for and civil rights movements fought for – it’s completely extraordinary and what was brought in instead, the indenture, the sharecropping and extraction and theft under different names, different guises of the same system.”

It has raised questions about whether her research – which claimed that Cort’s patent in 1784 for processing scrap iron into high-quality wrought iron was “theft … from Black metallurgists in Jamaica” – was influenced by her views.

The latest esteemed historian to criticise the paper, Nigel Biggar, emeritus regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford and an expert on colonialism, said her comment about abolition was “ridiculous”.

He told The Telegraph that “black agency had a role” such as in the slavery revolts in the 1790s and the campaign by the freed slave Olaudah Equiano in Britain.

Nigel Biggar at Christ Church College, Oxford
Prof Biggar has rejected Dr Bulstrode's claims - Tom Pilston

He added: “But the movement for the abolition of slavery in Britain preceded the revolt in Saint-Domingue, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787, before the revolt, and most who signed popular petitions to parliament were, as it happens, white Britons. Every member of the British parliament who voted to abolish slavery were white Britons.

“So to pretend that Britain didn’t abolish slavery is just historically stupid and, set in context, whilst Africans had been raiding and capturing and trading other Africans to the Romans and then the Arabs and Europeans for over a millennium, the British were amongst the first peoples in the history of the world to abolish it.

“There does seem to be on Dr Bulstrode’s part a kind of racist prejudice against white people just because they’re white ... a prejudice against the notion that white Britons were capable of genuinely humanitarian motivation and that the 50-year campaign to abolish slavery doesn’t deserve admiration.”

‘Pillaging history’

The row over Dr Bulstrode’s slavery comments comes after History and Technology, a prestigious Taylor & Francis journal, defended her Cort paper but issued a rare correction for one of her sources.

The co-editors of the journal, who have a history of activism in the US, accused the Oxbridge professors critiquing Dr Bulstrode’s alleged lack of evidence of “white domination” in an editorial, prompting them to respond that the journal was “pillaging history for the use of present-day activism”.

The journal’s investigation found that “the historical record does not provide again any immediate proof that Cort knew about what was going on at Reeder’s foundry”, where Dr Bulstrode said Cort’s idea began.

The British Society for the History of Science joined the row last week by saying that “the treatment of the paper and its author is clearly connected to its topic”, while Alan Lester, professor of British colonialism at the University of Sussex, said the dispute was “all about race” and over a “white-centric, nationalistic version of history”.

Dr Bulstrode and UCL declined to comment. She previously said that her journal showed “clear and unequivocal support for my research and methodology and commends the accuracy of the arguments and accounts I make”.